Greetings all and sundry!
Due to the surprising popularity of a previous Double Feature guest post. Allow me a few moments of your time to indulge once again. Though with a change in genre, tone and overall messages. With two chance encounters with the seamy, sometimes seedy side of intelligence gathering, defections, coups, political vacuum filling and double and triple crosses of all shapes and size.
To that end, allow me to introduce one of the creme de la creme of grimily detailed, meticulously character driven suspense and drama. Articulated and brought to life in sharply to diffused shadowed and sometimes flat to grainy B&W.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
Which begins a dark, cold miserable night on the Allied side of the now defunct museum piece crossing between East and West Germany, Checkpoint Charlie. With its heavy wood hewn drop gates, liveried MPs, sandbagged walls and machine gun emplacements bordering a one hundred yard No Man’s Land bathed in spotlights.
A short walk away sits a highly concerned, very nervous Alec Leamas (Richard Burton. Rarely better. With his abilities to perform inwardly dwarfing his outward action). On the wrong side of 40. Hunched inside a seedy trench coat over a cup of steaming tea that he liberally laces with whiskey. Waiting for the moment that could make or break his downwardly spiraling career.
The crossing of a defector. The culmination of years of interviews, meetings, brush passes and dead drops. For any tidbits out of Moscow Center that might be of use to Leamas’s benefactors, The Circus.
The time draws nigh as Leamas steps outside the cafe and man walks his bicycle through the Russian gate walks a distance. Warning klaxons pierce the night as spotlights swing down. The defector mounts the bike. Pedals and wobbles before rifle fire takes him down.
Downtrodden and fully expecting to be sacked, Leamas returns to the Circus for debriefing and a talk with Control (Cyril Cusack. A master manipulator behind a serene poker face). Who wants Leamas to stay “out in the cold” a while longer. And sends him to the dull as drying paint, Banking Section’. Where Leamas near wallows in despair when drinking too much after hours. Fights ensue and his relationship with wide eyed, naive communist, Nan Perry (Claire Bloom at her most inviting!) starts to wear thin. All under the eyes of East German Intelligence operatives.
Leamas plays his disgruntled civil servant to the hilt. Takes a trip to East Germany and is slowly embraced, then kidnapped by his opposite numbers.For a show trial where Leamas must testify against an Intelligence Officer, Fiedler, (Oskar Werner) he’d recruited and had plans to defect. The waters muddy quickly as Nan is brought in to testify to Leamas’s character. As lies on top of lies are followed through twists and peeled away and Leamas,Nan, Fiedler and prosecutor, Mundt (Peter Van Eyck. A mystery wrapped in a placid enigma) are arrested and taken away!
Leamas is as lost as anyone else who hasn’t been paying attention. Thinking that he’s “burned” and useless to any operation on either side of the German border. As Mundt shows up with keys to the cells and an egress for sale.
Mundt delivers Leamas and Nan to the Eastern side of a section of the Wall. Where all Leamas must do is climb through a gap and into the arms of his waiting arms of his colleague George Smiley (Rupert Davies). But Nan has seen too much and is shot as Leamas makes his move. Bringing out spotlights and alarms…
I’ll leave it right there for Spoilers sake.
Now. What Makes This Film Good?
The fine and delicate art of bending perception through deceit, deft verbal sleight of hand and illusion. Without all of the later Ian Fleming “Whiz Bang” gadgetry, casual sex and the good guys winning the day.
The Cold War depicted and executed in this film is a day to day encounter performed by “seedy, squalid little men” on both sides of political ideology. With agents crossing the border almost always without weapons being used as chess pieces in a long and drawn out game of chess. Where prediction of reactions to events count as much as subtlety or brashness in their delivery.
And this film has subtlety and nuance writ large. From the way Control sets the stage for Leamas’s slow, self destructive downward spiral while working in the Banking Section. To his later brush with Nan through the Labour Exchange and attractive, noisy rants in local pubs and corner groceries.Mr. Burton embodies Alec Leamas as few characters before. Making him a prize patsy. If not a prize catch. A super attenuated field officer to be wrung and squeezed dry. If not for gossip and minutia. Then for propaganda purposes. Or could it have been a ruse? Part of a larger game to protect a more valuable, anonymous asset?
You’ll have to see this classic to discover the lies within lies and find the truth.
What Makes This Film Great?
Martin Ritt at the top of his game taking on the slow, methodical game of “Spy vs. Spy” with absolutely no frills attached. Gathering and not exactly riding herd, but letting an A-List cast do what they do best. Embody characters fully and letting their voices, facial expressions and body language do the work. And superb work it is!
le Carre’s novel is basically a stage play for the mind. Brought to life by screenwriters Paul Dehn and Guy Torsper. Knowledgeable in the power of spoken words. And the greater power of silence. And the cast is not averse to using both very judiciously. Especially in show trial where Leamas stands accused and is hung out to dry. In stark surroundings that bring Orson Welles and Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ into creepy relief.
