4th 08 - 2014 | 2 comments »

A Most Wanted Man (2014)

Director: Anton Corbijn

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The entertainment world and fans of thoughtful, fine acting mourned mightily this past February when actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose at the age of 46. During a prolific career that encompassed small roles and large in crowd pleasers like Twister (1996) and Mission: Impossible III (2006), as well as serious-minded films like Capote (2005) and The Master (2012), Hoffman brought a complexity and intelligence to his creations that always made them memorable. A Most Wanted Man, his final film, was an apt one with which to end a career of great accomplishment thwarted by the weaknesses that flesh is heir to.

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A Most Wanted Man promises an exciting story of international espionage from its opening sequence—a young, haggard-looking man dragging himself from the water at Hamburg, Germany and threading his way furtively through a lot of cars waiting overnight for the morning a ferry and finding one to sleep in. His entry into Germany has been observed by German intelligence and his identity confirmed as a Muslim rebel of Russian-Chechen background, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin). What he is doing in Hamburg and how he will be dealt with becomes the concern of Günther Bachmann (Hoffman), the head of a small cell of intelligence operatives, whose low-key, painstaking tactics are at loggerheads with the punitive, action-oriented methods of Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), a heavy-handed colleague Günther openly ridicules. Günther’s approach wins out.

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This development will be an enormous disappointment to the adrenalin junkies whose ideas about spy work have been shaped by the M:I, Bourne, and even James Bond franchises. However, fans of John le Carré, the author whose book formed the basis of this movie, will be right at home. Le Carré, the creator of George Smiley, a gray, anonymous member of Britain’s MI6, knows that spy work is more a drab waiting game than a thrill ride, a psychological gambit that preys insidiously on vulnerable informants and nervous targets. Although the powers that be—in this case, the Americans and Russians—have not abandoned brutal interrogation and imprisonment, Günther bucks the establishment to follow his leads upstream to what he hopes will be the heads of Islamist terrorist operations in the Middle East.

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Günther and his team have gathered intelligence on a Muslim humanitarian named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) who appears to be using a shipping company to divert a portion of relief supplies to Islamist groups to sell to fund arms purchases. Günther learns that Karpov is the son of a Russian official notorious for his brutality and criminal activities, and that he has come to Hamburg to seek help from a banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), whose father laundered money for the elder Karpov. Issa has a sizeable “inheritance” in Brue’s bank, but wants nothing to do with it—he only wants to be able to stay in the West and out of the reach of the Russians who tortured him. Günther uses his “friendly persuasion” to ensure Brue releases the money to Issa, who will then be persuaded by his attorney, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), to transfer the money to Abdullah. Günther plans to seize Abdullah after the transaction and persuade him to reveal the Islamists to whom he has been diverting resources, but he must persuade skeptical German and American intelligence officials, led by American agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), to go along with his plan.

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There is abundant, real-world evidence that “extraordinary rendition,” an extraordinarily obtuse term for government-sponsored kidnapping and torture, is highly ineffective in extracting useful information from suspected terrorists, and that Günther’s methodical approach—combining a mild threat with offers of help in exchange for cooperation—works. Günther knows how and how much pressure to bring to bear to get his reluctant informants to go along with his plans; he even manages to bring Abdullah’s son Jamal (Mehdi Debhi) into his network. But the violence of 9/11 and the racial and religious hatred that has only grown in the ensuing years has left the major powers with itchy trigger fingers. Sullivan has already blown Günther’s entire network in Beirut with her cowboy tactics, forcing his removal to Hamburg; Günther doesn’t want to trust her, but he really has no alternative.

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A Most Wanted Man is slow and methodical, just like Günther and his team, making for a sometimes too sedate ride. Moments that could have been amped for more tension with music or quick cuts, like Annabel’s capture by Günther’s team, play out with a low unease. It’s true to life, which is its virtue, but rather undramatic. We’re not sure whether or not to root for Günther, who uses repugnant techniques like kidnapping, surveillance technology, and coercion to “make the world a safer place.” Yet, anyone who has watched “Law & Order” or any of its offshoots will recognize the same techniques and have to own up to the fact that we tend to sympathize with the cops because they are almost always on the side of the angels as those shows are written. The ambiguity of Günther’s position is that we see the seams of his good cop/bad cop routine, an act he shares with his civilian aide-de-camp Irna (the criminally underused Nina Hoss), and virtually all of the characters he is manipulating are fairly well-intentioned people who are completely out of their depth in the world of geopolitical espionage.

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For example, Dobrygin plays Issa as a damaged, haunted man who took up the Chechen cause against Russia because of his father’s brutality to his Chechen mother and who, through Islam, has tried to find inner peace from his past and the horrible torture he endured. It would be tempting to think of him as another Raskolnikov, except that his crimes are those of a psychologically vulnerable freedom fighter, not a student with theories about human nature and moral relativism. Rachel McAdam is brilliant as an idealistic public-service attorney who goes above and beyond for Issa. Her attempts to assert her authority are as weak as her concern for Issa is strong and motherly, though she threatens to pull focus from the other characters simply because she’s so pretty and photogenic. Dafoe is his usual excellent self, creating a somewhat weak character who is trying to redeem his business from its nefarious past one client at a time.

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Hoffman, playing an obese smoker and drinker, fits the mold of the intelligent outsider who blends into the background—the perfect guise for a spy. It is much to Hoffman’s credit that he manages to retain some of our sympathy while arousing a bit of our scorn. Hoffman keeps Günther’s motives somewhat obscure—is he just another kind of cop or is the spy game something that he does as a strange kind of sport? He takes incredible pride in his work, perhaps to the detriment of his cause when he openly insults people he believes to be his inferiors, and his belief in the rightness of his methods places a considerable blind spot in his way. When faced with Sullivan’s abrupt, cutting authority, he tries to work her the same way he does his informants by allying his interests with hers. Wright makes the most of this small, but crucial role, reviving the Ugly American in all its nasty glory. Yet it’s also easy to see that Sullivan and Günther are cut from the same cloth and know the same tricks—what separates them may be down to the very different roads Germany and the United States took with regard to the dignity of the individual over the last 30 or so years.

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We see a bit of the Muslim community, and it is as work-a-day and ordinary as any other ethnic enclave. Abdullah is thought to be a good man with just a little bit of bad, enough for more radical Islamists to exploit. That, to Günther, makes him a useful side street to the center of terrorist activity. Abdullah’s sincere sympathy for Issa softens our hearts to these men who seek some kind of healing for their community, but are misguided in their methods. Dobrygin and Ershadi’s one significant scene together is perhaps the most moving of the film; only the horror of Issa’s badly scarred back—partial proof to Brue that he is who he says he is—is more moving.

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The final scene of the film offers Hoffman the catharsis, the break from the even-toned professional, we knew was inevitable. He howls, hating his world. From that howl, we hear perhaps an echo of what drove him to his fatal addiction, a man too sensitive to face the world without a potent veil before his face.


7th 10 - 2012 | 3 comments »

CIFF 2012: The Exam (A Viszga, 2011)

Director: Péter Bergendy

2012 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Do the words “homeland security” make you feel protected? Do they make your skin crawl? Do you look around you in a bustling airport for unattended packages, or are you most interested in finding the food court? We may still say “It’s a free country,” but what citizens of the United States, and other countries as well, are more or less resigned to is the “new normal” of walking around in their stockinged feet as their shoes are x-rayed and their bags are randomly searched at the airport, going to museums that require they pass through metal detectors, or looking idly at Google Earth to see what their homes look like through the surveillance satellites and cameras that never sleep. We are all suspects now in an international game of terrorism, something the characters of Hungarian director Péter Bergendy’s second feature film must understand or face the consequences.

Hungarian screenwriting phenom Norbert Köbli has written a crackling thriller in which the main character is suspicion. Channeling the murderous paranoia of Stalinist rule in the year after the failed 1956 Hungarian counterrevolution, The Exam shows how oppressive regimes tend to eat their own tails by focusing on loyalty tests that were mandated for even the most zealously pro-Communist operatives in government.

The subject who is being tested on Christmas Eve—importantly, without his knowledge—is András Jung (Zsolt Nagy), a handsome young handler for the secret police. The opening credits cleverly show the double life Jung leads, toggling between close-ups of homey Christmas items like tree ornaments and candles and such tools of the spy trade as headphones and a gun being laid out for use. Jung poses as a German instructor who gives private lessons at an apartment maintained by the government as a less conspicuous way for Jung to contact his informants. We see him arrive home and carefully remove a matchstick he placed between the doors to inform him whether someone entered the apartment in his absence. He prepares to receive some of the informants he has been running by getting his hidden tape recorder and microphone set up and checking his list of agents. Before anyone arrives, his mentor Pál Márko (János Kulka) pays him a visit, inviting him for dinner and giving Jung a gift from his wife Janka (Mária Varga)—a ceramic angel to hang on his Christmas tree.

Thus begins Jung’s test. Márko goes across the street to an apartment where a surveillance team is set up to watch Jung, record his phone conversations from the tap placed in his telephone handset, and listen to his conversations with the informants he receives through the microphone hidden in the ceramic angel. The test proceeds uneventfully, and Márko is ready to call an end to it. The official test-runner, Emil Kulcsár (Péter Scherer), a nerdy, by-the-book member of the team who seems to idolize Márko, argues that they are required to watch the subject for 12 consecutive hours. Márko is dismissive of Kulcsár, consistently failing to remember his name, and wants to flaunt regulations so that he can get on with having a nice Christmas at home. That delightful possibility is definitively quashed when an unknown woman (Gabriella Hámori) arrives at Jung’s home and makes passionate love with him as the microphones and embarrassed spies catch every sigh.

Brutal and action-oriented, as befits his status as a war hero and early Soviet supporter, Márko follows up every lead, identifying the woman as Éva Gát, a music student with a questionable past whom Jung met at a concert. He becomes convinced that Jung is in love with her, and wonders how he can warn his surrogate son about the danger she poses to Jung’s position with the secret police. However, Jung is not the only agent in trouble; every main character, including the hapless Emil, has a personal, emotional tie that could jeopardize their position. Like many other films, books, and other works of art that deal with state oppression (e.g., Nineteen Eighty-Four), The Exam posits the personal and individual as major threats to the ruling order. As Jung tells a priest he has recruited to spy on another priest, guns are not the only weapons that can be used against the state.

In addition to the period detail, what I enjoyed so much about this exciting, cat-and-mouse film is that it was hard to decide who was the cat and who were the mice. In fact, from the landladies and enforcers who follow the orders of Márko and Emil to the humorless, intimidating Jung, we are never really sure whom to trust, what anyone is feeling, and what actions are real or staged. The actors play more than one role within their basic character, aware of living their cover stories, how they must behave to accord with the rules of the test, and holding their personal identities like precious water in a leaky bucket. Nagy particularly impresses as a cold operative with an equally passionate flipside and the capacity for sudden violence when his survival is threatened.

Like Jung, we, too, are being tested, asked to examine our loyalties by which character we identify with and root for. In the final scene, Márko and his wife finally sit down to Christmas dinner. The place setting for Jung remains empty until Janka at last removes it. The state has swallowed the personal, and we are left to consider the true cost of the “new normal” to our own lives.

The Exam won the Gold Hugo in the 2012 CIFF New Directors Competition.


2nd 07 - 2011 | 14 comments »

Carve Her Name with Pride (1958)

Director: Lewis Gilbert

By Marilyn Ferdinand

On the eve of the 2011 American Independence Day celebrations, I shake my head in disgust at the infighting and class warfare that has paralyzed our state and federal governments and caused at least one state government—Minnesota—to shut down this week. Our country seems to be tearing itself apart, and I wonder not only about our future, but also about how we came to this pass only 60-some years after working to end the most devastating conflagration and genocide in history. What has turned our people into stubborn, petty, self-entitled jerks who can’t even come up with a fair budget, when once we were willing to sacrifice our very lives to defeat the idea of an Übermensch? It would be my prescription to every last idiot in every government in this land, from the smallest village to Capitol Hill, to watch Carve Her Name with Pride to remember what human honor, dignity, and sacrifice look like and what they can accomplish.

I didn’t know anything about Carve Her Name with Pride, let alone the true story it tells, before I chose to watch it. I knew it was on a cable station that had commercials (a big minus) and that it would take 2-1/2 hours of my evening from start to finish. But I was attracted to the fact that it was a British film from the ’50s, I am currently reading a book that reproduces first-person accounts of the Blitz from the diaries of the “mass observers” in Britain during WWII, and that the chance to see this film ever again might be very slim. I was floored by the sad, moving, and genuinely inspiring tale that unfolded before my eyes.

