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.

The Red Tent (1969) ***

If you’re unfamiliar with the abortive Italian airship expedition to the North Pole led by General Umberto Nobilo (Peter Finch) in 1928, you’ll find this an absorbing tale. If you are familiar then you will probably appreciate the film-makers’ attempts, via an unusual framing device, to carry out a post-mortem and to apportion blame for the disaster. If you know your history you’ll also be aware both poles had already been conquered, American Robert Peary first to the North Pole in 1909, Norwegian Roald Amundsen (Sean Connery) claiming South Pole bragging rights two years later. So you’re also probably wondering what was the point nearly two decades later of the Nobilo operation?

But the sled-led efforts of Peary and Amundsen were feats of endurance i.e. man vs.  nature. This was science vs. nature. The dirigible was the apex of aviation advancement and nations still battled for exploration glory. So to travel in some comfort and fly over the North Pole in a few days would be a demonstration of scientific supremacy. Conquest of one of the most inhospitable places on earth was almost a PR exercise. With no intention of landing it was also a glorified tourist trip.

Connery and Cardinale lock horns over tea.

However, the science was flawed. Nobody had counted on the build-up of ice. The airship crashed and since this was a joyride nobody was equipped to walk their way out. Just surviving would be difficult enough. Loss of radio transmission (science) indicated a problem to those waiting back at the base so rescue airplanes were deployed. But without a location to pinpoint, the searchers had about two million square kilometers cover. Luckily, a brilliant scientific deduction by expedition member Finn Malmgreen (Eduard Martsevich) saves the day and a ham radio user (amateur science) picks up the location. Game on!

Except airplanes are too easily thwarted by blizzards, fog and the inhospitable. Home base, set up simply to welcome home a successful jaunt, is not capable of organizing a proper rescue. A Russian ice-breaker joins the rescue attempt. Taking greater risks is aviator Einar Lundborg (Hardy Kruger), fired up by the promise of sex with desperate nurse Valeria (Claudia Cardinale), who happens to be Malmgreen’s girlfriend, and a bounty from Nobilo’s insurers. The redoubtable Valeria does not have to sell her body to persuade the more highly-principled Amundsen to join the rescue effort.

So it’s gripping clock-ticking-down stuff, action shown in considerable detail, almost over-populated in one sense as director Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying, 1957) covers multiple storylines, the various disjointed rescue efforts, the survivors weakening by the day, imperiled by marauding polar bears and the ice cracking up beneath their feet.

In the main it’s a true story, Valeria the only fictional element, inserted for dramatic purpose, to give the audience someone to emotionally root for back on land and for her character to guide us in almost contemporary fashion through the ghoulish carnival onshore as thousands gather to witness first-hand news of disaster.

What’s patently untrue is the framing device, given that it shows the still-living Nobilo summoning up the ghosts of others involved in the event for a post-mortem, in which his guilt drives him into the position of sacrificial lamb. Although on first encounter it appears a bizarre idea, that, too, soon achieves dramatic purpose. Clearly there was intense discussion at the time and in the immediate aftermath by those who survived the disaster and there must have been high-level talks behind closed doors that usually excluded the main characters of the kind that was played out in a host of historical pictures made during the decade. Lawrence of Arabia (1963) and Khartoum (1965) had many such set-pieces where reputations were shredded.

This approach permits opportunity for all the principals to come together for confrontational purposes in the one room. Not all discussion follows the expected path and there is an interesting argument between Nobilo and Amundsen about leadership. From an audience perspective, it is, of course, quite satisfying to see Sean Connery facing off against Peter Finch with Hardy Kruger and Claudia Cardinale embroiled in the debate.

All eyes on Claudia Cardinale in the Japanese poster.

There is the bonus of fabulous cinematography of the majestic Arctic, the icy waste and breaking up of ice floes and collapsing icebergs never before captured in such widescreen glory. Further pluses are in the performances, especially Connery as an aged Amundsen, Finch as the glorious pioneer bewildered the sudden turn of events and Cardinale as a woman willing to go to any lengths to save her lover. Ennio Morricone provided the score.

However, you are best going into this to be aware that while Finch has a goodly amount of time onscreen, Connery and Cardinale (the ostensible stars judging by the credits) are not seen so frequently. That said, the movie happily falls into the survival sub-genre. The DVD version I saw was just a shade over two hours – cut by about 30 minutes from original release – but reportedly the longer version adds little more than some extra angst.

