Cast & Crew
On the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, authorities in the Philippine capital of Manila fear an imminent Japanese invasion and advise evacuation. Claire Snyder, an American nightclub entertainer, her adopted daughter Dian and her maid Lolita await Claire's fiancé, U.S. Army sergeant John Phillips, whom Claire hopes will help them leave the city. When John arrives, he tells Claire that he is unable to help as his unit has been ordered into active duty, but promises to meet her in Pilar where they can be married. After the Japanese bomb Manila, Claire, Dian and Lolita take refuge in the hills where Pacio, one of the guerrillas fighting with John's unit, finds them and takes them to him. After a hurried wedding ceremony, performed in Spanish by a local priest, John heads for Bataan, leaving the women in Pacio's care. Later, after Corregidor falls to the Japanese, Claire decides to send Dian and Lolita back to Manila with Pacio while she attempts to find John. In the jungle, Claire is rescued from potential discovery by the Japanese by U.S. corporal John Boone who, with a few others, has become separated from his outfit and is organizing a guerrilla unit. When Claire learns that American and Allied prisoners of the Bataan and Corregidor conflicts are being forced to walk to Cabanatuan, she and Boone find the last remaining members of the infamous death march and discover that John is among them. After Claire witnesses John killed by a Japanese guard as he attempts to get a drink of water, she resolves to help Boone destroy the Japanese in any way she can. Boone suggests that if Claire were in Japanese-occupied Manila, she could become a vital informant, advising him where next to strike with his guerrilla force. Boone, whose code name is "Compadre," names Claire "High Pockets" after the style of blouse she wears. Claire then returns to Manila and adopts the identity of an Italian friend who has been killed in the bombing and there also reunites with Dian and Lolita. With the help of her former employer, Ho Sang, Claire opens a nightclub, which caters exclusively to Japanese officers whom she flatters and charms and, claiming to be uninvolved in the war, befriends their Chief of Intelligence, Col. Masamoto. Thus, Claire is able to not only ferry food and supplies to the guerrillas via her patriotic employees, but also information about Japanese military movements. After Masamoto reveals to Claire that a locally run shoe factory is actually a front for the production of munitions, she passes the information to Boone and his men destroy the building. Although several guerillas are captured, none reveal the identity of "High Pockets," enabling Claire to continue her underground activities and assistance to American and Allied prisoners of war for ten months. She is even able to persuade a Japanese naval officer to delay his ship's departure by performing a fan dance for him while Boone and his men transmit information to Army headquarters that results in the ship's destruction by bombs and torpedoes. Eventually, Masamoto discovers that Claire is "High Pockets" and has her arrested. Claire endures beatings and is brutally tortured in prison, but refuses to identify Compadre and his guerrillas. Masamoto informs Claire that American troops are expected to invade Manila soon but that she will be shot before they can reach her. However, Boone and his men stage a daring raid on the prison and save Claire just as Masamoto is about to shoot her. Later, on the recommendation of General Douglas MacArthur, Claire is awarded the Medal of Freedom for her meritorious wartime service.
Gen. Mark W. Clark
Kei Thing Chung
Ed Sojin Jr.
Ray Boltz Jr.
Edward J. Kay
Edward Morey Jr.
Paul Schmutz Sr.
Allen K. Wood
I Was an American Spy
Allied Artists was the newly founded high end branch of Poverty Row studio Monogram, a company previously known for two-fisted gangster films and westerns. Producer Walter Mirisch founded Allied Artists in 1947, hoping to elevate Monogram's reputation from B movies to "B-plus" and retire the Monogram brand name (which they did in 1953). He increased the cache of projects like It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947) by boosting production budgets and hiring once-hot talent neglected by Hollywood.
Ann Dvorak matched that description perfectly. Dvorak was a fresh-faced newcomer in 1932 when she was cast in Scarface and Three on a Match. She had the doll eyes of a silent movie star, a rich voice perfect for sound, and a snappy, jaunty quality that fit the sordid and mercenary mood of Pre-Code films. But she complained (justifiably) to Warner Brothers that she was being underpaid and was released from her contract as punishment. Unchastened, she sued her former employers and married British actor Leslie Fenton, departing on a year long honeymoon. She made several films in Fenton's native England and helped the British war effort as an ambulance driver. Dvorak was Claire Phillips' choice to play her, maybe because both women had a propensity for abandoning common sense for love, for bravery in wartime, and taking anti-authoritarian stances for the greater good.
In addition to Dvorak, Mirisch cast 6'2" war veteran Douglas Kennedy as her leading man and Gene Evans, fresh off his role on The Lone Ranger TV show, as the soldier in exile who suggests she become a spy. Significantly, in addition to hiring Asian-American actors like Richard Loo and Philip Ahn (who'd found steady work in the '40s and '50s portraying sinister Japanese military villains), the producers bucked a tiresome Hollywood tradition of relying on heavily made-up Caucasians and instead cast Asian actors like Leon Lontoc, James B. Leong, and Marya Marco in heroic roles.
