’13 Rue Madeleine’ on TCM

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.

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Plays on Thursday, March 14 on TCM

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