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Cipher Bureau 1938
Description: The younger brother of an officer in a secret government code-breaking unit gets involved with a gang of spies and a pretty double agent.
Released: 26 Oct 1938 Director: Charles Lamont Writers: Arthur Hoerl (story), Arthur Hoerl, Monroe Shaff (story) Actors: Leon Ames, Charlotte Wynters, Joan Woodbury, Don Dillaway Genres: Action, Drama
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Cipher Bureau Reviews:

After Globe Fight I, an Units cryptological unit colloquially known as The American Black Chamber was eliminated by Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson in 1929. The unit, headed by Herbert O. Yardley, gained worldwide fame when Yardley wrote his bestselling _The American Black Chamber_, detailing the operations of the group.This movie seems to have been patterned on equivalent activities. The primary storyline is one of those involving a double agent, and the parallel activities the Cipher Bureau is doing in cracking secret messages.While the storyline elements have been used before and will be used in the future, what sets this movie apart is its cryptological elements. In many movies involving secret communications, only a nod is made toward the current solving encrypted messages. A significant amount of the footage illustrates various means of encrypting and decrypting messages, some of them fairly serious. The only another movie I can think of that tries to bring some sense of understanding to the globe of cryptology is the 2002 film, Enigma.To be sure, modern codebreaking uses pc analysis to break ciphers, or at least test to. But the techniques of primary cryptanalysis are shown, and are a foundation for more advanced work. Viewing the movie will not turn the viewer into a cryptanalyst, but it will "lift the curtain" a bit, and may bring a bit of appreciation to an art that is rather arcane.


Movies released by Grand National tend to be slow-moving and talky, but this 1938 spy drama set in the globe of Navy code-breakers (produced by Fine Arts Movies for Grand National--in the studio's final months, most of their releases were pick-ups by another production companies) moves quickly, has a several interesting subplots, and gives a lot of nuts-and-bolts features about the globe of cryptography (much like the serial THE SECRET CODE, although that was aimed at children and this is aimed at adults). Director Charles Lamont had directed some fine mysteries at Chesterfield (another outfit that tended toward talky, set-bound productions but had a higher batting average than Grand National)in the early and mid-30s, and he was a nice choice to helm this project. Also, star Leon Ames--whose credits range from testing Doris Day's father to testing the neighbor on the Mr. Ed. TV present to testing a crusading doctor in the classic exploitation hygiene drama NO GREATER SIN--is a reliable actor who pulls in the audience so we are as "into" the features of code analysis almost as much as he is, and we feel his anxiety, his impatience, and his excitement. The manner is which the code will be transmitted in the climactic stage is telegraphed early in the movie (I'll allow YOU figure that out for yourself--any fanatic of murder mysteries will spot the detail), but that shouldn't spoil the excitement. Don Dillaway plays Major Waring's (Ames) tiny brother, Lt. Waring, and gives a Dean Benton-like performance as the immature, impulsive young boy who gets involved with German spy Joan Woodbury(!!!). All in all, the movie is a solid piece of work and could appeal to fanatics of pre-WWII spy films. Incidentally, about six months after this, Grand National released a SECOND movie starring Ames and his assistant (Charlotte Wynters) testing the same roles, entitled PANAMA PATROL, Grand National went under later after, so the series never went beyond two entires. I haven't seen PANAMA PATROL in years, but if I stumble across my copy, I will review it.



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