Violette Bushell (Virginia McKenna), a pretty 19-year-old, takes her friend Vera (Avice Landone) with her to Hyde Park in London as she looks for a French soldier to invite home for dinner to celebrate Bastille Day, 1940. This rather odd mission is an assignment from her mother, a French woman married to an Englishman she met in Paris during the First World War. The women hook up with a legionnaire, Etienne Szabó (Alain Saury), and it is virtually love at first sight for him and Violette. After an amusing montage of their brief courtship, with Vera the constant chaperone, the lovers marry and spend a few idyllic days in the country before Etienne is to report for duty in North Africa. During this trip, Etienne gives Violette a poem he was inspired to write on the eve of their parting.

The film fast-forwards to 1942. Violette and several neighbor women are gathered at her parents’ home. Violette is tending to Tania (Pauline Challoner), the daughter Etienne has never seen, when a messenger arrives with a telegram announcing that Etienne has been killed in action. Another fast-forward shows Violette going to the government pension bureau six months later, presumably to handle some details regarding her widow’s pension. Instead, she is met by a Mr. Potter (Sydney Tafler), who offers her a job as a secret agent in the Special Operations Executive (SOE). After weighing the sacrifices, particularly with regard to Tania, Violette determines that it’s her turn to do her part for the war effort. The rest of the film details her training and deployment to France on two separate missions to help shattered cells of the French resistance reorganize and carry out sabotage missions, and her capture shortly after D-Day.

Lewis Gilbert is a distinguished director with a very successful track record, including helming three James Bond films (You Only Live Twice [1967], The Spy Who Loved Me [1977], and Moonraker [1979]), and such popular female-centered films as Educating Rita (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1989). While the fanciful 007 stories are worlds away from the workaday depiction of SOE training in Carve Her Name, his confidence in handling female characters who come into their own certainly was presaged by his approach to Violette Szabó’s story. It is Gilbert’s strong focus on Violette, and Virginia McKenna’s brilliant performance, that make this film so compelling.

The film economically and effectively builds Violette’s life and character, centering them around her love and generosity, so that we are quickly drawn into caring about her. There is never a doubt that the love between Etienne and Violette is real. Gilbert frames Etienne as a fine figure of a man in a full-length shot of him in his uniform when Vera first points him out to Violette, a worthy figure of adoration. Their easy, fluent introductions in French cement the perfect fit. Violette’s determination to marry Etienne in the face of her father’s (Jack Warner) initial opposition at their short acquaintance, and then cheerful assent, telegraphs not only her strong personality and depth of feeling, but also the deep bonds of love and mutual support in the Bushell family. While the poem Etienne gives Violette is a bit of dramatic license—in fact, it was a code poem given to the real Violette by SOE cryptographer Leo Marks—its inclusion early on effectively sets the tone of the entire film, creating an indelible impression of eternal love that foreshadows not only the tragedies to befall the Szabós, but also their love of humanity that led to their sacrifices. In a scene where Violette is tortured by her Nazi captors, their attempt to extract the poem from her shows the perversion of humanity that such fascist movements truly are.

Another bit of dramatic license that is superfluous and undercuts somewhat the power of Violette’s love for Etienne is providing Violette with a romantic interest in the form of another SOE agent, Tony Fraser (Paul Scofield). The two agents meet during some wonderfully realistic training sessions, when Violette shores up Tony’s courage during paratrooper practice (he’s afraid of heights) and Tony helps Violette when she hurts her ankle after a hard landing. Tony and Violette are sent together on the two missions the film chronicles, with Violette narrowly evading the Nazis who suspect her of passing secrets to a contact in the underground in Rouen during the first one. She manages to keep her rendezvous with Tony in Paris, where, in a very touching scene, she buys a dress for her daughter as Etienne imagined they would do together after the war. On the second mission, when both are in Nazi hands and being transported to concentration camps in Germany, a gallows declaration of love between the pair seems melodramatic and unreal.

Where the film is most gripping is in its action sequences. Violette’s first mission seems to be a cakewalk until the shadow of danger falls over her as she goes to meet her contact in the underground. Two Gestapo agents follow her to the bicycle shop where her contact informs her that only three of 96 in the maquis cell are still alive or at liberty; when she is picked up and brought to the commander (Harold Lang) in Rouen, he is the same German who invited her to dinner the night before. He lets her go, but informs his agents that he wasn’t fooled by her deceptions. This scene accurately conveys how dangerous her work is and how the outcome of the war was never assured.

Her second mission is even more compelling. From the moment she launches herself from the airplane to be picked up by the French maquis, to her volunteering to serve as a courier among the maquis cells, the tension is almost unbearable. She and her comrade Jacques (Maurice Ronet) are intercepted in a small town by a small battalion of Germans, and dart among the buildings trying to escape. Violette reinjures her ankle as they flee through the woods and holds off the Germans with Sten gun fire while Jacques tries to escape across a river to warn the maquis of the German approach. As the bullets fly toward Violette and Jacques, and Germans drop under Violette’s assault, the inextricable emotions of desperation and courage rise from the remarkable Virginia McKenna.

I can’t even begin to express how full-bodied McKenna’s performance is. Check, for example, a scene where Violette has a chance to escape the train taking her to Germany when it is bombed. Other prisoners beg for water as she crawls through the smoke to an exit. She stops, looks back, and the camera closes in on her face as a dance of hope, indecision, anger, and finally surrender crosses it; she goes to fetch water for the prisoners. It would be easy to criticize Violette for leaving her toddler to go fight a war, but McKenna’s demeanor in this and other scenes refuses such naysaying as her love goes beyond herself. Her concerns about Tania and careful consideration are well rendered, her farewell before her second mission more tormented, but also more practical, as she draws up her will as her personal act of love. I imagined how this scene must have played out thousands, even millions of times in all the warring countries of the world, how tragic that the madness of those in power forces people to make such difficult choices. At the same time, one senses the pride with which Violette goes to the aid of her mother’s countrymen and women, and how her own experiences preparing for German bombing, only hinted at in this film through the use of blackout curtains and her father’s civil defense uniform, steeled her resolve.

The supporting cast are wonderful, from the training sergeant (Bill Owen) through to the other female SOE agents (Anne Leon and Billie Whitelaw) who suffered Violette’s fate with her. Location shooting in London and the surrounding countryside, of course, gives a sense of veracity to the proceedings and serves to fill out the details of Violette’s life and actions. The Germans are almost completely free of the mustache-twisting villainy that often accompanies them in other films, though her interrogator (Noel Willman) dips into the stereotype a bit. Gilbert chose to cut immediately away from tragedy, preferring a more discreet approach, for example, showing Violette look up at her mother through a doorway when Mrs. Bushell comes to inform her about Etienne’s death, or simply showing Violette’s head resting on a desk after she has been tortured by sleep deprivation. Sometimes this cutting away feels a little abrupt, but it offers Szabó’s story an unmitigated dignity that creates the effect Gilbert wished to achieve.

For her part, Virginia McKenna was honored to play Violette and has supported efforts to keep the memory of her service alive. Here is a clip of McKenna reciting the poem that has justly lived on as a tribute to love and sacrifice.

You can watch Carve Her Name with Pride on YouTube starting here.


6th 02 - 2011 | 13 comments »

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (TV, 1979)/Smiley’s People (TV, 1982)

Directors: John Irvin/Simon Langton

By Roderick Heath

The Cold War seems to be coming back into fashion as a storytelling subject. Twenty years after it ended, and following the fragmentary anxieties of the post 9/11 world, this time might be starting to look almost cosy in its firmly delineated conflicts and ideological boundaries, especially to anyone not old enough to remember the low-key aura of terror I readily recall from watching politicians of the era bicker with the stakes of nuclear war in play. In any event, with the popularity of sheer entertainments like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and the hilarious Salt (2009), as well as the more substantial, like Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd (2005), Florian von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006), and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days (2007), the Cold War milieu seems to be reviving as a popular cinematic topic. The fact that Tomas Alfredson, director of Let The Right One In (2008), is currently making a feature adaptation of John Le Carré’s hit 1976 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, bears out this new legitimacy. Of course, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a dense, intelligent, witty, gripping tome, is the sort of material that is worth making a movie of in any era. For anyone who’s seen the first adaptation of the book, the lengthy BBC-TV miniseries featuring Alec Guinness as Le Carré’s protagonist George Smiley, the first question that leaps to mind is, nonetheless, “Why bother?”

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and some other Le Carré adaptations, stand alongside the likes of Dr. Strangelove (1964) amongst the relatively few Cold War artefacts that have retained relevance, because they’re as much about something malignant lodged deeply in the modern psyche as they are about politics. “I’ve always felt that the security services are the only true expression of a nation’s character,” Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson) pronounces late in Tinker Tailor, and one could easily substitute the word “nation” for something broader in terms of the story’s enquiries. For Le Carré’s perspective on the post-WWII world is a coolly cynical one, one full of “half-devils versus half-angels,” as Connie Sachs (Beryl Reid), former MI6 info savant, describes them. Tinker Tailor and sequel Smiley’s People revolve around intricate detective stories that are blended on many levels with character studies, cryptic discernment and intellectual obscurity, and ironically realistic portraiture of geopolitics and the grubby heroes of espionage. Le Carré is the pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell, who worked for MI6 in the late ’50s and early ’60s, in the period after the infamous Cambridge Five betrayals had left British intelligence reeling. Tinker Tailor was in very large part his sidelong account of that milieu.

“George Smiley, the Chelsea pensioner himself, god help us, fought every war since Thermopylae, hot, cold, and deep frozen!” is how Connie describes Le Carré’s favourite hero, who had evolved from a shadowy, unctuous-seeming functionary in his early novels (he was played by Rupert Davies in Martin Ritt’s strong film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1963, and by James Mason, though the character was renamed, in Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair, 1965) into a doggedly admirable, if still, when necessary, a chilly, expediency-favouring hero. Smiley’s own degradation and casting out of the fold of “The Circus,” as the headquarters of the service is known to the intelligence fraternity, proves to be the first act in the long odyssey by which he gains revenge on the traitors and enemy spymaster responsible for making much of his service a living hell of constantly watching agents being caught, tortured, and shot. At the outset of Tinker Tailor, Smiley’s boss, the emaciated, dying, reclusive “Control” (Alexander Knox), is desperate, convinced there’s a mole in the higher echelons of The Circus. He brings in one of his aging, but still stalwart reliables, Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen), to meet with a Czech general who supposedly can supply the name. But Jim is shot and captured, and Control, Smiley, and everyone else linked closely to them is either forcibly retired or exiled in unrewarding posts.

Six months later, George is fetched out of retirement by Peter Guillam (Michael Jayston), one of Smiley’s protégés who’s been stuck running “scalp-hunters”—low-rent agents who specialise in enticing defectors—at the behest of The Circus’s civil service overlord Oliver Lacon (Anthony Bate). Smiley overhears the tale of one of Guillam’s agents, Ricky Tarr (Hywel Bennett), who, on a nondescript mission in Portugal, had an affair with a female Russian agent named Irina (Susan Kodicek). She spoke to Tarr of the mole’s existence, but disappeared shortly thereafter. Lacon can only rely on Smiley to investigate now. With Guillam’s help, Smiley studies the new ruling cabal at The Circus: the new boss, pompous poltroon Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge); quirky but dynamic Circus hero Bill Haydon; dour, working-class Roy Bland (Terence Rigby); and Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton), a fishy Hungarian playing the perfect English gentleman. That quartet were ennobled by fostering the supposedly astounding Russian mole “Merlin,” whose flow of information, dubbed “Witchcraft,” seems to have put The Circus back onto an even footing with the CIA. Control had dismissed this source as too good to be true, and Smiley, working on that theory, begins to ever-so-carefully unravel the chain of events around Prideaux’s capture, and through that, discern the mole’s identity.