Screenwriter Samuel Roeca made a few changes to Phillips' story to make her more palatable to 1950s audiences, changing her from a divorced mother with a half-Filipino infant to a never-married woman who'd adopted a little blonde girl. He also penned a prologue and epilogue delivered by General Mark W. Clark, to underscore the Department of Defense's approval of the project. Although Clark was not directly involved with the "High Pockets" affair (he was a veteran of the war in Italy, Austria, and North Africa, not the Philippines) his status as the Army's youngest three-star general added authority to his no-nonsense narration.
I Was an American Spy was shot at Iverson Ranch in the Simi Hills in Chatsworth, California, a versatile backlot also seen that year in The African Queen (1951). Lesley Selander, a prolific B-movie director (Spy was one of nine movies he shot in 1951), used his ample experience with Westerns to imbue a wartime story with a sense of frontier justice. Dvorak's Claire Phillips is no pushover - she's equal parts fearsome and appealing, whether she's wooing guests in an evening gown or crawling through the jungle with a six-shooter tucked into her blouse. Even her nemesis Col. Masamoto (played by Richard Loo) gives "High Pockets" a grudging respect.
Not everyone was a fan, however. "It is sad though to see a gallant lady on display in such a threadbare little showcase," lamented the New York Times about Dvorak's performance. After I Was an American Spy, Dvorak made one more movie, The Secret of Convict Lake (1951), then married her third husband and retired from film permanently in 1951.
Producer: David Diamond
Director: Lesley Selander
Screenplay: Sam Roeca (screenplay); Claire Phillips, Myron B. Goldsmith (magazine article and novel)
Cinematography: Harry Neumann
Art Direction: David Milton
Music: Edward J. Kay
Film Editing: Philip Cahn
Cast: Ann Dvorak (Mrs. Claire 'High Pockets' Phillips), Gene Evans (Cpl. John Boone), Douglas Kennedy (Sgt. John Phillips), Richard Loo (Col. Masamato), Leon Lontoc (Pacio), Chabing (Lolita), Philip Ahn (Capt. Arito), Marya Marco (Fely), Nadine Ashdown (Dian), Lisa Ferraday (Dorothy Fuentes).
by Violet LeVoit
Articles "I Was an American Spy" in The American Mercury (May 1945) and The Reader's Digest (May 1945
Manila Espionage by Claire Phillips and Myron B. Goldsmith (Portland, OR, 1947).
"Out Hollywood Way", New York Times, September 8, 1946, p. X1.
Mark W. Clark bio
I was an American Spy release date and cast
The Steel Helmet release date and cast
Monogram box office
Manila Espionage date
Bio of Claire Phillips who helped choose Dvorak
Dvorak sued employers
New York Times review
I Was an American Spy
An opening credit title reads: "We acknowledge with appreciation the cooperation of the Department of Defense and the United States Army on the production of this picture." The film begins with an onscreen introduction by U.S. Army Commanding General Mark W. Clark who states: "You are about to witness a motion picture story of a woman who performed a magnificent service to her country under hazardous wartime conditions. In time of crisis, she recognized a call to duty and reacted as we hope all Americans will if confronted with similar circumstances. As an underground agent and civilian patriot she acquitted herself with great courage and made an important contribution to the war effort. Her actions were exemplary and reassuring-to preserve world freedom will require sacrifices and devotion to our cause on the part of every citizen. As we face the task that lies ahead, we May all derive great inspiration for the story of the deeds of this fine American woman."
As dramatized in the film, during World War II, the Japanese takeover of Bataan, Manila and the island of Corregidor in the Philippines took place in the spring of 1942. Americans returned to invade the Philippines in 1944 and regained control for the Allied forces. The book Manila Espionage, one of the sources on which the film was based, is a biographical account of Claire Phillips' wartime experiences. According to a December 27, 1950 Los Angeles Examiner article, Phillips was the only woman spy to receive the Medal of Freedom. A Los Angeles Times article of January 14, 1951 reported that at the time of the film's production, Phillips was living in Beaverton, OR, was married to a disabled veteran and supported herself by selling cosmetics door-to-door.
An article about Phillips in The Sunday Oregonian of June 17, 2001, indicated that little was known about her early life and that a distant cousin, who had been researching her life, had not even been able to establish Phillips' maiden name, or the whereabouts of her daughter. The article also provided the following information: After the war Phillips was given a home in Marlene Village, Portland OR by a local family; the U.S. government disputed the legitimacy of her marriage to John Phillips; she sued the government for $146,850, the cost of surgery and care necessary to repair injuries inflicted by the Japanese; she married Cabanatuan survivor Robert Clavier in 1948. The article also reported that Claire Phillips Clavier died in Portland in 1960, at age 52, and concluded with the statement, "Cause of death: like so many other pieces of her life, known to very few."
January 1951 Hollywood Reporter news items add Frank Ishiro Mizuo, Hideo Hokada and Jim Yagi to the cast although their appearance in the film has not been confirmed. The March 21, 1951 Daily Variety review states that captured Japanese war footage, showing Manila being bombed and evacuated, was used in this film.