Saturday, 25 January 2014

Cold discomfort… The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

It seems incredible that the first film to feature George Smiley is almost 50 years old especially after watching the latest Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy (2011). Stylistically the two films have a lot in common, perhaps because no one has really covered the drab, dirty drudgery of spying quite as well as John le Carré.

If The Ipcress File makes Bond look too much of an easy winner, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold makes Harry Palmer look like a character in Carry on Spying… there’s no artifice here: it’s stripped down spying and so bleak you can believe it’s almost real.

Checkpoint Charlie
The quiet desperation of the characters reveals men at the end of their tether fighting a real war of attrition in which the side that keeps alive and loyal the longest survives and yet there’s little chance of an ending with characters so much in a fog of double think. Even the threat of violent death and incarceration behind the Iron Curtain must eventually be dulled by the mind-numbing tedium of deathly-uncertainty and of attack from all sides.

The film starts with Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), the head of operations for MI5 in East Germany, anxiously waiting for a colleague to make good their escape across to Checkpoint Charlie. He’s been up for days and will not rest until he’s sure his man has made it… but, as he wheels his push bike across the divide  he’s gunned down: one more lost to betrayal…

Richard Burton and Cyril Cusack
Leamas returns to London where he is debriefed by Control (Cyril Cusack) who is unsure of his ongoing viability… what has Leamas got left?

Next we see him signing on at the Labour Exchange where his key competency as a fluent German speaker cuts little ice. There is however a job at a small library which, no other options available, he takes. Here he meets a young librarian, Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) who, in spite of his best intentions, begins to melt his frozen heart.

Claire Bloom
Nan’s attractive, intelligent and very persistent in her gentle way, she’s also a member of The Party who still believes in the dialectic and socialist utopia… which makes Leamas laugh if nothing else: it’s been a while since he met a believer in anything.

Leamas is drinking heavily though and antagonising his local convenience store owner… Persistent requests for credit do offend though and Leamas ends up assaulting the man and being sent down for a few months. A former spy failing to deal with his enforced retirement or someone trying to give that impression: what do you think?

Michael Hordern
On release Leamas is tapped up by a man claiming to run a charity helping ex-cons get back on the straight and narrow. The man, Ashe (Michael Hordern) introduces him to another, more arrogant and commanding, called Dick Carlton (Robert Hardy). They meet at a strip joint and, as the men establish their credentials and cut to the chase, Kathy Keeton – who built quite a career* – performs an expert striptease.

Burton and Hardy with Miss Keeton in the background...
Carlton’s the next level up in a chain of command leading all the way to East Germany… he arranges for Leamas to meet his superior, Peters (Sam Wanamaker) in Holland. Peters continues the testing of Leamas’ traitorous intentions and his role of dissatisfied and discarded secures him transport to the East after his story is broken in the British press: a deliberate ruse to force his hand or incompetence elsewhere?

Leamas had urged Control to leave Nan alone and not even to supply her with any assistance in his absence, but she does receive a visit from one George Smiley (Rupert Davies) who claims to be a “friend” of Leamas…

Oskar Werner and Richard Burton
Once in Germany the interrogation really hots up as Leamas is quizzed by the erudite Fiedler (Oskar Werner) and it becomes clear that Leamas may have fallen between two opposing factions in the communist secret police, one of whom may well be a traitor… Matters get considerably worse as he is used as a witness in the trial of one of the men, Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck) and Nan is dragged in as a witness for the defence…

It’s difficult to do justice to such a convoluted plot and I won’t give away the ending – not unless you get out the thumbscrews or, more likely, compromise me through the revelation of my past role as a, probably unknowing, double agent.

Richard Burton and Sam Wanamaker
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold makes all the other spies look like clowns and keeps you surprised right up to the end. There are no easy answers and ultimately it questions the nature and purpose of the cold war – possibly an easy, uneasy truce between sides too frightened or too tired to engage in all out combat… just picking at the selves and each other in the hope that who demoralises first wins.

Dusty verdict: Directed in monochromatic splendour by Martin Ritt, the film sets the benchmark by which all other “proper” spy stories should be measured, right up to and including today when the art of spying may have different tools but much the same aims of attrition by truth.

Claire Bloom and Richard Burton
Richard Burton is superb as the spy at the end of his game and leads a high quality cast with Clair Bloom playing the kind of librarian that makes a career in information science well worth considering.

It’s available from all the usual places – Movie Mail or Amazon who will no doubt record any purchase with interest…

Kathy Keeton

*Kathy Keeton – who also had a bit-strip part in Expresso Bongo – became what the Associated Press termed as one of the highest paid strippers in Europe at 24. She met and later married Bob Guccione, the publisher of Penthouse magazine and became President/COO of his company launching both Viva and Omni in the seventies. An author as well as a publisher she sadly passed away all too soon aged 58 in 1997: far more than just the background stripper seen in the above film.

Smiley calls on Nan...