All these ins and outs could be mistaken for the operations of cyborgs engaged in some kind of arcane game if it weren’t for the ever-elusive human factor, the way personal weakness, so theoretically unpredictable and yet so often exactly predictable, can infect any enterprise. For the spymasters of both sides, their webs are extensions of their personalities. These men’s whole lives have become entwined with their work, to the extent that George’s wife was seduced by a traitor. For the English side, The Circus is a functioning asylum for outdated Empire men, Etonian losers, colonial riff-raff, and uprooted Eurotrash. They exist to be easily shot full of holes by any passing fanatic. The monkish czar of the KGB, known only as Karla (played in tantalizing, wordless snippets by Patrick Stewart), gains great menace and power from his position in a totalitarian system, but is eventually rendered lost and desperate within that system by his one, human lapse. If George is the hero, and Karla the villain, it only comes out in the fine details; George merely split with his wife, where Karla sent his to the Gulag. Amongst these paranoid, professionally existential, often borderline disreputable people who become spies, sex and money are eternal currencies, whilst the most successful and powerful are those who largely avoid these temptations. In this, the enigmatic Smiley and his great nemesis Karla seem to stand ahead of the pack, and the battle between them is enacted not only in institutions but in the bedroom. Smiley has to contend constantly with the open secret that his estranged wife Ann (Sian Phillips) had an affair with Bill Haydon, and Haydon’s own omnivorous appetites also long ago included Prideaux as his partner in both business and pleasure. In between them are people with a kaleidoscopic range of grubby rendezvous and amusing foibles. Ricky Tarr, a kind of extremely low-rent James Bond wannabe, plays the noble romantic with Irina, but he’s actually a seedy bigamist who only accidentally helps Smiley through a ruse involving one of his wives he has a kid with.

There’s a moment about 45 minutes into Tinker Tailor when George polishes his glasses and slides them on as he asks a pointed question of Tarr, the timbre of his voice and the set of his face changed subtly yet entirely, providing one of Guinness’s most sublime bits of acting in his career: it’s Smiley’s equivalent of girding himself for battle, and the Cold Warrior lurking within his nondescript shell reveals itself with bracing clarity. Smiley, aging, determinedly anonymous, and old-school in his black mackintosh and homburg—the image of a bland civil servant—is the most unlikely of spy heroes, and it’s precisely this that makes him so interesting. He’s a bottomless well of both his own and other peoples’ secrets, and his own discursive, politely dissembling style only occasionally slips. Whilst Ann is the commonly known adulterer in their marriage, what Smiley’s befuddled detachment cost them both in that regard is ambiguous. A genius as a user of people, he’s almost a total dud as a social being, a quality that makes him all the better a spy. People tend to project their own anxieties and wants onto his becalmed exterior: for some, his visits are the god-sent appearances of a guardian angel, and for others, the calls of the grim reaper. Whereas the motivations of others are clear enough, for example, Guillam, who wants to uncover the mole who certainly cost the lives of many of his agents, Smiley seems both more mechanical and yet also deeper.

Le Carré’s stories are often cited as the antiseptic, realistic ripostes to the fantasies of James Bond, and that’s fair enough, though it’s a bit unfair to the surprising terseness of some of Ian Fleming’s writing and also a bit reductive to Le Carré’s talents and the texture of these adaptations. They’re shot through with the cool, yet empathetic cynicism and the utterly parched humour and irony of Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and Somerset Maugham, writers who surely influenced Le Carré, and the blend of the mundane and the surreally intense is quite Hitchcockian. Lacon’s name gives a tip of the hat to the laconic humour that’s prevalent throughout. One of the more specific beauties of Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People is that they’re in no hurry whatsoever. That’s usually a put-down, but the gravitas and moodiness of the stories, as well as their hypnotic outlay of detail great and small, demands rigidly controlled pacing. This is perfectly suited to television’s procedural intimacy, and also most effectively reveals the way Smiley’s method takes the smallest fragments of a puzzle, which would seem utterly opaque to others, and synthesises from them theories for which he then carefully accumulates evidence. Pattern and truth resolve from apparently bottomless murk, all mixed up with behaviour and personality, as well as political and social sensibility. Stylistically, the series are masterpieces of unyielding yet suggestive minimalism, right from their keenly illustrative opening title sequences—in Tinker Tailor, a set of Matryoshka dolls being stripped down to the last figure, which has no face; for Smiley’s People, shots of decaying paint on wood and an exploding piece of chalk redolent of the entwining macro and microcosmic forces at play.

Tinker Tailor, in particular, is also a situational study in group dynamics, the way certain cabals of personality types linked by aptitude as well as attitude can take over any workplace. The manipulations of the mole have been to promote the bullying, greedy, barely competent Alleline into the top job precisely because he’s not particularly good at anything but the appearance of competence, which is prized beyond all other things, whilst Smiley discerns clearly that the people who are best at their job have all been exiled because they were the ones most able to discern the real problems. The fact that Haydon, the most likeable, colourful, and impudent of The Circus proves to be the mole, is the cruelest stroke for all concerned, and yet there’s something inevitable about it. The first time I watched Tinker Tailor, I said aloud within the first two minutes that Haydon, thanks to his ineffably cute entrance with a cup of tea, had to be a traitor, and five hours later I found I was right.

There’s also a complex web of both amity and hatred that can transcend nominal boundaries to be unravelled. Smiley’s relationship with Karla proves perhaps to have more genuine intimacy than he has with anyone in his immediate life, and the affection that can develop between enemies often proves more durable than that between the members of The Circus. Amongst the people feeding off the intelligence services, pimps and blackmailers sometimes prove to have deeper morals and more immediate motives, for example, Otto “The Magician” Leipzig (Vladek Sheybal) and his bordello-managing partner Claus Kretzschmar (Mario Adorf) in Smiley’s People, than the higher-class opportunists running them. “Smiley’s people” is more than just a work group: it’s almost a metaphor for people who are capable of doing their jobs with the minimum of balderdash, and part of the background drama and satire of the two series is generational change, from the aging, slightly clapped-out, yet deeply professional WWII generation Smiley represents, to bombastic neocons like Alleline (whose backers, Smiley says, were “golfers and Conservatives”) and to an abrasively lower-class, brassier breed represented in Smiley’s People by new Circus chief Saul Enderby (Barry Foster) and his underling Strickland (Bill Patterson). Connie refers nostalgically to “her boys, her lovely boys” in speaking of the sexy, nostalgic allure of what had been a lustre that’s long since been buffed off The Circus and everything involved with the Cold War. Haydon’s motives for turning traitor seem inextricably bound up with his own disappointment at Britain’s shrinking place in world affairs and his sense of being cheated of being a potential master of the universe.

If Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has a kind of Grecian concision to the way its pieces fit together, Smiley’s People is a bit more the blockbuster, a longer, more sprawling work. Whereas Tinker Tailor was transcribed by Arthur Hopcraft, Le Carré cowrote the teleplay of Smiley’s People, and if it lacks the mordant symmetry of its predecessor, more of Le Carré’s deftly funny and revealing vignettes, and supple emotional punches, slip through. At the end of Tinker Tailor, Smiley is essentially in charge of The Circus, left to rebuild the organisation almost from scratch. (The middle chapter of the trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy, wasn’t filmed because of its potentially costly Hong Kong setting). This time around, the path is even more torturous, from a seemingly random series of events to a career reckoning for Smiley, who has again retired after handing over The Circus to new blood. Madame Ostrakova (Eileen Atkins), a Russian exile living in Paris, is visited by slimy Soviet bullyboy Oleg Kirov (Dudley Sutton, best known for his contribution as the chief witch-hunter to Ken Russell’s The Devils) and offered the chance to have the daughter she left behind in Russia sent to live with her. Ostrakova realises that the girl in the photos Kirov hands her can’t be her daughter, and so contacts the émigré organization run by the once-fearsome, but now aged Estonian General (Curd Jürgens, in his last ever role). The General contacts Leipzig, and what Leipzig digs up gets both him and The General murdered. Smiley is called in again by Lacon, who’s sliding into something of a featherheaded mid-life crisis after his own wife has left him, because the General had demanded Smiley act as his go-between with The Circus.

Lacon expects it to prove a cash grab by some has-beens, but Smiley hates the way the General, a rigid and brave former warrior, was patronised in the new atmosphere. Digging into his final actions, Smiley uncovers what Leipzig gave the General: a photo negative showing Leipzig and Kirov together in bed together with prostitutes, a proof that could destroy Kirov and, more importantly, recalls to Smiley a long-buried titbit of gossip that Karla had been using Kirov years before to find ripe candidates to palm the same female impostor onto. This lady proves to be Karla’s own schizophrenic daughter, Tatiana (Tusse Silberg), the inevitably psychologically shattered offspring of the Machiavellian genius and a partisan heroine he had executed when she went “soft on the Revolution.” Knowing very well that her disease can’t be treated properly in the USSR, Karla has her in a clinic in Switzerland, and wants to secure her as a Western citizen. With differing levels and brands of help of Esterhase, Guillam, Connie, and outsiders like Ostrakova and Kretzschmar, Smiley uncovers this secret. When he ensnares the hapless former economic professor and diplomat Grigoriev (Michael Lonsdale) Karla uses to keep an eye on his daughter and pay for her treatment, Smiley finally has everything he needs to force Karla into defecting.

The change in tone from Tinker Tailor is minor but distinct, and readily observable in Smiley, who, in operating as a “rogue elephant” with barely any official brief, determines to be less delicate and veiled in his efforts and attitudes. That resolve proves occasionally brutal in his desire to be surgical, as when he forcibly reminds Hilary (Norma West), a burnt-out former Circus agent who’s now Connie’s business and romantic partner, of how the laws of The Circus still bind her. Everyone wants him to go away and let them forget the still-binding parts they played in the Cold War and its still living legacy, but his fresh force of purpose (“I’ve been sleepwalking. I’ve woken up!” he declares to Connie) prods him into newly heroic territory. Smiley ventures into the no man’s land between East and West Germany where Leipzig lives, finds his battered corpse, and has to contend with Gypsy louts who suggest some waiting species of barbarian waiting to inherit the earth in one of its greyest zones. Smiley then returns to rescue Ostrakova from her Parisian apartment where she’s been besieged as Karla’s agent assassins, calling in the aid of Guillam (played this time by the equally good, if less appropriately steely, Michael Byrne), who’s been given the cushy post of head of the Parisian office. There’s a lovely moment when George goes to sleep on Guillam’s couch, and Guillam lays a blanket over the taciturn, yet very human old warrior.

Such terrific little touches dot both series, from the many, many choice bits of dialogue to the revealing peccadilloes that constantly show up characters’ pretensions. Amongst my favourites in Tinker Tailor are when Smiley goes to visit Prideuax, who, still recovering from bullet wounds and torture and working as a private school teacher, warns Smiley, “If you’re not alone, I’ll break your neck!” and other moments that depict Prideaux’s hero-worship by Roach, a schoolboy who’s a budding Smiley. In Smiley’s People there’s a particularly funny moment in which some sympathetic operatives who are try to coerce Grigoriev applaud him when he stands up to his obnoxious wife over the phone. Smiley’s visit to Kretzschmar’s “nightclub,” wiping the steam off his glasses in waiting through several live sex acts, is likewise hilarious in its incongruity. The climax of Tinker Tailor is not action pizzazz—though the sequence in which Smiley and Guillam smoke out the mole is suspense-mongering at its most efficient—but Smiley’s interview with an emotionally shattered, imprisoned Haydon. Richardson’s acting in the scene is some of the most perfectly judged I’ve ever seen, and remarkable even amongst a cast that is an embarrassment of riches, from the fitting career caps for Jürgens and Knox, to small roles, including Michael Gough and Ingrid Pitt as the General’s dowdy employees, and Alan Rickman as a hotel clerk, years before he would appear in a feature film. Reid, as Connie, makes the most of her character’s plumy wit, and Atkins as Ostrakova is especially good when upon receiving bad news from Smiley, absorbs it in a slight pause and gets on with her life. Weak points in the cast tend to stand out a mile, like Paul Herzberg’s overly fruity accent as the General’s young go-between in Smiley’s People.

