Conspirator, 1949, is playing on Turner Classic Movies on Thursday, November 3 at 9:30 a.m. est. Closed captioned.
The first time the two great film Taylors were together
Most of the anti-Communist films of the 1940s – 1950s are crap. No doubt about that. Thrown together they had preposterous plots emanating from the Kremlin to sap our national resources or strength. For example one film has Lee Marvin heading a major atomic spy ring outside a missile range from a hamburger/hash stand! The best films of the period dealing with communist threats were the science fiction films like The Thing or Them wherein the monster was a symbol for the threat to Americans (from an “alien” source). Occasionally a semi-documentary might attract attention, but not much.
Oddly enough this early movie was somewhat above average. First it correctly looked at our wartime friend and partner England as a possible source of leakage. This turned out to be somewhat true (but the Rosenberg Case would soon show homegrown spy rings existed as well). Secondly it showed something usually ignored or rendered minor in most of these films. Here it is developed into the issue: who are you going to show greater loyalty to, the Communist Party or your naive spouse?
What I really like about Conspirator is that Robert Taylor plays the central figure. He had tackled a few ambiguous characters before World War II, most notably William Bonney in Billy the Kid (but that screenplay, like Darryl Zanuck’s film of Jessie James, whitewashed a great deal of the bad out of the central character). But after the war MGM treated Taylor (now a seasoned leading star of theirs) to a wider variety of parts, including more villainous characters. Think of him in the somewhat earlier Undercurrent with Kate Hepburn and Robert Mitchum. Both of these films could not have been made with Taylor in the 1930s.
I also sort of enjoy the idea that Taylor, a friendly [No-this has been disproved, see my posts here under HUAC], but sincere witness for the H.U.A.C subcommittee against Communist infiltration into the movie industry actually did this film. It is his only chance to show what he thought of a Communist agent, and his interpretation (and the screenplay’s) show he saw them as naive fools.
Also it is the first time in his career that Taylor starred with the only female star of his rank with the same last name: Elizabeth Taylor. Just leaving such films as National Velvet, Little Women and Life with Father, she finally came of age here as a young bride. In some ways I have always felt that Ms Taylor’s glorious beauty was at a pristine height in films of the early 1950s like this one or Father of the Bride. Here she is in love with her dashing wartime hero husband, whom she gradually realizes is not as heroic (for England) as she thought (though he would disagree – witness his scene telling her about how he has joined one of the great causes of all time!).
The film follows their courtship, their marriage, and the discovery of his treason by her. The issue of course is whether or not he will be turned in by her, or will he love her enough to withstand pressure by his Kremlin bosses to (errr)…eradicate his error totally.
The film (as mentioned in another recent review) is above average. Taylor does play this English “Col. Redl” (of an earlier war, in a different country – but serving another Russia) as a man torn apart, but refusing to acknowledge his error of judgment. In fact his final decision puts to stop to any type of acknowledgment. The one flaw in this film is similar to the later, wretched Rogue’s March with Peter Lawford and Leo G. Carroll. The omnipotence of the British Secret Service in ferreting out traitors is shown at the tale-end. I may add that in 1949 that Secret Service (MR5) contained such “patriots” as Burgess, McClean, and Philby. Yeah they really would have been watching Taylor closely! Review by Theo Winthrop for the IMDb, 2009.
Some behind the scenes photos:
Left to right: Robert Taylor with a gun; the Taylors with a guest on the set; Liz Taylor, Robert Taylor, Honor Blackmun; Mr. Taylor’s admiration for Ms. Taylor was such that he requested to be photographed only from the waist up.