Saturday, 18 January 2014

In cold blood… The Killers (1964)

A made-for-TV movie, deemed far too violent for the medium, Don Siegel’s adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway short story was given a release in cinemas instead going on to become a classic of sixties noir…

As with the later Point Blank, the film stars both Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson but their characters are rather less sympathetic. Indeed, it is hard to find anyone to identify with in this brutal story of nihilistic greed, occupational violence and double, triple, quadruple dealing. And yet… the narrative is driven by Marvin’s character’s need to understand how a man can face his own mortality dispassionately after he hit’s a man who just stands there and takes it.

With an excellent screenplay from Gene L. Coon and a top-notch cast, The Killers asks more questions of its audience than most films of its genre… and, as with Point Blank, you can feel its influence resonating down the years through Pulp Fiction, The Limey and many more.

Marvin plays Charlie Strom, a professional killer sent, along with his sadistic apprentice, Lee (a cool Clu Gulager), to perform a hit at a school for blind children… this is not going to be a comfortable ride…

They fight their way into the school office and tie up the secretary (Virginia Christine) who is also blind… they’re looking for a teacher called Johnny North (John Cassavetes). The secretary manages to get a message to him before he arrives and he clears his pupils from his class… he know who and what is coming. Lee and Charlie burst into the room, they ask his name and he confirms with barely a flicker of emotion, they take aim and shoot him down: he didn’t even try to run or otherwise protect himself.

Charlie and Lee make their escape but the older assassin can’t stop thinking about his mark’s reaction. He’s also troubled by the fact they got paid so much for what was seemingly a simple hit… the amount suggests that there’s more which ties in with the rumour that Johnny was involved in a million dollar robbery in which he ran off with the proceeds. The killers can’t work out why they haven’t been tasked with recovering the loot… surely there’s no one who can ignore that amount of money even for revenge?

They set out to find out the backstory and to find the money for themselves: Charlie looks forward to a nest egg to seal his retirement but he also needs to know… just why didn’t Johnny run?

And the girl looked at Johnny...
The duo track down Earl Sylvester (Claude Akins), Johnny's best friend and head mechanic when he was one of the best young motor racers on the circuit. They overcome Earl’s embittered resistance to discussing his former friend and learn how Johnny’s career had been undermined by the uncertain love of a bad woman… an irresponsible experience junkie named Sheila Farr (a frankly radiant Angie Dickinson…).

Sheila pushed Johnny to enjoy himself and as their affair proceeded he began to neglect his racing and to take chances. Ultimately, whether it was just bad luck or weariness, Johnny had a bad crash that affected his vision and meant that he could no longer race… he was reduced to stock cars.

By this stage Johnny had found that Sheila had a “businessman” boyfriend who was bankrolling her plush apartment, fast cars and extensive, tight-fitting wardrobe, name of Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan). After the accident, and with Earl’s prompting, Johnny frees Sheila of any obligation and she returns to Jack.


Charlie and Lee leave Earl to his memories and set out to find Browning’s right hand man, Mickey Farmer (Norman Fell) in order to get the next piece of the jigsaw. After trapping Mickey in his Turkish bath steamer they get him to reveal how Johnny had been involved in the heist.

Jack was planning to ambush a mail truck but couldn’t drive fast enough to make up the distance. Sheila helpfully suggests Johnny who easily performs the task: he’s in but there are tensions as he and the boss vie for Sheila who clearly prefers the younger man…

Johnny clocks Jack... we all cheer!
The job will go ahead but there’s bad blood to be settled afterwards.

No spoilers - It wouldn’t be fair to outline the rest of the plot as this film is definitely worth watching but needless to say, Charlie and Lee continue their investigations and meet with both Sheila and Jack as they unravel the twisted complex of betrayal that led to Johnny’s demise… and to the look that so haunted Charlie.

The Killers reputation is fully justified and it is no surprise that at the time of its release, Marvin said that it was his favourite film (wonder how he rated it against Point Blank?).

Lee Marvin
Marvin is superb and it would be tempting to view him as a one track macho actor were it not for his Oscar winning turn in Cat Ballou. He had a naturalistic style and a tough exterior but was always able to express vulnerability and the humanity behind the hitman.

Force of nature...
Angie Dickinson is also a force of nature, her beauty matched by a skill and energy that enabled her to match the explosive alpha males all around her. This is one of the best performances I’ve seen her give as she creates a character of passion and uncertainty: you’re never quite sure which side Sheila’s on but you really want her to be good…

John Cassavetes gives an intelligently intense performance of his own and his style feels out of time: he’s the method link between Dean, Clift, Brando and de Niro, Paccino, Keitel.

John Cassavetes

Dusty verdict: The Killers is available in a plush Criterion edition in the US and also on an up-coming Blu-Ray from Amazon in the UK. Well worth watching over and again… when you feel brave enough. It’s not just the violence but the existential undertone: how much of Johnny is in all of us?