Tuesday, December 17, 2019


Grand National Pictures was a short-lived minor studio in the 1936-1939 period, best-known because James Cagney made two films there while on strike from Warner Brothers. Beyond that, they also introduced Tex Ritter to the screen with a successful group of westerns leading to many more at Universal and PRC, and they also introduced singing cowgirl Dorothy Page (back in the 90’s, I hosted one of her films at a local film festival) for a series of three features. They also attempted a few series of espionage/crime films, one group of four films starring Conrad Nagel as a federal agent (all worth watching when you’ve got a free hour), and the other being this series (of two films), starring LEON AMES (best known for his role as the neighbor on the MR. ED tv series) as Major Philip Waring, an Army intelligence officer working in code-breaking in espionage cases (the second and final entry in this series is called PANAMA PATROL).

Grand National’s non-western output tended to have a studio-bound look, with little or no location photography, not even establishing shots taken outdoors. As various historians have observed, Grand National wanted to make films that (in their eyes) had a “classy” feel but would play well to genre audiences who wanted an action or a crime film. The studio went under in late 1939.

CIPHER BUREAU works well within Grand National’s “indoor action” aesthetic because code-breaking is by definition not an outdoor activity one does while engaging in a car chase, and all that is needed is shadowy rooms where people with imprecise “foreign” accents plot and scheme to overthrow freedom-loving America and of course our heroic crew of agents, who are as fast with their fists as they are savvy in a science lab.

Co-written by Arthur Hoerl (of REEFER MADNESS fame), who worked a lot at Grand National, and directed by Charles Lamont (best-known for Abbott and Costello films and also entries in the Francis The Talking Mule and Ma and Pa Kettle franchises), there is a lot of talent involved with CIPHER BUREAU, and it is a good looking and fast moving espionage programmer, though clearly low-budget.

Leading man LEON AMES, looking dapper with a mustache here, has a deep voice and the kind of vibe that radiates authority—I could see him as some driven captain of industry in the film adaptation of a Sinclair Lewis novel, but he’s also good at comedy. And speaking of exploitation films (REEFER MADNESS), Ames paid his dues in one of those with the 1941 VD-themed feature NO GREATER SIN (see poster), which was still being shown in the early 1960’s! The man was the definition of the working actor, appearing in multiple films per year, starring in B-programmers like this, and then 2nd or 3rd featured male in major studio productions, including classics such as THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and entries in the THIN MAN, ELLERY QUEENEAST SIDE KIDS, LASSIE,and MR. MOTO franchises. He always brings a touch of class to whatever he’s in, and even if you’re not paying attention to what’s happening on screen, when his rich voice appears on the soundtrack, you immediately realize, “that’s Leon Ames!”

CIPHER PATROL has an interesting procedural element to it (quicker and easier to shoot those than outdoor chase sequences!) with lots of small details of how a cryptography unit works—we see them analyzing voice patterns, working on word-and-letter combinations, and taking seemingly matter-of-fact written and spoken communications and finding the coded elements within them. Ames chain-smokes and demands coffee and barks orders convincingly in these scenes. The sinister Europeans (they are not specifically identified as Germans as we weren’t officially at war yet in 1938) have just the right combination of haughty arrogance, jaded cynicism, and boot-licking subservience needed for these kind of roles in WWII or Cold War features—there’s even a mysterious Mata Hari-type who speaks slowly and wears a kind of veil. What more could you want? It's online, so make room in your schedule for 68 minutes with the CIPHER PATROL.

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