14 November 2002 | bmacv
Ambler's intrigue turned into pro-Allies propaganda with decent enough cast
During the Second World War years, Hollywood found in the European-intrigue novels of Eric Ambler a pliable resource for converting into thrillers that beat drums for the anti-Axis cause. So, like tanks off an assembly line, rolled Journey into Fear (1942), Background to Danger (1943) and The Mask of Dimitrios (1944). They benefitted from name directors respectively, Orson Welles (at least in part), Raoul Walsh and Jean Negulesco but none of them is particularly remarkable; they're not much more than shortish propaganda programmers.
Background to Danger reunites the sinister but winning Warner Bros. team of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, but, instead of the expected Humphrey Bogart as plucky hero, plunks George Raft down in a strange land, this time Turkey, strategically situated at the convergence of the Middle East, the Balkans and the Soviet Union. The plot involves forged maps which Nazi agent Greenstreet hopes to use to foment a panic about plans to invade Turkey by the U.S.S.R., then an Ally, hence destabilizing the region and the balance of power. But Walsh forgoes the depth that a geopolitical perspective might have lent in favor of bombs and handguns, captures and hair's-breadth escapes.
Raft's wooden affect sometimes paid off in the noir cycle (Noctune, Red Light) but here his gaudy patter only makes viewers wish for Bogart. And while Greenstreet reprises his polished, blustering heavy, Lorre gives a droll, airy performance that verges on the comic (clearly, unlike his Gargantuan partner, he didn't take to type-casting). Raft's love interest, playing Lorre's sister, is Brenda Marshall, a.k.a. Mrs. William Holden or Ardis Ankerson, by all accounts a difficult woman but, judging by Strange Impersonation and her few other movies, not a negligible presence. Turhan Bey shows up as Raft's native sidekick, à la From Russia With Love. He brings a final touch of authenticity to the back-lot Ankara and Istanbul, which Walsh, to his credit, takes care to make more vivid than just generically exotic.