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Background to Danger (DVD Review)

30 May, 2016 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive
$19.99 DVD
Not rated
Stars George Raft, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Brenda Marshall.

The moderate rewards to be gleaned from this 80-minute quickie are definitely around the edges — as in, a) seeing what kind of role George Raft would deign to take at Warner Bros. after turning down High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon to Humphrey Bogart’s permanent benefit; and b) the manner in which the studio attempted to exploit the blockbuster success of Casablanca even before the Bogart-Rains-Lorre-Greenstreet reunion in 1944’s flashback-happy Passage to Marseilles. On the latter point, Background to Danger does offer a half-hearted and certainly ill-developed romance in an exotic wartime locale, but even this shortcoming aside, Raft is no Bogie and Brenda Marshall no Ingrid Bergman. On the other hand, only a real grouch would fail to appreciate Greensteet and Lorre, who really carry their scenes here — though filmmaker Guy Maddin is right when he notes on his commentary for 1946’s The Chase that Lorre aged with alarming speed beginning sometime in the 1940s. Seeing him here just three years earlier, he looks almost young (an odd concept when it comes to him, admittedly).

Danger was another friendly pat on the back to Russia when it was our World War II ally. This said, I’ve never heard of it being dredged up later by the House Committee on Un-American Activities as soft-on-Communism ammo against Hollywood a la MGM’s same-year Song of Russia (also just out from Warner Archive). Maybe this is because the main Russian character (Lorre) is such a transparently slippery dude who loves his vodka too much — after, that is, he finally shows up after a lot of table-setting “event” precipitated by Raft’s roving eye. Traveling by train from Ankara to Istanbul in war-neutral Turkey, Raft has spotted a comely type (Osa Massen) who eventually begs him to help her sneak, she says, some inherited securities past a checkpoint — a dicey favor he’s not unwilling to do after having made certain (for libidinous reasons) that he’s sharing her car during the journey. Anybody who’s ever seen a movie knows there’ll be one of three upshots here: she will be killed, he will be killed (or at least pummeled by all kinds of screen heavies) or these chance acquaintances become romantic comrades. Well, two of these things happen.

By virtue of its neutrality, we see that Turkey is regarded by the Germans as a country ripe for plucking — a plot advanced by Nazi suck-up Greenstreet, who has a scheme up the sleeves of one of those Greenstreet suits that look as if they came from the tent and awning store. Utilizing photos of strategic Turkish areas (i.e. not securities) that Masse passed to Raft on the train, Colonel Greenstreet is trying to convince key Turks that Russia plans to wreak its own havoc on Turkish neutrality while his own hands are clean. Trusting Soviet agents Lorre and Marshall only a little more than he does this dangerously wily stooge, Raft finds himself in the middle of all this — the tie stickpin on his collar always in place no matter how many thugs beat him up, threaten to shoot him or slash his cheek. Though I’m assuming last offense isn’t some kind of left-field “in” reference to the original Scarface, there is a knowing gag here in which Raft tosses a coin in his hand the way he did in the Howard Hughes/Hawks original this a full 16 years before Billy Wilder employed a similar spoof with Raft in Some Like It Hot.

Danger was Raft’s last film at Warner before moving on to RKO and then a litany of career-deflating flop indies. The result is somewhere between second-rate but also admittedly efficient in an assembly-line kind of way thanks to top-of-the-line credits: The Asphalt Jungle’s W.R. Burnett adapting an Eric Ambler source novel (with alleged William Faulkner assistance); Jerry Wald producing; Raoul Walsh directing; and Tony Gaudio (Little Caesar, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Letter, High Sierra, A Song To Remember) behind the camera. But even on melodramatic terms, there’s a tendency here to sacrifice emotional depth for speed before we even get to the not quite romantic leads. These would be Marshall (who, The Sea Hawk or not, never had much appeal) and the professionally hapless Raft, whose distinctive voice was always fun to hear but not the one of an actor to keep you up watching in the early a.m. unless you were maybe one of his buddies from the Mob. And on a side note, will someone please tell me who green-lit Allied Artists’ The George Raft Story in 1961, which, of nothing else, enabled Ray Danton to play both Raft and “Legs” Diamond in biopics the same year? Or maybe the name of the car wash where he was working after the Story grosses came in?

Marshall was out of the movies by the early ’50s, while featured player Turhan Bey didn’t last much longer despite a kind of heyday in the ’40s carrying water as a Maria Montez co-star in a series of campy indescribables for Universal. Another familiar ’40s face here is Steven Geray as a Turkey-based hack newspaper editor (or maybe it’s publisher) who prints what Greenstreet instructs. I like how Raft simply walks brazenly into Geray’s building and plays “stop the presses” in his own very specific fashion. Mallets, anyone?

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