It’s Guinness who had the biggest, hardest job, a couple of years after Star Wars had made him both exponentially more famous and rich than he had been before. Guinness reportedly fretted anxiously about his performance even whilst filming the second series. That’s not so surprising, in spite of what ought to have been Guinness’s unshakable professional confidence by that stage, because what Smiley is thinking, and even what he means when he’s speaking, is so often barely apparent and yet detectable on the finest frequencies, and Guinness’s unswerving dedication to realizing Smiley in such a fashion was a sustained challenge. The scene of Smiley’s final exchange with Haydon is especially refined work, his boiling yet rigidly controlled anger only apparent in slight fumbling and over-large gestures, and the care with which he gets Haydon to give back his pen, in pointed contrast to how he let Karla, who he respected, keep the cigarette lighter that was Smiley’s gift from Ann. Tinker Tailor’s director, John Irvin, went on to an initially interesting cinematic career, adapting Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War (1984) with a similar necessary feel for minutiae to balance the action, and the underrated, no-nonsense war film Hamburger Hill (1987). Smiley’s People helmsman Simon Langton, on the other hand, stuck mostly to TV work, turning in a very different kind of cult hit with the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that made Colin Firth a star. The emotional charge of the final sequences of Smiley’s People isn’t small, and yet Le Carré’s deeply ambivalent tone is retained. Even as George finally brings his nemesis to heel and theoretically avenges so much loss, the two old and haggard men only glare at each other, the ghost of Tatiana, emblem and offspring of their way of life, as an hysterical, dissociative mess, haunts them both, and Smiley’s lighter, dropped by Karla on the ground, remains there. It’s no victory he’s gained, only an end. Both he and Karla are ultimately two old men lost in no man’s land. The cumulative result is television at its greatest.


24th 09 - 2010 | 3 comments »

CIFF 2010: The Last Report on Anna (Utolsó jelentés Annáról, 2009)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Márta Mészáros

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The fall of the Berlin Wall opened not only borders and opportunities to the Soviet bloc countries that, one by one, would gain their independence, but also aired the deep wounds inflicted by one “comrade” on another in exchange for a few privileges—permission to take trips out of the country, a bigger apartment, a job promotion. I was riveted by Timothy Garton Ash’s memoir The File, in which he details what he discovered when he read through the file the East German government had been keeping on him, including that his lover had been spying on him. The Last Report on Anna takes a look at Hungary’s own repressiveness through the eyes of real-life political progressive Anna Kéthly.

The film starts in 1989, in a Budapest café, where Péter Faragó (Ernõ Fekete) is talking with his nephew while the funeral of Soviet-backed leader János Kádár blares from the café’s television. Péter says that things will come out and that it is better if they come from him first. We are then transported back to 1973. Péter is talking in the same café with a functionary for the Hungarian government who wants him to persuade Anna Kéthly (Enikö Eszenyi) to return from self-imposed exile in Belgium. It seems Anna, a minister representing the Social Democrats in Hungary’s Parliament before the Communists took over in the late ’40s and arrested her, has continued to criticize the Communist government and is causing it some trouble in the international community. Péter, a professor of Romantic literature, was chosen for the assignment because Anna had a passionate love affair with his uncle Laci (Jákob Ladányi), and it is hoped that her lingering affection for Laci will cause her to drop her guard with Péter and be persuaded to return. Péter is offered incentives—a passport, clearance to lecture at a literary conference in Belgium, a telephone—and eager to see a bit of the world and gain some professional prestige, he accepts and spends a long day pouring over Anna’s government file to learn tidbits he can use to get close to her. He visits his uncle before he leaves, and Laci gives him a carved wooden box to take to Anna.

Péter is, it seems, happily married to Kati (Gabriella Hámori), but when he sees a group of flower children in a park in Brussels, he feels reborn and attracted to the pretty, carefree women of the group. This attraction takes a back seat to his assignment. He meets his handler in Belgium, Klári (Adél Kováts), and is told how often he must report the content of his meetings with Anna. She tells him to bring Anna flowers. And so Péter sets off to woo Anna and earn his state-sponsored privileges.

The 78-year-old director of this film, Márta Mészáros, has explored the vagaries of sexual politics and government repression during her career. This film, while offering flashbacks to Anna’s political activities, including impassioned pleas against racial laws being imposed upon the Jews of Hungary, and brief glimpses of the horrors of her three-year incarceration beginning in 1950, is much more interested in sexual duplicity. The early attraction of Péter to a hippie girl is merely a moment in the film that is never acted upon, but it suggests everything to follow. Péter, who Anna and her companion Magda (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi) say looks very like Laci, deceives them both and awakens Anna’s nostalgia for Hungary and Laci; we get a repeated scene throughout the film of Anna taking a multicolored, chiffon scarf, which was in Laci’s wooden box, and letting the air catch and billow it out behind her as younger versions of she and Laci sit on the pier of a lake. Anna’s love is undying, but Magda reminds her that Laci did not leave Hungary with her and has never come to visit her—his excuse, “I can’t,” is never explained.

Anna’s vicarious renewal of her love affair through Péter is cut short when she attends a garden party at the Hungarian embassy and sees the people Péter consorts with. She leaves, disillusioned, and Kati, who has been flown to Brussels to help Péter’s morale in his flagging campaign, learns that he has become a spy. She defects to Paris, and Klári tells Péter that if he divorces her, it won’t reflect badly on him with the government. When we return to the movie’s present, Péter seems as foolishly impotent as Laci was during a final phone call with Anna. The fecklessness of men in matters global and personal is the final impression this film leaves, an idea emphasized strongly by the appearance of Golda Meir (Beata Fudalej) at Anna’s doorstep, a strong female leader paying her respects to another of her kind in a scene of ribald camaraderie.

Lest anyone think this film’s tone is caustic or deeply political, I hasten to point out that the overall quality is romantic and dreamy. Memory is a strong force, one that must reflect the long lifespan and experiences of its director, who was in her 20s when Kéthly rose to prominence in post-World War II Europe. Anna’s homesickness and wish to return home after she learns of Laci’s death make this politically motivated narrative highly personal. Eszenyi is a beauty who is rather too young to be playing Anna, but she is a charismatic presence; for his part, Fekete is handsome, a perfect face upon whom Anna can project her sexual and romantic longings. I was attracted to this film based on its political story, but I became entranced with its atmosphere. The Last Report on Anna is a very fine women’s film that would be great viewing for lovers.

The Last Report on Anna shows Wednesday, October 13, 6:15 p.m., Thursday, October 15, 5:45 p.m., and Sunday, October 17, 12:15 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.


30th 06 - 2010 | 14 comments »

The Prisoner (TV, 1967-1968)

Directors: Don Chaffey, Pat Jackson, Patrick McGoohan, Peter Graham Scott, David Tomblin

By Roderick Heath

The Prisoner, an epochal surrealist-satiric thriller series, feels as much a commentary on the television show itself as it is on politics or society: the construction of a bogus living space that’s constantly filmed; the random-seeming changes of cast; the ongoing, enclosed situation that may have no discernable outcome; the unvarying efforts to create and force story and character arcs and spark behaviours with predetermined ends whilst mimicking the happenstance flow of life. Quite apart from the anticipation of the inane horrors of reality television, even the episodes that bend the boundaries of genre, transposing the essential plot into Western and comic book settings, reveals the often interchangeable elements of sausage-factory entertainment. Star and co-mastermind Patrick McGoohan was partly inspired by his own exhausting workload on his hit show Danger Man. He and key collaborators George Markstein and David Tomblin presented a perfect metaphor for the way television, cranked out day and night, with shows that either run impossibly long or get cancelled before they can logically and succinctly end, becomes a kind of ongoing existential nightmare.

The Prisoner wasn’t one of those shows of the kind I’ve mentioned above; at just 17 episodes, it describes a fascinating and relatively contiguous narrative back when that was still a rare idea. McGoohan sold the concept of The Prisoner to ITV boss Lew Grade after considerable wrangling over how long the series would be, and the final episode count sports some obvious filler instalments towards the end (not to say they aren’t entertaining anyway). Although it’s not a uniformly executed unit, the core concept, and the way the major elements are introduced and illustrated, possess energy unique and obvious more than 40 years later. I’ll try not to bore you with comments on how the show anticipated more recent creations like Lost, The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Dennis Potter’s works and myriad other permutations throughout popular culture (though I think I just did); the list of influences could go on and on, especially on scifi movies since the early 1970s. And that’s not to mention a pitch-perfect episode of The Simpsons in 2000, when about 80% of the audience would have had no idea what all those gags about Number Six were referring to.

It’s taken me a long time to catch up with the series, and the experience was certainly tinged bittersweet in finally watching it over a year after McGoohan’s death. McGoohan had a terrific, compact force as a screen actor, and even as late as Braveheart (1995), it was delightful to watch him galvanise overblown claptrap into something like delicious melodrama. The Prisoner’s later episodes were affected by McGoohan’s work on the film Ice Station Zebra (1968), which is chiefly worth watching today for the spectacle of McGoohan giving Rock Hudson an acting lesson. Considering the deep involvement he had in The Prisoner, it is, in its way, testimony to a talent that never was quite fulfilled—but then again the compressed brilliance of the series with its unmistakeable tropes and intricately orchestrated ideas was a hard act to repeat. The atmosphere of The Village, a fake community with its false front of jollity, jaunty uniforms, omnipresent sloganeering and surveillance, and the roaming, shapeless, unnerving “Rover” security guards, is minutely conceived and indelibly portrayed.

The Prisoner accounts the experience of its unnamed protagonist when, having abruptly quit his post with a British government intelligence service, he’s gassed and awakens some time later in a room that looks like his own home, but proves to be a replica. He’s now in The Village, a locality that soon proves to be both a jail and a home for “people who know too much or too little,” where prisoners and Guardians are indistinguishable except for certain elite members, and everyone has a number, not a name. Coded as Number Six, the hero contends with a power system that is arranged to flatten all resistance, and quickly distinguishes the few genuine rebels from natural conformists. Although he, because of his nominal importance, is spared most of the worst methods on hand, Number Six is still subjected to a merciless and gruelling procession of manipulations, plots, and scientific procedures to crush his spirit and extract his reasons for resigning. The Village is located on a remote island, and escape is virtually impossible thanks to the Rovers, giant plastic balls that swallow up escapees. In each episode, Number Six faces off against Number Two, the supposedly elected administrator of the island, but the person in the post in constantly changing and answers to a mysterious Number One and the rest of their organisation.

The first episode, ‘Arrival,’ establishes most of the essentials with clarity and a surprisingly cinematic style, with the rapid, choppy editing and forceful, almost abstracting camerawork offering an expressive intensity TV still doesn’t offer much. The debut was put together by Don Chaffey, who had directed Jason and the Argonauts (1963) for Ray Harryhausen and worked on several Hammer films. The filmic, pop-art-infused look and structure of the series is just one of its stand-out qualities, and though some episodes dip close to the look and plotting of more average action series like The Saint, The Avengers, and Danger Man itself, that’s more the exception than the rule. The bewildering clash of textures that is The Village—the faux-Italianate architecture of the town centre, the seaside pleasantness of the neighbouring port with its mocking fake boat, and ultra-futuristic hidden abodes of the Guardians—establishes the matryoshka-like multiplicity of hidden truths. A serious question for Number Six is whose “side” runs The Village. Although clearly still conceived in the schismatic structures of the Cold War, the “sides” are kept purposefully vague, and soon enough, the notion that there are or soon will be no sides, that The Village is the future world in miniature, is introduced with relish by one of the Number Twos. A distinct pleasure of the show, over and above its Byzantine complications, is the impressive array of then-contemporary British acting talent, with the likes of Eric Portman, Leo McKern, Derren Nesbitt, George Baker, Guy Doleman, and Mary Morris popping up throughout, particularly in the Number Two spot.

It’s bordering on the obvious to say that aspects of The Prisoner are certainly late-’60s modish, with aspects of its style and satirical approach now hackneyed. And yet, in other ways, it’s even more relevant today than when it was made, now that Britain’s been turned into a giant CCTV playground, the spectacles of Guantanamo Bay and the War on Terror’s renditions, and an increasingly high level of distracting gibberish infuses contemporary media and political sources. The dark heart of The Village’s purpose is glimpsed in brief, but telling vignettes when Number Six visits the hospital and sees people being subjected to therapies to make them compliant members of the society—methods that both take aim at quack psychiatric practises of the era, such as the aversion therapies being inflicted on homosexual people, and also anticipating today’s “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The image of the prisoners caught by a Rover, their faces distorted in terrified masks while being smothered by plastic, is a grotesque one. The show’s opening credits are ritualised in depicting Number Six’s kidnapping, turning his plight into an Oroborus-like experience of constantly awakening in the strange locale, his shout of “I am not a number, I am a free man!” met with the hilarity of whoever’s Number Two that week.

