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In 1945, Reader's Digest printed a true account of how an American woman from Portland, Oregon fashioned herself into a slinky nightclub hostess and spy. Claire Phillips was a divorced mother living in the Philippines when she met and fell in love with American soldier John Phillips. After the fall of Bataan and her husband's capture by Japanese forces, Phillips joined the war effort. Code named "High Pockets" for her habit of stashing items in her brassiere, Phillips founded Club Tsubaki, a swanky dockside nightclub frequented by Japanese soldiers. She plied patrons with drinks and forwarded all their indiscretions about military maneuvers to American intelligence. Phillips published her full memoirs in collaboration with Myron B. Goldsmith as Manila Espionage in 1947, and Allied Artists took an interest in translating her extraordinary story to the screen as I Was an American Spy (1951).
Allied Artists was the newly founded high end branch of Poverty Row studio Monogram, a company previously known for two-fisted gangster films and westerns. Producer Walter Mirisch founded Allied Artists in 1947, hoping to elevate Monogram's reputation from B movies to "B-plus" and retire the Monogram brand name (which they did in 1953). He increased the cache of projects like It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947) by boosting production budgets and hiring once-hot talent neglected by Hollywood.
Ann Dvorak matched that description perfectly. Dvorak was a fresh-faced newcomer in 1932 when she was cast in Scarface and Three on a Match. She had the doll eyes of a silent movie star, a rich voice perfect for sound, and a snappy, jaunty quality that fit the sordid and mercenary mood of Pre-Code films. But she complained (justifiably) to Warner Brothers that she was being underpaid and was released from her contract as punishment. Unchastened, she sued her former employers and married British actor Leslie Fenton, departing on a year long honeymoon. She made several films in Fenton's native England and helped the British war effort as an ambulance driver. Dvorak was Claire Phillips' choice to play her, maybe because both women had a propensity for abandoning common sense for love, for bravery in wartime, and taking anti-authoritarian stances for the greater good.
In addition to Dvorak, Mirisch cast 6'2" war veteran Douglas Kennedy as her leading man and Gene Evans, fresh off his role on The Lone Ranger TV show, as the soldier in exile who suggests she become a spy. Significantly, in addition to hiring Asian-American actors like Richard Loo and Philip Ahn (who'd found steady work in the '40s and '50s portraying sinister Japanese military villains), the producers bucked a tiresome Hollywood tradition of relying on heavily made-up Caucasians and instead cast Asian actors like Leon Lontoc, James B. Leong, and Marya Marco in heroic roles.
Screenwriter Samuel Roeca made a few changes to Phillips' story to make her more palatable to 1950s audiences, changing her from a divorced mother with a half-Filipino infant to a never-married woman who'd adopted a little blonde girl. He also penned a prologue and epilogue delivered by General Mark W. Clark, to underscore the Department of Defense's approval of the project. Although Clark was not directly involved with the "High Pockets" affair (he was a veteran of the war in Italy, Austria, and North Africa, not the Philippines) his status as the Army's youngest three-star general added authority to his no-nonsense narration.
I Was an American Spy was shot at Iverson Ranch in the Simi Hills in Chatsworth, California, a versatile backlot also seen that year in The African Queen (1951). Lesley Selander, a prolific B-movie director (Spy was one of nine movies he shot in 1951), used his ample experience with Westerns to imbue a wartime story with a sense of frontier justice. Dvorak's Claire Phillips is no pushover - she's equal parts fearsome and appealing, whether she's wooing guests in an evening gown or crawling through the jungle with a six-shooter tucked into her blouse. Even her nemesis Col. Masamoto (played by Richard Loo) gives "High Pockets" a grudging respect.
Not everyone was a fan, however. "It is sad though to see a gallant lady on display in such a threadbare little showcase," lamented the New York Times about Dvorak's performance. After I Was an American Spy, Dvorak made one more movie, The Secret of Convict Lake (1951), then married her third husband and retired from film permanently in 1951.
Producer: David Diamond
Director: Lesley Selander
Screenplay: Sam Roeca (screenplay); Claire Phillips, Myron B. Goldsmith (magazine article and novel)
Cinematography: Harry Neumann
Art Direction: David Milton
Music: Edward J. Kay
Film Editing: Philip Cahn
Cast: Ann Dvorak (Mrs. Claire 'High Pockets' Phillips), Gene Evans (Cpl. John Boone), Douglas Kennedy (Sgt. John Phillips), Richard Loo (Col. Masamato), Leon Lontoc (Pacio), Chabing (Lolita), Philip Ahn (Capt. Arito), Marya Marco (Fely), Nadine Ashdown (Dian), Lisa Ferraday (Dorothy Fuentes).
by Violet LeVoit
Articles "I Was an American Spy" in The American Mercury (May 1945) and The Reader's Digest (May 1945
Manila Espionage by Claire Phillips and Myron B. Goldsmith (Portland, OR, 1947).
"Out Hollywood Way", New York Times, September 8, 1946, p. X1.
Mark W. Clark bio
I was an American Spy release date and cast
The Steel Helmet release date and cast
Monogram box office
Manila Espionage date
Bio of Claire Phillips who helped choose Dvorak
Dvorak sued employers
New York Times review