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Joel McCrea played all kinds of roles for the first decade and a half of his career, reaching high points in such memorable pictures as Alfred Hitchcock's suspenseful Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Preston Sturges's superb Sullivan's Travels (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942). Starting in the middle 1940s, though, McCrea headed permanently for the wild West, appearing in dozens of westerns between 1946, when he starred in Stuart Gilmore's The Virginian, and 1976, when he bid farewell to feature films with John C. Champion's Mustang Country. Considered in this context, Robert Parrish's well-mannered British thriller Shoot First, released in 1953, marked a mild change of pace for the Hollywood veteran. He gets to stomp through underbrush, carry a rifle, and do a little shooting. But the setting is an estate in England and the hero's adversaries are spies, not rustlers or hired guns.
The hero is Lieutenant Colonel Tanie of the United States Army, now passing his days with his wife Cecily (Evelyn Keyes) in the English countryside, where he has rented a stretch of uncultivated land in Dorset as a "shoot" for hunting small varmints and enjoying the great outdoors. On the prowl for rabbits one day, he spots a stranger who appears to be poaching on his territory, and decides to teach the trespasser a lesson by peppering his backside with buckshot. He fires off a load and hits his target, but he doesn't see what the movie shows us - that another stranger, hidden in the brush, has fired at the "poacher" at the same instant. Tanie walks over to the trespasser, assuming he gave the man a good scare, and is upset to learn that he's dead.
Instead of contacting the authorities, who might not believe this was the accidental outcome of a prank, Tanie hides the body, lies to Cecily about what he's been up to, and tries to ignore his uneasy conscience. Then he finds something extremely odd - a set of small spotlights hidden in the brush - and he also meets the movie's next important character: General Sandorski (Herbert Lom), a former Polish officer who's now a cloak-and-dagger undercover man. He informs Tanie that the lights are aircraft beacons set up by an espionage ring to guide a foreign agent on the way with secret papers. Tanie isn't sure Sandorski knows what he's talking about, and his doubts don't diminish when he learns that the general is living in a nearby mental institution. Sandorski turns out to be eccentric rather than crazy, however, and before long Tanie joins him in an improvised scheme to thwart the spies and uncover a nest of traitors, all without tipping off the police to the shooting that could land Tanie in prison. Other key players include Mr. Randall (Ronald Culver) of the British Secret Service, the duplicitous Hiart (Marius Goring), leader of the spy operation, and the Soviet agent Lex (David Hurst), who is fooled into thinking that Tanie and Sandorski are his friends and Hiart's operatives are his enemies, when it's actually the other way around.
Shoot First was adapted by Eric Ambler, one of the biggest names in British spy fiction, from Geoffrey Household's 1951 novel A Rough Shoot. (The film's original British title was Rough Shoot.) Household was a popular writer whose autobiographical statement is quoted on the dust jacket of this book. He says he started his career "as a conventional and overeducated Englishman," then became a "professional storyteller" before World War II. After writing his third novel in 1939 he "took a course of training for special intelligence duties," fulfilled assignments in Egypt and Greece, and spent the rest of the war "in comparative luxury as a security officer" in the Middle East region. In short, he knew a thing or two about international intrigue.
Household's history resembles that of his contemporary Ian Fleming, another English author with a background in wartime intelligence and a talent for spy stories. A Rough Shoot is a little like a James Bond novel, spinning a moderately suspenseful premise into a moderately engaging story. This said, however, Shoot First is nothing like a James Bond movie; its events are too modest, its effects are too restrained, and McCrea is no Sean Connery or Daniel Craig, even if he belongs to the same ruggedly handsome breed. Shoot First has more in common with various Hitchcock films, including Foreign Correspondent, another wartime espionage thriller with a British setting and McCrea in the leading role. The atomic secrets being smuggled by the Shoot First spies are what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin - something that has no meaning for the audience but gives the characters a good reason to chase, capture, outwit, and kill one another. The basic plot also has a Hitchcock-style structure: Tanie finds himself running from the police on one side and foreign agents on the other, just as Hitchcock heroes in pictures like The 39 Steps (1935) and North by Northwest (1959) are forced to do. The set-piece finale of Shoot First, culminating in London's famous Madame Tussaud's wax museum, offers another Hitchcockian touch, trying for the sort of last-minute capper that Hitchcock was so fond of, as in Foreign Correspondent, when a plane crashes into the sea and the viewer experiences it from the point of view of a camera in the cockpit.
In an early film review, the great French filmmaker and critic Franois Truffaut connected the dots between Shoot First and Hitchcock, but used the comparison to insult the movie. Shoot First, he wrote, "corresponds to the idea that half-witted critics have about Hitchcock, the 'master of suspense.' Here, all is bluff, faked, unseemly effects. Shot in England, this film breathes of English countryside, English soberness, English humor, English flatness, English nonexistence. Not one invention, not one detail, not a single idea." I think most moviegoers enjoy Shoot First more than Truffaut did, partly because it calls up memories of Hitchcock, and partly because of its excellent acting. Keyes is lively and strong as Cecily, and Lom, who's best remembered now for his six Pink Panther pictures, almost steals the picture as Sandorski, "making a completely engaging character out of what's intended as a caricature," to quote the Variety review. And not even Truffaut could find a bad word for McCrea, who must have enjoyed this sort-of-vacation from westerns very much.
Director: Robert Parrish
Producer: Raymond Stross
Screenplay: Eric Ambler; adapted from the novel A Rough Shoot by Geoffrey Household
Cinematographer: Stanley Pavey
Film Editing: Russell Lloyd
Art Direction: Ivan King
Music: Hans May
With: Joel McCrea (Tanie), Evelyn Keyes (Cecily), Herbert Lom (Sandorski), Marius Goring (Hiart), Roland Culver (Randall), Karel Stepanek (Diss), David Hurst (Lex), Frank Lawton (Hassingham), Patricia Laffan (Magda), Megs Jenkins (Mrs. Powell), Laurence Naismith (Blossom), Cyril Raymond (Cartwright), Denis Lehrer (Reimann), Powys Thomas (Ambulance Driver), Robert Dickens (Tommy), Ellis Irving (Wharton), Clement McCallin (Inspector Sullivan), Jack McNaughton (Inspector Matthews), Arnold Bell (Sergeant Baines), Joan Hickson (Woman Station Announcer)
by David Sterritt