Film Review: Three Faces East (1930)
German spies, double-agents, and secretive troop movements. All wrapped up in the thin veneer of a proper British mansion. Such is the basic plot of Three Faces East, a 1930 spy thriller made by Warner Brothers through its Vitaphone division.
During World War I, a lone soldier named Valdar (Erich von Stoheim) receives a medal of valor from the Belgian Army. Also during this time, behind the German lines military officials are introduced to their latest espionage asset: Z-1. Or, as she will be known throughout the rest of the film, Frances Hawtree (Constance Bennett). Frances has been given her latest assignment: to infiltrate the proper British home of Sir Winston Chamberlain (William Holden; no relation to the ‘50’s actor) posing as the nurse/lover to Chamberlain’s dead son in order to ingratiate herself into their home, gain their trust, and pass any secrets on from Chamberlain (a military official) to German master spy Blecher. Since the identity of Blecher and his men is unknown to Frances, her superiors tell her to use the term “three faces east” to discover her contact within the house and work with him to pass the secrets along to the German Army.
While in the house, Frances discovers that her contact is working undercover as the head butler in the house. After casting suspicious glances in each other’s directions, it is revealed that Valdar is indeed her contact. Now known in the house as Schiller, he and Frances begin to plot ways to steal and pass information off to their higher-ups.
During this time, Frances begins to draw the suspicion of another British Intelligence official (and house-guest of Chamberlain) Mr Yates (William Courtenay); skeptical of the woman’s story, Yates begins to keep a closer eye on the goings-on in the house.
With suspicions running high and agents not quite seeming what they are, a cat-and-mouse game ensues; the victor deciding the fate of an incredibly important troop movement that could tip the war in one direction over another.
You know, I’ve seen my share of creaky Pre-Code films. Let alone creaky spy thrillers. So my hopes weren’t high when I came across this film: a Pre-Code film that is ALSO a spy thriller. And while the beginning did seem to draw some yawns as a sound film forgetting that it was one, it quickly warmed up and actually became quite a good evening watch. The story especially begins to warm up once Bennett and Stroheim meet and start plotting together; the night-time scenes with people entering and exiting through the shadows of the darkened mansion to steal military secrets especially thrilling. And the twists, oh the twists! While not necessarily Psycho-esque in their head-turning power, they still make the movie a well-made and satisfying watch.
Constance Bennett can occasionally be stilted or stiff in some of her roles, or sometimes overly “continental” in her actions. But here she pulls of her role quite well: working in Britain as a German spy, she comes over as suave and knowledgable, who takes action when she needs to. Bennett will go on from this role to other strong performances in films like What Price Hollywood (1932), Merrily We Live (1938), and my personal Bennett favorite, the hilarious comedy Topper (1937). Stroheim likewise does quite well in his role as the German spy Valdar (…or Schiller? You’ll just have to watch it and find out): quiet and unassuming as the head butler in the Chamberlain household, but carrying with him a quiet menace that creates great moments where one just doesn’t know what will happen in the next minute. Stroheim excels in these kinds of roles; to see him in a weird Expressionistic role with lots of menace, check out 1935’s The Crime of Doctor Crespi. Other than that, Stroheim (who got his start as a world-reknowned director in silent films before acting) performs as a wonderful actor in films like Foolish Wives (in which he also directed, 1922), Renoir’s iconic La Grande Illusion (1937), and, of course, the utterly spell-binding Sunset Blvd. (1950).
The rest of the cast in this film merely serve as placeholders for Bennett and von Stroheim; William Courtenay and Anthony Bushell (portraying Chamberlain’s other son) are the “primary” secondary characters in the film, while Chamberlain and his wife (Holden and Charlotte Walker) barely appear at all once they’re used to facilitate Frances’ entry into their home. I hesitate to rate or review any of Holden’s or Walker’s performances, since they don’t serve any great purpose. And while Courtenay does a serviceable job as Yates, Bushell’s role as Chamberlain’s son does carry the rather grating element of acting as a wound-up puppy in his time on the screen, coupled with a really stilted accent (which I can’t decide could be blamed on Bushell’s acting, or on the fact that the film is from 1930).
Normally with any other movie, I wouldn’t hesitate to share the entire synopsis and just tell people to watch out for my spoilers. But in this case, I find it easy to just say this: watch the movie. You won’t be disappointed.
Where to Watch It
Amazon (DVD): https://amzn.to/3d6HCRK
Warner Archive (MOD/DVD): https://www.wbshop.com/products/three-faces-east-mod
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