Assassination for political or military reasons, unpleasant though it may be to think about, is a tool of statecraft and strategic practice. Nonetheless, assassination is murder, and it exacts a moral toll on those who practice it.
State sanctioned assassination of course occurs in real life, but certainly not with the frequency we see in espionage fiction. In fiction, the morality of assassination takes many forms, as seen in the contrast between the James Bond of Fleming’s novel, who sees his job as a distasteful if necessary task, and the License to Kill, almost casual murders of the 007 films.
Assassination, especially in fiction, is an exploration of “the greatest game”; man hunting man. The suspense is often heightened when the hunter becomes the hunted. Weighing the moral implications of assassination adds even more spice to spy drama.
In the Top Secret episode “Unknown Mission” Baroness Karin Geza receives orders to take “Action Seven” against a French Duke visiting Rome. It is known that the duke is collaborating with the Nazis through Vichy, but she is given no other reason for the assignment, but the Action needs to be accomplished as soon as possible to prevent the duke from carrying out his assignment. The audience is let in on the Duke’s mission- to assassinate the Baroness!
They meet at the nightclub where Karin works (a special treat of this episode is getting to hear Ilona Massey singing), and a rendezvous at the Duke’s stable is arranged for the next morning. The Duke’s assistant makes a device to deliver poison through the saddle. When the time comes, the Duke is so enchanted with Karin he cannot go through with the poisoning. During their ride, they spend time at the top of the cliffs near the villa. The Baroness has a perfect opportunity to complete her mission, but she hesitates because she still doesn’t know the reason for her assignment, and she is becoming enchanted with the Duke herself. There are other attempts, but finally, realizing he cannot kill her himself, the Duke’s assistant devises a bomb in the Duke’s car, and loans it to Karin for a picnic. In the end, Karin does learn that the Duke has been given the mission of killing her.
Whether the role of lady spy Baroness Karin Geza in Top Secret was created for Ilona Massey, or if Miss Massey was created for the role is open for debate. There can be little argument that it was one of the most successful castings of early 50’s radio. Supposedly, the real-life inspiration for the Baroness Geza character was a “close friend” of Miss Massey’s who actually worked as a spy for the Allies during WWII and its aftermath. The scripts were adapted from stories the friend related to Massey.
Top Secret failed to gain sponsorship, and NBC was notorious for being unkind to sustained programs, especially when it came to scheduling. Listeners who may have wanted to follow the show would have found it difficult, because sustained programs were often bounced all over the weekly broadcast schedule.
In this second installment of Top Secret, the Allied spy masters intercept a transmission that the top Nazi Spy in New York Admiral Stroesser, has requested a female assistant with very specific height and weight requirements. Of course, it turns out that Baroness Geza meets the description, and she travels to New York in place of the German lady agent. Allied agents in New York know that Stroesser is readying his escape, and they would rather kill him than let him return to Germany with his secrets. The Baroness insists that it is too important to find out what those secrets are and takes her place as Stroesser’s assistant. She finds out that the reason for the particular size requirements are so that the Admiral can impersonate her after he is smuggled aboard a German liner in a coffin!
Ilona Massey was born in Budapest in 1910, while it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Trained as an opera singer, she worked as a dress maker and theater singer to save money for the trip to Vienna where she joined an Opera Company. Eventually she landed a screen test in London and was offered a Hollywood contract. She appeared in a couple Nelson Eddy operettas, and was billed as “the new Dietrich.” Her acting talent was not quite strong enough, and her soprano voice too light to live up to the hype. She would be called upon to play the alluring sophisticated beauty in Thriller pictures. Notable are Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) with Lon Chaney Jr. and Love Happy (1949) with the Marx Brothers. Ilona Massey‘s character in Love Happy, the spy Madame Egelichi, was the inspiration for the Steve Canyon comic character Madame Lynx. Steve Canyon artist Milton Caniff went so far as to hire Massey to model for him.
The Baroness takes the audience around the globe in her assignments. In a departure from the usual femme fatale formula the Baroness doesn’t depend solely upon her considerable feminine charms in her espionage/counter-espionage radio work. When it is necessary she can get as physical as any male spy to defend her secrets, or her life.
Her work on Top Secret mixed well with Massey’s political posture. Her Austrio-Hungarian upbringing had brought home to her the evils of Communism and Fascism. She became an American Citizen in 1946, and was seen protesting Soviet Premier Khrushchev’s visit to the UN in 1956.