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  Odette Wife, Mother And Spy
Year: 1950
Director: Herbert Wilcox
Stars: Anna Neagle, Trevor Howard, Marius Goring, Peter Ustinov, Bernard Lee, Maurice Buckmaster, Alfred Schieske, Gilles Quéant, Marianne Walla, Fritz Wendhausen
Genre: WarBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: During World War II, the British forces needed all the help they could get to counter the Nazi menace, and that included their intelligence services which were keen to recruit anyone who could convincingly move among the Continent's occupied territories and relay information back to Britain, and contact resistance in regions like France. Further to that, it is the reason Odette Sansom (Anna Neagle) was recruited, after she sent in photographs of her French homeland to British Intelligence as a way of assisting them after a nationwide plea; she lived in England with her three children and husband, an ordinary housewife to her mind, but the authorities saw potential in her...

This was a true story, the tale of a heroic Frenchwoman who happened to do a lot of good in foiling the Occupation in her native country yet went to her grave claiming she was nothing special, a model of humility. However, if she was humble, her bravery was anything but, and the husband and wife director-star team of Herbert Wilcox and Anna Neagle set about bringing her story to the screen, yes, as a vehicle for Neagle, but also as a sincere tribute to Odette at a time when the war was fresh in millions of minds and the globe was pondering where to go from here, and how to prevent the atrocity of the conflict ever happening again. One method was to replay events.

Not in real life, one hastens to add, but in dramatic form, so as the fifties began and austerity was continuing to bite, films, television, radio and the written word relived the highs and lows of the war for the benefit of those who were there and the future generations, all of whom may have been questioning if it had all been worth it. Certainly with an enormity like this, with all its sights that could never be unseen and actions that could never be taken back, there was a definite requirement to stay optimistic, and an account like Odette's was very useful in that, here appealing to the female audience who were by no means left out of the British film industry's world war obsession.

The common conception was that war fiction and biopics were for the boys, but Neagle had a huge female following and her subject here was proof that we had all been in this together when it came to overcoming evil. In their endeavours to stay as unglamorous as possible, she and Wilcox kept the project low key, so there were no scenes with the star in her accustomed gowns and no musical numbers which she was more than capable of, she was deadly serious this time around and to all reports dedicated herself to authenticity above all things. She spent months researching the role with Sansom and once they were satisfied that they could do her justice, went ahead and created one of the early hits of the fifties war movie boom, her fans living every moment of suspense and ordeal with Odette.

It had to be said, in this drive to approach this as far from the American flagwaving, all-action model of war picture, for the first hour at least this could be a dry experience, and you did ask whether Wilcox, never the most adventurous of directors, was the right man for the job. It was all very well adhering to the facts and concocting a near-documentary tone (the actual head of British Intelligence, Maurice Buckmaster, played himself), but there was another motive for watching war on screen that was not always acknowledged, which was that it could set the adrenaline pumping in exciting battle sequences or close shaves. But of course, Odette was captured, and worse than that tortured to tell what she knew, and once that occurred this film became very sobering indeed; it was subtly portrayed, but we were in no doubt that she had been treated horrendously by the most callous human beings imaginable, that this was a woman being tortured made it even worse, and almost despite itself the film turns unexpectedly powerful after the hour mark. Most of that was in the writing, but also Neagle's performance: you could tell this meant a lot to her, and that mattered to us too. Music by Anthony Collins.

[Odette has been released on Blu-ray by Studio Canal. The extras are as follows...

Those British Faces: Anna Neagle, New interview with Sebastian Faulks, Afternoon Plus with Mavis Nicholson - Interview with Odette Sansom (1980), Captain Peter Churchill And Odette Sansom Get Married In London (1947).]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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