The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) ****

The perfect riposte to the James Bond phenomenon. By comparison, a kitchen sink spy drama that challenges the glamorous version of espionage promoted by 007. Had the film been made as soon as the source novel by John Le Carre hit the bestseller charts in 1963 it might have stopped the Bond bandwagon, which didn’t really kick off until Goldfinger (1964), in its tracks. Realistic to the point of cynicism, the innocent are sacrificed in a ruthless chess battle for espionage supremacy.

Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) infiltrates the East German counter-espionage system after purportedly becoming a defector. His intention, however, is to stitch up Mundt (Peter van Eyck), the head of the East German unit, so that he is overthrown. Mundt has been causing too much grief to the British spy network in East Germany, the film opening with Leamas at the Berlin Wall watching an escaping agent being shot trying to pass through Checkpoint Charlie. At  the behest of Control (Cyril Cusack), the head of the British spy organization, Leamas pretends to quit the outfit, and playing the embittered card, ends up in prison for assault, on release being surreptitiously recruited by the East Germans as a potential defector.

Initially, the British appear almost too gentlemanly for the vicious spy game, Control almost apologizing (over endless cups of tea) about having to take such ruthless steps. Leamas has a tale he hopes will incriminate Mundt largely through the envy of his subordinate Fiedler (Oskar Werner). But once Leamas falls into the enemy’s hands, the game does not go according to plan. After initial gentle interrogation by Fiedler, the arrival of Mundt causes Leamas to be arrested and then tried for treason. Along the way, Leamas’s naïve girlfriend Nancy (Claire Bloom) is implicated and Leamas realizes he is a patsy, forced into quite a different role, that tests his beliefs.

The British, portrayed in Bond films and every other spy film up till then, as being on the side of the angels, are revealed as being just as heinous as the enemy. All through his defection Leamas is able to snigger at the abominable way the Communist superiors treat their underlings, simple demonstrations of power intended to humiliate at every opportunity, but it is soon apparent that the British are every bit as heartless. There is a very telling scene when Leamas realizes he may well be walking into a trap when his face appears on the front pages of a British newspaper. The look in Leamas’s eyes suggests he knows he has been betrayed.

If you remember Le Carre’s most famous creation George Smiley (Rupert Davies) as a humble man from the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) television series, you will be surprised to discover what depths the man will sink to here.

Oscar-nominated American director Martin Ritt (Hud, 1963) filmed this in black-and-white – even the advertising material was in mono – to remove all sense of glamour. There are no gadgets or girls in bikinis. This is the down-and-dirty version of espionage. And while the British top brass clearly regarded any staff lost as collateral damage, Leamas had a more human, more emotional, response.

Richard Burton (Where Eagles Dare, 1968) is superb, received a well-deserved Oscar nomination (his fourth), as a character destroyed by “minor human error” in a world where humanity is the last thing on anyone’s mind. Oskar Werner (Interlude, 1968) presents his character is such a way that he comes across as anything but a villain, even his costume has a little bit of the beatnik about it, and he treats his captive with courtesy. Peter van Eyck (Station Six Sahara, 1963) is a more standard German villain, complete with blond hair. Claire Bloom (Three into Two Won’t Go, 1969) has a small but pivotal role as a sweet librarian.

And there’s strength in depth in the supporting cast beginning with Cyril Cusack (Fahrenheit 451, 1966) in a deftly underplayed part. Sam Wanamaker (Warning Shot, 1967) and Michael Hordern (Khartoum, 1966) are among those routinely humiliated by their paymasters. Also watch out for Rupert Davies (television’s Maigret), Bernard Lee, moonlighting from James Bond duties, Beatrix Lehmann (Psyche ’59) and Robert Hardy (All Creatures Great and Small series 1978-1990).

Also taking time off from Bond duties was screenwriter Paul Dehn (Goldfinger, 1964) who adapted the novel with the help of Guy Trosper (Birdman of Alcatraz, 1962).

Paramount boldly opened around the same time as Thunderball in December 1965 and although the fourth Bond proved a box office tsunami, the Martin Ritt picture survived the onslaught and did pretty well.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the number U.S. hardback bestseller of 1964, according to the Publishers Weekly annual chart. That year You Only live Twice by Ian Fleming came eighth, the first time a Bond had appeared in the annual top ten. The following year Le Carre’s The Looking Glass War took the number four spot while The Man with the Golden Gun was seventh. It was the beginning of a mini-boom in spy novels among hardback buyers, and although neither Le Carre nor Fleming featured again during the decade Helen MacInnes placed fifth in 1966 with The Double Image and third with The Salzburg Connection in 1968 while Leon Uris’ Topaz was fourth in 1967.

