Although it`s not a famous or traditional spy thriller, the 1950 British film Highly Dangerous offers a lot of fun in a compact, fast-paced 78 minutes. The film stars Margaret Lockwood as Frances Gray, a lady entomologist–a scientist who specializes in the study of insects. When her boss is contacted by government agents who need somebody to investigate the possibility of bugs being used to breed dangerous diseases in an unspecified Eastern European Communist country, Lockwood reluctantly agrees to take the job and secure a specimen of these perhaps dangerous insects.
Posing as an employee in a travel agency, she makes her way to this country, meeting its unscrupulous and vigilant Chief of Police Razinski (Marius Goring) on the train. Due to her ignorance of spy-craft and subsequent lack of precautions, she is quickly identified as a secret agent by her new acquaintance, although he hides this from her in order to learn what she`s up to before taking action. Upon arrival, she makes the acquaintance of personable American reporter Bill Casey (Dane Clark), who is hanging about the city in search of a good saleable story, but very soon she is hauled before the authorities (Razinski and his unsavory acolytes) for questioning after she falls into a trap of their making.
Rather surprisingly, this all happens quite early in the picture; the film’s climactic episodes come when Frances, having been injected with a malfunctioning “truth serum,” loses her hitherto lukewarm attitude towards her mission and enlists Bill Casey’s aid as she attempts to accomplish her seemingly impossible task the night before she will be sent back to England by the wily Chief of Police.
Part of the appeal of the picture is the way it plays against many of the cliches of the spy thriller. Neither Lockwood`s nor Clark`s characters are spies by profession. On the contrary, they are quite ordinary people–a scientist very much out of her element and a bored journalist–who must navigate almost with warning a territory that until now has been familiar to them only through the simplified and highly embellished versions offered on the radio and in the cinema. As a matter of fact, it is partially due to Lockwood’s devotion to a children’s radio program, and her exposure to their wild tactics, that she is able to stage her spectacular entrance into the hidden laboratories where live the insects which she must examine. Furthermore, the truth serum confuses her and leads her to briefly confound this melodramatic radio show with her own mission, infusing her conversation with the routine expressions of over-the-top spy fiction and giving her an almost manic energy, much to Bill’s confusion. Thus the script is consciously juxtaposing the audience`s expectations of traditional thriller fare with a more realistic and somewhat grittier look at a spy`s dangerous position–while still doing it in such a way that the audience gets the result in something very close to the highly palatable and easily digestible format of the standard thriller.
These subtexts and others can be accounted for when we examine the movie`s distinguished pedigree. Its director, Roy Baker, began as assistant director to Alfred Hitchcock during his making of the 1938 thriller The Lady Vanishes, which also starred Margaret Lockwood. As a matter of fact, anybody who views Highly Dangerous is guaranteed to remember Miss Lockwood`s early Hitchcock excursion, since the two pictures have similarities which the director`s history proves to be more than coincidental.
And then we come to the author of the screenplay, Eric Ambler. This British writer published an astonishing number of thrillers and spy novels–including The Mask of Dimitrios, Journey Into Fear, and Light of Day, filmed in 1964 as Topkapi–and also wrote screenplays for such well-regarded films as The October Man (1947), The Passionate Friends (1949), and The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959), to mention only a few. As if this were not enough, he also eventually married long-time Hitchcock collaborator Joan Harrison, who produced on her own account a number of fine films of a noir-ish, thriller-ish cast (like the twisted and memorable The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry of 1945). Ambler`s Wikipedia entry informs us that his books “introduced a new realism to the genre,“ and it is clear that his familarity with the thriller, his frequent wit, and his ability to weave an exciting story while working with more ordinary kinds of characters are all on display in Highly Dangerous.
Much credit must also be given to the actors. While Lockwood`s Frances Gray appears to be quite prim and proper–almost stuffy– at the film`s start, we gradually come to see that she is really a very appealing woman, and one who combines a warm heart with considerable scientific skill. Lockwood`s profession, in fact, is one of the things which give the film a rather modern feel. She is very much a dedicated scientist, and it`s made clear that she`s an accomplished and serious one as well; those who bewail the scarcity of realistic career women in older films should make a point of catching this movie. Lockwood conveys Frances` intelligence, her accompanying naivety, and her eventual maturing, so to speak, in a believable and engaging way.
The likeability of Lockwood`s character is also partly due to Dane Clark`s skill. He gives a consistently warm, charming, and likeable performance as the reporter Bill Casey, making one wonder why his career didn`t blossom into that of a full-fledged leading man, if not a star. Casey`s interest in and respect for Frances carry him with flying colors through her rather silly antics while she`s still drugged by the “truth serum,“ and Clark plays his role so well that we are not surprised when the plot lets us see that bravery and a quick mind accompany Casey`s charm and inquisitiveness.
Marius Goring as the tricky, smoothly wily Razinski is quite effective, especially considering the fact that Goring is playing a character who is much older than he was at the time, and a non-British one as well! Wilfrid Hyde-White as the British Consul gives a performance that borders on parody–and may very well have been intended as such–so heartily and slangily British is he. Naunton Wayne and Eugene Deckers round out the main cast.
The insects, it must be noted, play an amusing part in the romantic subplot (there`s a couple of lines near the film`s beginning which give a funny, succinct glimpse into Frances`s romances till that point), and form the groundwork for the film’s unexpected turn towards the comic in its closing minutes. It’s another of the highly unusual touches in the movie, all of which combine to make it an unexpected and delighful discovery.