You'd have to be some kind of crummy Englishman to play an espionage agent and not be all suave and dashing. It's probably the accent. Today, James Mason isn't acclaimed for his leading man prowess, and nowadays if he's referred to, it's probably by Eddie Izzard in one of his stand up routines. Mason is more lauded for his memorable character turns in films like HEAVEN CAN WAIT, THE VERDICT, and MURDER BY DECREE (where he is fantastic as Watson). But, once upon a time, James Mason did take on leading man roles, and he was tremendous. Case in point, this rather fantastic (yet obscure) 1944 British spy thriller, CANDLELIGHT IN ALGERIA. If you get an opportunity, do yourself a favor and dust off this old chestnut.
James Mason pretty much classes up whatever joint he steps into. He plays Alan Thurston, a fugitive British agent caught in a desperate race against German operatives. His mission is to unearth a roll of film which reveals the secret location of the planned Allied invasion of North Africa. Carla Lehmann is marvelous as Susan Ann Foster, the plucky and resourceful American girl (visiting from Kansas) who abets Thurston (and naturally falls in love with him). CANDLELIGHT IN ALGERIA is mostly framed as a flashback story and told from the girl's perspective. The film's opening moments present a scene in which the Allied soldiers are triumphantly marching thru the Algerian streets and, in a nearby hospice, a recuperating Susan Foster wonders if the gallant British agent had survived his mission. At which point, roll the flashback...
What makes James Mason so watchable is that you could sense some sort of turmoil stirring beneath the calm facade. No one can do buttoned-down melancholy quite like Mr. Mason. In a way, it's a refreshing change of pace that, for this flick, he rolls with a more heroic, more dapper sensibility. Mason is practically breezy in this role. He displays a wry affability and a keen sense of humor, and I loved the witty banter exchanged between him and Carla Lehmann. Their first encounter, as Lehmann initially demurs from helping Mason, and Mason airily tells her (as only Mason could deliver it): "Okay, Kansas, pull your chin in. No one's going to shoot you." That's when I knew I was in good hands, and was in for a good time.
I love these old school WWII spy thrillers, and if they're British, then all the better. You can't beat stuff like THE THIRTY NINE STEPS, THE LADY VANISHES, PIMPERNEL SMITH, and FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (this last one may not be British-made). CANDLELIGHT IN ALGERIA is gripping and presents an exotic flavor, taking place as it does in Algiers. Place like that, fraught with that pensive wartime atmosphere, one almost can't help but engage in international intrigue and close shaves and desperate romance. James Mason has never been more cool or stiff-upper-lipped than when he's playing taut cat & mouse games with the Nazis' chillingly perceptive chief investigator Dr. Muller (a menacing Walter Rilla). Who knew James Mason could be so at ease flirting with danger in the casbah. Running at a well-paced 81 minutes, CANDLELIGHT IN ALGERIA is an all-around intelligent and classy production, never mind that James Mason for a while insists on wearing that ridiculous fez.