The Bedford Incident (1965) ****

A belated entry into the Cold War thriller genre that appeared to have peaked with Dr Strangelove (1964), Fail Safe (1964) and Seven Days in May (1964). The Bedford Incident, filmed in black-and-white with a less-than-stellar cast nonetheless holds its own as an examination of men under pressure, a cat-and-mouse actioner, as well as a stark warning of the dangers of nuclear war. Perhaps you could not find a more contemporary theme,

Capt Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark) is a maverick U.S. Navy destroyer commander hunting down Russian submarines should they stray into territorial waters. He has been passed over for promotion, despite having previously successfully forced a Russian sub to the surface. Into his meticulously-run ship are dropped photo journalist Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) – re-teamed with Widmark after The Long Ships – and Lt. Commander Chester Potter (Martin Balsam),  a ship’s doctor. In effect, their presence is a simple device to put Widmark under the spotlight, in some respects to  challenge his operational methods, and, as a narrative device, to provide an excuse to tell the audience everything they need to know.  Among the ship’s crew are young ensign Ralston (James MacArthur) and former  German former U-boat commander Commodore Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman) who acts as an advisor.

The newcomers are afforded insight into how this ship is run and into its hunting methods, for example, dredging up waste from the sea in order to examine it for evidence of a Russian presence. There is a bundle of interesting technical data – a submarine has to surface for air, as another example – and the soundtrack mostly consists of endless sonar. Apart from the German, who appears to subsist on Schnapps, the crew is unusually top-quality, the sick bay deserted, the enterprise run under wartime conditions, every person on board dedicated to fulfilling the captain’s every wish.

The tension is in triplicate. First of all, there is the obsessive captain who could at any time just explode; secondly, there is the hunt for the submarine replete with tactical maneuvers and hunches; and finally, always in the background, there is the nuclear element and the fear that untoward action could trigger a holocaust. And there’s also time to take down a peg or two the holier-than-thou visitors, Dr Potter revealed as a civilian medic returning to the service as a refuge, Munceford as a rather spoiled individual who complains when dangerous maneuvers interrupt his shower. Schrepke has the unenviable task of trying to rein in his boss, Ralston one of the few on board finding the pressure hard to handle.  

But Widmark steals the show. His over-acting often stole the show when he had a supporting role, but this is a finely nuanced performance. An admirable, instinctive commander, he is loved by his men (such adoration not easily won) with a gift for battle and outfoxing an opponent, often barely containing his own tension. It would have been easy to ramp up the pressures he felt in the way of Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954) but there’s a big difference between a man about to crack and one who loves battle and is desperate to score victory. 

Sidney Poitier (Duel at Diablo, 1966) is excellent in a more relaxed role, combative only in matters of intelligence, and probably benefitting from not having to carry the picture. James MacArthur (The Truth about Spring, 1964) shows acting maturity is moving away from the easier Disney roles in which he came to prominence.  Character actor Martin Balsam (Harlow, 1965) excels as always in this kind of role, a man with hidden weakness. Eric Portman (The Man Who Finally Died, 1963), somewhat typecast as a German officer, is given a deeper role where villainy is not his only ace.  If you keep your eyes peeled you might spot a fleeting glimpse of The Dirty Dozen (1967) alumni Donald Sutherland, as part of the medical crew, and Colin Maitland as a seaman.

The top-billed Richard Widmark turned producer on this one, as he had done for The Secret Ways (1961), not so much as to greenlight a pet project but to keep a place at Hollywood’s high table just when that seemed to be slipping out of his grasp after the commercially disastrous John Ford roadshow Cheyenne Autumn (1964). In truth, Widmark’s position as an outright star appeared questionable. He seemed to transition all too easily between top billing (Warlock, 1959, The Long Ships, 1964) and second billing (Two Rode Together, 1961,  Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, and Flight from Ashiya 1964).   

But the billing oddity from today’s perspective if to find Sidney Poitier – coming off an Oscar win for Lilies of the Field (1963) and later a box office smash in his annus mirabilis of To Sir, With Love (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and In the Heat of the Night (1967) – subordinate to Widmark in the credits department.  The Long Ships featured the same billing arrangement.

