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FILM : 'Nazi Spy': A Potboiler Meant to Stir Outrage

February 20, 1992|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for The Times Orange County Edition.

It's stupefying to many people today, but the danger of Hitler and the Nazis was often ignored by the powerful in this country before America's entry into World War II.

Hollywood, with its huge clout in affecting public opinion, was among those slow to recognize the threat and often bowed to the isolationists. There were exceptions, though, the most significant being Jack Warner, head of the Warner Bros. studio.

He ordered the making of "Confessions of a Nazi Spy," considered the first U.S. film to portray the evil of the Third Reich. The movie screens Friday night as the last offering in the Saddleback College/National Archives' "The Road to War" series.

Warner, an American Jew, had been looking for the right opportunity ever since Joe Kaufman, Warner's chief salesman in Germany (and a Jew), was murdered by Nazi thugs in 1936, according to Bill Blakefield, a National Archives film expert in Washington, D.C., and one of the program's chief organizers.

The opportunity came in February 1938, when 18 Germans and German-Americans were arrested in New York City and charged with spying, specifically of stealing aircraft blueprints and blank passports. Warner took the case as the basis for "Confessions of a Nazi Spy," hiring Leon G. Turrou, the chief FBI agent involved, to help develop a script, Blakefield said.

The screenplay, written by Milton Krims and John Wexley, put Edward G. Robinson in the starring role of an FBI investigator trying to uncover a spy ring. The Third Reich was rendered as an insidious force with far-reaching tentacles.

Blakefield noted that isolationist groups and others sympathetic to Germany were outraged by the depiction. After the film's release in April, 1939, many groups protested screenings throughout the United States, and, predictably, "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" was banned in Germany, Italy and Spain as well as such neutral countries as Ireland and Switzerland.

On purely critical terms, the Anatole Litvak-directed movie is a potboiler, a melodrama thick with message. Still, it's straight-ahead storytelling and a coiled, hard-eyed performance by Robinson hold viewers' interest. Pardoning the patriotic zeal is not hard to do, especially when putting the picture in its historical perspective. "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" is part curiosity, part facile movie-making.

Blakefield pointed out that while the film did fairly well at the box office, it failed to fulfill Warner's wish of galvanizing the American people against Hitler's Germany. It took events beginning with Pearl Harbor to do that.

What: Anatole Litvak's "Confessions of a Nazi Spy."

When: Friday, Feb. 21, at 7 p.m.

Where: Saddleback College's Business and General Studies Center, room 210.

Whereabouts: Take the Santa Ana (5) Freeway south to Avery Parkway. Take Avery east to Marguerite Parkway and head north to the campus.

Wherewithal: Admission is free.

Where to Call: (714) 582-4733.

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