October 24, 2013
Dark Journey – UK, 1937
Victor Saville‘s Dark Journey has a promising beginning and a somewhat intriguing final act. It is set in a world of global war, spying and counter-spying, and the constant threat of both discovery and assassination. In other words, it is a film whose brief synopsis or theatrical trailer would likely seem intriguing and dramatic. The actual film, however, is a major letdown – a collection of incoherent spy talk, saddled with a romance that never seems the slightest bit authentic. In fact, it is one of those films in which expressions of love and devotion are more likely to elicit gasps of incredulity instead of sighs of zealous exultation.
The film is about a young businesswoman in Sweden named Madeline Goddard, played by the usually reliable Vivian Leigh. We first meet Madeline in the spring of 1918 on a neutral passenger ship destined for Sweden. The ship is stopped and boarded and its passengers checked for spies. One is arrested, yet Madeline, although arousing the boarding officer’s suspicion, is allowed to continue on after she proves to him that she is indeed bringing with her the latest in French fashion. Back home, Madeline is revealed to be leading a double life: the first as the owner of a clothing store rightly called Madeline’s, and the second as a spy for the British government. Just how she gets secret messages across oceans is one of the film’s few interesting plot points.
A film like this one has very few options. It could focus on Madeline’s life as a spy in a neutral country and all of the perils that come with that assignment. This would involve focusing on her isolation and vulnerability from all sides, in particular, the Swiss government, which aims to remain neutral in the war, and spies from both sides of the conflict, who interpret her friendships with certain Europeans as being cause for suspicion. Or the film could choose to introduce a completely new character and play a version of that old game “Fried or Foe?” Predictably, the film elects to do the latter.
This decision would have been the right one had the character they introduced been either charismatic and handsome or enigmatic and enticing. Instead, screenwriter Lajos Biro gives viewers Baron Karl Von Marwitz (Conrad Veidt). To add an element of doubt as to just who Madeline’s competition is, a second German character enters the country just before the Baron. However, since the film pays very little attention to him after his introduction, it seems logical to assume that viewers should do so as well.
The problem with the Baron is that the character is an utter, lifeless bore, whose means of attracting women seem both amateurish and slightly sexist. To view things from the Baron’s point of view is to view women as playthings, as objects that can be obtained if enough money is spent on them. He has little in the way of personality, and any woman that liked him would some have serious self-examination to do. No matter though, the film rewards the Baron for his lack of personality with a date with Madeline – and apparently her heart, thus playing on the time-honored film stereotype that while male spies can always be trusted to put country first, female spies are handicapped by their emotions and are therefore less reliable. While I’m not in favor of reinforcing stereotypes in general, if you’re going to rely on this one, you have to give the heroine a better adversary than the Baron.
Too little works in Dark Journey to recommend it. Vivian Leigh gives a decent performance, but she is given very little help by the film’s exceptionally subpar script. Some of the film’s most intriguing moments, moments filled with messages being flashed to enemy agents and relayed back to headquarters, brief glimpses of the First World War, and short arguments between Swiss citizens whose countries of ancestry just happen to be at war, are over in a heartbeat. Given much more screen time are incoherent and excruciatingly long scenes involving submarines, torpedoes that never seem to hit their mark, and officers saying entirely unrealistic dialogue. It also doesn’t help that most of the film’s supporting characters speak in the same accent, regardless of whether they are playing German or British characters. In addition, Leigh and Veidt have literally no chemistry, a fatal flaw for a picture of this kind. In fact, it says something that one of the film’s saving graces is its mercilessly-short running time of just 77 minutes. At least, the pain is over relatively quickly. (on DVD and Blu-ray on November 19, 2013 as part of the Vivian Leigh Anniversary Collection)