The Intrigue, a 1916 silent feature directed by Frank Lloyd, has its problems but it also offers a chance to see a very early example of the espionage thriller. 106 years from release, however, and it is definitely of greater interest to film historians than general audiences.
When engineer Guy Longstreet (Cecil Van Auker) develops an x-ray-based super weapon, the United States government shows no interest in purchasing the technology. A resentful Longstreet then sells his wares to an anonymous European nation, in a sale arranged by Baron Rogniat (Howard Davies). Seeing the risk it presents, the government of a rival country sends the Countess Varnli (Lenore Ulric) on a secret mission to disrupt the exchange.
Look The Intrigue up on the Internet and you will find multiple claims that it is an early science fiction film. While that may technically be true – Longstreet’s invention is essentially speculative in nature – in practice the x-ray gun is simply a MacGuffin; it sets up the story but then plays very little part in it. Instead this is a film about spies: one European nation sends one to buy Longstreet’s gun, and another sends one to prevent the sale from happening. The first spy, Baron Rogniat, is not particularly exceptional: he is a mustachioed sort of pantomime villain who openly explains his plans to his underlings and henchmen. He is played with gusto but simplicity by Howard Davies. Much more interesting is the second spy: the Countess Sonia Varnli, played wonderfully by Lenore Ulric.
Like many early American screen actors Ulric came to cinema via Broadway, where she had established a reputation for playing strong-minded, seductive women; the archetypal femme fatale. She portrays a very likeable protagonist here, and gets to exercise smarts and guile as well as romantic seduction. Sadly in the third act she is relegated somewhat to a supporting role in the affair, but it remains for the most part a good performance in a good role.
It is easy to imagine that her strong character comes from screenwriter Julia Crawford Ivers, yet another female pioneer of American narrative cinema. She not only wrote but directed too; sadly the publicity-shy Ivers sank readily into obscurity once cinema moved to talkies. Her final film was as a writer: the 1927 silent drama In a Moment of Temptation.
Frank Lloyd does some impressive work capturing his cast in close-up here, but generally it is a rather run-of-the-mill early feature. It pales in comparison to The Dumb Girl of Portici, for example, which was released in the same year. It is fascinating to see the development of its genre, and to see Lenore Ulric’s acting preserved so effectively, but as far as entertainment value goes in can be something of a chore.