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Years before Budd Boetticher made the Randolph Scott-starring westerns for which he is best remembered -- Seven Men from Now (1956), The Tall T (1957) and Ride Lonesome (1959) among them -- he learned his craft by directing a run of B films for Columbia, Eagle-Lion and Monogram studios. Escape in the Fog (1945), a 63-minute Columbia production, was Boetticher's fifth picture.
It's the story of an expert in psychological warfare (William Wright) who is given a secret mission to deliver some wartime documents from San Francisco to the Far East. German agents, however, have gotten wind of the plan and spend the movie trying to capture Wright before he can leave the city. Before we see all this, however, we are introduced to a Navy nurse on leave (Nina Foch) who has a dream of Wright being attacked by two men on the foggy Golden Gate Bridge - but only after she awakes does she actually meet Wright. As she tries to figure out the meaning of her dream, she becomes his unwitting partner as he tries to outwit the Germans; naturally the two also fall for each other (in an unconvincing romantic subplot).
The dream is the most interesting device in the film, but in the end it's just a device that doesn't have much payoff. The content of the dream plays out in reality, but that happens at the film's midpoint, and Foch's ability to have premonitions is never again mentioned or explored. If it had been, the end result might have been something more than just a routine spy story. Escape in the Fog has something of the episodic feel of a mildly intriguing though fast-paced serial, with the good guys and bad guys hatching plans, having revelations, and confronting each other numerous times. Watching the film, one does wish the bad guys were a little more crafty and the drama was a bit more heightened.
It would be a stretch to try and find any real visual stamp of Boetticher's in a film like Escape in the Fog. His more mature later work features vivid and fascinating spatial relationships between characters in the frame and against the landscape, but you won't find that here. Instead you'll just find a filmmaker starting to piece together the basics in a breezy little programmer. The use of fog to create a claustrophobic and occasionally dreamlike effect is probably the most interesting thing visually in the movie.
For Boetticher, these early B productions were simply a training ground. As he later wrote in his memoir, When in Disgrace: "Everything involved with my first five films at Columbia was a learning experience. These little black-and-white pictures were made in twelve days for one hundred thousand dollars....Harry Cohn made sure that I had top old-time cameramen. They were supposed to be there to help me, but I soon discovered they were there to show me what they knew and how very mistaken I was about everything I set out to accomplish. Don't misunderstand me, they were all fine gentlemen. But I was young, and green as grass, and cocky, and consequently, my aged cinematographers and I never really advanced to the "palzy" stage. I invented a system that worked. When one of them questioned me about a shot I had requested, I merely shook my head, patted him on the arm, and said 'You really don't understand what I'm trying to do, do you?' Then I walked away. Of course, most of the time they were right and I was wrong, and I sensed it. But, being wrong as a film director can cost you a hunk of prestige in a hurry. So I faked it....I really faked those first five [pictures] with a bundle of phony confidence."
Although Wright and Foch have the most screen time, top billing goes to Otto Kruger, the immensely enjoyable character actor who specialized in charming, urbane villains. He's fine as always here but doesn't get much to do. William Wright was an unremarkable actor who appeared almost entirely in B movies in a 45-film career that spanned the 1940s. He died in 1949, at age 38, from cancer. He also played a part in Boetticher's first film, the Boston Blackie programmer One Mysterious Night (1944).
Escape in the Fog was the eleventh film for actress Nina Foch. A few months later she would star in one of the most famous B movies of them all, My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), for Joseph Lewis, a director whose talent and sensibilities were not too far off from Boetticher's. Foch went on to higher-profile work in movies and television, drawing Oscar® and Emmy nominations, and later she became a celebrated acting teacher. She died in 2008. Foch treats the script of Escape in the Fog much better than it really is, which ends up making the film itself better.
Escape in the Fog opened at Grauman's Chinese Theater on May 18, 1945. Variety was quite kind in its review, calling it "a nifty spy thriller" with "sturdy production values." The review continued: "Oscar Boetticher, Jr. has given plot fast, suspenseful direction to mark it as first-class supporting feature. Script and good playing maintain interest against a background of San Francisco fog and war intrigue... Wright and Miss Foch team excellently with good performances. [Konstantin] Shayne, [Ivan] Triesault and [Ernie] Adams are expert menaces."
Character actor Ivan Triesault will be recognizable to movie fans. An Estonian actor who specialized in foreign villains, he would soon appear memorably in Notorious (1946) as one of the German spies. Boetticher is credited here as "Oscar Boetticher, Jr.," his given name. He would start using his preferred name of "Budd Boetticher" on screen with his first truly personal film: Bullfighter and the Lady (1951).
Producer: Wallace MacDonald
Director: Oscar Boetticher, Jr.
Screenplay: Aubrey Wisberg
Cinematography: George Meehan
Art Direction: Jerome Pycha, Jr.
Film Editing: Jerome Thoms
Cast: Otto Kruger (Paul Devon), Nina Foch (Eileen Carr), William Wright (Barry Malcolm),Konstantin Shayne (Schiller), Ivan Triesault (Hausmer, Schiller's Henchman), Ernie Adams (George Smith).
BW-63m. Closed Captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold