Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama Mystery/Noir

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.

So says disillusioned British secret agent Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) in perhaps the best effort to adapt a John le Carré novel to the big screen: 1965’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The serpentine plot concerns a burnt-out spook who enters a downward spiral of booze, self-hatred and lost faith after a disastrous mission in Berlin. But then it turns out that Leamas’ decline and despair is a ruse (?) play-acted at the behest of his superiors. As planned, he is recruited by the other side and ends up trying to discredit East German intelligence head Hans-Dieter Mundt (A cold, effective Peter van Eyck). Leamas undermines the ex-Nazi by feeding false (??) information to Mundt’s ambitious, Jewish deputy (Oskar Werner, very strong here). It’s a difficult, high-risk mission, but Leamas knows that his boss back home is 100% behind him (???).

This may be the most magnificent performance in Richard Burton’s career, and will definitely please all fans of rotting charm. Drinking heavily in real life at the time, he was willing to expose his own capacity for ugliness and decay in a way that many glamorous stars of his era would not have dared to do. He exudes bone crunching hopelessness and isolation in shot after shot: Leamas alone on a park bench, alone in a bar, alone in his bed, alone chained in a cell. He’s devastated and devastating.

A 15 minute sequence of scenes in Britain is a masterclass in cinematic storytelling. It’s unsettling yet fascinating as Leamas repeatedly gets pissed and wanders through empty streets. Ultimately, he savagely beats an innocent man (Did the filmmakers cast for this part Bernard Lee — M from the flashy, unrealistic James Bond series — to make a point?). His copybook blotted, Leamas is judged “turnable” by the other side. After being released from jail, he is recruited by the Soviets in a sleazy men’s club by an unctuous businessman and a pathetic, gay procurer (Robert Hardy and Michael Hordern, respectively, terrific actors who clearly understood that there are no small roles).

The romantic aspects of the story also work well and become more important as le Carré’s ingenious plot unfolds. Claire Bloom is credible and sympathetic as the British would-be communist “who believes in free love, the only kind Leamas could afford at the time”. Leamas’ lacerating disdain for her naiveté reveals the depths of his own self-contempt: She may be immature in her politics but who after all is the one risking his life and doing horrible things in a struggle over the very same politics?

And Then There Were None, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold ...

Rarely has the look of a movie more perfectly captured its mood, and that’s a credit to Oswald Morris. Without any conscious intention, I think I have recommended more films shot by Morris than any other cinematographer. He was a remarkably unpretentious professional who maintained an astonishingly consistent quality in his work for 6 decades (He lived to age 98). It was a bold and brilliant choice to make this movie in black and white, which let Oswald create a washed out look that matches the bleak tone of the story. As much as the excellent acting, what stays with the viewer are Oswald’s shots of complete desolation both during Leamas’ alcoholic, putatively free, British wanderings and his time in East German captivity.

The other delight of this film is that it never condescends to the audience by over-explaining. With each double and triple cross, rather than clumsy exposition director Martin Ritt simply gives us Burton’s face, as the mind behind it struggles frantically to make sense of the latest shift in the icy wind. A small example of the film’s understated, even at times cryptic, storytelling style is the scene where Werner asks for some paperwork from his underling Peters (Sam Wanamaker, memorably creepy). The seated, lame, Wanamaker extends his hand but not far enough. Rather than step forward, Werner waits until Wanamaker struggles to his feet and hands it to him. Burton starts to laugh derisively. The subtext which the film expects you to understand: Werner is the boss but as a Jew, he will never be fully respected by his German underlings. A small moment, a sly moment, a powerful moment, brought across with no comment other than Burton’s mad laughs at Wanamaker’s expense.

Touches like that are a key reason why The Spy who Came in from the Cold is completely engrossing. Fans of espionage films simply cannot miss this landmark movie.

p.s. If you like this movie, you might enjoy my recommendation of the best effort to adapt le Carré to television (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and Antonia Quirke’s elegiac FT essay on the battered, shattered Richard Burton and his iconic dingy overcoat.

Categories
Drama Musical

Fiddler on the Roof

Gifted filmmakers are able to delve into the particularity of one group’s life to illustrate universal human experiences, thereby appealing simultaneously to those inside and outside the group. That’s part of the transcendent power of 1971’s Fiddler on the Roof. At one level, the film is steeped in the particularity of Jewish villagers under persecution of the Russian czar, and it’s a powerful story on those terms. But it’s also a moving treatment of crumbling tradition, parenthood, culture and faith which spoke to a whole generation of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds.

The story focuses on a dirt-poor, devout and intelligent milkman named Tevye, his wife Golde and their marriageable daughters. The family scratches out an existence sustained by the bonds, traditions and religion in their shtetl of Anatevka. As suitors present themselves for his fiercely independent daughters, Tevye struggles to reconcile his traditional beliefs and concern about their material welfare with their desire to choose their own husbands based on love. Meanwhile, rumors of pogroms and forced exiles reach his ears, and he wonders when Anatevka will suffer a similar fate.

