powered by AFI
The World War II spy thriller 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) is built around no less than the creation of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). A newsreel-like prologue that recounts the origins of the military intelligence network that later became the CIA, put together from the ground up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor with military and civilian recruits alike, segues from documentary to docudrama to follow a team of agents from their initial training to a vital mission in Nazi-occupied France. The film takes its name from the address of Gestapo headquarters in the port city of Le Havre on the Normandy coast, a location that dominates the finale of the film, and builds its fictional mission on the real threat of the German V-1 missiles and the Allied campaign of misinformation in the lead-up to D-Day.
13 Rue Madeleine was the second feature from producer Louis de Rochemont, who previously spent a decade producing the "March of Time" newsreel series, the most widely seen non-fiction films on American screens. In many ways it is an unofficial sequel to his feature debut The House on 92nd Street (1945), a wartime espionage thriller based on the real-life case of the FBI tracking down a ring of German spies in New York City. De Rochemont's background informed the film: it was based on a true story and largely shot on location, and the espionage drama, which was defined as much by the workaday procedure of the American agents as by the melodramatic storyline and the exotic danger of covert spies and double agents, was framed by authoritative narration. De Rochemont and director Henry Hathaway brought a realist aesthetic to the studio thriller and reunited with screenwriter John Monks, Jr., narrator Reed Hadley, and veteran cinematographer Norbert Brodine for 13 Rue Madeleine. Brodine's mix of natural light, location shooting, and "you are there" docu-drama compositions with heightened, expressionist lighting and dramatic angles to build tension in key scenes helped define de Rochemont's influential approach.
James Cagney plays Bob Sharkey, a founder of America's new counter-intelligence agency. The character was originally modeled on OSS founder William "Wild Bill" Donovan, but Donovan objected to the film's portrayal of the agency. The organization was renamed 077 in the film and similarities to Donovan were obscured in rewrites. Cagney had formed Cagney Productions with his brother, Bill, in 1942, and was still under contract to Warner Bros., but he took time out to take the lead in 13 Rue Madeleine for Fox, partly as a favor to Darryl Zanuck and partly for a generous paycheck to help float his struggling production company.
Cagney's screen legacy, from ruthless gangster to urban tough guy to maverick hero, and his physical presence and athletic prowess, from the bounce he adds to his lessons in combat training to the ferocity of his fighting on the mission, sells his authority and his credentials as an American spymaster. His team is practically a cross-section of the Allied effort: the confident, street smart urban guy (Richard Conte), the fresh-faced, all-American idealist (Frank Latimore), the young French war widow (Annabella), and the fatherly British veteran (Melville Cooper) who serves as Bob's right hand man. Sam Jaffe co-stars as the flustered French mayor of the coastal village trying to placate the occupying German forces. And keep an eye out for some uncredited appearances by future stars Karl Malden (as the jump master on the first mission), Red Buttons (jump master on the second mission), and E.G. Marshall (the mayor's driver).
The preliminary remarks following the credits (in type resembling a teletype message) promises audiences that the film was "photographed in the field and, wherever possible, at the actual locations." In fact, most of the interior scenes were shot on studio sets and Quebec City doubled for many of the French locations, though the film does make good use of second-unit footage for establishing shots and backdrops.
Even though the producers claim the film to be based on a true story (shots of official government records and files pulled from the archives help sell the idea) and hired real-life OSS veteran Peter Ortiz to serve as the film's technical advisor, ostensibly adding a level of legitimacy to the film's portrayal of the training regimen and mission details, 13 Rue Madeleine is more fiction than fact. This is Hollywood's idea of a heroic espionage thriller in the dirty business of counter-intelligence, complete with a commander personally heading out into the field to right a mission gone wrong. Hardly the stuff of military procedure, but then a two-fisted pug like Cagney was never one for delegating the dirty work or shirking his responsibility. He gives everything to the war effort and his reward is one of the most memorable exits of his career, an explosive moment of sacrifice and salvation captured in the wise-guy cackle of his triumphant laugh as only Cagney can deliver.
by Sean Axmaker
"Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen," Foster Hirsch. Da Capo Press, 1981.
"Cagney," John McCabe. Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
"Cagney," Patrick McGilligan. A.S. Barnes & Co., 1982.
"James Cagney: A Celebration," Richard Schickel. Little, Brown and Company, 1985.
"Film Noir: The Directors," ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 2012.