Thoughts on “I Was an American Spy”

When I first became interested in Ann Dvorak, I did not have much trouble locating copies of her movies. Fellow fans like Laura Wagner over at Classic Images generously shared their personal film libraries with me and visa-versa. Despite this network of cinefiles, a few Dvorak titles proved to be elusive, with I Was an American Spy topping the list followed by Gangs of New York and She’s No Lady.

After a few years of searching I managed to finally track down a copy of Gangs of New York and was able to view UCLA’s nitrate print of She’s No Lady. My expectations for both these films ran pretty high as I hoped they would prove to be little seen gems. Turns out, they’re both kind of lousy. Gangs of New York centers on Charles Bickford playing two unrelated characters who happen to be identical (a plot device that irritates me to no end). Ann has limited screen time and is subjected to supremely unflattering hair, make-up, and costumes. The film could have been slightly redeemed by a hair-pulling catfight between Ann and Wynn Gibson that was filmed but, alas, ended up on the cutting room floor. She’s No Lady was the first film Ann made after leaving Warner Bros and is actually worse than the mediocre fare she was subjected to at the Burbank studio.  The film wants to be a screwball comedy, but falls flat and is one of the few times Ann turns out a less than stellar performance.

Other than three supposedly “lost” British films from the war years, I Was an American Spy was the last title on the Dvorak filmography I needed to view. Over the years dozens of people have contacted me looking for a copy. Some have relatives who were in the film or are related to the real-life participants the story was based on, while many others had seen the movie when it was released and have fond memories of it. I was anxious to view it not only because it was Ann’s favorite role, but also because I have more memorabilia from this title than any other.  After nearly a decade of searching for a copy of I Was an American Spy, I now am a proud owner, courtesy of the Warner Archive.

The big premiere was spent with my husband Josh and my friend Darin who has been with me through the whole Ann Dvorak journey, including the ill fated She’s No Lady viewing at a warehouse in Hollywood. Expectations were running low, and I braced myself for another disappointment as the Allied Artist logo came on the screen. I am happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised.  After a slow start, I found myself  really engaged by the end of the movie. No, it is not a high budget flick and the use of stock footage is a bit excessive, but it is a showcase role for Ann and she makes the most of it. She  goes from being vulnerable and lovestruck to hardened and vixenish, with an appetite for revenge. She slaps and gets slapped, is tortured with a hose, sentenced to death, does a fan dance on the drop of a dime (sadly, we only get a tiny taste of this) and performs a heartfelt rendition of “Because of You.”  I think this is the most substantial part she ever played in terms of screen time and it’s easy to see why she favored this role.  It’s a riveting performance, and is right up there with Three on a Match and Scarface. She looks gorgeous in the dolled-up nightclub scenes.  I Was an American Spy would prove to be Ann’s last hurrah, as she only made one more movie, the Secret of Convict Lake, where she has a standard supporting role.

After ten years of waiting to see I Was an American Spy, Darin and I were satisfied, but such a build up left us both feeling like the whole experience was a bit anticlimactic. My husband thought the film was “lousy” and I realize that I have yet to subject him to the many mediocre roles that comprise the career of Ann Dvorak. Compared to the majority of films that Ann made between 1933-1951, I Was an American Spy is a high mark.

As far a quality goes, the DVD is completely bare bones but the print looks nice enough. Considering I would have spent a couple hundred bucks for an ultra low quality copy, and was on the verge on scheduling a $500 screening on the Warner lot, $19.95 was a steal for this and worth every penny.

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