I took a gamble on Three Faces East due to its recent release via Warner Archive. The film is a quickie spy thriller during a period where the countries were in-between major wars (WWI ended in 1918 while WWII wouldn’t become active till 1939). At a scant hour and eleven minutes, the characters intentions are telegraphed from a mile away, and oddly enough you still have to be reminded of who is working for whom. Most of the cast is woefully misplaced, although fallen director Erich von Stroheim takes to playing a spy like a duck to water. Three Faces East wasn’t my cup of tea, but if you’re in the mood for an accelerated lesson in espionage, it isn’t a waste.
Frances Hawtree (Constance Bennett) is undercover as a German spy infiltrating the home of Englishman Arthur Chamberlain (Anthony Bushnell). Whilst there, she believes the real spy is the Chamberlain’s loyal servant, Valdar (von Stroheim). Valdar is a spy, but pretends to be working along with Frances. As each spy works their own agenda, the fates are aligned for one of them to be caught.
The worst offense Three Faces East commits is being unmemorable. I watched it this afternoon and while writing the review this evening I had to go to Wiki to refresh the plot. The issue is that the script, written by Arthur Caesar and Oliver H.P. Garrett is convoluted far more than it needs to be. It’s directed by Roy Del Ruth who would make a noir precursor to the 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon; Del Ruth made the 1931 original. That film blended a complex mystery with engaging characters; the plot was convoluted, but there was a better understanding of what was going on at any given time. The short length, coupled with the various switching alliances, and the fact that whilst characters are meant to be working for a particular country they exhibit no accent to differentiate them, will leave you wondering who’s playing who and for what side.
It’s apparent that the cast hopes to glue the disparate pieces of the plot together, but there’s just far too much working against the movie. Constance Bennett is beautiful, but she’s no Mata Hari. Her All-American good looks don’t lend her any mystery and her lack of either German or English accent left me having to be reminded who she was working for. The role could have definitely gone to Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, or someone who could work with an accent and captures the alluring spy quality. The other actors are fairly nondescript and I hadn’t heard of any of them previously. I was happy to see William Holden‘s name on the box, but it turns out there was another Bill Holden during the 1930s and he is okay. The true stand-out is Erich von Stroheim as Valdar. Yes, his spy is a mustache-twirling, monocle-wearing baddie, but that’s perfect for the star. von Stroheim gives 100% to a one-note role, and because Frances is so blah, I found myself wanting him to win.
Three Faces East is an uninspired, by-the-numbers spy thriller that is perfect for fans of Constance Bennett or Erich von Stroheim. It shouldn’t require quite the complexity its reaching for, especially with the reduced runtime, but it sets up the type of film director Roy Del Ruth made famous.
Three Faces East is manufactured on-demand from Warner Archive. You can purchase directly via Warner Archive’s site.
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