Officer #1: [leans in] "This is a sabotage job..."
Officer #2: "...and a pretty long shot, what ever way you look at it. No one would blame you if you don't think you're up to it."
Stevenson: When would you want me to start, sir?"
Officer #2: "Tonight!"
This is how we're introduced to the 1943 British production, The Adventures of Tartu, also known as Sabotage Agent. It's a perfect start to a perfect spy film; the trail ahead is constantly changing and treacherous, and without a quick wit and a steady hand, death is possible with the slightest mistake. It's this bravery that brings him to the attention of British military intelligence. Stevenson, a Romanian-born Brit who went to university in Germany (studying chemical engineering), and perfectly fluent in both languages, is chosen to go into Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to destroy a munitions factory that is producing poison gas "on a huge scale". He's given a cover alias, that of Romanian chemist Jan Tartu, a chemical expert, and a member of the pro-Nazi Romanian "Iron Guard".
Contrary to the typical spy archetype, Tartu is a bit of a twit. He's a twit, a charmer, a dapper slickster, and a gigolo, described by a Brit agent as "an officer, but not a gentleman". He dazzles the Nazis with double-speak and tomfoolery, all the while disguising a hard, metal gaze. It's very much along the line of Tyrone Power's magnificent killer buffoon in the 1940 classic, The Mark of Zorro. Donat plays most every moment with guile and mobile charm. There are no wasted facial expressions, and his timing is that of a master comedian; constantly shifting, adapting to every new danger. There are, in spite of these skills, moments when Captain Stevenson is forced to bear some completely intolerable stuff, and we do see him peer out of his Taru mask, horrified. Stevenson, after all, is not the fool that Tartu is; he's a very human being...one who feels every atrocity to the bone.
Donat is really impressive in this one. He has all the charm of a Ronald Colman, and that classic British steel that one requires for this type of thing is his in spades. In many ways, this film is more John Buchan-esque than Donat's actual Buchan film, The 39 Steps. Tartu could very well be one of Buchan's stalwart, stiff-upper-lip British heroes, playing the fool one moment, then killing the enemy with a chilling calm the next. It's amazing to me how exciting and ever-shifting the vibe is throughout Tartu, when one considers that the director, Harold S. Bucquet, was mostly known for the Dr. Kildare series. I enjoyed those Kildare movies for sure, but I had no idea that something this amazing was in him! It goes to show that a solid director, given a killer script, and an amazing cast (Valerie Hobson, co-star of another spy-type masterpiece, Q Planes, was in-credible here), can produce miracles!
Robert Donat is one of those interesting, nearly-ignored figures in pre-40's film (though he did work post-1940, it seems that his only recognised works are in the 30's). Like Ronald Colman, and to a lesser degree William Powell, that 1940 cut-off point left much of his best work relegated to us film geeks, with one or two currently known features to their names. I think it's tragic. If it hadn't been for films like The 39 Steps, Lost Horizon, and even The Thin Man, these amazingly skilled and charismatic actors would be almost completely unknown outside the "movie buff" ghetto. It amazes me when I'm talking with people who love film, yet haven't heard of some of their other classics.
In any case, for any lover of classic spy films, Republic serials, and also of pulp magazines, there is no movie that feels more as if it has been lifted right off the pages of a Pulp! The Adventures of Tartu is pure old school espionage in motion, and Robert Donat plays it as perfectly as a Pulp fan would wish! Add to that the original James Bond-type powerhouse ending (very nearly science fiction), and you have nothing short of perfection!
I really can't urge a fan of classic film too strongly to see this; it's just about my favourite adventure movie of all time!
A side note: Beware hacked-up versions. The Adventures of Tartu is 103 minutes!
There is a very good complete version on this inexpensive set (HERE)