A rarely seen but riveting 1946 thriller about the race to create the A-bomb gets the Fritz Lang spy treatment in CLOAK AND DAGGER, now (finally) on Blu-Ray from the agents at Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.
One of two 1946 espionage pics to deal with the frightening possibility of fascist atomic supremacy (the other, more deservedly famous, of course, being Hitchcock’s Notorious), CLOAK AND DAGGER (based on a bare-bones book by Corey Ford and Alastair MacBain) additionally is one of star Gary Cooper’s best 1940s flicks; it certainly shows off his diversity. Coop plays Alvah Jesper, a nuclear physicist, based on J. Robert Oppenheimer (there’s even a remarkable physical appearance). He’s approached by the embryonic OSS to go undercover into Italy, where intelligence has emerged regarding the Germans’ progress in beating the Allies to the completion of an atom bomb; he needs to persuade Nazi collaborators to switch sides. He agrees, and the results are…atomic!
Cooper, often unfairly relegated to a mere western superstar, was, in actuality, a well-read, sophisticated dude. True, he was raised in Helena, MT on a ranch owned by his well-to-do parents, but was educated in Europe, mostly in the UK (where his father and mother had emigrated from). Coop returned to the U.S., with a jones to become an architect (he was quite good at it, too), but relocating to Hollywood dashed those hopes almost immediately, once the moguls and flappers got a gander at his looks. While certainly one of the western genre’s icons, Cooper was just as much at home playing comedy, drama and, in this case, a scientist in a mind-blowing thriller (it’s genuinely impressive to see him speak flawless German in a tense moment, although the actor requested that the screenwriters keep the nuclear dialog “simple”); he set a standard for best-dressed males in the 1930s and fit like a glove in works by Lubitsch, Borzage and Wilder as well as he had in adventure movies by Hathaway, Walsh and DeToth.
The narrative of CLOAK AND DAGGER is amazingly modern, as Cooper’s Jesper berates his U.S. contact about the mission. Why, he exclaims with true disgust, does the government have no problem approving billions for the creation of a doomsday weapon, but can never find the funding to battle cancer? If you did, he continues, we could beat it in one year.
Again, much of this rhetoric comes not merely from Boris Ingster (who, with co-author John Larkin, pitched their adaptation to producer Milton Sperling), but from a slew of credited and uncredited writers working on and off the project. Ingster, who would later become celebrated for his TV work, primarily The Man from U.N.C.L.E., was in synch with official liberal scripters Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner, Jr., both of whom would be later blacklisted.
As expected, there is much lip-biting suspense in CLOAK AND DAGGER, thanks to director Lang. The movie oozes with Expressionistic atmosphere, via the stunning black-and-white cinematography of Sol Polito. In addition, there is great camaraderie between Cooper’s character’s experiences with a resistance leaders, both romantic (Lili Palmer, new to biz and wonderful in this pic) and otherwise (Robert Alda, also excellent as a friendly, supportive aide who tosses off a one-liner as easily as he snuffs a Nazi). Terrific supporting players back up the leads, including Vladimir Sokoloff, J. Edward Bromberg, Marjorie Hoshelle, Ludwig Stossel, Helen Thimig, Dan Seymour, Marc Lawrence, James Flavin, Frank Wilcox, Holmes Herbert, Robert Coote and an early appearance by Lex Barker.
One sequence, in particular, remains etched in my brain: a grueling lengthy segment where Cooper must quietly (albeit violently) make his first kill. It ain’t that easy, he discovers – a beautiful acting moment as Jesper simultaneously displays self-loathing and self-preservation (while, unseen, in the background, street musicians play “Sing, Everyone, Sing”). The scene, described in one line in the script, took six days to film.
The original ending that Lang, Sperling and Maltz and Lardner wanted – a warning about entering the Atomic Age, and the apocalyptic possibility of Year One, was trimmed by the censors (although some of it remains). Shot footage of Cooper & Co. arriving too late at a hastily trashed and abandoned Nazi nuclear lab was entirely cut (by Sperling). How cool would it be to find that! Reviewers at the time unfairly sloughed the pic off as a standard actioner (Maltz and Lardner disowned it).
CLOAK AND DAGGER was one of a series of overall first-rate pics that producer Sperling (Harry Warner’s brother-in-law) made independently through his personal unit at Warners, United States Pictures. A major perk, of course, was that Sperling could take advantage of all of the studio’s top-tier facilities, including backlots, music and art design departments, special effects, etc. The Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment Blu-Ray of this noirish classic is the version we’ve been waiting for: an excellent transfer (only sporadically marred by slight emulsion scratches) from 35MM elements in razor-sharp 1080p High Definition. The audio matches the video and allows us to appreciation a boisterous score by Warner maestro Max Steiner.
A movie that deserves to be wider seen, CLOAK AND DAGGER can hopefully now get the recognition it so duly deserves.
CLOAK AND DAGGER. Black and white [full frame: 1.37: 1]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment/Melange Pictures. CAT# OF622. SRP: $29.95.