Sunday, April 27, 2014

Miss V from Moscow (M&H Productions/PRC, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Miss V from Moscow has sometimes been called the worst World War II “B” ever made. It’s not that bad, though it has its risible elements ­— notably some of the silliest plot devices ever put into a movie and one of the most bizarre mishmashes of accents ever collected on the same soundtrack. It was basically the attempt of the PRC studio (the initials stood for “Producers’ Releasing Corporation,” though given the low quality of much of their output the joke around Hollywood was it really meant “Pretty Rotten Crap”) to do their own World War II-themed movie of espionage and intrigue. The plot (the script was by Arthur St. Claire and Sherman T. Lowe) had the makings of a decent, if not deathlessly great, movie: Russian agent Vera Marova (Lola Lane, on her way down after she and her sisters Rosemary and Priscilla all got star buildups at Warners in the late 1930’s) is called into the office of her commissar and given an assignment: because of her striking resemblance to German agent Greta Hiller, recently secretly murdered in France by Resistance fighters, she’s going to be infiltrated into Paris, where she will impersonate Hiller, ingratiate herself with the Germans running occupied France, and learn the location of German submarine fleets so the U.S. convoys shipping arms and supplies to the Soviet Union can either avoid them or sink them. She nearly gets caught in the French countryside when, disguised as a peasant and hiding in a hay cart, she’s spotted by a German officer (one wonders why the Germans have this guy staking out a road in the middle of nowhere) who pokes his bayonet through the hay, shoots the cart’s driver and forces Vera to run through the woods to avoid getting shot herself. “What? Is she going to run all the way to Paris?” I wondered — and indeed, one jump-cut later director (and co-producer) Albert Herman shows her in Paris, in an immaculate fashion-conscious street dress, turning up for her contact with the Resistance (who betrays her to the Germans — or at least pretends to in order to establish her “German cred” with the Nazi authorities) and then ingratiating herself with the Germans as planned, notably Col. Wolfgang Heinrich (John Vosper). She wants to get his secrets and he wants to get into her pants, but he’s got competition in the latter department from escaping American pilot Steve Worth (Howard Banks), whom she tells to hide in a closet so he isn’t caught by her German friends, including police chief Fritz Kleiss (Cocaine Fiends star Noel Madison, second-billed here) and Captain Richter (William Vaughn — according to that’s a pseudonym for Wilhelm von Brincken, which would certainly explain why of all the actors playing Germans he’s the only one believable as one, even though he’s so blatantly imitating Erich von Stroheim one wonders why Stroheim didn’t sue).

All the German officers and Gestapo agents are completely fooled by Miss V’s impersonation — even though Lola Lane’s sole concession to “Germanicity” was to abandon the almost totally incomprehensible Russian accent she spoke with in the opening reel and switch to … her normal American-accented English. She’s caught out by the real Greta Hiller’s maid, Minna (Kathryn Shelton), who notices differences in habits between her and the real Greta, and in the end after a rather half-assed action sequence taking place in a bar, we see a German firing squad aiming at an unseen victim and letting go, and just when we think Miss V finally got it we see her and her American pilot beau in the back of another hay truck, making their escape. In the middle of the movie Adolf Hitler comes to Paris to deliver a speech to a huge rally of enthusiastic French people — “When the hell did that happen?” any even remotely serious student of World War II history will wonder (it didn’t; the scenes are stock shots lifted from Leni Riefenstahl’s masterpiece Triumph of the Will) — which just underscores how silly much of Miss V from Moscow is and how the typical PRC sloppiness just takes away from what could in other hands (including other PRC hands — what, one wonders, was Edgar G. Ulmer doing that week?) could have been a minor but still entertaining little movie. There are a few good things about Miss V from Moscow — the sets look like refugees from Universal’s horror films (indeed I wondered whether Herman and his producer, George Merrick, actually rented studio space from Universal and the deal included using their old sets) and director Herman does some surprisingly atmospheric moving-camera shots, while cinematographer Marcel le Picard (whose “B” credits are often surprisingly inventive photographically even if, as with the 1944 Bela Lugosi Monogram vehicle Voodoo Man, they dress up stories even sillier than this one) does some effective quasi-noir lighting effects (even though his lighting of Lola Lane is singularly unflattering and makes her look like Marlene Dietrich c. 1960). The script also does a better job of dramatizing how arbitrary and cruel Nazi rule was like than some other, bigger-budgeted and better-plotted wartime dramas. But though Miss V from Moscow is better than its reputation, it’s still a pretty silly movie whose potential is undercut by sloppy plotting and unappealing actors who (except for Vaughn von Brincken) don’t seem to have a clue as to what accent to adopt to convince us they’re the nationalities they’re supposed to be playing.