An agent of the Office of Strategic Services, “the cloak and dagger boys,” as they are known in Washington, Colonel Clem Walsh pays a visit to a his friend, Professor Alvah Jesper of Northwestern University, who confirms Walsh’s suspicions and fears that the reports obtained by their intelligence network of shipments of pitchblende and monazite indicate that Nazi scientists are using them to extract uranium and thorium.
A nuclear physicist currently engaged on the Manhattan Project, Jesper has no experience as a spy, but with the enemy developing a nuclear bomb the OSS need someone with an understanding of the science and connections within the field to penetrate behind enemy lines and make contact with those who may have been pressured by the Nazis to assist them, and so he also joins the cloak and dagger game.
Opening in southern France towards “the end of the war,” but traversing America, Switzerland and Italy, Cloak and Dagger was originally released in 1946 and has now been given a new digital transfer for Blu-ray release as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema range, following their recent release of director Fritz Lang’s thriller The Woman in the Window from two years earlier.
A native of Austria who had become a noted director of the German film industry, his work including Metropolis, M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Lang had fled Germany to Hollywood following the rise of Nazism and so was invested in the script by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr, but it was not a production without its own share of cloak and dagger business.
Played by Gary Cooper, the stern and stoic star of countless Westerns who would later play the marshal who is forced to fight against his wishes in High Noon, Alvah is presented as a peaceful man fearful of the prospect of nuclear weapons who fulfils his patriotic duty but the intended anti-war theme of the film is derailed by the post-production excision of the final reel by producer Milton Sperling which would have brought the film full circle.
Instead, the narrative and emotional conclusion is put upon what would instead have been a subplot, Alvah’s initially abrasive but developing relationship with Lilli Palmer’s Italian resistance fighter Gina, efficient, dedicated to her cause and precise in her actions but carrying inside the accumulated damage of her greater experience.
With blackmail, kidnapping, street murder and gun battles, all the characters are compromised and conflicted, Alvah’s navigation of the troubled waters guided by Lang’s considerable background in mystery, thriller and noir, but the episodic pace lacks urgency and Max Steiner’s score is sometimes inappropriately jaunty for the supposedly omnipresent threat.
The print noticeably worn in places, particularly the ends of reels, Sol Polito’s monochrome cinematography is otherwise crisp and moody, and the new edition also includes an informed commentary by film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, a video essay by David Cairns covering Lang’s career and the production of the film and, most interesting for collectors, the complete Cloak and Dagger radio series.