By Ed Garea
They Came to Blow Up America (20th Century Fox, 1943) – Director: Edward Ludwig. Writers: Michael Jacoby (story), Aubrey Wisberg (s/p). Cast: George Sanders, Anna Sten, Ward Bond, Dennis Hoey, Sig Ruman, Ludwig Stossel, Elsa Janssen, Robert Barrat, Poldi Dur, Ralph Byrd, Charles McGraw, & Fred Nurney. B&W, 73 minutes.
There are times when a plot lands on the studio’s lap.
Such is the case with this movie from Fox in 1943. Like the Warner Brothers films of the ‘30s that claimed to be “ripped from the headlines,” They Came to Blow Up America was based on recent events. (Not so coincidentally, Darryl Zanuck, head of Fox, was also head of production for Warner Bros. in the early ‘30s when their “ripped from the headlines” films came out.)
In this case, it was the landing of Nazi saboteurs in America, part of “Operation Pastorius,” a plot hatched by the Abwehr (German Army Intelligence) and directed against strategic American economic targets. The first agents, led by Georg Dasch, landed on Long Island on the night of June 12, 1942. Immediately after landing, everything went wrong. A Coast Guard patrolman came upon the group and began asking questions. Dasch grabbed him, threatened him, and shoved $260 into his hand. The Guardsman left, but reported everything once back at base. A second group landed later that month in Florida. The two groups were supposed to link up on July 4 in Cincinnati to coordinate their operations, but never came close. Dasch had misgivings about the thing and along with his second-in-command, Ernst Burger, decided to inform the FBI. After that, it was easy for J. Edgar Hoover and his agents to quickly round up the group. Brought to trial, the saboteurs were given the death penalty, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in recognition of their testimony, commuted Burger’s sentence to life in prison and Dasch’s to 30 years. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman granted the pair executive clemency and deported them back to Germany.
Sounds like a great idea for a movie, right? Well, Fox certainly thought so and set both Jacoby and Wisberg to work molding it into a film. The first thing the writers did was to provide a twist. Instead of the chief saboteur, now renamed Carl Steelman, being a German national who lived in the U.S., he now became an American born to naturalized parents. Sanders, then under contract to Fox, was brought in to play Steelman. Sanders had made a name for himself playing villains of various sorts, including Nazis. Even when he played a good guy, he generally portrayed characters about whom we weren’t that sure, such as the Saint and the Falcon.
The film is told in flashback. A junior agent quizzes FBI Chief Craig (Bond) as to why only six of the eight saboteurs were given the death penalty. Bond retrieves Steelman’s file and fills the agent in on the whole story. Steelman was in reality an FBI agent, who had been a mining engineer and explosives expert in South America before joining the Bureau. He’s sent to his hometown of Milwaukee to infiltrate the local German-American Bund. It is at such a meeting that he meets Ernst Reiter (Nurney), who divulges that he’s been called back to the Fatherland to be trained as a saboteur. Reiter dies in a police raid. The FBI keeps Reiter’s death a secret, allowing Steelman to become Reiter and attend the spy school in Reiter’s place.
To effectively pull off the ruse, Steelman must pretend to be a rabid Nazi even to his parents (Stossel and Janssen), who are predictably outraged. Steelman travels to Hamburg, Germany, posing as Reiter, and begins his studies. While in Hamburg he becomes enamored of a young woman named Helga Lorenz (Dur). Shortly after meeting her, Steelman is summoned to Gestapo headquarters by Colonel Taeger (Hoey) and informed that Lorenz is suspected of being a traitor. Taeger then orders him to continue seeing Lorenz to gather evidence against her. Visiting her at her apartment, he accidentally find anti-Nazi leaflets and warns her, but also notices they are being spied upon, so he denounces her to Taeger, who has her arrested and shipped to a concentration camp. However, Steelman intercepts the car taking her away and rescues her.
A stickier situation arises when Steelman is informed that Mrs. Reiter (Sten) wishes to see her husband. He has no choice but to tell her in private that her husband was captured in America and to give him a day to explain himself. Knowing that she will go immediately to the Gestapo, he beats her there and denounces her to Taeger as mentally incompetent. Taeger buys what Steelman is selling and has her thrown into a mental asylum.
Meanwhile, back in America, Pops Steelman has become ill, possibly depressed over his son’s “conversion” to Nazism. Craig comes to visit and tells Pops the truth to put his mind at ease. However, he stresses over and over before leaving that this is top secret and cannot be divulged – not even to Ma Steelman. So what does Pops Steelman do? He immediately tells the family’s doctor, Herman Holger (Ruman). We in the audience know that one does not tell Sig Ruman anything, for he’s one of the naughtiest Nazis on the planet. Dr. Holger immediately informs Germany, though not before Steelman has graduated with honors and is already at sea with his crew.
Taeger gets the message from Dr. Holger and cannot believe his eyes. He goes to see Frau Reiter at the asylum, shows her a photo of Steelman, and asks if that is her husband. He answers with an emphatic “nein,” and threatens to sink Taeger once she gets out. Taeger, seeing his future in Dachau, tells the asylum’s warder to shoot her, for didn’t the Fuehrer order all metal defectives to be killed? Exit Frau Reiter. Taeger then wires the submarine to inform them to turn back. Unfortunately, Steelman and his crew have already left on rubber rafts for the shore and the sub itself is blown apart by a explosive device Steelman has conveniently left behind.
Once ashore, the saboteurs are quickly captured. Craig makes Steelman keep his disguise and testify against the other men, as well as the four other saboteurs sent to Florida. Once back in Milwaukee, Steelman looks up Dr. Holger and informs him that he has a list of German agents in America. He further informs the Doctor that he is at number eight on the list as he arrests Holger for espionage. The film ends with Craig explaining to the inquiring agent that Steelman is already on another undercover assignment.
The first thing we notice after the film ends is that for an action film, it has little action. We also notice that Sanders is badly miscast as the hero – an action figure and overall sensitive guy – a role that does not play to his acting strengths. Sten, whose career was long past the time when Samuel Goldwyn was billing her as the new Garbo (amazing what happens when your first three movies bomb badly), is quite effective playing the outraged Frau Reiter. She makes the most of her small role, conveying the fine line between confusion and outrage, with her German accent perfect.
The most puzzling bit of casting was having Cockney Dennis Hoey playing Gestapo Colonel Taeger. Hoey gives it his best, but it just doesn’t come off, being more comic than anything else. Dur, as the threatened Helga, is as flat as last night’s beer, doing nothing else except taking her cues from Sanders. The film may be ripped from yesterday’s headlines, but it is nothing more than layer upon layer of cliché. Note Steelman’s parents. Stossel is essentially playing the same sort of character he played in Universal’s Frankenstein series as the angry, confused villager. They may have come to blow up America, but we’d have been better off if they just blew up the plot instead.