Merle Oberon and Brian Aherne in the wartime spy drama, First Comes Courage (1943).
First Comes Courage is saved from being a rather forgettable bit of wartime propaganda by some interesting direction by Dorothy Arzner. Though it was dismissed in its day by critics as ordinary and mediocre, Arzner's talents as a director have been more greatly appreciated in hindsight. I think that First Comes Courage, her last movie, was more influential than even the revisionist feminist critics imagined.
One film that First Comes Courage seems to have influenced quite a bit is Alfred Hitchock's Notorious (1946). Though Notorious is admittedly a superior work in every respect, there are a number of plot similarities, at least one actor who plays a similar role in both films and a striking use of a wine cellar as suspense device. First Comes Courage is the story of a female underground agent, Nicole Larsen (Merle Oberon), in Norway who is willing to make love to a German officer (Carl Esmond) in order to gain valuable information. One evening while entertaining an important senior officer (Reinhold Schunzel, best known as "kind faced" Mr. Anderson from Notorious) her boyfriend begins to suspect that she is responsible for a series of raids. With her position threatened, the Allies send a former lover Allan Lowell (Brian Aherne) to assasinate the officer. Lowell's plan of attack and rescue is intricate to the point of ridiculous and its not a huge shock when it goes horribly wrong. Oberon and another member of the underground, a nurse in the prison ward in the hospital, manage to break Lowell out of jail and he hides out in her wine cellar. In one scene Oberon appears in the doorway of the cellar in a backlit sillouette that is an exact match to several of the wine cellar shots in Notorious.
To further dispel suspicion and to gain even greater access to information Oberon agrees to marry the German officer. Naturally this causes a bit of tension between the recently reunited couple. When Nicole's new husband realizes that she leaked information leading to a raid on a munitions plant he threatens to kill her in faked car accident. (Is any of this sounding familiar? Yeah, I thought so too. Poor Emil Hupka.) After the raid is successful Allen rushes to Nicole's house and shoots her husband before he can kill her. The pair move his body so that it looks like he was heroically killed in the raid. Allan begs Nicole to return to England with him but she refuses, reasoning that as the widow of a German war hero she will be more valuable than ever.
The script is a bit talky and Arzner's attempts to build suspense from it are not always successful. I can't help but think if Hitchcock was watching and taking notes, he thought of ways that he would have done things differently. For example, the audience doesn't know that Nicole and Allan are former lovers until after they are reunited on screen. I think the tension would have been far greater had we known that ahead of time. As it is the intercutting between Nicole and Allan's sides of the story seems a bit weird and jumpy. Despite these flaws, First Comes Courage is well worth watching if you get the chance.
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