Also putting his neck on the line was James B. Harris who was making the jump to director from producer of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957) and Lolita (1962). Screenplay honors go to James Poe (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, 1969) who adapted the bestseller by Mark Rascovich.

Harris makes a sound debut, the decision to film in black-and-white paying off, and enough going on through personality clash and the sub hunt to keep the pace taut. Authenticity was added by filming aboard naval vessels (although British in this case) and what little model work there is does not look out of place. A bigger budget would have made better use of the actual hunt (as The Hunt for Red October, 1990, later proved) but sound effects rather than visual effects suffice. I had not at all expected the shock ending. Another point in this film’s favor is that the threat of nuclear apocalypse has not gone away and the fact remains that the world as we know could disappear at the touch of a button.

Ice Station Zebra (1969) ****

John Sturges’ Alistair Maclean Cold War thriller, released within months of the more action-oriented Where Eagles Dare, twists and turns as Americans in a nuclear submarine and the Soviet Union race to the Arctic to retrieve a fallen space capsule containing a deadly secret. Thoroughly enjoyable hokum filmed in Cinerama 70mm with an earworm of a booming theme from Michel Legrand and mostly outstanding special effects.

Nuke sub Commander Ferraday (Rock Hudson), despatched from Scotland, and believing he is only on a last-gasp mission to the save scientists at a stricken weather station, is somewhat surprised to be forced to carry as passengers arrogant British secret service agent David Jones (Patrick McGoohan) and Russian defector Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine), the former refusing to divulge the reasons for being on board. From the outset the vessel is afflicted by sabotage and the cruel ice. Tensions mount further as they reach the Ice Station Zebra weather station. Since so much depends on mystery in a MacLean thriller, any other revelations would amount to significant plot spoilers.

So while there’s more than enough going on among the various characters and a plot that shifts like a teutonic plate, it’s the submarine section that proves the most riveting, the dives exhilarating. The underwater photography is superb in part thanks to an invention by second unit cameraman John M. Stephens which could film for the first time a continuous dive. Whether the sub is submerging, surfacing, puncturing the ice or in danger of being crushed to smithereens, it’s the nuke that takes centre stage, a significant achievement in the days before CGI.

Not all the effects are quite so top-notch, there’s some dodgy back projection, and the Arctic rocks look fake, but in general, especially with streamlined control panels, jargon spat out at pace, and sub interiors that appear realistic, the result of two years research, it’s a more than solid job, delivering the core of a Saturday night action picture.

The absence of a giant Cinerama screen does not detract from the movie – though if you get the chance to see it in 70mm, as I once did, jump at it – because the Super Panavision cameras capture in enormous detail the bow spray, the massive icebergs, the gleaming intricacy of the controls, and even the sea parting under the weight of the sub creates astonishing visuals. And there’s something inherently dramatic in the commander slapping down the periscope.

Rock Hudson (Tobruk, 1967) is back to straightforward leading man duty after his departure into paranoia in Seconds (1966) and he is burdened with both a chunk of exposition and having to develop a stiff upper lip in response to the secret agent’s reluctance to take him into his confidence. He comes more into his own in the action sequences. The tight-lipped brusque provocative McGoohan (Dr Syn, 1963) clearly has a ball as mischief-maker-in-chief, keeping everyone else on tenterhooks. Ernest Borgnine (The Wild Bunch, 1969) invests his character with wide-eyed charm at the same time as the audience doubts his credentials. Jim Brown (The Split, 1968) has little more than an extended cameo as the Marines’ chief and in smaller roles you can also spot future Oscar-winning producer Tony Bill (Castle Keep, 1969) and veteran Lloyd  Nolan (The Double Man, 1967).

This was the second MacLean adaptation for John Sturges (The Satan Bug, 1965) and he keeps a tighter grip on proceedings, a $10 million budget ensuring he could make the movie he envisaged, part-thriller, part-high adventure with well-orchestrated slugs of action.

Book into Film – “The Secret Ways” (1961)

You might ask yourself why star Richard Widmark bought the rights to Alistair MacLean Cold War thriller The Last Frontier (title changed to The Secret Ways for American publication and the film) if he was going to ignore so much of the author’s brilliant story. In the original version hero Reynolds (the Widmark character) does not simply fly into Vienna as in the film, but has already crossed the Austrian border into Hungary in a blizzard after hitching a lift in a truck but now is stranded on foot in sub-zero temperatures, 30 miles from Budapest. This is not the only change authorized by Widmark, wearing his producer’s hat.

