The Warner Archive continues its string of burn-to-order releases of "Poverty Row" B movies that were originally produced by other studios. The latest release, I Escaped From the Gestapo, is a real hoot that was originally produced by Monogram Pictures, which afforded budgets to directors and producers that were only slightly more extravagant than those spent on home movies. The film is primarily remembered as a would-be vehicle for actress Frances Farmer, who was not able to continue filming due to her legendary mental breakdown that resulted in her being institutionalized. Beyond that tragic association, however, the movie is a relentlessly upbeat, over-the-top propaganda film that afforded a rare leading role to Dean Jagger. The opening plot device is actually rather clever. It finds Jagger as Torgen Lane, a master forger and counterfeiter who is doing time in a federal prison. He finds himself the center of an audacious and dangerous plot to break him out of "stir" (to use the jargon of the era.) The plan succeeds and Lane is brought to meet his mysterious benefactors. It turns out they are a ring of counterfeiters themselves and they make their headquarters in an administrative office of a bustling amusement arcade. The head of the ring is Martin (John Carradine), a seemingly friendly but business-like man who explains to Lane that he's now working for them. Lane suspects he has just been sprung from prison in order to become a prisoner of sorts once again. Martin tells him that the ring needs his talents to spread counterfeit money and that he'll be handsomely rewarded, but it means being confined for much of the day in a small room and under constant supervision. Lane soon discovers that the ring has a more nefarious purpose: it's actually a front for Gestapo agents who are using the phony money to flood the national economies of the Allied nations in the hopes of wrecking their economies. They also use the novelty booth in which servicemen can record greetings to their families and sweethearts in order to gain information about troop and ship movements that they use to devastating effect. Upon hearing this, Lane does what all truly stupid movie heroes do: instead of playing it cool, he let's them know he is on to them. Not surprisingly, the Nazis are unswayed by his threats and immediately promise to kill his elderly mother if he doesn't continue to cooperate. It will spoil nothing to tell readers that, in the end, Lane emerges triumphant. He may be a no good, counterfeiting scoundrel but dammit, he's a patriotic American no good, counterfeiting scoundrel who isn't about to let these goose-stepping goons lay a finger on Uncle Sam.
The film, directed by one Harold Young, moves at a brisk clip through its abbreviated 76 minute running time. The wise-cracking Jagger makes for an amusing leading man and Mary Brian is thrown in as attractive window dressing, playing a girl who works in the arcade who establishes a flirty relationship with Lane. In the film's most unintentionally funny sequence, Lane uses psychological tactics to persuade a young German agent that Brian represents everything that is pure in America, from its women to its music. He even plays records of classical German symphonies that were banned under Hitler. After a few short hours of this persuasion, the young Nazi is practically vying to be the next John Wayne. Half the fun is watching the inimitable John Carradine in full stock company villain mode. There were few actors who could do so much with such lame material and dialogue, but he's a delight to watch. It's also a good deal of fun to relish the scant production values. Most of the "action" is confined to two rooms and the amusement arcade doesn't seem to extend beyond 25 square feet.
The film was re-issued under the title of No Escape, and notes on the DVD sleeve explain that it why this print bares that title. We have no idea why the title was changed except, possibly, because it was somewhat misleading. Gestapo agents were generally seen as menaces within Germany and occupied territories, not as foreign spies. The title clearly implies a thriller set within the German sphere of influence and this is reinforced by a misleading poster that shows a character clad in a Gestapo uniform that never appears on screen.
The fact that such B movies are now being made available in pristine DVD editions is something to celebrate. Although these modest productions afforded modest pleasures, they represent a bygone era of film-making that is, fortunately, now being preserved for posterity.