Walter Summers’ Traitor Spy [sometimes referred to as The Torso Murder Mystery] is based on a T.C.H. Jacobs novel of the same name. The story follows Detective Inspector William Bernard [Edward Lexy playing one of Jacobs' most popular characters] and Beverley Blake [Romily Lunge] – a secret agent masquerading as an intrepid newspaper journalist – as the pair reluctantly work together to solve a murder case. Bruce Cabot [The Quiet American 1958] plays Carl Beyersdorf alias Ted Healy: the spy in question trying to extort money out of the British and the Nazis – whoever offers the highest price – whilst simultaneously faking his own death in order to escape a prison sentence. It’s down to Bernard and Blake to uncover the true identity of the body and bring the American ne’er do well to justice.
Given this film’s relative obscurity you’d be forgiven for assuming, especially if you’ve never heard of Walter Summers, that this is just another paint by numbers war flick. Admittedly, this is the last film Summers directed [the last film he worked on was 1941's Queer Cargo for which he co-wrote the screenplay] and Summers’ later work is not considered his best. This said, it is my opinion that Summers is a somewhat overlooked figure by cinema aficionados, even the BFI bod who programmed this film in at the Southbank couldn’t bring himself to describe Summers as an ‘unappreciated auteur’, and there is still a lot to take away from his final directorial piece.
The relationship between Lunge and Lexy is smart and good-humoured, Marta Labarr is deliciously sultry as Cabot’s downtrodden but loyal wife and the film itself comes to an unexpectedly dramatic climax [I won't ruin the small details but involves house on fire and some fairly shocking farewells] that stays with the viewer long after the credits roll. The script is also sharp, witty and knowing with lines such as “I learnt to distrust a pretty face 25 years ago and I’ve never had cause to regret it.” Throw in an absurdly over the top and yet undeniably amusing turn from Davina Craig as the Healy’s moon-eyed maid: Mabel and you’re left with a high quality feature with little slack.
My first experience of Walter Summers’ directing was earlier this year at the British Silent Film Festival. There I watched A Couple of Down and Outs , a post-World War One film about a man and his war horse. How has a man like Walter Summers, who has successfully transistioned from silent film to sound and created topical, and yet beautiful, pictures relating to two World Wars been so neglected? His work is polished for the era in which it was created. His scripts and direction are emotionally articulate, sensitively handled and, in many ways, ahead of their time.
With this particular film it is arguably a matter of timing and tone. Traitor Spy is often considered Britain’s answer to Confessions of a Nazi Spy which was a big hit for Warner Brothers in the same year. Confessions was released just before the outbreak of war in May of 1939, however, and Traitor Spy wasn’t released until a year later – by this time Summers’ take on treachery would probably have felt somewhat old hat and, unfortunately, it did not share the same success. Furthermore, this film is much more about the solving of the mystery than any Nazi-beating, propagandist message perhaps making it an odd fit for war-time programming. Whatever the reasons Summers’ films do deserve your attention if the opportunity arises; his attention to detail and knack for delivering heartbreaking yarns make him an important name in early cinema that picturegoers and scholars alike should revisit.