Book into Film – Elleston Trevor’s “The Flight of the Phoenix”

British novelist Elleston’s Trevor’s The Flight of the Phoenix (published in 1964) was a lean 80,000 words, a far cry from the blockbuster airport reads like Exodus by Leon Uris and James Michener’s Hawaii. But its length made it an ideal subject for a film, the shorter novel tending to stick close to the main story. The author’s speciality was authentic detail, an early career as a racing driver and flight engineer inspiring in him a love for all things mechanical. He knew what made things work and gaps in his knowledge were filled by assiduous research. He was an assiduous man, with 36 books since 1943 under ten pseudonyms, one being Adam Hall whose bestselling spy tale The Berlin Memorandum would be filmed as The Quiller Memorandum (1966). He had tackled aviation before, most prominently in Squadron Airborne (1955). But it’s worth comparing how this book was translated to the screen compared to The Berlin Memorandum, which, as discussed in a previous review, owed much of its screen personality to intervention by playwright Harold Pinter.

The film follows the book’s structure with only a couple of deviations. The main one was changing the nationality of the aircraft designer from British to German. Originally named Stringer he was a testy young individual prone to taking offence and going off in big sulks. There was a German in the Trevor version, Kepel, a young man who is injured in the crash. But there was no handy doctor on board and fewer different nationalities. To build up James Stewart as the heroic pilot and as a consequence to add meat to his clash with German designer Hardy Kruger, in the film he bravely goes out into the desert to find one of the passengers, but that does not occur in the book. Other changes were minor – in the book the passengers are occasionally able to supplement their drinking rations by scraping night frost off  the plane and at a later point in the book they drain the blood from a dead camel in order to dilute their drinking water. While there is an encounter with Arab nomads in both book and film, the movie’s approach to this incident is much more straightforward, ignoring some of the detail supplied in the book.  

Of course, a novel allows for the inclusion of far greater detail. And while that provides the skeleton for story development, Trevor gives greater insight into the characters than can be achieved on screen. The author allows each character an internal monologue, through which device we discover their motivations, history and fears. This approach combines the present with the past, presenting a more rounded cast of characters. While the inherent tension of the situation drives the story along, the author switches between characters to keep the reader fully engaged. The cowardly sergeant (played by Ronald Fraser in the film) is the biggest beneficiary, portrayed as a more sympathetic person than in the film. The book is a stand-alone enjoyment, Trevor’s writing skills, his grasp of character, creation of tension and his  engineering knowledge (bear in mind he invented the idea of building another plane out of the wrecked one) make the novel every bit as enthralling as the film.  

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) ****

Take twelve condemned men, drop them in the desert hundreds of miles from safety with only enough water to last two weeks, and nothing to eat but dates, and make them work together to effect salvation from their predicament. Not exactly the premise for The Dirty Dozen (1967) but not far off. Flight of the Phoenix appears a dummy run for director Robert Aldrich’s more ambitious war picture, not least because in terms of structure it is only eight minutes shorter. There are no women in the picture (except those appearing in a mirage) and the men, of all different types, must come together or die in the savage heat.

You might argue that the audience for this kind of picture no longer exists. In the 1960s there was a big market for the Nevil Shute/Hammond Innes/Elleston Trevor type of novel which contained a lot of practical detail at a time when heavy industry – mining, shipbuilding, oil, car manufacture – was a massive employer and the ordinary man had an easy understanding of – and was often fascinated by – the principles of engineering. Bear in mind that this was the era of space rockets and there was excitement about man’s planned flight to the moon.

During a sandstorm a small twin-engined plane carrying passengers from an oil field crash lands in the Sahara. James Stewart as the pilot was a casting trick. In a previous aerial adventure No Highway (1951), Stewart was the ordinary joe challenging authority. Here he is the authority figure challenged and part of the film’s guile is the way he has to concede that authority to the one person on board everyone hates, arrogant German aircraft designer  Hardy Kruger. The global job lot of passengers includes: two soldiers, martinet officer Peter Finch and his mutinous sergeant Ronald Fraser; Richard Attenborough as an alcoholic navigator; oil worker Ernest Borgnine on the brink of insanity; Scotsman Ian Bannen reprising the sarcastic troublemaker of previous desert drama Station Six Sahara (1963); Frenchman Christian Marquand as a doctor; veteran Dan Duryea as the company accountant; Italian Gabriele Tinti; George Kennedy and Alex Montoya; plus a monkey of no fixed abode. The monkey, incidentally, is cleverly utilised. He’s not a sentimental or cute device, there to soften a hard guy or for comic relief, but Aldrich often cuts to his squeals or his face when there is imminent danger.

Two passengers are already dead, one is seriously injured. They have been blown so far off-course they will be impossible to locate. There is only enough water for ten or eleven days. It is a given in such circumstances that tempers will explode and hidden secrets surface. Were they guaranteed rescue those two pegs would be enough to hang a movie on.  Since there is no such guarantee, this becomes a picture about survival. The obvious manoeuvre comes into play on the fifth day. Finch determines to walk to safety, over 100 miles in deadly heat. But it’s not a trek picture either, the engineers present know the risks. Mountains will cause false compass readings and those going will walk around in circles.

