Friday, January 22, 2010

CONSPIRATOR (MGM 1949) Warner Archive Collection

Prior to WWII, Louis B. Mayer - then head of MGM - solidified a joint Anglo-American alliance that basically served a twofold purpose for his studio. On the one hand, it made the British pool of talent readily available for his talent scouts to sign, thereby crossing over to international fame and fortune - as was the case with discoveries like Greer Garson. On the other, it afforded MGM a distribution apparatus in England where American directors could utilize skilled trades to make their product overseas with American stars in the leads.

With the onset of WWII, the British operation was suspended, leaving a mass migration of British stars to come to the U.S. to continue their work for the studio. However, for a brief period after the war, MGM resurrected its overseas operations to make movies in England.

From this latter output comes Victor Saville's Conspirator (1949); a rather lugubrious spy caper with few thrills that seems, at least in hindsight, to illustrate the glaring awkwardness of Elizabeth Taylor's acting skills as she leaves behind her career as a child star to move into more adult melodrama. Production wise, the film has much to recommend, not the least of which are Freddie Young's evocative cinematography and Alfred Junge's production values that create a moody backdrop. The chief problem, however is the film's central foreground action, so utterly stilted that it rarely rises above mediocrity.

Working from a fairly intriguing novel by Humphrey Slater, the screenplay by Sally Benson and Girard Fairlie makes the least of a prime opportunity to challenge the viewer with chills, suspense and drama. What emerges is more a manner comedy of errors between a would-be communist who cannot make up his mind whether to be a die hard 'red' or devote his life to the sultry young thing that he's made his bride.

The story opens on a lavish Embassy party where wallflowers Melinda Greyton (Elizabeth Taylor) and her good friend Joyce (Honor Blackman) are patiently awaiting their first dance with some British officers. Melinda is an American staying with Joyce for an extended period. The two have become quite close in fact, enough for Melinda to be able to crawl into bed with Joyce after being inexplicably terrorized by a rather quaint thunder storm.

At the party, Melinda is introduced to Maj. Michael Curragh (Robert Taylor, fruitlessly attempting to resurrect his pre-war image as a dashing lady's man for the post war generation). Melinda is instantly smitten. Before long the two are inseparable, spending long hours in the tall grass along the Thames, dreamy eyed and haplessly in love. After incurring Melinda's wrath by leaving for a brief weekend retreat in the country to discuss his future with devoted Aunt Jessica (Marjorie Fielding), Michael proposes marriage to Melinda who - no kidding - accepts.

However, the storybook ending is short lived. Soon after being installed in Michael's fashionable home, Melinda begins to suspect that her new husband may be having an affair. He inexplicably cancels dinner engagements and often skulks off into the night, only to return in the wee hours of the next morning. The truth, however, is much worse. It seems that Michael is a communist sympathizer who is bleeding British intelligence secrets to his two contacts in the North Country - Alek (Nicholas Bruce) and Radek (Karl Stepanek). The secrets are smuggled in-between counterfeit British pound notes.

Exonerated of having an affair, Melinda learns the unholy truth about Michael's dealings with the communists after attempting to re-pay Michael's good friend Capt. Hugh Ladholme (Robert Flemyng) for a birthday gift of some golf clubs with one of Michael's phony bills. Heartbroken, but nevertheless determined, Melinda gives Michael an ultimatum. He must choose between the communist party or her. The party, however, knows how to play hardball. They order Michael to murder his wife in order to silence her from exposing them.

At a duck hunt, Michael does indeed take a pot shot at Melinda but his heart is not in it. She is superficially wounded and thereafter confides the truth about Michael's communist activities to Joyce, who swiftly alerts Hugh. A group of British officers and a Scotland Yard detective descend on Michael's home only to learn that he has committed suicide by shooting himself. To preserve the integrity of British Intelligence for the public at large, Hugh pleads with Melinda to make the official cause of Michael's death one of lovelorn depression - presumably because Michael has learned that Melinda was going to leave him. Melinda willingly agrees.

Thus ends, Conspirator - rather awkwardly and without much fanfare. What is particularly disheartening about the film in general is its heavy handed editing by Frank Clarke, who literally cuts away, dissolves or interrupts various scenes in the middle of dialogue to move the action forward.

In terms of acting, Robert Taylor is a poor choice for the role. As a man conflicted, he is wholly unsympathetic. Ditto for Elizabeth Taylor, who spends much of her time as a petulant flirt, so utterly insecure and simpering that as an audience we don't really feel much for her character one way or the other. This isn't either actors finest hour and the film isn't really much of an entertainment.

Conspirator is part of the burn-on-demand Warner Archive Collection. Owing to the fact that no restoration work has been performed on this title, the B&W elements are about what one might expect. Age related artifacts abound, but are not terribly obtrusive. The real distraction is 'breathing' of the image, with wavy lines of distortion glaringly obvious during darker scenes. As for the rest, the image can be rather sharp, with good contrast throughout. Transitions, fades and dissolves all exhibit temporarily more grain than one would expect. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequate for this presentation. The only extra is a theatrical trailer. Not recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
2.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
1

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