British Agent (1934)

British Agent
From R.H. Bruce Lockhart’s book
Directed by Michael Curtiz

Stephen Locke Leslie Howard
Elena Kay Francis
Medill William Gargan
La Farge Phillip Reed
Pavlov Irving Pichel
Stanley Walter Byron
Evans Ivan Simpson
Sir Walter Carrister Halliwell Hobbes
Farmer Arthur Aylesworth
Commissioner of War J. Carroll Naish
Del Val Cesar Romero
De Vigney Alphonse Ethier
Lenin Tenen Holtz
Lady Carrister Doris Lloyd
Maris Marina Schubert
Cabinet officer George Pearce
Kolinoff Gregory Gaye
Romano Paul Porcasi
Zubinoff Addison Richards
Under-secretary Walter Armitage

Summary

This is the story of a young English diplomat, Stephen Locke (Leslie Howard), who finds himself almost alone in a strange country in the midst of political turmoil and feels that he must quell the revolution at all costs. This “task” is a more or less self-imposed one, for the British Foreign Office are supposed to have only the vaguest interest in the young man or his whereabouts. They forget about him for weeks at a time and give him no official status. He is simply a “British agent.”
He falls in love with one of the leading revolutionaries, Elena (Kay Francis) and the story unwinds to the familiar tune of love versus duty.
The conflict drives forward to a thrilling climax in which Stephen Locke is, without his knowledge, surrounded by the Cheka in an ammunition dump. Elena arrives to die with him, but her loyalty to the Soviet will not let her warn him. The tension is so terrific that the ending comes as a relief.
(From Film Weekly, August 16, 1935)

Reviews

Against the lurid backdrop of the Russian upheaval and collapse during the war, the Brothers Warner dramatize an episode from R.H. Bruce Lockhart’s autobiographical chronicle of last year. As Britain’s unofficial emissary to the revolutionary government, Leslie Howard is enormously helpful to the drama, while the momentous and dlicate climaxes which crowd the story come to life on the screen in vigorous melodramatic style.
There is an unfortunate irony implicit in the structure of the photoplay which (it seems to this corner) prevents “British Agent” from conveying to its audiences the full impact of its material. Although the love of the young Briton and the fascinating Russian spy has been described with the proper tenderness and urbanity, it still fails to escape a rather furiously unimportant appearance alongside of the really great events with which the new film is concerned. The unofficial ambassador, in Mr. Howard’s excellent performance, is so passionately chauvinistic in his blind devotion to Great Britain that when his country betrays him and jeopardizes his life for the sake of diplomatic appearances, the tragedy is infinitely touching. When, thereafter, Mr. Howard and his passionate Russion begin to suffer over their personal difficulties, with an epoch-making revolution for a background, their romantic woes have a tendency to seem less than important to the spectator. […]
Michael Curtiz has staged the drama capably, painting in the scenes of revolution and violence with swift and convincing strokes. Mr. Howard’s performance, played in a key of high nervous tension and desperate courage, is all the more impressive after his totally different and equally fine performance in “Of Human Bondage.” He has the best assistance from William Gargan, Ivan Simpson, Halliwell Hobbes and J. Carroll Naish, while the dark-eyed and vibrant Miss Francis makes a handsome undercover agent for the Cheka.
(Andre Sennwald, The New York Times, September 20, 1934)

With the kind of producing courage that Hollywood needs, the Warners have tackled the dramatic possibilities of the Russian revolution. It was, as every studio that has worked over the idea has realized, a ticklish proposition. Leaning over backward to avoid any accusations of partiality, the Warners bought Bruce Lockhart’s “British Agent” and, still fighting the hint of propaganda, have made a romantic picture of Russia under Lenin.
The romance of the love story, an obviously synthetic bit of Hollywood box office, is heavily stressed. The starring presence of Kay Francis, in what might more happily have been a minor role, throws the picture out of balance. It is essentially the story of a man, an honest, courageous, intelligent man tossing aside his own career and reputation to give that of the country he served. It needed no love story to build up its drama. The artificial romance of an English diplomat and a fanatic Russian girl, with its consequent melodramatics, takes interest away from the major problem. With the handsome Miss Francis displaced by a less striking figure, the portrait of Stephen Locke would have dominated the drama.
“British Agent” has as background one of the most stirring periods of modern times. When, after the imprisonment and murder of the Czar, the British Ambassador withdrew from Russia, he left behind a young consular officer. The picture calls him Stephen Locke and is most fortunate to have Leslie Howard to play the part. Mr. Howard, poorly photographed for almost the first time in his screen career, is still quietly effective as the puzzled, earnest young man who, as England’s unofficial representative, finds himself forced to make promises he cannot guarantee his country will back. Mr. Howard has some ridiculous things to do, as far as the love interest is concerned. That bit of nonsense may have been unavoidable. It does harm to an otherwise fascinating film.
(Eileen Creelman, The New York Sun, September 20, 1934)