His Reynolds is a freelance gun for hire clearing a gambling debt and hired by an American spy ring compared to MacLean’s British secret service agent, intensely trained for 18 months for this mission. The mission in MacLean’s book is to rescue/kidnap British scientist Professor Jennings, the world expert on ballistic missiles, with the help of Hungarian resistance leader -Hungary at the time part of the Soviet bloc – Jansci (Wolf Rilla). Widmark eliminated all mention of Jennings. Instead, the task facing his Reynolds is to get Jansci out of Hungary. Widmark’s Jansci is still a resistance leader but doubling up as the professor albeit a straightforward scholar with nothing to do with missiles.  

Cover of the Doubleday U.S. hardback edition in 1959.

Combining characters was not unusual in the movie business and Widmark may have deemed it necessary to streamline the plot. But if the idea was to simplify the plot, that hardly explained the existence of Elsa (Senta Berger). She was not in the book. Her sole purpose may have been to provide Widmark with casual romance – a testament in Hollywood terms to his irresistible attraction – early in the story.

This was Alistair Maclean’s first shift away from the trio of war novels, including The Guns of Navarone, which had rocketed him into the bestseller class, and it proved to be a major change of style that created the non-stop thriller template that would underpin the later Fear Is the Key (published in 1961), When Eight Bells Toll (printed in 1966) and Puppet on a Chain (1969 publication), all of which were filmed, which saw loners or secret agents enduring horrific physical abuse as they battled the odds.

MacLean’s Reynolds enters Budapest a captive, rather than as in the Widmark version merely catching a train. Widmark meets Jansci’s daughter Julia (Sonia Ziemann) in Vienna. But in the book the secret agent meets Julia, along with her father, after he is captured by the resistance. In the book Reynold’s kidnap occurs in the first 20 pages, in the film at the halfway mark. From the outset Maclean thrusts his hero pell-mell into action with nary a let-up but in the film the action is punctuated by romance and various political meanderings.

Giving the game away No 1: the back cover of the Fontana paperback movie tie-in explains the plot – and it’s different from the one Widmark filmed.

Perhaps Widmark shied away from the MacLean plot due to budget constraints for the novel is certainly more intense and continually action-packed. Starting with the blizzard and ending with a perilous river crossing, the novel has several scenes which would have looked stupendous on screen. The story Widmark ignored involved the scientist in danger of being removed from Hungary to be returned to the Soviet Union, forcing Reynolds to effect a rescue on board a train, in a devil-may-care episode worthy of James Bond, by separating one car from the rest. There follows a 400-kilometer chase to the Austrian border where, pursued by Hungarian secret police, they cross the river Danube. In a final twist, while the professor and Julia are safe, Jansci refuses to leave his native country.

In various blogs covering the transition of novel into screenplay, I have mostly understood why a screenwriter would delete, alter or embellish plot, characters, time scale and even locale. Sometimes the screenwriter simply comes up with a more believable plot (as in Blindfold) or is required by the sheer length of the novel to make considerable changes. It’s rare for me to think that the screenwriter has taken the wrong approach. I thought The Devil Rides Out could have done with more of the occult background in the Dennis Wheatley novel. Here, it’s quite obvious that Maclean had a far better storyline than the film Widmark chose to make, the blizzard, train and river crossing scenes far more exciting than anything in the finished picture. As I noted, money may have been the issue.

Giving the game away No 2: the back cover of the Pocket Books paperback movie tie-in explains that Reynolds is a British secret service agent – but that’s not how Widmark played him.

However, it’s just as interesting that Widmark and Co. managed to make an enjoyable picture by not following the original story. The role of gambler-gone-bad was more appropriate to the Widmark screen persona than a secret service agent (outside of the humorous Our Man in Havana, there were not many of those around until a few years later). The film did introduce Senta Berger to a wider audience and the plot as it stands made a lot of sense.

The book was published in Britain in 1959 as The Last Frontier. In America the same year Doubleday renamed it The Secret Ways. There was a Victor Mature western called The Last Frontier in 1955 – and the title had also been used in 1932 and 1939 – so unless  Richard Widmark had purchased the film rights prior to American publication and announced a name change, then I have no idea why the book title changed.