Incredibly high marks for Richard Burton’s sometimes slovenly personification of Alec Leamas. A bit long in the tooth. In a destructive race between being over the hill and burning out. Too often seeking solace in a bottle as he shambles about. Oh, Sir Richard has been louder in a few roles, but never more inward as events beyond his control cause his world to crumble. More than worthy of an Academy Award nomination!
B&W cinematography by Oswald Morris is everything one could want. Especially in the opening night scene and showing the palpable air of despair around the sidewalks, streets, corner stores and businesses around West Germany. Aided by master set designers, Hal Pereira, Tambi Larsen, Ted Marshall and Josie MacAvin.Heightening the shabby, drab seclusion of various East German safe houses where Leamas is kept. And the subdued, dusty, claustrophobic trial courtroom.
Original music by Sol Kaplan is sparse and strategically used. Giving the film the feel of a large scale stage play when not tweaking drama or pathos.
Which brings us to the second feature. A little known, medium budgeted gem from 1973 directed by Michael Winner. Shot on various locations around the globe for the proper no frills feel of interdepartmental and global conspiracies, skullduggery and treachery. And the governmental agencies assigned these often odious tasks.
Begins on the back streets of Paris. Where a young, handsome and trench coated Jean “Scorpio” Laurnier (Alain Delon) ambles down a cobbled sidewalk after a night’s assignment. Buys a paper and takes the steps up to a medium budgeted hotel flat for a debriefing from his partner and mentor, Cross (Lithe and incredibly smooth Burt Lancaster). And a brief “Walk Through. Talk Through” for the coming night’s activities.
Which begin at Orly airport and the arrival of a newly installed and festooned uniformed leader of a recent Democratic Republic. Camera crews abound as Air Stairs are pushed into place and the gallant leader descends from the Boeing 707. Suddenly a group of Eritrean students erupt from the crowd. Molotov Cocktails burst into flames. Spotlights swirl and security forces rush forth.
While unseen and in the shadowed distance. Cross unfolds himself from the passenger seat and open door of an unattended helicopter. Lets his fatigue adorned shoulders touch the asphalt tarmac. And deftly sights down the barrel of an M-2 carbine and assassinates the gallant leader. Leaving the Eritrean students recently coached, instructed and inspired (by Scorpio) Eritrean students holding the bag.
Just another day a the office as Cross and Scorpio return to DC on another 707. Scorpio, into the waiting arms of his Air France stewardess and girlfriend, Ann (Mary Maude). While Cross returns to his suburban home and wife, Sarah (Joanne Linville). While over at CIA campus in Langley, Cross and Scorpio’s boss, McLeod (Dapper and clever John Colicos) and his eager and more devious Filchock (J.D. Cannon) bask in the glow of a good mission while reviewing Cross’s past history and whispers that he might be getting too chummy with the Russians while overseas.
What to do? What to do? Perhaps have a chat with Scorpio and re-task him with killing Cross? Whose pedigree goes back to the OSS in Europe in WWII. Knows more tricks and has created more aliases than any of the newer generation of young Turks. And is quite content with the ability to pull up stakes and disappear within 24 hours.
Something to contemplate as Cross detects a tail team in the parking lot of the Wisconsin Avenue Safeway. Leads them on a merry car and foot chase through Georgetown and down to the Greyhound Bus Station at Twelfth and New York Avenue. Where Cross takes his car down an alleyway. Ducks down out of sight until the trail car follows. Puts his car in reverse and smashes the front of the tail car. Leaving a very young and untested James K. Sikking (‘Hill Street Blues’) to take on Cross by himself. The youngster fails miserably in the Men’s room in the basement of the bus station. Where Metro Police are more than happy to bust him for cruising.
While Mr. Sikking’s Harris is booked, printed and awaits arraignment. McLeod and Filchock discuss options. While Cross knows it’s time to go. Looks up his friend, the bus station janitor, Pick (Mel Stewart) at the now long gone Adelphi Roller Rink to get the ball rolling on a message to Sarah and multiple passports, disguises and escape routes from multiple airports around DC.
Needing to play catch up in a hurry, McLeod has some Metro detectives raid Scorpio’s hotel upscale room. Plant some heroin and drag him and Anna in. Where Filchock awaits in Interrogation to get an idea of where Cross is going and how he might get there. Of three possibilities, Laurier determines it to be a South African priest, Father Vreeland. Whose airline tickets from National airport to JFK to Montreal match Cross’s tenet of “Run fast. Run Far. Do not run in a straight line!”
But from Montreal, where? McLeod and Filchock are thinking Moscow. Laurier is thinking Stockholm or Vienna, and suggests a local, rather sloppy Russian embassy rezident be declared Persona Non Grata and sent home. Or be given the chance to cough up some answers on the Dulles Air Tram before being deposited at a waiting Aeroflot airliner.