Whilst Number Six is supposedly being saved from the worst punishments of the operation, the cruelty that is part and parcel of The Village (underneath the smiling threat of the Number Twos and the stern, hysterical outrage of the citizens’ committees, and inherent in the various manipulations enforced on Number Six) is mind-boggling—at one point, in ‘Many Happy Returns,’ he’s allowed to escape the island temporarily as a mocking birthday present. And yet the series suggests many people put up with such sadisms every day and call it being a member of society. Not all the anticipations are negative: it’s hard to believe that modern internet-fuelled alternative culture wasn’t anticipated and indeed partly based on Number Six’s methods, and also those of his fellow prisoners. In ‘It’s Your Funeral,’ the villagers who are still resisting indulge in a game they call “jamming” (hence the ’90s fad for anarchic “culture jamming”?), feeding the authorities disinformation: “It’s one of the most important ways of fighting back!” declares one participant (Annette Andre). But their need to muddy the waters is then used by their enemies for their own ends.

Whilst Number Six is an empathetic hero, the notion he’s not all that much different to his oppressors is repeatedly mooted. Thanks to McGoohan’s superlative, sustained performance, he’s cool, relentless, and aggressive, self-satisfied in his public schoolboy ideal of rugged individuality, seemingly as asocial outside The Village as in it. His private war with the world is only literalised when he’s put there, a notion that echoes when he finally escapes the island in the last episode, but with the world now taking on aspects of The Village. McGoohan’s extremely Catholic dislike of playing love scenes means the only time Number Six kisses a woman is when his mind’s been transferred into another body (that of Nigel Stock) and then it’s a fiancée (Zena Walker), daughter of his boss, who hadn’t been mentioned before; that aspect only reinforces the miasma of alienation that surrounds Number Six. In ‘Checkmate,’ Number Six puts together a cabal of resistors after developing a method to discern prisoners from jailers though their behaviour, only to have his escape plot foiled when his people turn on him because he acts more like a Guardian. In ‘Hammer Into Anvil,’ Number Six is at both his most righteous and most vicious: he uses the atmosphere of paranoia, distrust, and elusive truth for his own ends, when he sets out to destroy the current Number Two (Patrick Cargill) after he causes the suicide of a woman he’s interrogating, by faking evidence that suggests Number Two is being plotted against by his own side, reducing his quarry to a quivering, hysterical mental wreck.

There’s a tone of satire of macho values and more specifically the action-man ethos of a lot of ’60s pop culture (McGoohan and Markstein disagreed for years afterwards as to whether Number Six was Danger Man’s protagonist John Drake), with the fact that Number Six is physically indomitable—a champion boxer and fencer, he never loses a fight where he isn’t outnumbered five to one—and yet this usually does him no good at all. In ‘A Change of Mind,’ he’s relentlessly hounded precisely because he resists a couple of bullies, a touch that might remind a few of us of high school. Number Six’s great mental fitness usually serves him better in resisting all the attempts to subsume his personality and distort his sense of reality, whether they involve fooling him into thinking he’s an impostor created by the Guardians to take on the “real” Number Six, in ‘The Schizoid Man’; making him think he’s undergone a behaviour-controlling lobotomy, in ‘A Change of Mind’; or, most bizarrely, feeding him full of psychedelic drugs and making him play out a western scenario, in ‘Living in Harmony.’ The latter episode introduces a particularly good performance from Alexis Kanner as The Kid, a young subordinate of Number Two posing as a hotshot gunslinger, who’s driven mad by that pose and kills a woman and then himself—only to be resurrected later as the spirit of youthful, countercultural rebellion.

Some of the show’s metaphors were corny even in its time—the characters being likened to chess pawns in ‘Checkmate,’ Number Six sabotaging The Village’s controlling supercomputer project by asking it the illogical question, “Why?”—but many others are still potent. In the pungently funny satire ‘Free For All’ (an episode McGoohan wrote and directed), Number Six is encouraged by the current Number Two (Eric Portman) to run for his job in the annual elections because his reputation as an aggressive resister lends the vote an veneer of authenticity. What follows analyses the processing of authentic statesmen into regulation politicians, as The Village journalist replaces his initial lack of comment into standard political cliché before he’s then drugged and brainwashed into speaking mindless rhetoric to wildly enthusiastic crowds. He wins the election, but then the woman (Rachel Herbert) who’s been his assigned driver throughout the campaign and has spoken only in foreign gibberish and acted childishly slaps him silly and imperiously takes Number Two’s chair. In ‘The Chimes of Big Ben,’ Number Six enters an art contest where all the other artists, having succumbed to the cult of star-fucking, have all produced works that idolise the only celebrity about—Number Two.

McKern was the obvious choice to bring back for the final two episodes, ‘Once Upon a Time’ and ‘Fall Out,’ where the series takes a wild swing towards allegorical surrealism and doesn’t come back: ‘Fall Out’ was nominated for a Hugo Award, losing out to 2001: A Space Odyssey of all things. McKern’s Number Two is brought back to break Number Six at all costs, with the death of one of them certain. Number Two tries to deconstruct Number Six by devolving his mind back to childhood and leading him through his experiences, only to find that Number Six’s presumed asocialness is actually derived from his social values, and his individualism finally triumphs. Number Two is revived, along with The Kid, as examples of failed rebellion to contrast Number Six, who’s presented to a bizarre cabal of masked people, each representing some segment of society, ready to accept him as ruler. But when he is ushered in to meet Number One, the head honcho proves to be a lunatic wearing a monkey mask, and the whole enterprise is a self-perpetuating delusion. The series resolves in a kind of hallucinatory anarchy close to that same year’s If…., as Number Six, Number Two, and The Kid machine-gun their captors to the strains of “All You Need is Love” and flee by a mysterious underground route directly into London. The technocratic world of the Guardians coalesces into a final vision of a madman blasting off into outer space, whilst the three rebels ride along the highway in a cage, dancing to “Dem Dry Bones.” It’s a finish that manages to be threatening and elating all at once, as close to genius as anything I’ve ever seen in television. l

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17th 04 - 2009 | 4 comments »

Breach (2007)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Billy Ray

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Billy Ray’s third feature, State of Play, opens widely today, so, naturally, I’m reviewing his second feature. (We at Ferdy on Films are nothing if not a bit perverse.) Ray’s debut feature, Shattered Glass (2003), told the true story of Stephen Glass, a rising star at The New Republic who was fired and drummed out of journalism for fabricating stories. State of Play, a truncated adaptation of a six-part BBC miniseries, returns to journalism, as a newspaper reporter follows his nose to discover conspiracies and cover-ups behind two seemingly simple deaths.

Breach bridges the gap between these films—another based-on-fact drama about Robert Hanssen, the most dangerous traitor uncovered in the United States to date. Hanssen’s history of spilling state secrets to the Soviet Union and, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, to Russia, spanned a 20-year period—almost his entire career in the intelligence division of the FBI. Two confirmed deaths occurred as a result of his activities, and up to 50 more are suspected. Hanssen’s is a story made for the movies and especially the type of movie for which Billy Ray is becoming known.

The film opens with archival footage from February 20, 2001, of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announcing that an enemy of freedom, Robert Hanssen, had been arrested. The date sent a chill down my spine, which only intensified when the title card “Two months earlier” introduces a scene of counterintelligence surveillance of a married couple from the Middle East. A cleverly hidden cameraman, Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), snaps picture after picture of the arguing couple, then climbs back into the black van that contains two of his colleagues. They offer up a copy of a report he wrote and rag on him for ignoring the team. “If you’d read it, you’d see you two were named in the acknowledgments,” the ambitious O’Neill shoots back, a subtle way the film suggests that the FBI is like any other workplace—full of work that never gets read and people who make assumptions based on appearances.

O’Neill wants to become an agent, and when he is called on a Sunday into the office of Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) and given an assignment to spy on newly promoted Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). He is to work as Hanssen’s assistant and look for evidence that Hanssen is posting or distributing sexually explicit material, which Burroughs says could be a major embarrassment to the bureau. O’Neill sees this as a demotion from his counterintelligence work, but asks if this is a major case that will forward his ambitions. Burroughs tells him nothing.

O’Neill meets Hanssen for the first time in their triple-lock-protected office space. Hanssen asks O’Neill to tell him five things about himself, four of which are true, an exercise he used to play with colleagues to keep sharp on reading people. O’Neill says he’s not a very good liar. After a pause, Hanssen says, “That would count as your lie.”

As O’Neill gets to know Hanssen, he learns the man is highly suspicious and attuned to the slightest detail, extremely intelligent about computer systems and security, a devout Catholic, resentful of the FBI’s gun culture that determines whether you’re in or out, and alarmed to hear that O’Neill’s wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas) is from East Germany. Nonetheless, the two men begin to form a relationship of sorts based on Hanssen’s desire to get the lapsed Catholic back into the fold. The O’Neills spend one Sunday with Hanssen and his wife Bonnie (Kathleen Quinlan) at church and then have dinner at the Hanssen home, where Eric watches Bob play with his grandchildren and learns about Hanssen’s tough, unsympathetic father. Hanssen presents him with a binder full of articles he spent the night pulling from the Internet to help O’Neill cope with his mother’s Parkinson’s disease.

Eric, having observed no evidence of sexual deviance and convinced Hanssen is the salt of the earth, confronts Burroughs with doubts about the investigation. “You admire him,” she says. “Actually, you had to to serve our purposes.” She then stuns him with the news that he is helping to break the biggest case in FBI counterintelligence history, and introduces him to Agent Dean Plesac (Dennis Haysbert) and the rest of the very large team. They have accumulated evidence of Hanssen’s treachery, but Hanssen has been so clever that it won’t be sufficient to convict him of the most serious charges. They want to catch Hanssen in the act of passing secrets. “But that will mean the death penalty,” says a shaken O’Neill. “Don’t you think he deserves it?” Plesac retorts.

The rest of the movie essentially pits O’Neill’s wits against Hanssen’s. Can he get information on Hanssen’s Palm Pilot downloaded without Hanssen noticing? Can the team dismantle Hanssen’s car to search it without arousing his suspicions that the car was touched? Now that O’Neill knows just what a rat Hanssen is, will he be able to keep his head?

Breach is pretty much a standard-issue thriller, with a number of cooked-up moments of suspense that are there by the grace of the screenwriters. For example, when Hanssen is unexpectedly stood up for an appointment, he orders O’Neill to drive him back to his office well before the team can reassemble Hanssen’s car. What’s O’Neill to do? He takes a longer route that just conveniently is jammed up by a jack-knifed truck. Or, when the team learns that Hanssen has decided to go underground, O’Neill tells them to back off their surveillance tails—he can get Hanssen to make an expected drop. Naturally, this ploy puts O’Neill at risk for his life. Or, Hanssen carelessly gives O’Neill a package to deliver (which he steams open) that contains a film of him and Bonnie having sex. These kinds of creaky plot devices should have sunk this movie.

But they don’t, not surprisingly, because Chris Cooper, perhaps the finest American actor working today, is at the helm. Because the story takes place at the end of Hanssen’s run as a spy, we don’t really get much background information about him or his motives. We are fortunate that this smart script offers us Hanssen’s real words in the form of his deencrypted letters to his Soviet/Russian handlers. His arrogance regarding his intelligence, his contempt for his coworkers, his graciousness toward the comrades who realize that he’s a very important person are ego issues that few of us haven’t experienced. Yet because of where he works, he literally holds lives in his hands. He wasn’t trying to get rich—greed would have undone him by arousing suspicions over a lavish lifestyle or enlarged bank accounts—just accumulate a quiet power. Cooper realizes that a double life can only be maintained by making each life deeply felt. A veneer of respectability is easy to see through. True respectability is not, and Hanssen, as embodied by Cooper, is completely convincing as a devoted convert to the extreme Catholicism of Opus Dei and a superpatriot who sees godlessness as the fatal flaw of the Soviet bloc. And yet, this belief must have been at least a bit of a fraud—perhaps a remnant of his preconversion self—because he actively worked against the United States for this godless empire. Hanssen must have been the king of compartmentalization—which is prerequisite for a fanatic—but because this film compresses events, it’s hard to see clearly. It is only through Cooper’s superhuman skills that we are able to understand a bit about what makes a master spy on the inside.

I’m not a big fan of Ryan Phillippe, but playing with Cooper sharpened his game. He inhabits O’Neill (perhaps also through the help of the real Eric O’Neill, who was ever-present on the shoot) as a naïve do-gooder who learns how to lie and play on this man’s religious convictions and family-values morality to get what he wants, using Juliana as an excuse for just about every deception he has to run. When, in the end, he gives up the spy game, we’re not surprised. He admired Hanssen at first because that’s the kind of FBI O’Neill wanted to believe in.