 

The Courier (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

A brilliant example of how to control your material, this low-budget old school espionage picture, virtually a two-hander, based on a true story and set against the 1960s cold War paranoia, delivers thrills against the background of a murky business. Smarmy businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is inveigled into picking up rolls of film from Russian intelligence office Oleg (Merab Ninidze), giving away his country’s secrets in a bid to prevent nuclear war.

An anti-James Bond scenario sees Wynn employing little bits of tradecraft and spending almost every minute fearing capture while he develops a friendship with his foreign counterpart. On the domestic front, the pressure tells on Wynn, already a nervy character and relying too much on alcohol to sustain his own possibly failing business. Wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) suspects he is engaging in another extra marital affair. Doting father Oleg wilts under the burden of betrayal, hoping that his assistance in the Western cause will lead to a successful defection, aware of the impact on his family if caught.

In the background Wynne’s ruthless handlers, Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) representing MI6 and CIA operative Emily (Rachel Brosnahan), are like circling sharks. While tense enough, this is all straightforward Tinker, Tailor… territory but in the second act the stakes suddenly rise and the movie shoots into quite different, far more realistic territory, that takes its toll on both protagonists.

It’s a very lean film and in concentrating on character rather than extraneous thrills in the manner of other recent offerings like Stillwater, The Night House or Censor, comes up triumphant in terms of plot. And without attempting to impose background through artistry as with Censor perfectly captures the mood of the times. The background characters are all well developed but the unexpected friendship that develops between the two spies and leads to the climax is exceptionally well done.

Oscar nominated Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, 2014) drops all his mannerisms to bring alive a fascinating character who has, in any case, in his business life, had to develop an alien persona.  Merab Ninidze (Jupiter’s Moon, 2017) is every bit his equal, living a lie, trying to keep one step ahead of his own suspicious compatriots. Rachel Brosnahan (Change in the Air, 2018) is excellent as the one backroom character with an ounce of empathy and a pithy line in dealing with stuffy Brits and Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose, 2018), adding another decent accent to her collection, adds some pathos.

Director Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach, 2017) does an excellent job of marshalling his material and his concentration on character pays off in spades. Versatility could find no better expression than through writer Tom O’Connor who went down a completely different route in his previous movie The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017).

I do have one slight niggle. When the British were outraged at Burgess, Philby and MacLean and the Americans Klaus Fuchs et al, the arguments given by these various traitors was that, in giving away state secrets, they were merely realigning the nuclear status quo. These characters were all roundly vilified, but not Oleg here. And although the film concentrates on a few exchanges between Oleg and his courier, in reality more than 5,000 military secrets went from Russia to Britain in this fashion.

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.

Topaz (1969) ****

Authentic, atypical, engrossing, this grittier Hitchcock mixes the realism of Psycho (1960) and Marnie (1964) with the nihilism of The Birds (1963), a major departure for a canon that previously mostly spun on innocents or the falsely accused encountering peril. The hunt for a Russian spy ring by way of the Cuban missile crisis forms the story core but the director is more interested in personal consequence and even the villain suffers heart-rending loss. Betrayal is the other key theme – defection and infidelity go hand in hand.

The tradecraft of espionage is detailed – dead letter drops, film hidden in typewriting spools, an accidental collision that is actually a sweet handover. In a transcontinental tale that shifts from Copenhagen to New York to Cuba to Paris, there is still room for classic sequences of suspense – the theft of secret documents in a hotel the pick – and Hitchcock at times simply keeps the audience at bay by employing dumbshow at key moments.    

In some respects the director was at the mercy of his material. In the documentary-style Leon Uris bestseller (almost a procedural spy novel), the main character is neither the trigger for the plot nor often its chief participant and is foreign to boot. So you could see the sense of employing a cast of relative unknowns, otherwise an audience would soon grow restless at long absences from the screen of a Hollywood star of the caliber of a Cary Grant or Paul Newman. It is a florist (Roscoe Lee Browne) who carries out the hotel theft, a small resistance cell the spying on Russian missiles in Cuba, a French journalist who beards one of the main suspects, not the ostensible main character, French agent Andre Devereux (Frederick Stafford), not his U.S. counterpart C.I.A. operative Michael Nordstrum (John Forsythe) nor Cuban villain Rico Parra (John Vernon).

