9 November 2008 | dougdoepke
Pardon Me, But is That a Nazi in your Burrito?
Just count the number of daylight scenes in this unusually dense and dark slice of international intrigue. No doubt about it, noir has come to South America. And by golly, revenge-obsessed Laurence Gerard (Dick Powell) is going to track down his wife's killer, a Nazi collaborator, even if he has to turn Argentina upside down. And what's more, he's about as humorlessly driven as any grim character from that grim decade.
As good as Powell is, it's Walter Slezak as the slippery operative Melchior Incza who steals the show. I've seen the movie several times and I still can't figure out what side he's on. But never mind, he's all either oily politeness or hulking menace, to the point that for once I enjoyed watching a bloody beating. In fact, the 90 minutes is full of sinister foreign types, all polished gentlemen sporting high-class suits and slinky ladies modeling 40's high fashion. Nonetheless, you may need a scorecard to keep track of who's winning.
There are a number of nice touches, but maybe the most inventive is the subway scene. Gerard is trying to get important information from the untrustworthy Mme. Jarnac. Okay, she seems ready to cooperate and he's warily hanging on every word. But before she can complete a sentence, a noisy train rumbles by. They wait. She tries again. Same thing. Could it be that the Nazis are running the Buenos Aires subway? Of course, by this time the frustration has spread to the audience who may never ride a subway again.
The movie's message comes at the end and is reflective of the time (1945). Gerard may be pursuing justice, but the allies who help him are chasing Nazism itself. Following war's end, the survivors have escaped to Latin America and must be apprehended before the Third Reich festers all over again. (In fact, the West was unsure of Hitler's actual demise until 1956 when the Soviets finally released conclusive proof that he hadn't escaped his bunker.)
The identity of these pursuers is never disclosed, probably a touchy topic given the politics of writers Wexler and Paxton, subsequent victims of the Hollywood blacklist. In fact, the whole production crew reads like a Who's Who of the list, including producer Scott and director Dmytryk, two members of the high-profile Ten. Seems odd, finding Republican- conservative Powell in this leftish mix-- but then it's true that the war had enlisted Americans of all political stripes.
Politics aside, it's a crackling good yarn, even if a bit heavy-going at times. And for fans of noir, the lighting comes across as a textbook of shadow and menace. So much so, I doubt that the electricity bill for the entire production exceeded 10 bucks. Sure, the details seem dated but the sinister characters, passionate convictions, and convoluted schemes still entertain.