Out of the Passport

“They’d paint eyes on my eyelids, man, and I’d walk through it,” was a classic admission from Robert Mitchum regarding his less than inspiring directors. For much of its 100-minute running time that’s the “what you see is what you get” results of the nonetheless entertaining 1956 spy romp FOREIGN INTRIGUE, now on Blu-ray from Kino Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.

The movie is a Swifty Lazar fantasy come true – an “art of the deal” arrangement comprising a then burgeoning cottage industry for now studio-free independent stars.  Long story short, two words, profit-sharing (or one with a hyphen).  United Artists was key for setting up these contracts, and by the mid-late1950s, had already lured the likes of Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, David Niven, Robert Wise, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, John Huston and Billy Wilder into multi-picture deals.  Robert Mitchum’s addition to that roster was a quite a coup, to say the least.

The concept of FOREIGN INTRIGUE was the brainchild of writer-producer-director Sheldon Reynolds, whose connection to the industry was primarily from television; in fact, that, too, was the origin of FOREIGN INTRIGUE.  It was a top-rated adventure series since its 1951 debut, lasting until 1955.  It brought a number of talented actors into the public’s view, including semi-regulars James Daly and Gerald Mohr.  The big hook of the show was the actual overseas locations, an enticing novelty for the medium.

With the show now relegated to the musty vaults of syndication, Reynolds proposed to UA a big-screen version in color and widescreen, and with a major star.  UA bit the carrot, and Mitchum, newly aligned with the studio, readily agreed as part of his initial foray into coproduction (Mitchum had hit the ground running for UA in 1955, scoring the art-house favorite Night of the Hunter and the box-office smash Not as a Stranger).  The actor’s piece-of-the-action slice was a pact between United Artists, Reynolds and the star’s wife Dorothy, culminating in the formation of D-R-M Productions.  The actor’s critics have been unkind to his project choices (this pic, the western Man with the Gun and the Mexican Revolution saga Bandido!), but, in retrospect, they were three solid, safe moves.  FOREIGN INTRIGUE had been a huge TV series and had name recognition; furthermore, 1954’s The Long, Long Trailer, while not officially an I Love Lucy movie, nevertheless was essentially a large-scale extension of the sitcom, sans the Mertzes (Lucy and Ricky now being Tacy and Nicky).  In addition, Our Miss Brooks was going into production at Warner Bros., as was a Lone Ranger feature film, so, well, you get the picture.  Man with the Gun was a natural as westerns were hot in 1955, and, thus, a wise strategy for anyone wanting to get their producer’s feet wet (it was said at the time that westerns were the only guaranteed genre that couldn’t lose money).  Bandido! was obviously drenched in Latin flavor, so popular then in culture and music; besides, the actual locations (keeping high-paid performers out of the country for long periods of time) held other advantages, providing actors and actresses with tax-saving incentives (aside from Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Gary Cooper, Anthony Quinn, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, and Gregory Peck all spent much of their 1950s career working outside the United States).

On the surface, FOREIGN INTRIGUE plays like one of the movies Mitchum screamed about fleeing RKO from, what he called the “pounded to death by the gorillas” picture.  The star swore that RKO would barely finish one potboiler, slap a new title page on the same script, and put it back into production.  FOREIGN INTRIGUE upped the ante by paying Mitchum more money, offering a share of the gross and giving him an all-expense paid vacation to glamourous and exciting locales for both him (and, likely, his family).

The problem with FOREIGN INTRIGUE is the jack-of-all-trades multi-tasking efforts of Reynolds.  He may have been an adequate producer, but as a writer and director, he definitely was not ready for prime time.  The movie seems to be a labyrinth montage of endless footage involving a trenchcoat-attired (and tired) Mitchum prowling the dark alleyways of the otherwise desirable cities of Monte Carlo, Nice, Vienna and Stockholm.

