Friday, October 28, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: David Harding, Counterspy (1950)

The radio adventure Counterspy (or David Harding, Counterspy, as it was occasionally called) was the third series in what the late OTR historian Jim Harmon once described as a “Triumvirate of Tension” …because Counterspy, Gang Busters, and Mr. District Attorney were all produced by the legendary Phillips H. Lord.  While Gang Busters set its sights on police work and Mr. District Attorney on the justice system, Counterspy—which premiered during wartime, on May 18, 1942 over the Blue Network (later ABC)—took the espionage route, highlighting cases from the WW2 counterintelligence unit known as the United States Counterspies.

“Hold on, Ian!” I hear some of you saying.  (Particularly since you’ve gotten my name wrong yet again.)  “United States Counterspies?  Did I fall asleep in history class when that agency was discussed?”  You most certainly did not, my friend.  (If there was any napping to be done, your humble narrator was probably way ahead of you.)  There was no such animal; the “USC” was created by producer Lord to get around any potential conflict surrounding the series’ content (Lord had already had a tussle with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in the days when Gang Busters was known as G-Men, and he was not anxious to repeat the experience).  Counterspy began in its halcyon days telling fictionalized tales of counterintelligence agents matching wits against Germany’s Gestapo and Japan’s Black Dragon…but since the U.S. of A. is constantly in a state of perpetual war (I believe there was a week in 2009 when there wasn’t a war going on—but I could be wrong), it was a cakewalk to shift the program’s focus to the Cold War once WW2 ended.

Counterspy was an ABC staple from 1942 to 1950, then moved to NBC for three years before finishing out its lengthy radio run on Mutual, calling it quits on November 29, 1957.  House Jameson (The Man Who Would Be Sam Aldrich) was David Harding in the inaugural telecast, and then Don McLaughlin took over…with Mandel Kramer portraying Harding’s assistant Peters (who, as a government employee, earned a salary so low he could not afford a first name).  (Both McLaughlin and Kramer would work together on the daytime drama As the World Turns; McLaughlin played “Chris Hughes” on that TV series for close to thirty years.)  Counterspy was a popular program on radio (aimed toward a juvenile audience with sponsors including Bit-O-Honey and Pepsi, it was also unbending in its depiction of violence) but to offer up an alternative perspective, one critic (per Jim Cox’s Radio Crime Fighters) described the show’s characters as “by-the-book, humorless, heavy-footed, hard-nosed, unromantic federal agents.”

Which brings us to David Harding, Counterspy—a 1950 Columbia picture produced to cash in on the fame of the radio program.  The studio had enjoyed much success with movies based on radio properties like Crime Doctor and The Whistler, but since many of their other film franchises (Boston Blackie, The Lone Wolf) were closing shop by late 1949, Columbia looked for new B-picture fields to plow.  Why Don McLaughlin—once described as having “the most American voice on the air”—wasn’t considered to reprise his radio gig for the new movie series is a question I can’t answer; instead, Columbia decided to use contract player Howard St. John—who, despite having appeared in four  previous Columbia features including The Undercover Man (1949) and 711 Ocean Drive (1950), receives the ever-popular “introducing” in the opening cast credits.

In David Harding, Counterspy, the titular “United States Counterspies” head has radio commentator Charles Kingston (Alex Gerry) brought in after hearing Kingston broadcast a criticizing story about scientific information being stolen by a foreign government.  Kingston naturally wants to know why the USC has put the snatch on him…and instead of simply explaining that the outfit can do whatever the hell they want (and often did on the radio version), Harding tells him an anecdote of a 1943 incident involving a California torpedo manufacturing plant, where naval officer Phil Iverson is contacted about the possibility of enemy agents obtaining top secret information and sabotaging plant operations.  Iverson agrees to pass along any information he digs up to Harding…but not long after his initial contact with the USC, Iverson dies of asphyxiation after a fire breaks out in his apartment.  His widow Betty (Audrey Long) accepts the coroner’s jury verdict that the death was accidental…but Harding has his doubts.

