NEW YORK — QUESTION: When is a spy movie not a spy movie? Answer: When it's a romantic thriller that uses espionage to keep the action moving, but doesn't really take its international intrigue very seriously.
Hollywood used to crank out pictures like this all the time, and the heroine of "Shining Through" is always chattering about them. "Remember that movie when so-and-so smuggled the microfilm inside the parrot?" is the kind of thing she can't stop saying.
And this makes sense, because "Shining Through" is in the spirit of those bygone films. It's full of spies, Nazis, secret codes - and, yes, microfilm. But it's all for fun, and you know the good folks will succeed in their mission just as surely as you know the right side will win World War II.
The main character is Linda, a New Yorker with a Jewish-Irish background and a knowledge of German she picked up from her grandfather. She takes a secretarial job with a somewhat mysterious boss and soon figures out that the peculiar letters he dictates are coded messages, somehow connected to the international tensions that are growing every day.
At this point Pearl Harbor is bombed, and sure enough, the boss reveals himself as a military spymaster. By this time Linda has fallen madly in love with him and wants to help him win the war. Soon she's on her way to Nazi Germany with a dangerous job to perform: infiltrating a Nazi's home and photographing secret documents. She also hopes to find her Jewish relatives and help them out of Hitler's clutches.
"Shining Through" raises all kinds of big subjects - fascism, anti-Semitism, equality for women - but it doesn't have a single meaningful thought about any of these things. In this way it's different from many spy movies of the cold-war era, when films about Nazis were often thinly disguised squawks about the so-called communist menace, and we were supposed to think at least a little about the political issues involved.
What the makers of "Shining Through" do take seriously is slick and colorful filmmaking - provided by David Seltzer, who directed the picture from his own screenplay, based on Susan Isaacs's novel - and glamorous performances, courtesy of Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas, both at their radiant best. Also on hand are first-rate supporting players like John Gielgud, as the spymaster's boss, and Liam Neeson, as a Nazi right out of central casting.
I wish their story had a bit more substance to it. For all its surface excitement, "Shining Through" doesn't compare to a real classic of the Nazi melodrama genre, like Douglas Sirk's sweeping "A Time To Love and a Time To Die," or a real classic of the espionage genre, like Alfred Hitchcock's unforgettable "Notorious." But the new movie looks terrific, and in its limited way it's great movie fun. You won't remember "Shining Through" for long, but you're sure to enjoy it while it's on the screen. Rated R for a scene of sensuality.