It's a spy romance, called into being by RKO because Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo had just enjoyed success playing spies, Dietrich in Dishonored (1931), Garbo in Mata Hari (1931). With her round, pert, large-eyed face, Bennett immediately disabuses us of any suspicion that she's Betty Boop in a polo coat and dark velvet mushroom-cap hat in a Luxembourg train station desperately trying to get a ticket to Vienna. Her character goes by several names, most notably K-14, a Russian spy hijacking and transmitting Austrian military secrets during World War I. In these days of satellite surveillance and cyber-transmissions, it's almost endearing to see her furtively fold bits of paper into tiny squares to be hidden in hollowed-out coins, or between pages of books. Still, we easily believe in her cleverness and resourcefulness. Taking a first-things-first view, she soon ditches Gilbert Roland's Austrian counter-espionage agent after some romantic byplay after they meet in a Luxembourg train station.
A few cloaks and daggers later, they meet again. She's posing as a Red Cross nurse, the better to extract front-line info and pass it along. He's been sent to the front specifically to find and eliminate the info leaks. Bennett spends most of the film in a long, dark cape that enhances the elegance with which she moves and poses. Earlier, we had seen her as a nightclub singer in Vienna, gowned in black, doing her own singing while working a black ostrich-feather fan, and soon afterward surviving a body search with a cool, self-possessed parting glance that tells the Austrians, and especially us, that she's a tough cookie who knows the score. Bennett's training imparted vocal and movement mastery, although she made light of her acting. We soon forget "Buy a Kiss," the song she sings (and reprises) -- but not the husky voice in which she sings it. She and Gloria Swanson were the great fashion queens of the era. "I'm a lot more sartorial than thespian," she once said. "They come to see me and go out humming the costumes." (A good real-life businesswoman, Bennett prospered with her own clothing and cosmetic lines.)
But while Bennett maintains an onscreen detachment that makes her performance seem a matter of good-naturedly going along with material she's too intelligent to ask us to take too seriously, she does lean meltingly into a kiss with Gilbert on a grassy riverbank, as if she's cynical, voice conveying a rueful world of experience, but wishes nevertheless that love could be possible, despite the heavy odds. This is probably the place to say that RKO wasn't Paramount or MGM, and the world of the film, except for a montage of World War I newsreel combat footage, is strictly a backlot, and at times backlit, Europe, with matte backgrounds and back projections, where the ravages of war never mess up anyone's makeup.
And yet the patent artificiality of what mostly meets our eyes doesn't work against the film. In an odd way, it bolsters the make believe we never doubt is as its heart. This film's Austria isn't that far from W. C. Fields's Klopstockia or Groucho Marx's Fredonia. Roland's woodenness would have cost a film that was trying for realism. But his stiffness here needs only stay out of the way of a good-humored acceptance of all that's exploding around him, including the romance with K-14, and it does, just enough to keep this film on track. (There must have been something in the kisses Bennett and Roland shared - they married several years later, and had two daughters.) The direction of George Archainbaud, a journeyman mostly known for low-budget Westerns on film and TV, keeps things moving efficiently, too. There even are a few - very few - bonuses, such as seeing Mischa Auer show up in a serious role as a counterspy before his career veered into a string of comic Russian stereotypes.
What enables Bennett and the film to slide out from under a heavy-handedly imposed happy ending (Garbo's Mata Hari died; Dietrich's ultimate love in her spy outing seemed to be her black leather costumes) is Bennett's practicality, which comes across as something even more important to a movie than unpretentiousness (not that After Tonight doesn't have a lot to be unpretentious about!). Bennett may not project unattainability to the degree Garbo did. But she does project an independence that includes independence from the silly plot and its trappings. It isn't instinct alone, nor a tension between intimacy and psychological distance. Rather, it's rooted in a reserve that conveys the feeling that's she's saving part of her performance, part of herself, for the audience. Ally this imperative to the discipline she acquired as a trained performer and you can understand the source of Bennett's considerable appeal, whether in close-ups dominated by her luminous eyes, or full-figure frames that show off her graceful movements. It was based on more than just an ability to stand up to the world, and wear clothes well. It's surprising she isn't better remembered.
Director: George Archainbaud
Screenplay: Albert Shelby LeVino, Worthington Miner (adaptation); Jane Murfin (story and adaptation); Robert Benchley (uncredited)
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Direction: Al Herman, Van Nest Polglase
Film Editing: William Hamilton
Cast: Constance Bennett (Carla Vanirska, aka K-14 and Karen Schöntag), Gilbert Roland (Capt. Rudolph 'Rudy' Ritter), Edward Ellis (Maj. Lieber), Sam Godfrey (Franz), Lucien Prival (Lt. Erlich), Mischa Auer (Agent Lehan), Ben Hendricks Jr. (Sgt. Probert), Leonid Snegoff (Pvt. Muller), Evelyn Carter Carrington (Frau Stengel)
by Jay Carr