The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

13 Rue Madeleine

A week or so ago I reviewed my first James Cagney movie, a story of IRA fighters in Ireland struggling to fight for their freedom. I always thought of Cagney as too cartoonish, almost a caricature of well...himself.  So as I look through the rest of his filmography, I'll just have to look for characters that were a little more peaceful, little more calm instead of the stick of dynamite one good shake away from blowing up.  Years ago I saw part of 1947's 13 Rue Madeleine, and now I finally caught up and saw the whole movie.  Well worth the wait, mostly because of Cagney's performance. 

Released two years after the conclusion of WWII, 'Rue' picks a good time to tell a story of Allied agents and their efforts to help the war effort.  The war was obviously fresh on people's minds, but because the war had been won stories of heroism and bravery had started to filter out.  During the war, lives would have been put at risk if anyone knew what these Allied agents were up to, but with the war behind them it became more acceptable to finally give them the attention and credit they fully deserved.  Director Henry Hathaway films his movie with a distinct feel of a documentary, a wise decision that doesn't allow too much wasted effort in a slick spy movie.

As the U.S. is thrust into WWII following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government is forced to build an intelligence agency from the ground up.  Leading that charge is Charles Gibson (Walter Abel) who begins to assemble groups of agents who will learn the ins and outs of surviving working behind enemy lines.  One of those groups, 077, is led by a veteran agent and former soldier, Bob Sharkey (Cagney), who goes about teaching his 20 trainees all he knows.  Gibson approaches Bob though with a warning, they think one of his agents is a German agent.  Can they utilize this though to have the agent send false information to the German High Command?  It's a risky move, but one that could help convince the Germans of a second front away from the upcoming D-Day invasion.  It could work, but at what cost?

With voiceover narration moving the action along, the first 45 minutes -- maybe even the 1st hour -- do feel like a documentary about the forming of the intelligence system designed to advance the Allied war effort.  We meet three agents in Sharkey's team, Suzanna de Beaumont (French actress Annabella), a French widow,  Bill O'Connell (Richard Conte), a card shark and cocky son of a gun, and Jeff Lassiter (Frank Latimore), a naive but headstrong American.  Their training sequences are handled well, always at a quick pace as they learn how to handle weapons and radios while also improving their skills of observation, cunning and deception -- including several in the field experiments.  Some of these scenes might seem old-hat because they've been used in countless movies since, but a certain energy keeps them interesting.

About the halfway point though, 'Rue' becomes Cagney's movie.  After serving as a stern but fair instructor to his agents, Sharkey is forced to parachute into France when a mission goes under.  No one else can be brought in to fix the problem and continue to trick the Germans so Sharkey steps up and volunteers to undertake the mission.  Now, Cagney doesn't exactly make the most believable Frenchman, but would you question someone who glared back at you like Cagney does?  This is the star at his best; tough, driven and motivated to do whatever it takes to get the job done.  Overall, the ending shows what some of his agents had to sacrifice to accomplish their missions so it doesn't qualify as a happy ending per se, but it's a good one nonetheless.

My question through the second half of the movie goes toward the choice to reveal the German agent disguised as an American.  Could Hathaway have kept us guessing a little longer?  Probably.  But with the reveal, all the mystery goes out the window.  Granted, it puts a face on the enemy and gives the viewer someone to root against, but that's just me if I'm making the movie.  I won't spoil it here as to who it is, but toward the end you're rooting for Cagney's Sharkey to get a moment alone with the German agent.  It never really comes, but the solution is beyond perfect and should remind you of another ending to a Cagney movie.

Cagney and the actor/actress playing the German agent are the only ones that really register as strong characters among the agents, but Cagney's star power is more than enough.  Sam Jaffe has a good part as a French mayor working with the resistance, and Melville Cooper is solid as 077's handler. Handling his directing duties, Hathaway always keeps the movie on the point and turns in a quick-paced 95-minute finished product.  He filmed in Canada for some 'German locations' and shoots in black and white to add one more hard-edge to the movie.  You can watch it at Youtbe starting with Part 1 of 10.

13 Rue Madeleine <----trailer (1947): ***/****

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