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At the end of Casablanca (1942), resistance leader Paul Henreid and his gorgeous wife Ingrid Bergman take off by plane for Lisbon. In The Conspirators (1944), resistance leader Paul Henreid escapes from Holland and arrives in Lisbon, where he joins other members of the underground to fight the Nazis. Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre are also on hand, but otherwise the similarities to Casablanca end there. Instead of Bergman, we have Hedy Lamarr (a ravishing screen presence but not nearly as good an actress), and instead of the magical combination of romance, humor, and first-rate dialogue, we have a noticeably weaker script and story.
Maybe it's unfair to compare any movie to Casablanca, but The Conspirators was made by Warner Bros. specifically to recreate some of the Casablanca magic (and more importantly, the Casablanca box office receipts). It's interesting to see the movie and look at why it didn't really work. It's a handsome production, with great sets, costumes and cinematography, but the characters and story just don't cast a spell. Lamarr was billed as the world's most beautiful woman when she arrived in Hollywood in 1938 from Austria, but her skill in picking roles did not match her looks; she turned down the role of Ilsa in Casablanca because "I thought that story was too complex." And so she found herself most often cast in second-tier films as an exotic woman of mystery. Her movies made money, however (including The Conspirators). She was gorgeous, and that has always been as good a reason as any for audiences to go to the movies.
Paul Henreid seemed to agree with the general assessment of Lamarr in his autobiography, writing that "The Conspirators...was my first movie with Hedy Lamarr, and my first introduction to her brand of wooden acting." He goes on about how the combination of Lamarr's lousy intuitions and Jean Negulesco's general incompetence in directing bad actors led the director to implore Henreid to secretly and subtly direct the actress for him. Henreid says he didn't want to do it but did it anyway, for the good of the picture.
Producer Hal Wallis was fired by Jack Warner early in the shoot because Warner was infuriated that Wallis got so many on-stage mentions on Oscar® night, since two movies Wallis had produced - Casablanca and Dark Victory - claimed most of the awards. With Wallis gone, all the footage that had been shot for The Conspirators was discarded, the script was changed, and some sets had to be rebuilt from scratch. The stars started making unreasonable demands, and the picture became secretly known around the lot as "The Constipators," starring "Headache Lamarr" and "Paul Hemorrhoid." Luckily, supporting players Greenstreet and Lorre remained professional and committed to the picture, and their scenes are probably the best thing about the movie. This was the fifth of eight movies the duo made together.
The movie was savaged not only by critics but even by Frederic Prokosch, the author of the novel on which the film was based, who wrote a critique of it in The New Republic. For young director Jean Negulesco, it was a tough pill to swallow, especially after his previously acclaimed film, The Mask of Dimitrios (1943). A kind, understanding letter from veteran director Edmund Goulding helped Negulesco through it. "I beg you not to take The Conspirators to heart," Goulding wrote. "I have a feeling that the little smacks in the reviews might be creeping somewhere into your insides, and I would be very sorry if they did¿ Take the advice of an old pal and sweat, from now on, on the script. Stall, delay, do anything¿ get the script right. I had an experience exactly like The Conspirators once and out of it came a nervous breakdown. Everyone has them and they hurt. And you, essentially a painter and artist, are probably hurt more than the man who entered the business via the real estate business." Negulesco was so touched by the letter that he reprinted it in his memoirs with the hope that it might "go one helping a few honest beginners who make their life a challenge to aim for perfection."
Producer: Jack Chertok, Jack L. Warner
Director: Jean Negulesco
Screenplay: Vladimir Pozner, Leo Rosten, Frederic Prokosch (novel)
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Film Editing: Rudi Fehr
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Hedy Lamarr (Irene Von Mohr), Paul Henreid (Vincent Van Der Lyn), Sydney Greenstreet (Ricardo Quintanilla), Peter Lorre (Bernazsky), Victor Francen (Hugo Von Mohr), Joseph Calleia (Capt. Pereira).
BW-102m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold