Alan Ladd’s transformation from stubbly fleapit dweller to angel of death (fedora, trenchcoat, hard and faint smile) is a severe and delicate feat, and a rare chance to see an icon being whipped up before your eyes. Veronica Lake’s nightclub numbers are similarly svelte sleights of hand, "Now You See It, Now You Don’t" is a magic show (vanishing orbs and all) in clinging satin while "I’ve Got You" gives her a leather rain suit and a fishing rod. The two are authentic stars, matched in size, stylized insouciance, and witty blankness. Ladd’s a hit man grown fatalistic on childhood traumas ("I’d like to crawl down there with you," he says to a dead cat), Lake’s a chanteuse hired to work undercover for the government; they’re brought together over wartime intrigue conducted from behind locked doors by a cadaverous industrialist (Tully Marshall) with "boyfriends abroad." Graham Greene’s novel is a parable of war and business, the Paramount version is as much a study of a rogue’s grudging mobilization as Casablanca over at Warners. (Ladd: "I don’t go soft for nobody." Ladd: "The war is everybody’s business.") Robert Preston is the heroine’s law-enforcing beau, Laird Cregar the shady middle-man with boxes of chocolate peppermints and no taste for violence, Marc Lawrence the cheerful bodyguard who can’t understand why his boss gets squeamish when he goes into detail about how he will make a witness disappear -- polished vaudeville acts that illustrate Louise Brooks’ remark about Frank Tuttle’s gift for imperceptibly playing comedy straight. A great vein of noir tropes, greatly mined: Ministry of Fear (a bullet is shot through a door, a body drops on the other side), The Killers, Le Samouraď, Hopper’s Backtrack (the escape in the deserted gasworks at night). With Olin Howland, Roger Imhof, and Pamela Blake. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce