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Dark Journey
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by Jay Seaver

"An interesting artifact; a so-so spy movie."
3 stars

Spy stories are a little like time travel stories in that if they aren't a little confusing, they're either not doing their job right or are highly simplified. Espionage is a complicated game whose best players specific skill is in not letting the other teams know which side their on or even that they're anything other than spectators. It's especially tough when a present-day audience is watching a movie made in 1937 which takes place in 1918.

One of the reasons that Dark Journey becomes more confusing than it truly needs to be is because, despite taking place in Stockholm and featuring British, Swiss, French, German, Swedish, and Dutch characters, everyone in the cast except Conrad Veidt is from the UK and pretty much retains their English accents. And while in many cases that's praiseworthy - no serious movie wants to be laid low by silly-sounding accents - here, it doesn't work. There's no way to tell that Madeline Godard, the proprietrix of a dress shop who uses her business trips to Paris to smuggle information to British Intelligence, is anything but English until we're told she's Swiss.

There's a decent potboiler of a plot - Miss Godard makes trips from Stockholm to Sweden to purchase the latest French fashions, which makes a perfect cover; intelligence is encoded in the dresses' stitching and read out when the clothing is delivered to a certain English countess (actually, her husband). It's a clever system, but when information gets out, the British begin to distrust her, especially when she seems to take up with Veidt's Baron von Marwitz, who claims to be a German deserter but is actually a high official in their intelligence service.

It seems like a simple plot, but director Victor Saville can't quite get that across. After watching the movie twice, I still can't quite recall why one character was murdered, and it's only while writing this review that I figured out that the guy passing data along with a nifty bit of tradecraft involving semaphore was not just passing it on to the next step on the road to London, but to a German U-Boat. Admittedly, I can be pretty dense while watching a movie, and I was kind of sleepy the first time through, but there's a greater expectation of clarity in a 77-minute B movie. He also keeps things rather vague, whether it be that actual importance and content of the information Madeleine is smuggling into Sweden or her true feelings toward Baron von Marwitz and the wounded English soldier who appears to be her boyfriend (Anthony Bushell). This vagueness is, of course, somewhat necessary in order to create a mystery, but Saville might have been well advised to go at it from the other direction, having her display stronger feelings that may be a front. This movie just feels muted.

The cast, for the most part, delivers what is asked of them. Veidt is charming enough to be a desirable catch, even if he is a German and the ladies' sympathies tend to lie with the English and French. Vivien Leigh manages to be witty and human in her character's personal interactions, even if she is maddeningly sphinx-like when the spy stuff comes up. Bushell's Bob Carter seems nice enough. No-one else has a lot of heavy lifting; they just do what their script says and move on.

The script is adapted from a play, but doesn't often feel that way. There are no long speeches and no sense of being confined to just a few locations. Some of the action that doesn't involve the main characters does happen off-screen, and the story seems to presume a certain familiarity with Europe during the Great War. This may be confusing to those of us watching it in 2005, although it probably wasn't a major problem in 1937.

Even before fully connecting the dots and realizing Veidt also played a WWI German spy in The Spy in Black, it did strike me as worth noting that even on the eve of World War II, both movies take a certain amount of pain to not demonize their German antagonists. It's not just that Veidt plays a friendly, intelligent man, but there are lines in the dialogue specifically pointing out that he serves his country just as the other characters serve theirs, and it's not what one would naturally expect. Apparently attitudes toward Germany were still ambivalent enough at that time that film producers took care not to create the opportunity for offense.

Dark Journey is a bit of a curiosity, as one of the relatively few films Vivien Leigh made relative to other actresses of her generation. As spy movies go, it's a bit below average - not a timeless classic, but more an interesting artifact.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=11427&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/24/05 14:41:37
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User Comments

2/20/17 J Garbo Stockholm to Sweden? Make that Paris. Madeleine isn't married. 4 stars
8/25/11 brian Just enough plot twists and mystery to make it worthwhile. 4 stars
11/02/09 MP Bartley A creaky and clumsy yarn that Hitchcock did considerably better. 2 stars
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