That said, there is enough to recommend the picture, especially to Mitchum fans.  While the screenplay ain’t exactly North by Northwest, the original story by Harold Jack Bloom and Gene Levitt is actually quite…well, intriguing.  Mitchum portrays Dave Bishop, a publicist hired by a famed millionaire to “create a past for him.”  When his client is murdered, Mitchum is reluctantly tossed into the kind of dark, murky pit Dick Powell was always trying to crawl out of (mostly, post-Ruby Keeler).  The millionaire, it is revealed, was one of several Allied-friendly entrepreneurs hailing from (mostly) neutral countries during World War II; turns out that many of these pillars of society’s fortunes were made by their collaboration with Hitler and the Nazi regime.  With their past traitorous activities threatening to come to light, one of the group is intent on violently liquidating the remaining members.

Reynolds directs his international cast (including Mr. Arkadin‘s Frederic O’Brady, an interesting choice as there are some fleeting parallels to the Welles movie) as if they’re being fed intravenously via a coaxial cable.  In other words, you can take Sheldon Reynolds out of the TV station, but can’t take the TV station out of Reynolds.  Having his thesps hit their respective accents hard and loud plays like a Your Show of Shows movie parody sketch (no kidding, there’s an array of memorable and hilarious sinister red herrings, including a blind housekeeper, Howard Hughes-type mystery men from the Harvey Korman School of Subtlety, Get Smart bumbling assassins, Schick ad-ready square-jaw American agents, etc., etc.).  Though I must say, Mitchum, even when sleepwalking in his alter ego as Zombie Mitchum, never disappoints, proof positive via his admirably speaking fluent French in one sequence.

Even those who don’t parlais vous francais will find Mitchum’s Gaelic abilities far more palatable than Reynolds’s English dialog, which is lip-biting borderline awful (“I’ll be there when I hear from you or when I don’t”).  Mitchum, pro that he is, rises above it (his trademark apathetic understated response to his late employer’s non-mourning trophy wife widow: “You’re prostrate with grief”), even suggesting that he may have improvised on his own.

The women in FOREIGN INTRIGUE are a definite plus, but Reynolds, once again, fails to generate any chemistry between Mitchum and subsequent Ingmar Bergman favorite Ingrid Thulin.  That said, there is a sorta spark ignited betwixt the actor and bad girl Genevieve Page (in her movie debut).

But, hey, crazy me, I like movies where action heroes are press agents.  And the real-life locations do help.  No foolin’, FOREIGN INTRIGUE is beautifully shot in Eastmancolor (print by Technicolor) by Bertil Palmgren.

And then there’s the soundtrack.

The one huge success of the movie was the title theme.  While the score of the flick was nicely composed by Paul Durand, the jazzy main instrumental tune, what became known as the “Foreign Intrigue Concerto” (by Charlie Norman), skyrocketed to the top of the pop charts.  Since approximately 80 minutes of the movie encompasses Mitchum skulking through rain-soaked streets accompanied by this ditty (which also seemingly plays constantly in the background of dialog scenes), one becomes infected by the contagious melody.  I seriously wondered if Bishop/Mitchum was genuinely stalking the villains, or simply wanting to know where the hell that music was coming from.  Personally, I couldn’t get the damn thing out of my head, humming the piece for two days after I had screened it.  It bounced around my cranium while I was putting together bookshelves, it haunted me on my way to the post office, and, ultimately, it took over my life.  Indeed, I found myself stealthily darting in and out of doorways en route to the local strip mall Food Universe, suspiciously eyeing deadly senior citizens and their lethal walkers.  Finally, the “Foreign Intrigue Concerto” even followed me into the bathroom where I feebly tried to justify its presence by reasonably pairing it with the aftermath of a Thai dinner.

The Kino Classics Blu-Ray of FOREIGN INTRIGUE is pretty good.  The picture, while displaying some wear in the optical department, generally looks clean and spiffy in its 35mm 1.85:1 dimensions.  The mono audio, with its combination of dubbing and wild sound, is uniformly crisp and fine.  As a bonus, Kino has cleverly included trailers to other Mitchum UA titles on their roster, including Man with the Gun and The Wonderful Country.

Bottom line, in spite of its shortcomings, I’ll opt for watching FOREIGN INTRIGUE any day over a box set of Bourne-again cretins.  In fact, I kinda have a hankering to give it another spin now.  Oh, crap – there’s that song again!

FOREIGN INTRIGUE.  Color.  Widescreen [1.85: 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # K1680.  SRP: $29.95.

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