What did you watch: the 1946 spy thriller Cloak & Dagger
Oh is that the movie that caused you to open up your Atari 5200 games to see if there were any secret chips in there? No, that’s the Dabney Coleman movie that came out 40 years later.
So, there’s no video games in this? No, already!
I’ve covered some spy films in the past here and they have, in general, been pretty ok, or the suspense had been reduced due to things like “THIS IS BASED ON A TRUE STORY!” and “HERE IS SOME NARRATION BECAUSE WE WEREN’T ABLE TO CONVEY THIS IN REGULAR MOVIE STORYTELLING METHODS!” Cloak & Dagger doesn’t tell you that this is based on anything until the end credits, alluding to the kinds of risky associations & contacts the Allies would have to make during WW2 in supposedly neutral countries.
In this case, scientist Gary Cooper reluctantly steps back from government research on ‘the bomb’ to head to Switzerland at the request of Uncle Sam to find some other scientists who could assist the Allies if not beat the Axis to getting to those scientists first. He doesn’t want to because he knows ‘the bomb’ will come at a great cost of human life, and start an arms race regardless of their success that will consume friend and foe. Not helping is that the two other scientists he needs to convince to help the Allies from leaving neutral land and to stop being neutral believe that their presence even not taking a stand puts their families back in Axis lands in danger, and the fascists are gonna start bumping people off sooner than later.
That’s a simple story, though a lot happens. Cooper learns that the Germans play for keeps: they have kidnapped the first scientist rather than wait for her to make up her mind, and kill her (at the hands of a little old lady! Your grandma, probably!) rather than let US troops rescue her with no bloodshed on their end. His next target is IN Italy, a scientist held up in a castle and surrounded by suspicious spies. This scientist won’t budge unless the Cooper’s handlers can rescue the scientist’s daughter, held by the Nazis. This will be a rescue off screen, so Cooper needs to hide out at a school teacher’s apartment, only having to move and be on the move every time someone eyes the two together.
I really enjoyed this – whether some of the action beats and twists are predictable, I got a few chills during a rescue or reveal, even if I saw it coming. There’s another reason why: I realized halfway through, and it definitely linked up at the end, that this was an influence/eventually parodied in the movie Top Secret!, one of the greatest comedies ever. Top Secret! is the red headed stepchild of the Zucker Abrahams Zucker comedies that didn’t get a lot of love from audiences, or isn’t as remembered, as Airplane! or The Naked Gun, though in many ways it’s much better. It starts with its amazing homage to Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys, taking Val Kilmer from surfer movies straight into postwar spy films. The love interest is modeled directly on Cloak & Dagger’s Lilli Palmer, right down to her hair and sweater in C&D’s last scene.
I recommend checking this one out. Maybe you won’t fall for the pairing of Cooper & Palmer like the movie has them in their close quarters, and maybe that’s because Palmer’s character is far more interesting as a freedom fighter compared to Cooper’s “I’m the male lead so of course I’m just gonna show up and do things, even if I’m not qualified.” I enjoyed one of his agency’s early handlers who spoke in Americana, complete with baseball references to direct Cooper into his next action.
Cooper does most of the talking, Palmer wins you over with the action and the fear of being constantly under the microscope of the fascist land she’s trying to liberate, but it’s almost remarkable how the rest of the movie could be released as a silent one, where no one has to say anything in scenes where spies reappear looming over our heroes and ready to dash their hopes of freeing anyone.
The movie was directed by Fritz Lang (M, Metropolis, and the double whammy of The Woman In The Window and Scarlet Street), and this must have been a personal statement on his former home’s fall into fascism. He had broken up his marriage when he left Germany during Hitler’s rise because his then wife and collaborator was all about the Third Reich taking over the country. We forget that regular people of all walks of life were suckered into these things. Before it splits apart the world, it splits our relationships because we can’t abide by the embracing of this nonsense. I wonder if there’s anything current that I can compare this to. Hmmm.
Ironically, two of the writers of this pro-American tale were singled out by the HUAC the next year, with this movie’s message that even the Soviets might be chasing this destructive technology as evidence of their pro-Communist leanings!