The Defector (1966) ***

How often does a government hoodwink a morally upright citizen into deceitful action for the cause of the greater good? In this case physicist Professor James Bower (Montgomery Clift) doesn’t need a great deal of urging because what’s at stake are Russian space race secrets and the man selling them is a Russian scientist he knows from translating his books. It’s apparent from the outset that in setting out to make contact in East Germany, he is walking into a trap. It’s moody, and drab in the vein of The Quiller Memorandum (1966), shot in soulless German streets, and of course it is the final performance, after a four-year screen absence, of a frail-looking Clift, an iconic Hollywood star for nearly two decades.

But genres can be confusing. Although tagged as a spy picture it’s not really a spy film. It’s a character study. In fact, two character studies, the other being a far-from-typical communist. And when you get to the end and realize the sacrifice made in order not to compromise principle, it turns into quite a different movie, one with considerably more depth than you might have imagined.

Bower is a rather adept amateur spy, neatly dodging being followed, and capable of nipping between two moving trams to evade pursuit. His instructions lead him to asking for a particular prescription and being sent in apparent haphazard fashion to an intended meeting with Dr Salter (Hans Messemer), his contact. Instead he is led to Counselor Peter Heinzmann (Hardy Kruger). His hotel room is not merely bugged but fitted with electronic instruments to prevent sleep and distort his mind. Meanwhile Heinzmann is engaged in a hawk-vs.-dove battle with  Orlovsky (David Opatoshu) to determine whose methods, the latter preferring torture and brainwashing, would prove the more successful in forcing Bower to betray the whereabouts of the would-be defector. And there is also a doctor’s receptionist Frieda (Macha Meril), with whom romance so obviously beckons your natural moviegoer instinct is to regard her as lure rather than friend.

It’s a chess game, Bower a pawn, with the net growing tighter, imprisoned in more ways than one, being groomed for defection himself. Although there is double cross, triple cross, murder and an excellent Hitchcockian escape/chase, and a final unexpected, very human, twist, it’s far from your typical spy thriller, in general subtle in tone except for the nightmarish hotel scenes. Heinzmann is also a pawn, fighting a system that sees degradation as its most potent weapon and even while a danger to Bower displays humanity.

Clift’s physical state, skin drawn tight over his face, works to the movie’s advantage, turning him into more of a Glenn Ford-type actor, the staunch man-next-door with steely resolve, but not the kind of character you would imagine Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe giving a second glance. In fact, since the story calls for him to be suffering from a mysterious malady – hence the need to seek out a pharmacy and doctor in a foreign country – his features endorse this plot point far better than if he had been fit and well.

Quite what the set was like is anybody’s guess given that not only was Clift dead by the time of the film’s release but that Belgian director Raoul Levy (Hail, Mafia, 1965) – better known as the producer of many Brigitte Bardot films and now helming only his second film – had committed suicide.  

If ever there was proof of star power, this is it. Even when the film is meandering and the plot at times impenetrable, Clift exerts an almost hypnotic hold on the viewer. Despite his clear infirmity, the intensity that enraptured audiences from films as disparate as Red River (1948), From Here to Eternity (1953) and The Misfits (1961) has not vanished. Since many scenes are just meetings that scarcely progress the story, it is quite a feat to keep audiences interested. Far from his greatest performance, he still displays screen presence.

He is helped along by Hardy Kruger (Flight of the Phoenix, 1965) in one of his more measured performances, both men sharing the knowledge that in doing good for their country they are betraying themselves. David Opatashu (Guns of Darkness, 1962) is excellent as his  quietly ruthless superior and there should be mention of  Karl Lieffen as the constantly complaining Major. Even as a dowdy East German, Macha Meril (Une Femme Mariee, 1964) still captivates.  Serge Gainsbourg contributed the music.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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