Regarded purely from the dramatic and not from a political viewpoint, “British Agent” is a creditable achievement. There are elements of realism in this production which make the narrative appear authoritative, as exemplified particularly in the scene in Petrograd in which the unofficial British representative pleads with the Soviet commissars to delay their separate treaty with Germany.
We have not read Mr. Lockhart’s book and are not qualified to report how much of it was devoted to the author’s romance with the Russian girl, Elena. We suspect that, if “British Agent” contained as much fiction as truth, the fictitious incidents were centered mainly around this strange love between the young English diplomat and the daughter of the revolution. However, the romantic interludes in the picture are neither frequent nor important enough to detract from the effectiveness of the narrative. The important thing is “British Agent” is still the dramatic story of a patriotic young Englishman’s heroic but futile efforts to keep Russia fighting on the side of his country.
Leslie Howard, as Stephen Locke, gives a magnificent performance in the title role, a performance which we are inclined to regard as one of his finest on the screen. Kay Francis, as the Russian girl whose distasteful duty it is to spy on her English lover, has fewer opportunities than Mr. Howard but acquits herself commendably.
(Martin Dickstein, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 20, 1934)

There is a sense of being “in” on history in the making when you view this well-executed production. Absorbing until the very last sequence, but temporized with an illogical ending. However, don’t let that stop you
Locale is Russia during the war and at the inception of the Revolution with the Reds, the Soviet, the White Army, drawing up sides.
Stephen Locke (Leslie Howard), “unofficial” representative of the British Government, gives an outstanding performance as the man with the responsibility of keeping Russia at the front to prevent the burden of defense resting on England and France. His duties become more complicated when he protects and forms a deep attachment for Elena (Kay Francis), secretary to Lenin, who passionately loves her country. She also loves Stepeh, but manages to keep the two devotions separately catalogued to the extent of betraying his plans–but retaining his love.
The plot unfolds with sharp clarity. And suspense is so well sustained that one is always tensely alert.
Howard is completely satisfying in his role. William Gargan as the American, Phillip Reed as the Frenchman, Cesar Romero as the Spaniard–who, with Howard make up an international quartet with a common aim–are all superb. Ivan Simpson was born to the part of the “diplomatic” man-servant. Masterly direction and photography.
(Photoplay, October 1934)

“British Agent”, which marks the début of Leslie Howard and Kay Francis as co-stars, also marks a change in characterization for both of them. Howard, the mental romanticist, goes elemental and adventurous; Kay, who is also pretty good at portraying mental suffering, turns animated adventuress. And the suspense of the story sizzles like a lighted fuse on a bomb, with a terrific surprise due any moment. In fact, there is one breath-stopping scene in the picture in which the two are together, emotion-telling, unconscious of a nearby bomb. […]
Here is a skillful blend of realistic acting, realistic backgrounds, and a realistic spy story. It’s a rare combination.
(Movie Classic, November 1934)

A new screen team, Kay Francis and Leslie Howard, make their bow in this picture, and I think you’ll like them. The stormy beauty of Kay and the fine and sensitive romanticism of Mr. Howard are well matched, and their vehicle offers opportunity for full expression of their so-different talents. Bruce Lockhart’s best-selling autobiography provides the background for the screen story, but don’t expect all the realistic episodes of the book in the cinema translation, for you won’t find them. Sorry! The adventures of a British agent in Russia during the war are colorfully recounted, but lack the authentic flavor of the original. Hollywood’s cardinal sin is committed once more, i.e. thrusting the love affair of two persons ahead of world cataclysms in importance. Of course we all want to see our movie lovers live happily ever after, but there are a few little matters such as the Russion revolution that need faithful attention, too. However, the love scenes of the co-stars are admirably enacted, with sincerity and conviction, against the bewildering background; the glimpses of life in diplomatic circles interesting; and the cast, notably William Gargan and Ivan Simpson, efficient.
(Screenland, November 1934)

Quite exciting melodrama of revolution and counter-revolution in Russia. Settings and mixed accents jar a little, but the direction achieves plenty of suspense, and Leslie Howard sustains the title role well.[…]
There are no mock heroics. Howard is as charming as ever, though his part has no depth, and Kay Francis manages to be fairly convincing as the thorough-being Bolshevik.
(Film Weekly, August 16, 1935)

Gallery

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