Our specimen today is a minor Cold War thriller called Diplomatic Courier, in which aging heart-throb Tyrone Power runs around for 90 minutes in search of a McGuffin (microfilm of secret plans to something or other). We witness him jumping on and off trains, falling in water and being fished out, and getting in and out of numerous jams while negotiating the advances of a stylish American widow (scene-stealing Patricia Neal) and the multi-layered alibis of a sultry communist double or triple agent (Hildegarde Neff, all tears and long blonde hair).
The film is produced and co-written by Casey Robinson, a major scripter of classic 1940s melodramas and later TV work such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also wrote Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps. Had Hitchcock directed Diplomatic Courier, it would have strung one silken setpiece after another as our hero ran from pillar to post to clear his name from the shadow of suspicion, which isn’t the case here. Lang would have amped up a fatalistic sense of a duplicitous and weary world and given the viewer much less of a moral orientation.
Instead, the director is Henry Hathaway, whose accent is on slickly handled action. It comes at the end of his postwar string of semi-documentary thrillers, mostly patriotic in theme, shot in real locations and introduced by stentorian narrators who solemnly announce the efficacy of tax dollars at work. The opening scenes try to impress us with faceless bureaucrats in their hive-like offices, busily decoding teletypes and projecting them on screens in the latest high-tech approach. While Hathaway’s earlier thrillers were shot in the U.S., this one enjoys his farthest-flung locations, mostly in Trieste, and he and photographer Lucian Ballard make the most of this picturesque and unfamiliar production value.
These locales, the array of minor players (including Karl Malden, an uncredited Lee Marvin, and an eyeblink Charles Bronson), and Hathaway’s sense of pace and timing keep the clock ticking in a manner that’s always pleasant and professional, yet finally feels average and unlikely to stick in the memory. Actually, the most surprising and memorable detail is the proof that there were already nightclub performers in drag imitating Carmen Miranda and Bette Davis; this is surely the first movie to quote Davis’ “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” a line less than two years old at the time of filming.