The mere existence of a pre-Code sexy spy flick co-starring Constance Bennett and Erich (billed as Eric) von Stroheim is enough to get my juices a-flowin'; therefore, one can imagine my delight at the prospect of reviewing 1930's THREE FACES EAST, a recent addition to the mammoth Warner Archive Collection library.
Naturally, the picture's obscurity factor immediately piques my interest. Like any good detective (or even mediocre one), I want to know why a specific motion picture has essentially remained buried for over eighty years. This become particularly more intriguing to me when one realizes that risque female spy flicks were briefly the rage during this period. Indeed, after THREE FACES EAST came 1931's Dishonored, followed by 1932's Mata Hari, both well-known and even beloved entries. Of course, the fact that the latter two featured Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo was not lost on me; I admit that today Constance Bennett is not the supernova she was in the early 1930s. One must then also admit that THREE FACES EAST came first – and could have been the impetus for the subsequent higher-profile forays into the libidinous slinky-kinky antics of breathtaking women whose give-all love of country define their credo of Whore is Hell (although admittedly, on occasion, Often Swell).
But there are other reasons why perhaps THREE FACES EAST remains in limbo. The first is the unbelievably unbelievable narrative. Based on a play by Anthony Paul Kelly, the property was scooped up by Warner Bros. in their rabid attempt to snatch any Broadway-bound project rife with clever dialog and verbal explanations that defied the intelligence of even the most devout movie-goer. What I'm getting at is that 1930 was still the transition period of 100% All Talking – a promise THREE FACES EAST lives up to 250%. While eschewing the tantalizing prospect of the then-common All Singing-All Dancing appendages (it would have made a hell of a musical – the depths of which Golden Dawn could never descend), the movie instead chooses to frantically replace these auricular claims with a more reasonable All Snooping. So much so that it should have initiated a spinoff sound system hybrid christened Spy-taphone. While way more fluid than many of its contemporary “talkers” (thanks to fast-paced director Roy Del Ruth), the pic still sadly exhibits many of the foibles of primitive audio recording; in effect, it sporadically creaks like the osteopathic ward of a retirement community center.
This overabundance of wordage pulverizes the brain cells of determined viewers by revealing the main English/French/Prussian/Belgian/Austrian/German characters to transcend their initial secret agent status. They are not only spies, but double agents, triple agents, counter spies and, to be blunt, under-the-counter spies.
Unlike Dietrich, who with one sneeze can lure the entire Serbian high command into her boudoir, Bennett has little to do but look beautiful while ostensibly skulking around looking for the secret plans that will kill thousands of American doughboys. That said, gorgeous she does emphatically look – helped magnanimously by a bountiful Honey-Hun lady-spy wardrobe supplied by the Germans with able assist from the Erte-inspired First National Costume Department.
While Bennett was the prime incentive for 1930 audiences to gasp at her treachery, savvy 2013 viewers are more likely to be glued to their sofas by the presence of the great von Stroheim, who, frankly, steals the movie with every leering arched eyebrow scene in which he appears.
In the literal scheme of things, Von's loyalties too are up for grabs; we see him as a French patriot, a war-scarred British confidante and, most prominently, as the perfect butler ensconced in a UK official's manse where Bennett (aka Operator Z-1) is a weekend guest. No surprise that his ultimate identity might be that of a master Deutsche spion – a Kaiser role he was born to play. But that really doesn't matter, as amazingly for all of the switch-on-the-switch-on-the-switch plotlines, it's Bennett's visual presence and von Stroheim's priceless reactions that make THREE FACES EAST worth more than a look. Truthfully, it's really von Stroheim's show...and in more ways than one.
The scenario (still credited in 1930 as Screenplay and Dialogue) by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Arthur Caesar valiantly attempts to make sense of the approximately nine million glib exchanges that comprised the meat of Kelly's play. Nevertheless it's von Stroheim's awesome comments that rule the day – so suspiciously unique and perverse that I suspect the brilliant director/actor/scenarist wrote his own speeches, and likely supervised several of those defining pre-Code moments. For example, when Bennett's form and alluring demeanor effortlessly chip away Stroheim's up-to-now incorruptible icy personae, he responds like a sex-addicted fiend, consumed by “...a body as lithe and supple as a young tigress.” Carlos Danger couldn't have texted it better.
This all takes a back seat to Stroheim's head butler skills – again displaying all the earmarks of his personal touch. Scenes of the actor addressing his underling staff and describing their duties are only bested by his masterful arranging of furniture. None of this, however, can hold a candle to the movie's arguably finest moment: alone in Z-1's bedroom, von Stroheim lasciviously and longingly fondles Bennett's underwear...at one point having his hands make her empty panties to dance. It's what cinema is all about.
Sexual shenanigans aside (did I mention that Bennett and Von consensually merge in around Reel Six, doin' da nasty for der Fatherland?), there's another reason why THREE FACES EAST (the title deriving from an ancient Muslim adage citing mockery, hypocrisy and purity as prime destinations of humanity) hasn't been readily available since its original release. This is primarily a mercenary one: simply that in 1940 Warners, who never threw anything away, considerably pared down the plot to its most juvenile level and remade THREE FACES EAST as a 'B' flick entitled British Intelligence co-starring Boris Karloff and their once promising discovery Margaret Lindsay (now being forced into bottom-of-the-bill fare to get the actress the hell out of her contract). FYI, prior to the 1930 version, it had been filmed in 1926, as an intertitle-stuffed silent starring Jetta Goudal and Clive Brook.
Print quality on the Warner Archive DVD-R is very good-excellent, utilizing a fairly clean 35mm transfer. Aside from Bennett's costumes, and von Stroheim's anything, THREE FACES EAST remains a textbook on the art of set design (the probable uncredited fruit of Anton Grot’s brilliant labors). The photography by house ace Barney McGill contrasts the lush surroundings where most of the enunciating takes place with the atmospheric battle frontlines during the opening sequences.
In closing, any fans of the stars, the spy genre, pre-Code Hollywood or classic art direction should consider giving THREE FACES EAST a peek. And even more so, if your predilections extend to the forbidden delights of ladies lingerie.
THREE FACES EAST. Black and White; full frame [1.20:1]; mono audio. DVD-R. Catalog # 883316812853. SRP: $19.95.
Available exclusively through www.warnerarchive.com.