Vivien Leigh viewed Dark Journey as a “personal failure.” It was her sixth film, but “her first true leading role,” and her lack of confidence during the production made her overly critical of her performance. She might not have counted it among her best, but she plays the part of Madeleine Goddard better than she thought. A double agent during World War One, her Madeleine is a mixture of surface, poise, nerves, and daring. Whether brought out intentionally or accidentally, all are qualities suitable to the role.
Her recollections likely were influenced by the movie’s complicated plot, which can be hard to follow. Technically neutral Stockholm, is swimming with spies for all sides. Keeping track of who is an agent and for what side is a task. Then romance is added via Conrad Veidt‘s Baron Karl Von Marwitz. He’s the German secret service leader sent to ferret out the the top spy of French counter-espionage in Stockholm–Madeleine. The theme of star-crossed lovers fighting for opposing sides becomes central to the film, but its most fascinating aspects are the dangers and mechanics of spying.
How accurate is the film at portraying World War One? In regard to portraying certain aspects of the times, you’ll have to suspend your disbelief intentionally. The film was released in 1937. It is set in 1918. Its fashions, make-up, and hairstyles are au courant to 1937. No attempt is made to dress characters in period clothing or stylings. Musically the movie is more faithful to its setting. Its main theme song is a romantic classical piece. Diegetic music in dancing, music hall, and concert scenes are period-appropriate. In street scenes, carriages and early model cars carry passengers to and fro.
Any viewer will have to carefully watch performers and their costuming to track their characters’ nationalities. This is a London Films Production, and it’s a very obviously British-made film. The majority of cast actors are British, and only one British actress attempts her character’s accent. Joan Gardner‘s accent for Lupita may not sound quite Brazilian, but it helps keep her distinct, even before stealing scenes with her comedic chops. There’s a submarine scene in which actors speak German, which lends momentary authenticity, but the majority of the movie’s dialogue is in English. Conrad, as a German-born native in real life, sports his natural accent for his role. German, Swedish, French, and Belgian parts are portrayed with British accents.
More care was taken in depicting the wartime activities that occurred in Sweden. The film’s director Victor Saville travelled there for research and met “a retired vice navy admiral who had run the Swedish counterintelligence bureau during the war.” The former officer acted as a technical adviser to the film. His help may be partially why the spy scenes are weightier than the romance. The film starts with Madeleine’s sea journey interrupted by a German submarine. Although the waters between Paris and Stockholm are neutral, her ship is stopped, boarded, and searched for a spy by the German soldiers. Each time she crosses a similar scene occurs, suspense builds as she wonders when they will be searching for her. At customs and immigration checkpoints, political activities are cautioned against, and potential agents are detained. There’s a club called the Cherry Orchard, full of spies partying and paying for information.
The cleverest incident of espionage depicted involves the dresses Madeleine imports personally from Paris for her shop. Hidden among the normal frocks are ones with coded messages. The first shown is a sheer number with embroidery. She places it over a lampshade and lines up their markings. The lampshade’s once innocuous map design decodes secret troop movements when paired with the lamp. Coordinates were sewn onto the dress. A fellow spy rushes upstairs to unpack a near empty suitcase. Inside he pulls out a flat surface and what looks like a very basic, flat skeleton of a puppet. He’s setting up a shadow show in front of the window. He projects the image of the apparatus’s moving arms. They act as and are interpreted like semaphores by another spy on a ship in nearby waters. That is how a message from France decoded in Stockholm gets passed on to Berlin.
Back to the romance, it is not fully believable for reasons outside of plot. Vivien Leigh is photographed beautifully, and she’s dressed and styled impeccably for most of the movie. Even without being investigated by multiple intelligence agencies, her Madeleine would be pursued by many men. Conrad Veidt looks handsome, and he adds class to some lines of dialogue that would have sounded smarmier coming out of another mouth. His Karl may be older than Madeleine, but neither that nor their spying is what makes them seem an unlikely match. They do not have chemistry even though both actors try very hard to create it. The ultimate example of this is a kiss that’s supposed to be their most romantic; it looks very awkward, and the moment falls flat for me. Their ardent fans watching this film will feel their charisma, and any attractions to the performers might be projected onto the lovers they portray. Their star power might make this a quibble to some.
This is not a movie for history purists, who cannot enjoy one with anachronisms. If you want to experience World War One Stockholm exactly as it was, you will be disappointed with this film. Those wanting an entertaining film with moments of genuine suspense and intrigue will get what they seek. Vivien Leigh and Conrad Veidt fans should watch this, even if they are not completists. Vivien fans will get to see her two years before Gone With The Wind, and they’ll see how much she developed as a screen actress between both films. She, also, has relatively few films to see for a star of her magnitude. While he has many more credits due to starting in the silent film era, he would only live for six years more after making this film. He may be playing yet another German officer as he did during his talkie career, but he brings more to the role than is written, both in its dramatic and comedic scenes. This film captures the moment before one performer’s stardom, and another’s unexpected twilight.
This post was part of the World War One in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi from Movies Silently and Lea at Silent-Ology. Please click the banner above to be brought to a list of the blogathon’s other participants! They’re a great group covering a wide range of silent and classic films, celebrated and obscure, about the first Great War.