Unusual, too, is the uber-realism. The main characters are fully aware of the dangers they face and of its impact on domestic life and accept such consequence as collateral damage. It is ironic that the Russian defector is far more interested in safeguarding his family than Devereux. Devereux’s wife (Dany Robin), Cuban lover Juanita (Karin Dor) and son-in-law (Michel Subor) all suffer as a result of his commitment to his country. And that Juanita (Karin Dor), leader of the Cuban resistance cell, is more of a patriot than the Russian, refusing to defect when offered the opportunity. Hitchcock even acknowledges genuine politics: the reason a Frenchman is involved is because following the Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961 American diplomats were not welcome in Cuba.

In terms of bravura Hitchcock, the pick of the scenes are the hotel theft and the death of one of the principals, filmed from above.

I have steered clear of this film for over half a century. I saw it on initial release long before the name Hitchcock meant anything to me. But once it did I soon realized this film did not easily fit into the classic Hitchcock and the critics on whom I relied had always represented it as shoddy goods. So I came to it with some trepidation and was surprised to find it so engrossing.  

Frederick Stafford (O.S.S. 117: Mission for a Killer, 1965) was excellent with an insouciance reminiscent of Cary Grant and a raised eyebrow to match that star’s wryness. John Vernon, who I mostly knew as an over-the-top villain in pictures such as Fear Is the Key (1972), was surprisingly touching as the Cuban bad-guy who realizes his lover is a traitor. And there is a host of top French talent in Michel Piccoli (Belle de Jour, 1967), Philippe Noiret (Justine, 1969) Dany Robin (The Best House in London, 1969) and Karin Dor (You Only Live Twice, 1967).

As you are possibly aware, three endings were shot for this picture and I can’t tell you which I saw without spoiling the plot. If you want to know, read tomorrow’s Blog.

In any case, this is worth seeing more than just to complete a trawl through the entire Hitchcock oeuvre, a very mature and interesting work.

The Secret Ways (1961) ***

This gritty realistic thriller, based on Alistair Maclean’s The Last Frontier, has much in common with The Quiller Memorandum (1965) with spies stalked through dark cobbled streets. To pay off his gambling debts, Michael Reynolds (Richard Widmark), posing as a journalist, agrees to smuggle out of Hungary resistance leader Jansci (Walter Rilla) on the Soviet hit list after the failed 1956 uprising.  Assisting him is Jansci’s daughter Julia (German star Sophie Ziemann) and, making her debut, Senta Berger as Elsa.

This is a city of staircases and tunnels and echoing footsteps and authorities keeping close tabs on visitors. The first time Widmark escapes their notice he is beaten up and it takes considerable skill, dodging through cinemas, creeping along window ledges, to make any headway in his assignment. Various complications ensue, not least that Julia despises Reynolds and that Jansci does not want to flee his country. Reynolds, who starts out as anything but your standard good guy, ends up less mercenary.

Mostly it is atmospheric cat-and-mouse with ruthless opposition partial to the odd spot of torture. Once it gets going, it a chase that the escapees are unlikley to evade. That Reynolds is distrusted by those he is trying to help and that he doesn’t want to be here at all, forced into adventure by adverse personal circumstance, stokes up the tension.

Widmark doesn’t quite abandon his snarling persona but manages some deft dry-wit comedy when trying to play a journalist accommodating his hosts. Senta Berger makes a striking debut. Sophie Ziemann is less impressive but veteran character actor Walter Rilla has the brooding and charismatic presence of a leader. Vienna, generally not considered a soulless city, does a great job standing in for Budapest.

This was one of many Widmark bids to gain greater control of his career and provide himself with more interesting leading roles than the standard villains or tough guys that Hollywood marked him down for. He was the producer and at one point took over direction from Phil Karlson after artistic differences of opinion. Jean Hazlewood, Widmark’s wife, wrote the screenplay. While there’s less out-and-out action than Maclean devotees brought up on Where Eagles Dare and Fear Is the Key might expect, there are still considerable rewards from an intelligent screenplay and the crackle of pursuit. Seen as a late entrant to the Hollywood cloak-and-dagger genre than a precursor of the 1960s Bond-style adventure, this has a great deal going for it.

Catch-Up: Previously reviewed in the Blog – Senta Berger in Major Dundee, Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, and The Quiller Memorandum; Richard Widmark in The Bedford Incident, The Long Ships, Flight from Ashiya and Alvarez Kelly.