This is a very hard judgment to make, but of any Broadway musical, I would cite Fiddler on the Roof as having the best songs. “Sunrise, Sunset”, “Tradition”, “Matchmaker” are among the unforgettable musical pieces Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick created for the play. These show stoppers are brought beautifully to life in the film by director Norman Jewison (A Canadian Protestant who got the job because the Hollywood execs assumed that with a name like that, he must be Jewish!). Jewison and the fine cast are equally adept at the dramatic scenes, which are given more prominence in the film than in the play because Jewison wanted a more serious tone to what he saw as a largely grim story.

The big debate about this film concerns the non-casting of Zero Mostel as Tevye, the role he made famous on Broadway. To the bitter disappointment of Mostel and his many fans, the part went instead to Topol, the actor who had played Tevye in the London production of the play. It remains a stellar cast regardless, with an extraordinarily talented set of performers with both musical and dramatic talent.

This clip features one of the many wonderful, touching songs from the movie. It also shows how Jewison and top-flight cinematographer Oswald Morris did much much more than photograph a play; they created a remarkable piece of cinematic art using all the techniques the medium can offer.

L’Chaim!

Categories
British Horror/Suspense

Forgotten Draculas **Triple Feature**

Other perhaps than The Bible and The Sherlock Holmes stories, no book has inspired as many movies as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Everyone knows the famous Bela Lugosi version, but few people are aware of the versions I am recommending here.

Count Dracula was broadcast on BBC in 1977, and is perhaps closer to the original text than any other version (except that Meena and Lucy are sisters rather than friends, and one of Lucy’s three suitors is omitted). The elegant French actor Louis Jourdan makes a memorable Count Dracula, conveying a mixture of civility, erudition, seductiveness, arrogance, and menace. Equally good are Frank Finlay as a kindly, devout Professor Van Helsing and Jack Shepherd in an unusually sympathetic take on the madman Renfield. Props also to Bosco Hogan for vividly portraying Jonathan Harker’s progressive mental breakdown under the strain of being trapped in Dracula’s castle.

The budget for the BBC production was clearly small, and that shows in some cheap special effects, the lack of any eye-popping sets, and the absence of mega-stars. But within the limits of a television budget, it’s a quality movie, especially the exciting closing confrontation between our heroes and Dracula.

An even better TV adaptation, simply called Dracula, was made in 1973 by Dan Curtis of Dark Shadows fame. His frequent collaborator Richard Matheson departs substantially from the original story in his script, offering a fresh take on the world’s most famous vampire. Dracula, played with panache by Jack Palance, is as much sad as threatening, longing for the normal life he had centuries ago and seeming almost to regret his thirst for human blood. Matheson also strips down the number of characters (e.g., no Renfield, Dr. Seward, Quincy Morris or Arthur Holmwood) in a way that simplifies and helpfully speeds up the storytelling. My only gripe about Matheson’s changes is that Professor van Helsing was turned into a proper Englishman (Nigel Davenport) when he works better as an old-world character steeped in the mythology of nosferatu. Oswald Morris, whose work I have praised many times on this site, again offers fine cinematography, which enhances Curtis’ ability to deliver moments that make viewers hold their breath or let out a scream.

The final forgotten Dracula I would recommend was made by Universal Studios in 1931. You are probably thinking “What does he mean ‘forgotten’, that was the most famous version ever, wasn’t it?”. The English-language version is indeed the most famous, but in the early days of talkies, films were not dubbed for foreign markets. Rather, the studios would shoot the same film twice with a different cast in a different language. That’s how the Spanish-language version of Drácula was made in 1931. Bela Lugosi, Tod Browning et al did their shooting during the day, and then a completely different crew and cast shot the same scenes in Spanish at night.

The Spanish-language crew had a smaller budget, but they also had a distinct asset: They got to see the rushes that the English-language crew had shot that day. This allowed them to replace shots that were dull or didn’t work with new set-ups, and the result is much better camerawork in the Spanish-language version. This version also adds in a few scenes that make the story more coherent. I would not say it’s better than the Lugosi/Browning version, but I would say that on balance it’s just as a good and well worth your time both for itself and for comparative interest with its more famous twin.

This 3 minute video from CineMassacre does a superb job comparing the two productions:

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama

The Hill

Sidney Lumet’s brutal, gripping 1965 movie The Hill opens with a solitary figure laboring up the man-made torture device that gives the film its title. In one of Oswald Morris’ many mesmerizing crane shots, the man collapses in the North African heat and then the camera begins to move slowly away, off into the distance, abandoning the man and the compound in which he is forced to live. As in the rest of the film, no music is heard, which lets the hopelessness and isolation of the people we are watching sink in.

