Sunday, September 23, 2007

For the Common Defense!

For the Common Defense! is a short and rather frantic tale of espionage and dodgy dealing in wartime Latin America.

Presented as a dramatized true story, and introduced by a man who it is claimed is a subprefect from the Chilean Bureau of Investigations, the film's blatantly propagandistic motives depend upon generating some verisimilitude. At the same time, however, all its conventions are taken pretty much directly from film noir. A criminal on the lam and hiding down South from his disreputable past up North is trapped by German and Japanese agents into taking a cargo of counterfeit currency up to Colombia. He's found out and the plot is ultimately foiled thanks to the smooth collaboration between Chilean, US, and Colombian police services.

Hence the moral of the story: crime doesn't pay; and hemispheric cooperation will "ultimately smash and obliterate any foreign criminals who may try to undermine our liberty and our way of life."

But the demands of entertainment and the demands of propaganda are at some odds. Indeed, the propaganda message is somewhat incoherent and ill-focussed: the criminal here is not, after all, "foreign"; and it's not at all clear to whom the film is addressed. After all, the US public were no doubt already alert to be suspicious of Germans named Adolf who praise the news of Japan's Pearl Harbor strikes. Perhaps the real message is that if you try to escape the law by fleeing to Latin America, you may wind up with a stickier end than that prescribed by any US courthouse. So Latin America is not the safe haven it appears: the long arm of the law reaches even down to Chile, and there people are likely to shoot first and ask questions later.

At the same time, we can't help but feel some sympathy for Dutch Mullner, aka James Buckley, the criminal protagonist. He did after all first get angry with Adolf the photographic assistants' anti-American sentiments. And then he tried to refuse the mission that the Axis agents pressed upon him. Indeed, if the film were much longer it might become a full-blooded noir vehicle, in which ambivalence would dominate over the cut-and-dried message that the War Department otherwise wanted to put across.

So this is a curtailed movie, whose Latin Americanism is cut short just as it threatens to get going. And this in itself says something about the ways in which filmic Latin Americanism subverts even the most insistent of official discourses.

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