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The Red Machine

1935. The Office of Naval Intelligence, which prides itself on being able to crack any code that comes its way, is stymied by intercepted transmissions from Japan, which has just invaded Manchuria. They learn that the codes are being devised by a new encryption machine capable of making complex ciphers faster than codebreakers can crack them. The machine is in Washington at the Japanese embassy: Someone has to get into the building, study the machine, and get out without the Japanese knowing about it.

This job falls to the unlikely team of Lieutenant F. Ellis Coburn (Lee Perkins), a disgraced spy whose stony visage is his only protection against the knowledge his co-workers have of his failures, and Eddie Doyle (Donal Thoms-Cappello), a young but very able safecracker who has to cooperate with the government or go to prison for a rare slipup.

Roger Ebert calls The Red Machine “a lean, intense thriller…a film with an elegant simplicity. It may remind you of a ’40s B crime movie.” I mention his review because I don’t like to pan an independent film like this, clearly made with affection on a very limited budget; maybe you’ll trust Ebert’s judgment over mine and see it, and if you do I hope you enjoy it. It was written and directed by Stephanie Argy and Alec Boehm, who between them have camera experience with directors like Gus van Sant, Wim Wenders, and Steve Buscemi. This debut feature was visibly made on a very low budget, so they concentrated on the stuff you don’t have to pay for: dialogue and story. But the film is so underdressed that it’s distracting: You have to keep reminding yourself that what you’re looking at is supposed to be Washington in the 1930s rather than some meager sets being passed off as luxury hotels and government offices. The script brings revelations about Coburn’s past to bear on his mission, but the various double-crosses seem arbitrary and inorganic. The Red Machine is a more ambitious film than its makers were able to handle given their limitations. Hopefully they’ll do better next time around.

Watch the trailer for The Red Machine

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