Fair warning, I’m going to spoil the entire plot of British Intelligence. How else to review it? Plot is all it offers.
It’s World War I and the British are hurting. Every plan they make leaks to the Germans. The British suspect the famed German spy Strendler has infiltrated their organization, but no one can identify him. Desperate to weed out Strendler, the British plan to recall their best agent from undercover duty.
This plan also leaks to the Germans. They kill the British agent and shoot down his extraction plane.
The pilot, Frank Bennett, survives. We see him recovering in a hospital. A nurse, Helene von Lorbeer, played by Margaret Lindsay, tends to him. There’s an attraction between the two, but von Lorbeer says she has to leave.
Von Lorbeer turns out to be a German spy. She’s recalled to headquarters, given a commendation and a new assignment. Posing as a refugee, she’s to infiltrate the house of British cabinet minister Arthur Bennett. Arthur is, of course, Frank’s father.
Von Lorbeer quickly ingratiates herself with the Bennett family. Her German contact is the family butler Valdar, played by Boris Karloff. Unbeknownst to von Lorbeer, Valdar is a double-agent, reporting to the head of British Intelligence.
Some sloppy code-passing by von Lorbeer arouses the suspicions of British Intelligence. They set a trap involving a would-be German agent, but Von Lorbeer sees through it, maintaining her cover.
The return of Frank Bennett prompts von Lorbeer to reveal that she’s actually a British agent. Valdar overhears this and forces von Lorbeer into the cellar at gunpoint. Von Lorbeer claims she invented the British agent story to allay Frank’s suspicions. Valdar doesn’t believe her, but relents after seeing her German commendation. He admits that he is Strendler. Further, the British cabinet are meeting upstairs and he’s planted a bomb to level the house under the guise of a Zeppelin bombing. He’s even stolen plans for the next British offensive.
But the authorities had suspected Valdar and kept him under surveillance. They rush into the cellar and disarm the bomb but Valdar flees with the plans. He’s shot during his escape but makes it to a German safe house. Just as German agents prepare to transmit the British plans, a Zeppelin bomb levels the building.
That’s a lot of plot. The labyrinthine twists of agents, double agents, and triple agents, leave little room for characterization. But maybe that’s by design. Characterization requires a degree of plausibility, and British Intelligence has none.
Take Valdar’s big reveal that he is Strendler. If Valdar was a British agent, he would have told the British about von Lorbeer, making the ruse involving the fake German agent unnecessary. But, if Valdar didn’t tell the British about von Lorbeer, how did they know her handler’s code phrases? Surely, they wouldn’t be reused between agents. And just how did Valdar acquire so much guarded information? His espionage consists of little-more than standing outside thin doors or open windows. As a butler, he wouldn’t be privy to anything discussed at a secure location.
Worse still, even at only an hour and six minutes, British Intelligence is too long. The lengthy opening sequence only serves to introduce Frank Bennett, who disappears for much of the film, only to surface a few minutes before the end. Why not start with von Lorbeer undercover? She’d be a sympathetic character until her reveal as a German spy, which would have been a good one.
British Intelligence may be overlong and beset with plot holes, but at least it’s got Karloff. His performance in what amounts to a triple role is the film’s lone bright spot. And it’s nice seeing him work outside the horror genre, even if the resulting picture is underwhelming.