The rest of the cast don’t really emerge from their stock characters, despite Ray’s scheme to first show the façade of the principal players—ambitious O’Neill, imperious Hanssen, hard-as-nails Burroughs—only to reveal the more vulnerable people underneath as soon as Burroughs lets the cat out of the bag to O’Neill. This might have worked in an entirely fictional film, but in a case as well-publicized as this one, we already know that nothing is what it seems. O’Neill is actually the only dynamic character in the film, but his growth seems a bland meal of insight indeed when it’s Hanssen we really want to know about.

The film benefits from its use of real locations, and in an extra on the DVD, we learn that Hanssen’s office and the surrounding FBI offices and corridors were built as exact duplicates of the real things. In fact, the DVD extras are superb, and fill in many of the gaps left by the film itself. On the whole, I enjoyed this film. Great writing and performances disguise what a paint-by-numbers job it is. Ray is a director the James Bond franchise might want to consider.

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17th 11 - 2008 | 6 comments »

Famous Firsts: Dr. No (1962)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Director: Terence Young
Debut film of: James Bond, character

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By Roderick Heath

Dr. No was more than just the first entry in a successful film series: it came at a point when a new type of pop culture was colonising the cinema screen. From Maurice Binder’s dazzling credits and John Barry and Orchestra’s spidery rendition of Monty Norman’s theme, through to the tightly choreographed action, the softcore Playboy-style posings of luscious females, and its hero’s trademarks and traits, whole movies became familiar, repetitive, even iconographic. Dr. No was pitched as a work of aggressively contemporary stylisation. It had been preceded by the Hammer horror films, which, like the Bond films, took stale genre yarns and glossed them with a fresh paint of sex, violence, and a deliberately gaudy style based in previously unfashionable forms, like comic books and serials.

It’s still easy to feel the sheer vibrant force that gripped imaginations right from Dr. No’s opening credits. After the famous gun barrel opening depicts Bond as a silhouette, both anonymous and iconic, Norman’s music and Binder’s visuals entwine in an audio-visual frenzy, the titles and background visuals dancing to the music, giving way to literal, rotoscoped dancers, and then to the “three blind mice” stalking their way through the streets of Kingston, pursued by their own theme song. The substance of the film is infused with a musical quality, and the narrative that follows leaves behind any sense of psychological or political substance for a tale that reinvents the term “melodrama.”

Dr%20No%20paperback.jpgWhen, in the early 1950s, former naval intelligence officer, Lt. Ian Fleming, began to write a fast-paced, pulpy, adventure novel, his chief ambition was to earn some extra dough to support his new wife, who subsequently referred to his scribblings as “Ian’s pornography.” That novel, Casino Royale (1953), was liberally adapted from some of his wartime experiences, and like the best of his subsequent series, it was a curious melding of tactile realism and sheer fantasy, the humdrum and the ludicrous. Fleming’s influences were patent: Bulldog Drummond, the prewar version of the wop-bashing gentleman-roughneck, with dashes of Richard Hannay and Philip Marlowe, some Somerset Maugham for the more serious inflections, and, in Dr. No, the sixth book in the series, a nod to Sax Rohmer, creator of überfiend Fu Manchu. If you watch wartime British films like Secret Mission (1942) and The Adventures of Tartu (1943), you can see the Bond formula was transferred from them virtually intact. Fleming’s books, then, with their winking character names and cheeky narrative quotes, were close to being pop art already, but they also had a quality of taciturn melancholy and disillusioned professionalism that writers like John Le Carré and Len Deighton would make the dominant keys to their spy yarns.

Fleming’s creation lived in the contemporary world, but he was looking back to the blood-and-thunder tropes of his youth, the ambitions of his manhood, and an ethic that began vanishing even as his species of male called itself the winners of World War II. Bond, his hero, considered his most precious possession to be his 1932 Bentley; he likewise held onto his prewar ideals whilst reaping certain benefits of the modern world, in which all that marriage and moral malarkey had become passé. In planning to adapt Fleming’s books for the screen, cunning producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, director Terence Young (something of a London swinger who found an avatar in the Bond character), and chief screenwriter Richard Maibaum (a Hollywood veteran), decided to throw out thorny politics and replaced SMERSH, the Soviet assassin’s bureau that provided villainy in most of the early novels, with SPECTRE, the terrorist group Fleming had created for the failed earlier film project that he turned into the much-litigated Thunderball (1961).

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This team also set the series down the path toward becoming the elephantine, purely comic-book spectacles they’re generally known as. It’s possible they chose the Fu Manchu-inspired Dr. No as the first film precisely for its relative absurdity. In coming back to the Bond films after a long time, I’ve found that few hold up even as quick-paced fun. But the first few entries retained the plots and much of the grit of Fleming’s stories, and held some real dramatic integrity: the first half-dozen films have a roughly contiguous plot as Bond battles the forces of SPECTRE, concluding in the best of the series, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), which even pulls off the feat of having its hero married and then widowed tragically. Its relative failure and the bland impact of Connery replacement George Lazenby meant that from Diamonds Are Forever (1971) on, any dramatic layering in the series went out the window.

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Dr. No is dated in many ways, and yet has aged better for its relative modesty and gamey rigour. It begins by going to great lengths to give its hero a suitably indelible introduction. British agents Strangways (Tim Moxon) and Mary (Dolores Keator), are assassinated in Kingston, Jamaica. Half a world away in London, in a splendid visualisation of a fantasy version of intelligence services teeming with trained specialists keeping watch on a complex world, MI6 operatives within the cover organisation of “Universal Exports” monitor radio signals from all over the world. When their agents in Kingston fail to report in, an official is sent to fetch James Bond, agent 007, from Le Cercle club, where he’s dueling at baccarat with sexy society dame Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson). The sequence is artfully shot and edited so that Sylvia’s opponent is not revealed until he utters “Bond, James Bond,” lighting a cigarette and cocking a brow, his theme tune throbbing momentarily.

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Connery is instantly impressive, and unique—polished and poised, and yet his dark Celtic brow and his semiconcealed Scots accent offer a whiff of the wild, of a man hunting, even in fashionable circumstances, for any existential thrill on offer. This introduction should serve as a reminder that Daniel Craig’s edition of Bond isn’t actually as far from Connery’s as Roger Moore’s fashion-brochure lounge lizard. Later, when Connery strips off his clothes and gets into action, it’s entirely believable that the fellow who plays at gentleman playboy is actually a creature capable of brute force and feral rage. His boss M (Bernard Lee, inimitably crusty) dispatches him to Jamaica to find out what’s happened to Strangways and Mary, and whether their disappearance has anything to do with the sabotaging of American space shots, suspected of being accomplished with high-powered radio beams directed from somewhere in the region.

Upon arrival, Bond finds allies in CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) and Strangways’ islander helper Quarrel (John Kitzmuller). He also witnesses manifestations of a terrifying menace, as one assassin takes cyanide rather than be taken captive, and a girl who pretends to be a newspaper photographer would rather risk a broken arm than talk. One of Strangways’ chums, Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson), a mineralogist, buried evidence of radioactivity on Crab Key, an island that is the strict private property of the mysterious part-Chinese Dr. No. When Strangeways discovered that evidence, Dent, as No’s agent, arranged Strangways’ killing and now is ordered by the omnipotent No to do the same to Bond. Bond survives and kills Dent, then travels to Crab Key with Quarrel to investigate the island. That’s when he meets Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), the breathtaking naturalist’s daughter who strides out of the water singing a calypso tune.

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Honey is still often voted the Bond girl to end all Bond girls (although personally I find Andress well outclassed by the likes of Diana Rigg and Eva Green, who can actually act). Lusciously formed and yet innocent, her virginity taken in rape, Honey later avenged herself on her assailant by sticking a black widow spider in his bed. It’s an interesting contrast (Connery’s expression whilst listening to her account is amusingly queasy) with No’s earlier attempt to kill Bond by putting a tarantula in his bed: both heroine and villain use the same method, but for widely divergent reasons. Orphaned by her father’s death at Dr. No’s hands, Honey makes her living poaching rare shells, but also accidentally draws the attention of No’s operatives. Soon Bond and Honey are trapped on the island, running from his guard and his “dragon”—actually a marsh buggy with a flame-thrower that roasts Quarrel—before they are captured and subjected to the compulsory educational seminar about the villain’s motives and plans. No is played by Joseph Wiseman, whose snake-eyed cunning and sibilant contempt for lesser mortals makes him the first and still one of the most impressive Bond villains, crushing objets d’art with his mechanical hands, running using a disturbingly monkeylike gait, and dismissing Bond as a “stupid policeman” for holding onto moral notions.

The final raw clash between Bond and No that ends near the boiling waters over an atomic pile, encapsulates a significant aspect of the series: No’s metal gauntlets are literal forms of the hand of brutal, technological power that the Bond villains always wield. No’s ultimately beaten by Bond’s eminently battered flesh because Bond can climb out and No can’t. For all his sophistication, Bond always represents the strength of the unreconstructed man. His civility is a skin he sheds easily. He eats, drinks, loves, and fights entirely for the right to do all those things where and when he likes, unlike his opponents, who always seem to be trying to supplant such a life with a world that reflects their own twisted egos. No’s idea of fun is to tie Honey up to be drowned.

Anxiety over the modern world’s shape, the simultaneous glamour and terror of it, lies at the heart of the early Bond films’ great success. Satires like the Austin Powers series poked fun at their tropes without really understanding them—the modish trappings of supermodernity (like the omnipresent collarless tunics and the villains’ chitinous-looking machines of destruction) encoded a fear of the future contrasted with Bond’s primal force and the classic gentility of M’s oak-paneled office.

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Some early ideas, like his trysts with Sylvia constantly being interrupted when duty calls, were quickly abandoned in favour of his constant flirtation with Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) (“What gives?” “Me, given an ounce of encouragement.”); others were yet to be put in place, like the precredits sequences, and Q, the MI6 weapons expert, who here is still called by his proper sobriquet of Major Boothroyd and played not by Desmond Llewellyn, but rather Peter Burton.

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Curiously for a Bond film, Dr. No is at its best when being severe and restrained, even quiet, as Bond moves about the Jamaican locales trying to parse what’s going on, and contending with assassination attempts in humid hotel rooms. A lengthy sequence that caps off the first half involves the treacherous Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), secretary of the Governor and one of Dent’s agents, who tries to lure him into two attempted assassinations. He beds Miss Taro anyway before packing her off to the police, and then settles down to wait for Dent, shooting him dispassionately with not one, but two lethally cold shots. Such stark amorality from a film hero was very new in 1962, but there’s nothing psychopathic about Bond. Instead, there’s a curiously intense emotional satisfaction Bond always derives from such achievements as screwing the woman who tries to set him up, and giving his opponent Dent a chance to turn the tables on him and then, knowing very well he had no chance, coldly executing him for being stupid. There’s a punch here that disappeared from the series before being partly revived by Timothy Dalton and then more fully by Daniel Craig, reminding me that most of all, Bond represents the desire to feel life and death in its extremes, employed for ethical causes but without ethical cares.

Dr. No’s action scenes are pretty ropy (the novel’s best scene, where No tests Bond by subjecting him to a gross experiment where he can try to escape through an agonising series of tests, is rushed and ineffectual here). Bond films that would be wall-to-wall, precision-oiled action scenes were still in the future. Nonetheless, Dr. No’s still a cracking good yarn. l

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16th 07 - 2008 | 19 comments »

Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko File (Bunt. Delo Litvinenko/Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case, 2007)

Director: Andrei Nekrasov

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 2006, the world was shocked when a former member of the KGB and its successor after the fall of Communism—the FSB—named Alexander “Sasha “Litvinenko died in a London hosptial, a victim of poisoning from exposure to the radioactive compound polonium 210. His slow and agonizing decline and death were captured in a media circus, particularly in Britain, where he had sought political asylum several years before after going public with information that the FSB ordered contract murders and was corrupt.

Andrei Nekrasov, a Russian filmmaker torn by grief at the fate that had befallen his friend Sasha, set out to investigate the possible reasons for his murder. His journey took him through Russia, Germany, France, and England, where he met people who knew Sasha, worked with him, loved him, and hated him. What he assembled from archival and original footage is a wide-ranging, rambling scar of a movie—a cry of despair and outrage from its maker. Watching Poisoned by Polonium is an exhausting, confusing, sometimes mesmerizing experience in which Nekrasov piles up facts, events, and ideas without really making sense of them.