The Quiller Memorandum (1966) ****

The Quiller Memorandum (1966) ****

Stylish cat-and-mouse thriller that fits into the relatively small sub-genre of intelligent spy pictures. George Segal was a difficult actor to cast. He had a kind of shiftiness that lent credibility to a movie like King Rat (1965), a cockiness that found a good home in The Southern Star and an earnestness ideal for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). But Quiller fit his screen persona like a glove. The part called for charm to the point of smarminess and courage to the point of callousness. A lone wolf for whom relationships were a means to an end, he adopted identities – journalist, swimming coach etc– as the occasion suited.

Quiller’s undercover mission is to expose a neo-Nazi organisation. But just as he sought to discover the location of this secret enterprise, so his quarry was attempting to find out where his operation was based. 

Michael Anderson (The Dam Busters, 1955) had just finished his first spy effort, Operation Crossbow (1966) and that film’s documentary-style approach was carried on here but with a great deal more style. There is consistent use of the tracking shot, often from the point-of-view of one of the protagonists, that gives the film added tension, since you never know where a tracking shot will end. Although the film boasts one of John Barry’s best themes, Wednesday’s Child, there was a remarkable lack of music throughout. Many chase scenes begin in silence, with just natural sounds as a background, then spill out into music, and then back into silence.

But much of the heavy lifting was done by playwright Harold Pinter (The Servant, 1963) in adapting Adam Hall’s prize-winning novel. Hall was one of the pseudonyms used by Trevor Dudley-Smith who wrote The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) under the name Elleston Trevor. The Quiller Memorandum involved wholesale change, from the title (the book was called The Berlin Memorandum) onwards. The book is set against the background of war crime trials; Quiller a British wartime rescuer of Jews now tracking down war criminals; the main female character (played in the film by Senta Berger) had, as a child, been in Hitler’s bunker; and there is a subplot concerning  a bubonic plague; there was a preponderance of obscure (though interesting for a reader) tradecraft; plus the Nazi organisation was named “Phoenix.”

Book jacket for film tie-in for what was originally entitled “The Berlin Memorandum.”

While retaining the harsh realities of the spy business, Pinter junks most of this in favour of a more contemporary approach. Instead of meeting his superior (Alec Guinness) in a theatre, this takes place in the Olympiad stadium. Guinness’s upper crust bosses, played by George Sanders and Robert Flemyng, are more interested in one-upmanship. Berlin still showed the after-effects of the war and Pinter exploited these locales. Senta Berger is an apparently innocent teacher in a school where a known war criminal had worked. And, of course, Segal is an American, not British, drafted in from the Middle East.

But the core remains the same, Segal prodding for weaknesses in the Nazi organisation, the Nazis hoping to reel him in and force a confession from him, Segal planning on roping them in by getting close to them. Despite receiving second-billing Alec Guinness has a minor role, but Max von Sydow as Segal’s adversary more than makes up.

There is still a lot of tradecraft: “do you smoke this brand” (of cigarettes) is the way spies identify themselves; Segal being followed on foot turning the tables on his quarry; Segal poisoned after being prodded by a suitcase; and the use of word associations Segal employs to avoid giving real information. Having flushed out his adversaries, Segal is now dangerously exposed. But that’s his job. He’s just a pawn to both sides. He’s virtually never on top unlike the fantasy espionage worlds inhabited by James Bond, Matt Helm and Derek Flint.

The structure is brilliant. Segal spends most of the picture in dogged bafflement. Guinness at his most supercilious flits in and out. Segal is stalked and stalks in return. There are exciting car chases but the foot chases (if they can be called that) are far more tense. But the core is a bold thirteen-minute interrogation scene where Segal is confronted by von Sydow, head of the shadowy neo-Nazis. And as an antidote to the thuggery and danger to which he is exposed, Segal becomes involved with Senta Berger.

Berger is hugely under-rated as an actress. She was in the second tier of the European sex bombs who came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s, the top league dominated by Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. On screen she is not as lively as those three, but the quiet intensity of her luminous beauty draws the camera in. Here, she is utterly believable as the innocent women who, in falling for Segal, is dragged into his dangerous world.  She was criminally under-used by Hollywood, often in over-glamourous roles such as The Ambushers (1967) or as the kind of leading lady whose role is often superfluous.

Segal is a revelation, grown vastly more mature as an actor after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) for which he was Oscar-nominated, confident enough to abandon the showy carapace of previous pictures. This is a picture where he sheds layers, from the opening brashness to the sense of defeat in surviving the interrogation ordeal, knowing the only reason he is still alive is to lead the enemy to his own headquarters, buoyed only by inner grit. He hangs on to his identity by his fingertips.

A must-see for collectors of the spy genre.

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