The Man She Loved Was A Traitor, Sworn To Kill Her!
The two Taylors of film came together rarely onscreen, most notably in the Technicolor saga Ivanhoe. Lesser known is the 1949 noir-esque film Conspirator. In Conspirator Elizabeth Taylor is a young and especially impressionable newlywed playing against her new husband in Robert Taylor. Only 17 at the time, she at times manages to use her age to her advantage at certain point during the picture. At other points however it’s a clear distraction from an already weak plotline.
We open with Elizabeth (playing as Melinda Greyton) and a very young Honor Blackman (of later Goldfinger fame) sitting on the fringes of a military ball. After a few moments of fretting they’re approached by Robert Taylor (as Major Michael Curragh) who asks Liz to dance and immediately sweeps her off her feet.
Before we know it, they are married and settling in to life together. Before long, Liz notices that her husband frequently disappears at the drop of a hat. As we continue to jump from one scene to another she catches him in one lie after another as he tries to explain himself away.
As she comes closer to finding out his secret, Michael becomes more aggressive with her, yelling at her to return a coat which he uses as part of a disguise on his secret disappearances, then later scolding her about taking his money.
It’s during this disagreement that Liz discovers his dark secret- he’s a spy for the Russians and he hides his messages sealed between two pound notes. Finding his latest secret on the floor, she grabs it and runs upstairs playfully, only to read it and discover the truth.
At first she demands that Michael give up his spying, which he agrees to, although in fact he continues as if nothing happened. Liz discovers him again and we repeat the cycle, only this time his Soviet caretakers demand that he kill her to keep his cover safe.
So he takes her along on a hunt where he shoots her, though it is never made clear if he just failed to execute his mission or couldn’t bring himself to commit the act. In any case the gig is up and Liz plans to turn him in. In desperation, Michael tries to turn to the Russians again, only to find the safe house empty and abandoned. His call to the Russian embassy confirms his worst fears- that he’s now truly a man without a country.
He returns home to see Liz and the military police arrive a few moments behind him. Quickly donning his dress uniform he shoots himself dead. As the finale dawns we learn that the British were on to him quite some time ago and were feeding him information to pass to the Soviets. To keep things quiet Liz agrees to support a story that Michael killed himself because he was distraught over her leaving him.
One of the failings of Conspirator is that there is a lot of fluff between the scattered plot points and we never get any backstory to support what’s going on. We get scattered bits and pieces about why Michael is spying but never anything that puts it all together for us.
Further, for all the supposed glamor of a Taylor and Taylor starring duo, they simply don’t click at all on screen. Part of this might be the age difference as Robert Taylor was roughly twice Liz’s age at the time, but more likely is the simple fact that Liz is too young for the role. Though she displays promise of what was to come, it’s just that- mere promise.
Though Melinda as a character is supposed to be young and naïve, Liz doesn’t seem to have the chops at this point perhaps to connect with playing a married woman. The few scattered scenes of marital bliss come off as artificial and shallow rather than sincere. Even though the movie progresses and she (at least nominally) matures from girl to woman, she’s still overly whimsical in some of her comments; note the way she almost screams, “Yippee!” as she waves Michael’s wad of money around.
In either another sign of her immaturity or a simple plot gap, she inexplicably goes with Michael on a bird hunt. So let’s see…..you’ve discovered that your husband is a spy and you’ve fallen out of love with him and you know his temper is getting worse and he’s scared that you’ll turn him in. Best way to fix that is to go on a bird hunt with him. It almost becomes like a horror film where you’re screaming at the kids not to go into the woods, but they do anyway and meet that creepy guy with the chainsaw.
Robert Taylor fares little better though he overpowers Liz in their frequent scenes together. Always serious and brooding here, it’s ironic to see him here as a Soviet sympathizer given his real life friendliness to the House Un-American Activities Committee. You’d think that he’d at least code his messages as even Liz could figure it out when you write that you are working for the Soviets in plain English.
For all of its faults however, Conspirator makes a valiant effort and is much better than most of the other early Cold War films. Those with a bit more cognizance of history will note that there are no references to the real life Englishmen who spied for the Soviets (and were known of at the time of filming). Further the little zinger at the end of the picture where it comes out that the authorities were aware of Michael’s spying all along goes a ways to reduce and potential fallout from depicting the English as inept at protecting their secrets.