Sarah Albee: Reel Bugs: Highly Dangerous

From: Sarah Albee
June 29, 2012 at 05:43AM

Loyal readers of this blog know that from time to time, I like to review insect-themed horror movies. (For my previous reviews, you can search “Reel Bugs.”) I do this A) because these movies are a good way to understand the historical relationship humans have had with insects, which is a theme of my upcoming book, and B) because these movies are a guilty pleasure of mine. Today’s movie review: Highly Dangerous (1950). OK, it’s a stupid title. And you wouldn’t know it’s about insects to look at the poster. But it’s a fun movie, and insects play a big role.

One of the early incarnations of a long line of beautiful female actresses playing improbably-hot Scientists with Advanced Degrees, Margaret Lockwood plays a beautiful scientist, Frances Gray, who is the top entomologist in the UK.  (Unlike the female scientists in many movies of this genre, at least Margaret Lockwood is in her early thirties, rather than early twenties, so she would have had time to acquire an advanced degree, if not a husband.) She’s sent as a citizen-spy, posing as a tour director, to investigate possible scientific experiments involving the breeding of insects for use in biological germ warfare in a fictionalized Balkan country. Her mission? To steal some of these disease-carrying insects.

The actors playing the inhabitants of this Balkan country have to speak a mock-language full of harsh gutteral sounds and glottal stops, and they have to wear funny fez hats made of terry cloth with little fringy tassles. Frances does a terrible job pretending not to be a spy, and her cover is blown almost immediately when the Ominous Chief of Police (played by Marius Goring wearing what looks like a duct-tape moustache and eyebrows) glances into her shoulder bag and discovers her microscope and other scientific equipment.

After she’s released from custody (having been injected with a truth serum in an effort to get her to reveal who she’s working for), an American journalist named Bill Casey (Dane Clark) agrees to help her with her eponymous highly dangerous task because he’s been banished to this God-forsaken country by dumb comments he made to his editor, and he’s hoping to crack a big story so he can get back in his editor’s good graces and get stationed in a better place.

The movie is not terribly suspenseful, at times Highly Tedious, but it’s a cool commentary on the Cold War. During World War II, many pharmaceutical companies won great prestige for their triumphant control of insects at the front, and their newly-developed insecticides had prevented epidemics of many insect-vectored diseases.  The Swiss chemist who discovered DDT’s use as an insecticide, Paul Muller, was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1948. So what could be better than a beautiful, patriotic entomologist working to combat the Red Menace?

My favorite part–spoiler alert!!!–is when Frances and Bill finally realize they were meant for one another. (This happens as they’re crouching behind an electrified enemy fence with alarms going off, dogs barking, and gunshots rat-a-tatting all around them.) Frances shows Bill the little vial of black bugs they’ve just stolen. He says something like “huh, funny little critters,” or some such. And then we see a gauzy close-up of her face, and she says, “They don’t disgust you?” And he says. “No. They’re just insects.” Then she smiles. The violins swell. They kiss. It’s awesome.


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