I was mildly surprised when I saw that Eric Ambler wrote the script for Highly Dangerous.
It wasn’t based on one of his novels, but was an original story. Normally, one thinks of him as a novelist, although he did write quite a few scripts, including A Night to Remember. Most of them were adaptations of either his books or someone else’s, and he would end up writing for TV and even creating the series Checkmate.
This was the first time he created an original spy thriller for the big screen — and as far as I can see, the only time. It has a surprisingly light and comic air about it, which perhaps feels more like the novels he wrote before the war than the ones he’s best remembered for, like A Coffin for Demetrius and Journey into Fear.
In fact the film itself reminds me more of one of those comic British thrillers they seemed to specialize in back in the Thirties and Forties.
A secret lab in Eastern Europe is raising large numbers of insects and the British Government (in the person of Mr. Hedgerley, played by Naunton Wayne, best remembered as Caldicott, in The Lady Vanishes) wants to know why.
They try to get Frances Grey, a top rank Entomologist, to go there and get samples of the bugs, but the mission seems too dangerous to her — at least, until she hears the latest episode of her favorite radio show, featuring the heroic and resourceful secret agent, Frank Conway.
However, things go badly wrong once she gets to the tiny Eastern European country where the plant is located: her contact is murdered and she is arrested and questioned under truth serum.
And that’s when things start getting interesting…
For most of the film, those insects are basically a MacGuffin. There’s actually a fairly clever idea here — a scientific projection based on a recent discovery — which comes wrapped up in same solid insect care, feeding and breeding facts. While you could file this one under the heading of near-term science Fiction, the idea needed a better explanation and further development to make its speculative status clear. What we do get is a bit rushed, and left to the very end, even though Frances has clearly known all about it from the start.
If they’d made this film in the Sixties, like The Satan Bug, we probably would have got that explanation early on, complete with a detailed presentation. I don’t see that keeping it secret helps the film at all.
Oh, well. This is a cheerful and funny film with a goofy twist in the middle, a very Thirties romance, and a great British cast with only a few well-known names. I was in the mood for something light-hearted when I watched this one and enjoyed it thoroughly, despite its flaws.
Although it helps that I’ve always loved those clever British thrillers they made in the Thirties, Forties, and yes, even the Fifties.
Whether they were directed by Alfred Hitchcock or not…
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