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During the first part of the film, Nekrasov spends an inordinate amount of time on himself—literally. The camera rarely leaves his face as he absorbs what is happening to his friend and reflects on on-camera interviews he conducted with Sasha, presumably for another project, in which Litvinenko railed against what he saw as the nexus of corruption in Russia—Vladimir Putin. In pursuit of the truth, Nekrasov probes the history of late Soviet Russia and events up to the present.

For much of the scene setting, Nekrasov discusses the bombing of apartment blocks in Moscow in 1999, called by the government acts of terror by rebels from Chechnya that eventually precipitated war. In a technique Nekrasov uses frequently in the film, normal life in Chechnya is shown, only to be contrasted with the devastation of war. This rather unnecessary emphasis that war is hell is followed by another frequently used technique—changing locations before a new establishing shot pulls the viewer out of the previous one, thus thoroughly confusing Nekrasov’s point. He seems to want to say that the Chechens are the poor unfortunates by showing their bombed-out homes and war dead, but before we know it, he’s showing Russian war dead and grieving Russian mothers. Of course, this was reality, but then he moves directly to Russians saying that the Chechens deserved it for bombing the apartments and on to conspiracy theories that the FSB planted the bombs themselves to secure Putin’s rise to power. As someone with hardly a nodding acquaintance with current events in Russia, the timelines and particulars of these events were not familiar to me. Nekrasov does little to enlighten me.

What he does do is show how Litvinenko became notorious in Russia for outing the FSB’s corruption and murder schemes. Litvinenko contended that an FSB internal affairs agent Mikhail Trepashkin was framed by other FSB agents for weapons possession because he revealed evidence that the FSB was involved in corruption and may have been involved in the apartment bombings. He was found not guilty but immediately rearrested for revealing state secrets. Nekrasov is told that the judge who dismissed the charges was removed from his Poisoned%20Gusak.jpgposition and replaced by one “bought” to serve the FSB and government interests. Litvinenko himself said the FSB tried to buy his participation on their hit squad, but that he refused. He released videos taken through a hidden camera that show his boss Alexander Gusak and others talking about murdering certain individuals. Gusak is interviewed by Nekrasov about the hit squads and Litvinenko, whom Gusak mentored. Gusak now thinks of Litvinenko as a prick.

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Another interview subject for Nekrasov is Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who, at the time of the interview, had just published an article about the rape of Chechen women by Russian soldiers. Nekrasov is shown going all over Moscow trying to find a copy of the journal that published her article—nobody is selling it. Abruptly, we move forward in time to Politkovskaya’s own murder in her Moscow apartment building. Obviously, criticism is taken very seriously in the new Russia.

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The film is no marvel of cinematography or editing. Whoever was filming Nekrasov didn’t seem to know how to hold a camera or what to film. While I’ve read charges that Nekrasov appears self-indulgent in this film because he’s in so many of its frames, I’m inclined to think that he had so little usable footage to work with that he had to make do.

More importantly, do all these events and inferences add up to a plot at the highest levels to silence Litvinenko? Nekrasov seeks the advice of French philosopher André Glucksmann, who notes that Russians, subjected for centuries to czarist rule, have a slave mentality—they want a strongman to pull the strings. I admit that I have sometimes thought this myself, but if Putin was a strongman, he’s really not much different from George W. Bush, who was elected by the supposedly most democratic nation in the world. Russian lawlessness during the transition to democracy seems to have progressed much as one would expect in a country where basic deprivations still existed. As prosperity has slowly risen, social order has gained a foothold.

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Nonetheless, Nekrasov’s empassioned document, returning belatedly to Litvinenko’s murder and his grieving wife Marina, left me wondering if perhaps there wasn’t something to his theories. I’m usually the first person to pooh-pooh a conspiracy theory espoused by the more-suspicious hubby. This time, the hubby pooh-poohed Litvinenko.

I decided to contact David Southwell, an author of books on organized crime as well as the recently published Conspiracy Files. I became a fan of his blog English Dreaming, English Rain, where he and I became slightly acquainted. David mentioned the death of Litvinenko on his blog, and I wanted his opinion of the documentary and its allegations. Here’s what he said:

While I could not call Alex a close friend, we had talked, and he had provided useful contacts when I was writing about Russian organized crime. However, what a lot of people seem to have forgotten about him since his death was that he was a conspiracy theorist. His bogeyman was Putin, but often behaved in the same way as those whose see Freemasons or the Mafia behind every event from the death of JFK to the name change of Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC. At times, Alex on Putin was like Abbie Hoffman on Nixon circa 1970.

What I found disappointing about Rebellion is that it was short on context. Putin’s rise to power did not need the bombings; there was little exploration of how much of a failed state Russia already was or how normal this type of false flag conspiracy is. Often, the best you can do is find evidence of a conspiracy, but showing one existed will rarely tell you who was responsible for it. Rebellion failed to provide the tools for its audience to judge which allegations had genuine—and therefore frightening—substance and which, like the claims Alex so often made in person about Putin being a paedophile, were free from the burden of demonstrable facts.

Using the blunt scalpel on common sense and as much of an investigation as I could muster, I concluded last year that Alex was murdered not by agents sent by Putin, but by his friends. Irony indeed that he may have died in a false flag murder to provide a martyr, his strange, lingering death broadcast globally.

Although I am steeped in conspiracy research, I believe that probably only 5% would qualify as genuine conspiracies and even then, determining those responsible is exceptionally difficult. Plausible deniability often means that someone such as Putin would have little direct knowledge of any false flag operation being conducted in his name.

Nekrasov’s problem is that he takes that one conspiracy (the death of Alex) means proof of another. While I think there is good proof that the apartment bombings were a conspiracy, the death of Alex does not provide proof that they were the direct work of Putin. Nekrasov also seems so blinded by anger and grief, that the ‘investigation’ into the death of Alex is terribly lopsided. The film reminded me of a father whose son has been killed in a hit-and-run spewing out allegations, some of which may be likely and true (the bastard must have been drunk) but over which no evidence is presented. Some allegations that come from rage, frustration, and pain and say more about Nekrasov and the world view of those anti-Putin than they do about reality.

I have recently turned down writing a book on Russian crime because of the possibility of writing both safely and accurately is limited. The subject fascinates and is worthy of study, but I feared I would only end up producing another partisan, emotional mess like Nekrasov.

I’m sure you’ll agree with me that David’s thoughts are illuminating, and I thank him for allowing me to quote them here. As a Chicagoan, I’m more than familiar with corruption and violence among those charged with protecting citizens; just today, John Kass wrote in the Chicago Tribune: “Chicago politics have historically been important in the selection of police commanders and top brass. Just a few years ago, even the Chicago mob had a big say in who worked where in the top echelons of the department.” But I think I’d have to agree with David—when it comes to someone you know or something you care about, it’s hard not to end up with an emotional mess. If you can deal with that, Poisoned by Polonium has some solid information for the neophyte to the way Russia works today. l


8th 03 - 2008 | no comment »

The Mysterious Lady (1928)

Director: Fred Niblo

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 1928, the silent film era was nearing its end, Greta Garbo was at the height of her popularity, and her frequent director, Fred Niblo, was four years from the end of his career. The Mysterious Lady, a fairly standard-issue Mata Hari story, paired Garbo, as Russian spy Tania Fedorova, with leading man Conrad Nagel, as Austrian officer Karl von Raden. Only the year before, Garbo repeated the great sensation she made with her Flesh and the Devil costar John Gilbert in Love. They were an electifying pair on screen, but Gilbert’s frequent dust-ups with studio head Louis B. Mayer brought his career to a premature end. As Garbo’s leading man in The Mysterious Lady, Nagel offers fans a rougher sexuality, one that helped Garbo reach further into a darker aspect of herself—moving from someone who is born evil (The Temptress, Flesh and the Devil) to one whose evil is pragmatic and ostensibly patriotic. The Mysterious Lady thus presents a certain evolution in the Garbo oeuvre, one that enhances her exoticism while allowing her to emotionally shade her shady ladies.

Niblo opens the films with a wonderful scene. Horse-drawn carriages bunched together, moving in and out of the frame in a dense tapestry, deposit their elegantly dressed passengers at the entrance of a Vienna opera house. Two soldiers, von Raden and his friend Max Heinrich (Albert Pollet), rush to the box office to buy tickets at the last minute. The performance is sold out. Just then, a man returns a ticket to the box office. He gives the pair a suspicious sidelong glance, but leaves quickly. The ticket clerk says he can sell the soldiers one ticket. Max insists that Karl take it; Max intends to let a few cabaret girls entertain him.

Max is seated in a box. In front of him is the sumptuous back of a woman leaning on the edge of the box, paying rapt attention to the singers on stage. He concentrates his gaze on her, her soft curls, her curved arms. During a brief lull in the action, she turns to him and says, “Franz, you’re very late.” Surprised that he is not her cousin, she blushes. The pair are obviously attracted to each other, as they both squirm deliciously in their chairs, a really wonderful scene. The opera ends with the soprano dropping to her knees and moving toward the tenor in what looks like a declaration of love and plea for forgiveness.

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The woman leaves and goes outside, only to be greeted with heavy rains and no ride home. As she stands on the street in confusion, Karl catches up to her and offers to take her home. She accepts, and when they arrive, she invites him in. They drink cognac and chat. Then Karl sits down to play her piano. He reprises the theme from the last scene of the opera, and she sings it. He falls in love on the spot. In rough passion, he grabs her from behind. She turns and invites his kiss. It’s a wonderfully choreographed scene of seduction, moving from polite to alarming to passionate.

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Karl and Tania spend the next day in typical movie happiness—frolicking in nature. When their day is at its end, Karl tells Tania he must leave for Berlin for a short while. Tania wonders if there can again be days as wonderful as they have had. Karl vows to come back soon, and they will have many more such days. When he leaves, Tania goes inside and opens a letter. Someone named Boris tells her he misses her terribly. A rueful look crosses her face. Foreboding is in the air.

Karl picks up some important military plans from his superiors and is told by his Uncle Eric (Edward Connelly) that the woman he was seen with the previous night is a notorious Russian spy. Karl’s disbelief turns to anger. Karl boards the train and secures the documents in a briefcase. Tania bursts into his compartment from the adjoining compartment, telling him she had to see him one more time. He rebuffs her and accuses her of setting him up. She admits it, but says she really does love him and wants him to give her a chance. He becomes enraged. She says, “Don’t make me hate you, Karl,” but nothing will get through to him. In the morning, he awakens and finds that the documents are missing. He is arrested, courtmartialed for treason, and thrown in prison. The rest of the film details his escape and his plot to track down Tania and recover the documents and his honor.

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There are so many wonderful moments in this film. For example, Karl’s public disgrace is really excruciating to watch. The ritual—broken sword, removal of all signs of rank and medals of accomplishment, and finally, cutting of buttons from the uniform coat—is done with precision and a horrible coldness we don’t feel Karl deserves. In another memorable scene, Boris (Gustav von Seyffertitz), Tania’s lover in waiting (it appears they have never had sex), throws her a birthday party. The camera movements for the party are done in standard movie language—close-up on a tray of champagne glasses opening up to the party full of guests laughing, talking, and dancing. But a titillating undercurrent moves through this swirl as Karl, posing as a professional musician, sits down at the piano with his stack of music. A quick glance at Boris and then at Tania sets up the major tension for the remainder of the film. In a nice double exposure, we see Karl’s thoughts as his image gets up from the piano bench and strangles Tania, who is standing next to him singing.

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Garbo is excellent throughout. She wears little make-up in her opening appearance, looking fresh and innocently lovely. Her flirtation with Nagel at her home is perfectly orchestrated—step close, move back, circle around a table to pour a drink. When she is cornered by Boris, who has had her watched ever since he discovered that von Raden was on the premises, her fear and confusion are those of a wild animal. She has no plan for escape—indeed, probably knows there is no hope of it—but keeps working selflessly to free Karl, wondering all the while whether he plans to take his revenge on her or believes that she loves him. It’s a real tour de force that is a pleasure to watch.

The film is part of a recently issued Turner Classic Movies collection of Garbo films. It was scored by TCM’s 2000 Young Film Composers Contest Winner, Vivek Maddala. I thought his score was a bit cheesy in spots, particularly his sentimentality during the love scenes, but the love theme from the opera that recurs when Tania thinks of Karl is touching. The film from which the DVD was made was in a poor condition in parts, particularly the first reel, but it’s all there and visible even through the scratches and pops. This film is a must-see for Garbo fans, and well worth any film lovers’ time.

