British Agent (1934): Michael Curtiz’s Romantic Espionage Thriller, Starring Leslie Howard and Kay Francis

Michael Curtiz directed British Agent, an espionage thriller, starring Leslie Howard and Kay Francis.

It’s based on Memoirs of a British Agent, a 1932 autobiography of R. H. Bruce Lockhart, who worked for the British Secret Service during the Russian Revolution and had an affair with  Russian agent, known as Moura Budberg.

The film was produced by First National, a division of Warner Bros.

At one point, the studio considered shooting some scenes on location in the Soviet Union, but the political situation made that impossible. Instead, the film was shot at the studio in Hollywood, with sets designed by art director Anton Grot.

The large budget of $475,000 allowed 41 different sets to be used to recreate Imperial Russia and the early years of the Revolution.

The same book was partly used as inspiration for the TV series Reilly, Ace of Spies, which also portrayed the adventures of Lockhart and Sidney Reilly during the Russian Revolution.

In the days leading up to the Russian Revolution, Stephen Locke, a minor British diplomat, watches rioting in the streets. The revolutionary Elena Moura shoots it out with a Cossack soldier. When she retreats onto the consulate, the soldier follows, forcing Stephen to intervene to protect British extraterritoriality.

After the Cossack leaves, Elena emerges. She and Steven are attracted to each other, but their politics clash, and Elena departs.

After the Russian Empire is overthrown and the Soviet Union is born, most Western diplomats evacuate. Stephen is left behind with a servant, “Poohbah” Evans.  He waits with frustration for instructions, passing the time with others like the American Bob Medill, Gaston LeFarge, and Tito Del Val.

His boredom is lifted when he again meets Elena, now important member of the government, working for Commissioner of War Leo Trotsky. He romances her, and they quickly fall in love.

However, her first loyalty is to her country, which she demonstrates when Stephen receives orders from the UK. He is to try to prevent Soviet Russia from concluding separate peace with Imperial Germany, which would free up German soldiers for the Western Front, but he is warned that he is only an “unofficial” British representative.

Stephen carelessly reads the message in Elena’s hearing, and she passes along the information to her boss. As a result, when Stephen pleads with the Soviet government to keep fighting, his arguments are undercut by awareness of his status. He manages to get a delay of three weeks to see if he can persuade his superiors to agree to Soviet demands: £50 million, five army divisions and munitions.

Instead, without Stephen’s knowledge, the British send a force to Archangel to fight alongside the internal enemies of the Soviets.

After the Tsar is executed, Medill, LeFarge and Del Val persuade Stephen to join them in support of counter-revolutionary forces. When Lenin is seriously wounded in assassination attempt, the Soviets initiate harsh crackdown.

LeFarge and Del Val are killed while attempting to contact rebel military leader. Medill tries to do the same, but he is caught and tortured for Stephen’s whereabouts. When he refuses to crack, he is sentenced to die by firing squad.

Elena is ordered to persuade him to tell her where Stephen is; knowing she is in love with Stephen, Medill gives her the address. She reluctantly gives the information to Trotsky, who orders soldiers to level the building.

Elena sneaks into the building, determined to die with Stephen. They are reprieved, however. Just as the soldiers start shooting, news arrives that Lenin will recover and that he has ordered the release of all political prisoners.

Later, Stephen and Elena depart for Britain. At the train station, Medill requests they send him a supply of bubble gum.

Cast
Leslie Howard as Stephen Locke
Kay Francis as Elena Moura
William Gargan as Bob Medill
Phillip Reed as Gaston LeFarge
Irving Pichel as Sergei Pavlov
Ivan F. Simpson as “Poohbah” Evans (as Ivan Simpson)
Halliwell Hobbes as Sir Walter Carrister
J. Carroll Naish as Commissioner of War Trotsky
Walter Byron as Under Secretary Stanley
Cesar Romero as Tito Del Val
Arthur Aylesworth as Mr. Henry Farmer
Alphonse Ethier as Paul DeVigney
Frank Reicher as Mr. X
Tenen Holtz as Lenin
Doris Lloyd as Lady Carrister
Mary Forbes as Lady Catherine Trehearne
Marina Schubert as Maria Nikolaievna
George C. Pearce as Lloyd George
Gregory Gaye as Mr. Kolinoff

Note:

TCM showed the movie on January 10, 2022.