Like Casablanca? Then You’ll Love This: 10 Best Thirties Romantic Espionage Thrillers

Shoot me now, but Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon are my favourite movies. Both were such a rip-roaring successes that they eclipsed dozens of films from the mid-1930s to early 1940s that deserve a fresh look.
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Shoot me now, but Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon are my favourite movies. Both were such a rip-roaring successes that they eclipsed dozens of films from the mid-1930s to early 1940s that deserve a fresh look.

Both Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon have noir aspects. The former (1942) hovers provocatively on the edge of film noir, but is a romantic thriller with a heart. They are both later examples of a sub-genre, the 1930s romantic espionage thriller. The Falcon (1941) is often cited as the first example of film noir. I believe the elements of the chiaroscuro romantic thriller, zinging with sexual tension and suspense, had been around a little longer.

So, here is my collection of 1930s/40s romantic thrillers with noir undertones – starting with my all-time favourite.

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1. Dark Journey  

Purists believe that the true essence of film noir emerges in post-WW2 pulp B-movies, seething with gritty private eyes, cops, criminals – and the femme fatale. The mood is fatalistic and the morality dubious. Motivation? Crime, greed, jealousy. Devices include narrators, flashbacks, accusations, betrayals, double-crosses, convoluted story, twist ending. Add a dash of the struggling author, smoking, drinking, guns … A twist of climactic finale.

Dark Journey (1937) is a little-known gem, and a classic example of ‘lost’ noir. It has a ‘screwball comedy’ flavour, combined with espionage. Featuring the exquisite Conrad Veidt, with his edgy accent, and a distinguished expert in counter-espionage, it explores the concept that nobody is what they seem. Spies, eh?

Set in Sweden, it features a chic young woman who owns a fashionable dress shop in neutral Sweden during World War One. Yes, the First World War. Although made in 1937, this film augurs the chilling work of agents during the Second World War with aplomb.

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2. The Spy in Black
Veidt also starred in The Spy in Black (1939), also known as U-Boat 29, another drama transported back to the First World War in which a German submarine is sent to the Orkney Isles in 1917 to sink the British fleet. He meets up with a female schoolteacher (Valerie Hobson), who happens to be a German agent. Spoiler alert: Veidt falls in love with Hobson before discovering she's actually a double agent. A good wartime thriller but the tone is surprisingly subversive as it explores the nature of war and one’s loyalties. How far would you go to protect your country?

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3. The 39 Steps

How do you turn a low-budget potboiler into a classic? Hire Alfred Hitchock. In 1935, he finagled a stuffy John Buchan turn-of-the-century adventure and arguably created a new genre, the edgy WW2 romantic thriller with a side order of espionage. The 39 Steps shamelessly borrows cinematic techniques from the German Expressionists, and using these, Hitchock reinvented suspense, surely the best ingredient a movie can have.

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4. Contraband

Contraband (1940) is more overtly European. Early in World War II, a Danish sea captain Andersen is delayed in a British port and ends up tangling with German spies in the blackout of the ‘phoney war’. This edgy little drama reunites Veidt and Hobson. The US title was Blackout and director Michael Powell is quoted in his autobiography, A Life in Movies, that the US renaming was a better title and he wished he'd thought of it.

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5.Claustrophobic The Silver Fleet

Claustrophobic The Silver Fleet (1943) has more thrills and suspense than romance. Jaap van Leyden is in charge of a shipyard in Holland, reeling from invasion. At first he collaborates with the Germans because it is the easiest course to follow. He is later reminded him of his patriotic duty, but how can he resist the Nazis without endangering his wife and fellow workers? The moral ambiguity is very modern.

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6.The Lady Vanishes

Several movies tweak the screwball comedy, with varying degrees of success. Principally because of the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, The Lady Vanishes (1938) is the archetypal example of a clever blend of comedy and suspense. Glamorous heroine, exotic settings, shady spies, handsome male, impenetrable border officials, looming threat of war … The Margaret Lockwood film, recently revived for the Beeb and released in the US on 18 August, had echoes of the screwball, but the mood has shifted. Suddenly, the border guards are threatening and a sunny holiday becomes a shadowy nightmare.

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7. Night Train to Munich

Early espionage romantic thriller required exotic locations, usually in places under threat of war. There was a code of morality among the heroes and heroines, definitely lacking in the criminals, who were often cast with dubious sexuality thrown in – as far as could be allowedy.

Night Train to Munich (1940) stars the charming Rex Harrison. He stars as a British secret agent trying to smuggle a scientist and his daughter out of German-controlled Prague. The humour is just right, and Harrison deliciously underplays his role in a surprising tour de force.

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8. Above Suspicion

Above Suspicion (1943) starts out with a romantic feel as Oxford Professor Richard Myles and new bride Frances visit Europe on honeymoon. As war looms, he is approached by the Foreign Office and they dabble in a little harmless espionage. At first, the American couple finds following the secret trail great fun but as they travel deeper into southern Germany, they find themselves in real danger. Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray stroll through the action, and the humour is a little out of kilter for some.

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9. Murder on the Orient Express

Aha, you might say. Surely all these movies stem from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express? This was first published in the UK on January 1934 (and in the US under the title of Murder in the Calais Coach). The UK edition cost seven shillings and sixpence, and the US edition was two dollars.

However, British writer Graham Greene was probably the first to dabble in the continental espionage romantic thriller. He called the book an ‘entertainment’, but it is a sardonic tale of lost souls on board the train as it hurtles them to their various forms of nemesis. Ship of souls in black and white.

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10. Cottage to Let

A much more low-key ‘terribly British’ affair but still with a nail-biting style is Cottage to Let (1941). Strangers move into a cottage next door to … guess who? An inventor of a new bombsight for the war effort. A super UK cast is wheeled out, including Alastair Sim, John Mills, George Cole and Michael Wilding. The understated style paved the way for grimly-plotted late- and post-war thrillers starring scientists and inventors whose work was vital to the war effort. By the time the Nazis fell, the spy thrillers of the 1930s, with their shadowy, romantic ambience and innate confidence that the good guys always win, had vanished like Miss Froy.

Download these great films from Archive

Pamela Kelt is the author of Half Life, a ‘film noir’-inspired thriller set in 1930s Norway

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