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.