Based on the 1929 novel "Les nuits moscovites" by Pierre Benoît, this is an engrossing romantic thriller. The film takes place in the dying days of Tsarist Russia in 1916, by which time the First World War was going very badly for the country. This was the second adaptation of the novel after a French film released the previous year which, unsurprisingly, retained the original version of the title. It belongs to the World War I spy film genre, which was quite popular in Britain in the 1930s. In such films, the German Empire was often used as an allegory for Nazi Germany. Benoît would probably not have approved of this interpretation as he later collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation of France. The film has a strong script by Anthony Asquith and Erich Seipmann and the former directed it very well, maintaining a rather high level of tension for much of its 70 minute running time.
The film stars Laurence Olivier in a typically excellent performance as the charming, dashing cad Captain Ivan Ignatoff. Had this been followed by a Hollywood remake in the next few years, I think that the role would have probably been played by Errol Flynn, Don Ameche or Tyrone Power. Having injured his leg in battle, Ignatoff is sent to a military hospital behind the lines where he falls in love with his 19-year- old nurse Natasha Kovrin, played very well by the enchanting Penelope Dudley-Ward who unfortunately made only eleven films before her retirement in 1944. As in their later film "The Demi-Paradise", their chemistry is top notch. It soon becomes clear that Natasha returns Ignatoff's feelings but she cannot act on them as she has a fiancé: a boorish, slovenly industrialist about 20 years her senior named Peter Brioukow who is making a pretty ruble from the war. Her domineering mother pressurised her into accepting his romantic overtures so that they can both continue to live in the manner to which they had become accustomed after her father's death.
Harry Baur, who reprised his role from the French version, gives a wonderful performance as Brioukow. He is suitably vile for much of the film but the character is not entirely one note. In stark contrast to Benoît, Baur was tortured by the Gestapo in 1943 and died of his severe wounds shortly afterwards. He was captured while attempting to rescue his Jewish wife Rose from their clutches. The rather less heroic Brioukow becomes convinced that there is something going on between Natasha and Ignatoff but she has remained faithful to him even though she is not preparing for her nuptials with unbridled glee. Ignatoff makes the serious mistake of gambling with Brioukow and ends up owing him 80,000 rubles. With only three days to pay, he believes that he may have no option but to settle his debts by killing himself. However, he is offered a way out by Madame Anne Sabline.
Athene Seyler, who lived to be 101 on the bright side, is fantastic as Madame Sabline, who is in actuality the German spy Anne Steinbeck. She is an extremely shrewd, manipulative woman who always thinks several moves ahead. However, the fact that she plays the role of a kind-hearted but not very bright one very well means that no one suspects her of being a senior figure in the spy ring that is seemingly making significant inroads into Mother Russia. Everyone simply takes her at face value. In exchange for money, Madame Sabline attempts to recruit Ignatoff, who has been given a desk job at the Ministry of Supplies before he is fit enough to return to the front, into her organisation. Ignatoff's not the luckiest chap in the world, I'm afraid. The only other major cast member who stood out was Morton Selten as Natasha's kindly uncle General Nicholas Kovrin, the head of the counterintelligence agency Section C. The film is also notable for featuring the film debut of a very young and uncredited Anthony Quayle as a wounded soldier named Vanya.
Overall, this is an extremely enjoyable film which admirably succeeds in both its romantic elements and its spy film ones.