As such, Harding taps Lt. Comdr. Jerry Baldwin (Willard Parker) to take Iverson’s place…with Betty, who was Phil’s secretary before and after they tied the knot, persuaded to come back and work as Baldwin’s secretary.  (There’s a little romantical history between the two as well…with Jerry nobly allowing Phil to have Betty despite his strong feelings for her.)  With Baldwin’s help—and the dedication of the straight-shootin’ agents of the USC, who are humorously chewed out by Harding for screwing up from time to time—those saboteurs will soon be brought to heel and the United States of America will once again be the yardstick by which truth, justice, and the American Way are measured.

There’s not a lot of “noir” in David Harding, Counterspy; the only saving grace of the film is that as a Cold War relic, it’s a fascinating look at the political tenor of the times.  Facebook chum Hal Erickson writes in From Radio to the Big Screen that the movie has difficulty matching its “powerhouse opening” with what follows: “If all this [Harding’s lecturing Kingston] seems incredible to modern viewers inured by the whistle-blowing, tell-all journalism seen on the various cable news channels, remember that David Harding, Counterspy was made in the middle of the Cold War, when you just plain didn’t question any action perpetrated by the U.S. Government (at least not out loud).”  While I disagree with Hal’s point about “journalism” (personally, I don’t think people on the tee vee machine tell-all or whistle-blow enough), I am in concurrence that the flashback to the earlier war incident robs Counterspy of a great deal of potentially interesting filmmaking.

St. John’s portrayal of Harding kind of makes the character a bit of a wanker, to be honest; at one point in the movie he tells Baldwin—after Jerry admits he doesn’t like him very much—“My boy, you'll find very few human beings who do.”  (Mother Harding: “It’s true…my boy has been a douchenozzle since the day he was born.”)  It’s been a while since I’ve listened to any surviving Counterspy broadcasts…but I don’t remember David Harding being such a tool as interpreted by Don McLaughlin.  (And really: would you entrust Howard St. John with a government agency after his bad guy turns in Born Yesterday or Li’l Abner?  I sure wouldn’t.)

Audrey Long is best-remembered for the film noirs Desperate and Born to Kill (both 1947), and she acquits herself nicely here as the sympathetic Betty; Willard Parker (who played Joel McCrea’s role in the TV version of Tales of the Texas Rangers) is an okay if obnoxious hero; and I smiled when I spotted Raymond Greenleaf (as the company doc)—last seen in this space as the crooked governor in FBI Girl (1951).  The best asset in David Harding, Counterspy is the presence of Mister John Dehner as one of Harding’s agents (Frank Reynolds); which lets Mr. D trot out both Swedish and Southern accents during his undercover work.  (“I’m a Southerner,” he declares to nurse Jean Willes, who retorts drily “I never would have guessed.”)  The movie also has a carryover from the radio show in a character referred to as “Peters” (still no first name), played by future Earth vs. the Flying Saucers director Fred F. Sears.

Columbia’s Counterspy franchise was short-lived: the studio released one more title in Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard that same year before abandoning the idea (we will visit with this movie in a future edition of Forgotten Noir Fridays, with the good news being that Dehner is in that one, too).  Directed by B-Western veteran Ray Nazarro with story and screenplay by Clint Johnston and Tom Reed, David Harding, Counterspy is worth a look for those of us who enjoy seeing radio properties brought to the silver screen.  Oh, there’s a notification on the Forgotten Noir Vol. 7 box informing us that with the VCI DVD release, this is the first time David Harding, Counterspy has been shown since 1961.  I will leave you to make the appropriate joke.


rnigma said...

Peters did have a first name, and it was mentioned several times on the radio show; it was Harry.

Oddly, the 1950 episodes of the radio show (at least the ones I've heard) never plugged or mentioned the movie.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

rnigma called for order:

Peters did have a first name, and it was mentioned several times on the radio show; it was Harry.

Hey, thanks for clearing that up -- I've only listened to a handful of the shows, and didn't find it there or in any of my OTR reference books.

Oddly, the 1950 episodes of the radio show (at least the ones I've heard) never plugged or mentioned the movie.

Well, the "United States Counterspies" always was a secretive agency.