Some algorithm caused a film, International Settlement, to appear in my YouTube offerings. Released in February 1938, directed by Eugene Forde, lensed by Lucien Andriot, and starring (among others) Delores del Rio, George Sanders and (the fabulous) June Lang, it briefly replaced Blockade as my designated first US spy noir. The 20th. Century Fox dvd is so sparklingly fresh, it seems as if the film were shot years later, such as in the early 40s.
By several strange quirks, I got a dvd of The General Died at Dawn from a company in Lyon, France – but the dubbing is only in German and the booklet is in German, too. What’s interesting is that the case, in large letters, says “Film Noir.” That’s correct; furthermore, as it was released in October 1936, I now consider this to be the first US spy noir.
There’s more to say about the General Died at Dawn, which was directed by Lewis Milestone, lensed by Victor Milner, starring Gary Cooper and the first of the two queens of spy films/spy noirs, Madeleine Carroll (the second being Valerie Hobson). Until seeing this film, I’d claimed that the first femme fatale in all of film noir (from France, the UK and the US) is played by Dita Parlo in Under Secret Orders, a British spy nor released in December 1937. (Don disagrees, but his entry for the first femme fatale doesn’t even come across to me as a femme fatale at all.) You can read about this film and its fascinating history (and my exchange with Don) here:
Now I believe that the first femme fatale in all of film noir is played by Madeleine Carroll in The General Died at Dawn. However, she is what I’ve termed a “soft” femme fatale, like Valerie Hobson in The Spy in Black (UK, 1939) and Carla Nillson in International Lady (US, 1941), to name two other spy noirs I discuss in-depth on my website.
On the other hand, Dita Parlo (in this, the British version, not the French version shot at the same time and also starring Parlo) is what I’ve termed a “hard” femme fatale, like Gail Patrick in Quiet Please, Murder (US, 1942), another spy noir I discuss in-depth on my website.
For an explanation of the soft femme fatale vs. hard femme fatale, see my page on International Lady.
It seems fitting that the first queen of spy films/spy noirs, Madeleine Carroll, is also the first femme fatale in all of film noir. (This means that I still strongly believe that Don's contention that there is, in 1932, an earlier femme fatale is unjustifiable.)
Here is a extremely brief summary: In The General Died at Dawn, Carroll's father (Porter Hall) whines that because he is dying, he wants money to return to America for his final "six months." Browbeaten and guilt-tripped, Carrol obeys her father's wishes and seduces Gary Cooper into taking a train (which would be dangerous) instead of a plane (which would be much safer). What is the difference? On the train he is vulnerable to being robbed of a belt that holds a lot of money raised from Chinese peasants to buy guns and ammunition to repel a warlord, General Yang (Akim Tamiroff), who is oppressing (and killing) them. Carroll understands that when Yang boards the train, he will not only take away the money belt from Cooper but also kill him. Nursing a hatred of Carroll (since losing the money means he failed the peasants who had raised it), Cooper manages to escape from Tamiroff and his soldiers and goes after Carroll to recover the belt. Carroll, meanwhile, despairs of her role in helping her father. By the end of the film, Yang and her father are dead, and Carroll and Cooper have reconciled and are romantically coupled.