What? I can get that magnetism in the mountains can affect a compass but where does the walking round in circles enter the equation? Because, explains Attenborough patiently, a person does not automatically walk in a straight line if there is no actual road. If right-handed then you’ll walk in a left-hand direction because the right leg is more developed than the other and takes a longer stride and there’s nothing you can do about it. This doesn’t matter if you are walking along an actual path but in the desert with no road markings it’s lethal. And this is the beginning of a bag of what would otherwise be deemed trivia except that such facts are a matter of life and death. This is a movie about reality in a way that no other realistic or authentic picture has or will be. Physics is the dominant force, not imagination.

Finch’s sergeant fakes an injury to avoid going. The mad Borgnine, originally prevented from leaving, sneaks away in the night. James Stewart, in courageous mode, goes after him. While he is away, Kruger carries out a character assassination. And continues on his return – “the only thing outstanding about you is your stupidity.” By now though, Attenborough has warmed to Kruger’s insane idea of building a single-engined plane out of the wreck of the twin-engined one. And that becomes the crux of the story. Can they build this weird contraption? Will they manage it before they die of thirst? Will rising tensions prevent completion? Are they fit enough after days in the boiling heat to manage the herculean tasks involved?

Aldrich keeps psychological tension at fever pitch, helped along by the pessimistic Stewart and the wildly pessimistic Bannen, needling everyone in sight, who delivers lines like “how I stopped smoking in three days.” Stewart and Attenborough have to come to terms with the parts they played in the plane crashing, Fraser with his cowardice. Issues arise over leadership and water theft.

I won’t spoil it for you by mentioning the incident that threatens to demolish the entire project. But the finale is truly thrilling, edge-of-the-seat stuff and the skeletal monstrosity being constructed looks hardly capable of carrying the monkey let alone a full complement of passengers. Aldrich is a master of the group shot with unerring composition and often movement within the frame or just a simple bit of business by an actor, for example George Kennedy at one point tapping his hand against his leg, ensuring that the film does not solely focus on a couple of characters. Sometimes all Aldrich needs to make his points are reaction shots.

Aldrich called on Lukas Heller for the screenplay, having worked with him on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). Aldrich’s son William and son-in-law Peter Bravos had bit parts, killed off during the crash.

Flight of the Phoenix virtually invented the self-help rescue genre that relied on ingenious mechanical ideas – rather than more simplistic notions – such as later absorbed in movies like Apollo 13 (1995) and The Martian  (2015). Aldrich’s mastery of group dynamics would stand in him in good stead for The Dirty Dozen. A terrific movie and well worth seeing.

See also also the companion piece – Book into Filmwhich is posted tomorrow.

Hatari! (1962) ***

What this movie needed was Cinerama. That format blended exotic locale and thrills. The Tanganyika setting and jeeps belting across uneven terrain to capture myriad wildlife provide the two required elements. But the rest of the film struggles to keep up.

Here Howard Hawks combines his two most common themes, a group of men stuck together facing an unusual task and a battle of the sexes. But without the tension of an upcoming gunfight (Rio Bravo, 1959) or bizarre romantic comedy contrivance (Bringing up Baby, 1938), it falls short of the director’s highest standards. But as he set such high standards, virtually anything would.

Paramount went the extra mile on this one, producing, in addition to the normal pressbook, a special “Care and Handling Manual” such as had previously accompanied Psycho. This was a week-by-week breakdown of marketing activities – from arranging a John Wayne hat tie-up, to getting record stores and bookshops to prepare window displays, stencilling paws on the ground leading to the cinema and organising permits for a safari-parade on opening day. There was a tie-in with Jeep and the movie was a natural for involvement with schools and kids

The original concept intended to pair Clark Gable and John Wayne so that might have produced better results. Setting aside the gripe of the unlikely romance between a young Elsa Martinelli (rather than a mature Maureen O’Hara) and the ageing Wayne, this remains highly entertaining and a thrilling ride. Watching the actors do their own dangerous stunts, bouncing over potholes and battered in trucks moving at high speed, holding on for dear life (Wayne as the catcher unprotected on the outside)  as the vehicles swerved and twisted, the thunder of hooves, confronting extremely dangerous and extremely wild animals such as rhinos, makes up for other deficiencies.

Martinelli does not quite have the zap of a Hepburn or Monroe but does well as the photographer infiltrating a male enclave and her bonding with the baby elephant (triggering Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk” theme) steals the picture. A pet leopard also provides a decent riff on the girl-in-the-bath number. Quite a number of plot lines are worked in to give actors of the calibre of Hardy Kruger something to do and to stretch the likes of Red Buttons who is rarely given any decent dramatic material.

In quite a different role, Wayne, for once not called upon to save the day, gives a good performance. Not only do they not make them like that anymore, they wouldn’t be allowed to make them like that these days, notions about working with animals (though none were harmed) much changed.