Tuesday, July 21, 2015


We see the action through the window of a car as the vehicle pulls up to nab an illegal immigrant. We remain in the car as the suspect breaks loose; the camera pans inside the car so we can look out the back window as he runs into the street and is hit -- in our plain view -- by a car. This is a Joseph H. Lewis film, his first after his sleeper hit and noir classic Gun Crazy, in which he had filmed a bank robbery and getaway from inside the crooks' car. Now he was working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and while the budget may have been small by that studio's standards Lewis must have felt like he was in the big leagues, with all the toys that come with that. He's clearly more interested in the technical and atmospheric effects he can pull off than in the noir-exotic melodrama. Judged by its set-pieces, Lady Without Passport stands comparison with the twin peaks of Lewis's career, Gun Crazy and The Big Combo. But without as potent a story to hold them together, the set-pieces mostly have more technical than dramatic interest.

The story is that INS agent Pete Karczag (John Hodiak) must go undercover in Cuba to investigate a people-smuggling ring, led by a hairdyed George Macready, who'd brought that hapless fugitive from the first scene to America. On location, Pete falls for one of Macready's clients, Holocaust survivor Marianne (Hedy Lamarr, whose recent role in the blockbuster Samson and Delilah was this film's main selling point). That's our triangle, which Pete hopes to break up by convincing Marianne to stay in Cuba rather than pay Macready in the only coin she can afford. Pete's willing to give up his career to keep her in Cuba and stay with her, but our villain figures out Pete's real business and blabs to Marianne to alienate her from him. Now Pete and his INS buddies have to try to catch Marianne and the other illegals as Macready flies them into the U.S. This sets the stage for a setpiece that's at once spectacular and anticlimactic as the smugglers crash-land their plane in the Everglades, after which Macready, his pilot and Marianne hit the water in the only life-raft, after Macready drives away the other illegals with his gun. Lewis films all of this from far above, from the perspective of a government plane. I wasn't sure whether the plane crash was done for real or with models, and I suppose that's a credit to the M-G-M effects department either way. The breakout immediately afterward has newsreel-like immediacy and verisimilitude, since there's no way the actors can play to the camera so far above, but Lewis's staging also leeches the drama (or at least the melodrama) out of one of the big moments of the story. The real dramatic climax comes after Macready has ditched his snake-bit pilot and, with Marianne still in tow, confronts Pete, who has caught up with him finally. The moment is tense and literally atmospheric with expressionistic swamp mist, but it's again kind of anticlimactic, since Macready simply pulls a gun on Hodiak and commandeers his boat, giving up Marianne in the bargain. The punch line is that our hero emptied most of the fuel tank so that the villain will be dead in the water and easily caught, but we don't get to see that. Lewis (or the studio) seems to think the real story is the romance, but John Hodiak simply isn't much of a romantic hero. That leaves Lady Without Passport lacking the heart it wants and the heart of darkness that keeps Lewis's best noirs alive, but it's still a treat to look at just to see a clever, confident director showing off.

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