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Friday, August 16, 2013

'Three Faces East;" Excellent Early Talkie Spy Thriller

Three Faces East
The residual effects of the silent film era immensely add to the awesomeness of the 1930 film "Three Faces East" that Warner Archive recently introduced on DVD. Vitaphone released this movie three years after fellow classic "The Jazz Singer," which many consider the first talkie. 

As an aside, Unreal TV reviewed the exceptional Blu-ray release of the original "The Jazz Singer" several months ago. Be warned that this post includes many jokes at the expense of pop singer Neil Diamond, who remade "The Jazz Singer" in 1980.

The plot of "East" is very similar to the modern-day concept of the 2012 Cinemax series "Hunted," which Unreal TV reviewed last week. Both productions involve a relatively young female operative using false pretense to ingratiate herself into a wealthy British household for espionage purposes.

The extended dialogue-free scenes are one clue that "East" is an early talkie. The fact that the first dialog is in French may prompt trying to adjust DVD language settings, but please be patient; the dialog switches to English for the rest of the film after a few minutes.

Another residual element of silents is the tendency of some actors to over-emote to the extent that there is actual swooning and laying of heads over forearms; there is also an overall feel of a live-performance theatrical presentation.

Constance Bennett, who is best known for her starring role in the Cary Grant ghost-oriented comedy classic "Topper," plays Frances Hawtree. Hawtree's designation as a WW I, a.k.a. The Great War, German operative is Z-1.

Erich Von Stroheim is another notable cast member. He is best known as Max in the 1950 uber-classic "Sunset Boulevard" and plays  ultra-efficient Chamberlain household butler Valdar in "East."

Z-1's adventure begins in the German-occupied region of France where she is assigned a cover that allows her to become a guest at the home of Sir Winston Chamberlain, who is the First Sea Lord of the British Admiralty. Z-1's objective there is to obtain the route of ships that are carrying American troops to fight in Europe.

The German strategy is to sink the ships with the goal of ensuring a German victory in the war. "East's" filmmakers placing American, rather than British, ships at risk is a valid but obvious ploy to pull American audiences into the story.

An interrogation segment in this scene includes unintentional humor in that the German officer essentially stating that he has unpleasant ways for getting someone to talk evokes thought of that Nazi cliche from World War II propaganda films. This similarity is especially interesting considering that "East" predates World War II by roughly 10 years.

The film's title refers to the code that Z-1 uses to contact the undisclosed German agent who is already part of the Chamberlain household. Her efforts in that regard evoke thoughts of the comical way that Maxwell Smart engages in the same activity in the hilarious '60s spy sitcom "Get Smart."

Z-1 and fellow agent Schiller soon connect and work to obtain the necessary information. General paranoia among other members of the household and close calls each time that Z-1 acts keep the plot moving at a perfect pace.

The ongoing cat-and-mouse games and plausible twists are other great elements in "East." The  reveals at end are surprising and help Bennett maintain her positive image with the American public.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "East" is welcome to email me. Anyone who wants to subject me to surveillance can follow me on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.