Spies

"Essential"

Spies Review


"Throughout the world... strange events transpire." Thus reads the title card at the opening of Fritz Lang's great 1928 thriller Spies. Proof that the card is true arrives immediately afterward onscreen: we watch as a gloved hand removes a cache of official documents from a safe in the French Embassy in Shanghai. The documents are then whisked away by a cackling agent on motorcycle, and news of their theft is beamed from radio towers around the world. Next the Minister of Trade, riding in an open coupe, is fired upon from a passing vehicle, and we learn from a headline that he's died from his wounds. "What force is at play here?" another intertitle reads. And what could they hope to attain?

The answer, in Spies, is arrived at so pleasurably that it puts all but the very best of the cloak and dagger genre to shame. The plot follows the efforts of a handsome undercover agent named only No. 326 (Willy Fritsch) to prevent a treaty with the Japanese from leaving his homeland (Germany, one assumes, although it's never specified) despite the efforts of an evil mastermind named Haghi (the wonderful Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to see that it does. A secret agent, as we all know, leads a life of danger, and so it is that No. 326 is distracted in his efforts by the beautiful Sonia (Gerda Maurus), herself a spy in Haghi's employ. No. 326 falls in love with Sonia; will he learn the truth in time? Sonia may have fallen in love with No. 326; has she? And, if so, will she follow her heart or her oath to see the treaty across the frontier?

Jason Bourne would clear up the central mystery of Spies in no time. (There's evidence that No. 326 speaks only one language, and you never even see him work out or spend time at the target range.) But Spies is about is the romance of espionage, not its nuts and bolts. It's about double agents, vanishing ink, debauched baronesses, and secret headquarters where the steel stairs teem with operatives and where pneumatic tubes whisk transcriptions of intercepted communiqués directly onto the desk from which Haghi rules his evil world. In Spies the bank fills with gas in ten minutes, the last sleeper car is unpinned when the express train enters the tunnel, and Lady Leslane's husband will find out where she spends her Tuesday evenings if she doesn't provide the information in time. Spies, like the great early Hitchcock with which it proudly compares, is about the mythical, clandestine world of a shadowy people that we like to hope that we move among unknowingly day after routine day. In that regard, it's more Bond than Bourne.

And more than anything, Spies is about showing its viewers an insanely good time. For sheer viewing pleasure it shares the exalted company of Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, Hitchcock's The 39 Steps. Like other silent Fritz Lang films of the period, it's beautifully made, too, skillfully directed and acted, and with sets and screen effects that remain enviably clean and evocative today. (The new Kino DVD release does these full justice; the film hasn't looked this good for many decades.) Maybe there's a movie more entertaining than Spies; it's possible. But if so, this is one critic who would like to know its name.

Aka Spione.



Spies

Facts and Figures

Run time: 90 mins

In Theaters: Sunday 10th March 1929

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Fresh: 13 Rotten: 1

IMDB: 7.7 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Producer:

Starring: Mel Blanc as Private Snafu

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