The story begins with five British soldiers arriving at a military prison. Four of them are privates who have committed various crimes (including Ossie Davis as a West Indian soldier and Roy Kinnear as a fat spiv), but the fifth is something different. Joe Roberts (Sean Connery) was a heroic sergeant major who has been busted down for beating up his commanding officer. Connery, given his first chance as a star to do something different from James Bond, plays the part well, showing how Roberts can be callous in some respects yet gentle in others. He is in emotional agony, for reasons that become clear as the film progresses.

The most complex performance is given by Harry Andrews, as RSM Wilson, who runs the daily operations of the prison. It would have been easy to write and play the character of RSM Wilson as a heartless martinet. But Ray Rigby’s script and Andrews’ acting are much more sophisticated than that. Yes, the RSM can be tough, but he also shows compassion because he is committed to rebuilding the prisoners rather than simply destroying them. He’s a three dimensional person, unlike the newly arrived Sergeant Major Williams (Ian Hendry), who is uncomplicatedly nasty. Ian Hendry, who was by all accounts a piece of work in real life (sadly, he drank himself to death in his early 50s) is convincingly vicious as Williams. As Connery’s character says “Wilson wants to build toy soldiers and Williams wants to break them”.

The prisoners struggle against the harsh prison regime, and also among themselves. But as Williams gets more brutal, causing a tragic incident, they begin to unify in opposition to the screws. They are aided by a diffident medical officer (a solid as ever Michael Redgrave) and a staff sergeant whose motives are interesting to speculate about (Ian Bannen).

Two complaints. The film would have benefited from some tightening in length and from dropping the final stages of evolution of Ossie Davis’ character. His behavior at the end seems a theatrical flourish to please a 1965 audience and not, like the rest of the film, a realistic take on WWII prison life. His performance though, like that of everyone else in the all-male cast, remains top-notch.

It would be an injustice to close on such cavils, however. Sidney Lumet’s “movie as play” style works perfectly in the claustrophobic setting of a prison. Cinematographer Oswald Morris and editor Thelma Connell do brilliant work throughout, particular during the scenes in which the prisoners are forced to climb the hill (In one case, while wearing a gas mask — horrifying). Given its subject matter and tone, this isn’t a date movie…but it’s a great movie.

A closing note on Connery’s evolution: As this critically-acclaimed movie bombed at the box office he saw audiences line up world wide to munch popcorn and watch Thunderball, which began to disgust him with the James Bond franchise and the state of his career. But while he didn’t know it at the time, he had already made the wisest move possible, which was to link up with a great director who saw more to him as an actor than the Bond films revealed (For more on this, see my recommendation of The Offence). 

Categories
British Mystery/Noir

Green for Danger

If Lt. Columbo had been Scottish, he would have born a strong resemblance to Inspector Cockrill, as wonderfully played by Alastair Sim in 1946’s Green for Danger. In the film role that helped make him a huge star, Sim perfectly essays the role of the dowdy looking, socially clumsy police detective who has a razor sharp mind and a relentless desire to snag his prey.

The setting is a wartime British hospital, where doctors and nurses treat the victims of the German doodlebugs that are wreaking havoc throughout the countryside. When an injured local postman mysteriously dies on the operating table, everyone looks like a plausible suspect. Which member of the surgical team did it? Is the killer Mr. Eden (Leo Genn), the lothario head surgeon? Sister Bates (Judy Campbell), the woman he most recently discarded? Or perhaps it’s Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard), the doctor with a stain on his medical record?

Particularly if you have the Criterion Collection version, this film is not just entertaining but very easy on the eyes. Much of it was shot indoors, but Cinematographer Wilkie Cooper makes the most of the exterior scenes to give us eye-catching and haunted-looking backdrops that maximize the tension of the story (He had Oswald Morris and Thelma Connell on the team, whose also collaborated on another of my recommendations). With all the wind, trees and shadows, the mood created is reminiscent of horror films in which a small group of desperate people are locked inside a remote and spooky mansion where violent events unfold.

Despite being a murder mystery, the film has many funny moments (especially Sim’s wry dialogue and voiceovers). Sidney Gilliat had already shown his gift for comic thrillers by co-scripting Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Here he also takes the director’s chair, from which he skillfully keeps the tone right as the story moves from hospital soap opera to murder investigation to amusingly Columbo-esque moments between Cockrill and the suspects. Gilliat gets solid performances from every member of his cast, who do a nice job humanizing characters that might otherwise lapse into stereotype. Gilliat’s script (co-written by Claude Guerney based on Christianna Brand’s novel) invokes a number of coincidences to make everyone look like a suspect and offers a somewhat rococo ultimate explanation for the crimes. But these are time-honored and enjoyable elements of the locked room mystery genre, right down to the climactic re-staging of the crime by Inspector Cockrill.