The rezident, Zemetkin suggests Vienna. About the same time Cross is talking to a concentration camp survivor and cellist, Max Lang. Who has the connections Cross needs for a face-to-face with his old opposite number, Zharkov (Wise and inscrutably played by Paul Scofield). Who would love to have Cross defect, but he sees another path in Cross’s future.
That other path makes itself known when agents keeping an eye on Sarah notice her using some prime trade craft in getting Pick’s message. Visiting the Library of Congress and quietly collecting getaway funds from a few of Cross’s many banking and savings accounts. Visiting bus and airport lockers for passports while the trail teams record as much as they can.
McLeod has one of Cross’s neighbors have a weekend party to keep Sarah occupied while a burglary team looks for anything incriminating. Sarah sees a flashlight track across the inside of one of the windows of her darkened house. Sarah heads home. Gets inside. Finds the foyer pistol. Looks up the suddenly occupied staircase and fires before one of the burglars shoots her dead.
About this time, Cross finds that Scorpio is in Paris to see Anne. Arranges a meet at an Arboretum that goes badly. With a wounded agent in a foiled ambush attempt. And a long and running gunfight through back streets and busy construction sites the next morning. With bullets flying, Cross runs, climbs and eludes a rather large explosion that leaves Scorpio content that his deal with McLeod for promotion and a corner office in exchange for Cross’s corpse is complete.
Cross returns to Vienna and finds out from Max a few days later that his wife has been murdered. And spends every cent he has in arranging a long and discreet return to DC and find a retired, boxer, master of diversion and insurance scamming. Cross waits a distance away as the boxer stumbles onto Woodley Road just before a limousine slams on its brakes and the boxer falls on its hood and rolls off. The driver gets out to help. Telling McLeod to stay put in the back seat. The door pulls open. Cross leans in holding a silenced .38 in an open paper lunch bag. Fires. Kills McLeod and walks away as a crowd gather near.
Scorpio isn’t all that upset with the death of McLeod. Though there’s a loose end bothering him. One that Laurier discovers in the last few minutes of video tape of Sarah’s surveillance. That records Sarah entering the Library of Congress and leaving a brief time later. Followed a moment later by Anne!
It all falls into place. Anne is the lynchpin between he and Cross. And Cross and the Russians. A final showdown is to be had. In one of any hundreds of DC’s many underground garages. With Cross waiting in the shadows as Anne, unaware that she’s been found out; runs with open arms towards Scorpio. Only to catch a .45 slug center mass before falling dead.
Cross steps from the shadows and explains that Anne was a Czech courier working for him long before she and Laurier crossed paths. Scorpio fires again and Cross is held up by a car as he predicts Scorpio’s future:
“There’s a room just down the hall from McLeod’s office where grown men play a game. It’s a bit like Monopoly, only more people get hurt. There’s no good and no bad. The object is not to win, but not to lose – and the only rule is to stay in the game.”
Cross expires and Lauriier ambles up the garage’s ramp. Stops to pick up a stray cat. And is shot by someone waiting inside a car across the empty street with a silenced pistol.
Now. What Makes This Film Good?
A good old fashioned, non gizmo and gimmick laden tale of how super powers deal with the politics of nation states. While expanding their separate spheres of influence. And how a bit of judicious “termination” or “removal” can fill a vacuum with something better, worse or more easily manageable.
While also offering glimpses into how variants of the same template works within a power structure. And the sometimes amazing lack of difference between national politics and their respective apparatuses. The ends are often very close. Though the means differ by culture more than anything else.
What Makes This Film Great?
Lithe and lean Burt Lancaster easily proving that he’s still got it. Even at age sixty! Sharing time with veteran Paul Scofield. While quietly teaching the younger, untested generation of mid and Super Grades the value of quiet anonymity in getting the job done from 1945 or ’47 on.
Teaching his young colleague, Laurnier all the tricks needed for survival, but nowhere near all the tricks Cross has learned in a lifetime. From the surgical first assassination. Through the many aliases, passports and wealth accrued for when an escape route is needed. To the night ambush and morning shoot out in Paris. Where Mr. Lancaster did all of his own stunts.
Knowing there are only two ways out for people of his caliber and expertise. And the other is a gold watch and a quiet retirement.
Creating a backdrop that Robert Paynter’s superb on location cinematography only enriches. Sometimes grittily around Twelfth and New York. To romantically and historically in Paris and Vienna. Adding depth to the screenplay by David Rintels and Gerald Wilson.
High marks indeed, for Michael Winner’s deft touch at direction, editing and giving proven talent like Lancaster and Scofield to memorably embody their characters. While giving every opportunity for grounded television and stage talents, Colicos, Cannon, Sikking and the ladies in attendance more than their times to shine!