Espionage films in general, including the ones featuring James Bond, owe their inspiration to Fritz Lang’s “Spies,” released in 1928. The German film stars Willy Fritsch as Agent 326, who springs into action when a diabolical bank manager named Haghi resolves to foil a signed treaty between Germany and Japan. His plan: To intercept the treaty, destroy it and cause a war that gives him ultimate power.
The security bureau arrests Agent 326, posing as a drifter, and drags him in for questioning. While there, he unmasks a double agent carrying a miniature camera and we learn that he’s the bureau’s top agent. The scene shifts to Haghi’s office, where Haghi, played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, sits in a wheelchair, attended by a female nurse. Around him, an impressive array of electronic devices keep tabs on what’s going on in the security office. Haghi calls on a ravishing Russian woman named Lady Leslane, played by Hertha von Walther, to romance 326. But spies fall in love. While running from the police, she convinces 326 to hide her, and that leads to a strong romance.
All the good ideas come from Haghi as the security bureau attempts to outwit the elusive mastermind. 326’s experience with Lady Leslane fails to influence the Japanese ambassador, who begins a romance of his own with another Haghi cohort, Kitty (Lien Deyers). If Kitty finds the treaty at the ambassador’s apartment, Haghi can destroy it, allowing Russia to declare war on Japan without Germany’s interference.
Supposedly, Lang’s “Metropolis,” released in 1927, failed at the box office so the studio, Universum Film (UFA), limited Lang’s budget on Spies. So, the contrast between the security bureau’s set and Haghi’s bank office seem doesn’t seem so great. The screen that alerts Haghi of important news looks like a letter slot, while his intercom system looks like a hose with a funnel attached to it.
Lang does an outstanding job balancing the story, keeping the focus on the Japanese treaty plot while juggling the romantic subplots. The smarter and diabolical Haghi seems invincible, while Agent 326’s ultimate strength comes from attracting the love of Lady Leslane. Lang stages a spectacular climax involving a train, and then feeds us key story information that we should have figured out earlier. The film includes all the expected elements of an espionage thriller, including an all-powerful villain, exotic elements such as the Russian and Japanese interiors, high-tech gadgets, beautiful and very capable women, and an exhilarating and unexpected ending.