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3rd 03 - 2008 | 3 comments »

The Good Shepherd (2006)

Director: Robert De Niro

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By Roderick Heath

Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) seems a nondescript Washington public servant, to the extent of taking the crowded bus to work. Yet he is a CIA boss who finds his name at the top of a short list of suspected traitors after the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion fails. Edward prods friends within and without the Agency for a guide through the menacing tangle of hinted threats and accusations. He receives in the post a dim photograph of a pair of lovers in a hotel room accompanied by an indistinct recording of their conversation, and takes these to the CIA techies to have their secrets extracted.

During the process of this painstaking teasing out of information, Edward muses on his life and career in the Agency. He was a Yale student in 1939 and belonged to the world’s least-secret secret society, the Skull and Bones. The personal secret he gave to them as his pledge was that his father, a prospective Secretary of the Navy, killed himself after accusations of disloyalty. Edward stole away the suicide note before his family could find it. The Skull and Bones club is a statement of the sons of the WASP establishment, ex- and current members congregating for familial feasts and celebrations that happen to be a nexus of power.

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Edward is an English major, with a gorgeous, deaf girlfriend, Laura (Tammy Blanchard), but who has been propositioned repeatedly by his professor, Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon). He is approached by an FBI agent (Alec Baldwin) to spy on Fredericks, who has been organising a pro-Nazi Germany club amongst the students. Edward’s actions get Fredericks fired. At one of the Skull and Bones congregations, Edward finds himself the object of provocative desire for Margaret Russell (Angelina Jolie), nicknamed Clover, sister of Edward’s friend and sponsor in the society, John (Gabriel Macht). Clover pushes herself on restrained, remote Edward. He is soon forced to abandon Laura and marry the pregnant Clover.

A dark, densely woven tapestry, The Good Shepherd is not a crowd-pleaser. It builds a mood of quiet, sustained dread. Obviously influenced by John Le Carré’s George Smiley series, it is based loosely on the life the legendary James Jesus Angleton, who also inspired the title character of Norman Mailer’s underrated epic novel Harlot’s Ghost. Like Le Carre’s approach, De Niro’s film, written by Eric Roth and a pet project for both men for many years, analyses the type of men who become spies and finds them light years removed from James Bond.

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The most successful are those impervious to emotional attachment. Edward is taught a series of brutal lessons in his world. The first is that you don’t know who your friends are. When Edward is recruited as an OSS agent and sent to London during the Blitz, he finds his boss is Fredericks, whose anti-Nazi trawling operation Edward ruined. You also don’t know who your enemies are. Edward is asked by slick Cambridge creep Arch Cummings (Billy Crudup) to help eliminate Fredericks because his “democratic” homosexuality makes him ripe for leaks. Fredericks is beaten to death and dumped in the Thames. After the war, stationed in Berlin, Edward has an affair with a German secretary, Hanna (Martina Gedeck), who he realises is a Soviet mole. She is promptly assassinated. Returning home, Edward finds Clover and his son are virtual strangers.

A recurring note is that all of Edward’s sexual encounters are bitter jokes—with Laura, who chickens out of their first night together; with Clover; with Hanna; with Laura again many years later, a one-night tryst that is photographed. The photos are sent to Clover, whose rage makes an introverted, professionally paranoid man even more so. Sex, the surrendering of control, is the weakest link in the security chain. It destroys Fredericks and others. Yet Edward is seen first as a young man performing as Buttercup in a collegiate performance of HMS Pinafore; ironically, it’s the freest and easiest he ever seems, the act of hiding in gender ambiguity a short-lived liberation.

Edward’s hobby is constructing model ships in bottles, emphasising his kind’s attempts to bottle a complex world in a singler jar of truth. Edward is one of the most inscrutable heroes ever portrayed in a major film. He is neither a ready hero, nor an anti-hero acting out our darker fantasies, nor even a case study we can feel superior to. He is instead a truly tragic protagonist. His implacable façade conceals a lifelong, desperate attempt to prove his character. His motives are unclear even to him. He has kept his father’s suicide note, which may or may not confirm his betrayal, but never read it. So, an unanswered anxiety drives Edward to work in a field demanding tests to his own nature that his father failed, knowing that to swerve off the path is to court self-destruction. He becomes a patriot, but consumes the life force of everyone who loves him, from Fredericks, to his son, Edward Jr. (Eddie Redmayne), who, in trying to connect with his remote father, joins the CIA, too.

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Around Edward’s story swirls the tumultuous history of the CIA. Edward is courted by Bill Sullivan (De Niro), who is assembling the Agency with a plan that only irreproachable WASP scions, as the most “trustworthy” of Americans, shall run the Agency. The Agency takes down leftist South American politicians and plays the long game with the KGB. In Berlin, Edward encountered a Russian opposite (Oleg Shtefanko), code-named “Ulysses,” who becomes his chief adversary. A defector, Mironov (John Sessions), joins the CIA circle, promising information about Ulysses; as a joke, he is given a copy of James Joyce’s novel. Yet another defector (Mark Ivanir) turns up, claiming, despite Brocco’s torture, that he is the real Mironov, and that the other man is a plant of Ulysses’ before throwing himself out the window to his death.

The Good Shepherd highlights the conflicted nature of the CIA as an historical force. “I see this as America’s eyes and ears; I don’t want it to become its heart and soul,” Sullivan muses, acknowledging the necessity of the organisation whilst regretting that necessity. Edward and the other chiefs consciously ignore the second Mironov’s warnings because he told them what they don’t want to hear—that they are dupes and that they need to inflate the threat of the ailing Soviet Union to justify their existence. One senior CIA honcho, Phillip Allen (William Hurt), enjoys making silken threats and exploits his position for financial gain.

The film is also a satire on the high WASP echelon of the United States, on how they put themselves and their agendas first and foremost. At one point, Edward is asked to liaise with a gangster, Joseph Palmi (Joe Pesci), exiled from Cuba by the Castro revolution. Palmi prods Edward in wanting to understand the mentality of his class:

“Let me ask you something . . . we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish, they have the homeland, Jews, their tradition; even the niggers, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?”

“The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting,” Wilson replies, not smugly, but as if it’s the accumulation of a long meditation.

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The film is a gradual accumulation of details that point to the identity of the mysterious lovers in the recording and photo: Edward’s his own son and his African, Soviet-employed girlfriend Miriam (Liya Kebede), the ultimate joke on Edward’s sexless, white-bread patriotism. Edward Jr. leaked the Bay of Pigs invasion. Worse still, Ulysses has stage-managed this affair—except that Edward and the girl are truly in love, and want to marry. Ulysses promises to protect them if Edward becomes a double-agent. Edward refuses and seems to succeed in talking Ulysses into letting the young couple go their merry way. But Miriam is thrown out of an airplane on her way to join Edward Jr., leaving him distraught and Clover crying out, “What have you done?”

Edward stages a vengeful house cleaning, unmasking Mironov as Ulysses’ mole (he keeps his microfilm in the spine of the Joyce novel) and forcing Allen to quit by threatening him with evidence of pilfering. These actions finally stake his claim to untouchable status in the Agency, having proven his honesty with the most bitter of tests. Edward finally opens his father’s note, which confirms he was a traitor, and then burns it. He has avoided becoming his father and destroying himself, but only by destroying almost everyone around him.

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It’s a superb performance by Damon, a logical role for an actor who specialises in playing men whose great talents and capacities are at odds with their surface blandness. Damon holds our attention, like Alec Guinness did with Smiley, by playing a man who thinks much and says little. There’s an amusing edge to casting the “world’s sexiest man” as an emotional and sexual enigma, as well as casting perennial sexiest woman Jolie as his wife. Introduced as the vulpine, voracious maneater that is Jolie’s own stock persona, she finds herself exiled to a life of repression, depression, and humiliation in this pre-feminist period, her wits and abilities degraded and ignored by a man who can’t afford to open up to her. The supporting cast, from Gambon to Blanchard to Crudup offer superlative work.

De Niro’s direction is perhaps the most ordinary element of the film. It does possess the same intense concentration that marks his best performances, if none of his concussive flair. He doesn’t have the skill for revealing detail and procedure that, say, David Fincher brought to Zodiac. He settles for fiercely controlling pace and mood, and whilst his film occasionally bogs in dour confusion, it never becomes facile. If there are facile points, it’s in some silly symbolism in Roth’s otherwise excellent script, like deaf Laura being the true love of a man who listens in for a living. Some subplots, like those of Cummings, a Kim Philby stand-in, and Allen, are opaque and brief.

Nonetheless, The Good Shepherd is a hypnotic and haunting film with something to say. It wraps up in the early ’60s, Edward wandering the halls of the new Langley headquarters, a lonely man in a sterile environment, revealing this as a fin de siecle for an era and a sensibility, the ossification of American power and a certain kind of family and social life. The lack of a heroic flash-forward to the end of the Cold War emphasises that this work is never finished, that the glorious gettin’ up morning never comes. l

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27th 02 - 2008 | 6 comments »

Black Test Car (Kuro no tesuto kaa, 1962)

Director: Yasuzo Masumura

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

One stop I make almost daily on my Internet travels is Cinebeats. Kimberly Lindbergs makes all things 60s and 70s fascinating and always offers gems to people like myself who want to learn more about this seminal time in cultural history. In her recent rundown of her top 30 DVDS of 2007 was a Japanese film from the early 60s I just had to see. Black Test Car promised a suspenseful ride through the revving-up capitalist economy in Japan by focusing on the industrial spying of rival car manufacturers Tiger Motors and Yomato.

The film opens on a road where two vehicles are assembled. One of them is completely draped in a black cover, the other contains employees of Tiger Motors. Using walkie talkies, the occupants of the two cars confer and once it has been determined there are no cars in front of or behind them, the black-draped car takes off. It accelerates, weaves, and finally goes off the road and crashes. The twisted metal and blazing chassis are photographed by spies who had hidden themselves on a bluff above the road. The embarrassing pictures surface, and it’s back to the drawing board for Tiger Motors.

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Department head Onoda (Hideo Takamatsu) reveals his plans for the love of his life—the Pioneer, a four-door sports car that he hopes will help Tiger overtake their larger and more successful rival. I originally thought Onoda was in the design department, but as the film progressed, I thought perhaps he headed the industrial espionage department. He got regular visits from a portly, laughing slime of a man who provided him with intelligence on Yomato, and asked his entire team to get one step ahead of their rival by spying.

Young Asahina (Jiro Tamiya) is Onoda’s ambitious protégé. Onoda promises to make him department head if the Pioneer succeeds. Asahina wants the promotion so that he can afford to marry Masako (Junko Kano), a hostess at a cocktail lounge. Masako warns him about his ambition, wondering if the conservative Tiger corporation would approve of him marrying someone like her. He sloughs off the question, but makes her promise to start work at Pandora, a nightclub frequented by Yomato’s president Mawatari (Ichiro Sugai), a former colonel and a secret agent in the former Imperial Army in Guangdong who surrounds himself with men from his former command. She is to listen for information he can use. Reluctantly, she agrees and begins from her first night on the job to cozy up to Mawatari.

Still, Yomato stays one step ahead of Tiger, producing a plan for a sports car exactly like the Pioneer. Onoda knows a spy is at work among the Tiger executives and works to sniff him out. There are a great many double-dealings, with Yomato bugging a Tiger executive’s room, and Onoda and his men filming a board meeting at which Yomato is expected to set the price of their rival sports car and then having a lip reader interpret the film. Unfortunately for Onoda, Mawatari does not reveal the price. The crisis in the film occurs when Asahina asks Masako to sleep with Mawatari so that she can get the price from an envelope in his briefcase. Masako does his bidding in a rude and rough scene, then returns to him with her payment for prostituting herself—a precious ring. She writes the car’s price on Asahina’s pillow with a lipstick, kisses the ring repeatedly (“It’s warmer than you are”), and storms out. Tiger is able to undercut Yomato’s price and immediately jumpstart their sales. But Yomato isn’t done yet, and the web of betrayals starts to unravel and leads to scandal and death.

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Black Test Car most resembles a film noir in look, tone, and storyline. People with whom we initially sympathize become cutthroat, amoral competitors jockeying for position in the new capitalist order. Onoda is married to his job, and his wife passively remarks to Asahina not to emulate him too closely. But ambition and money cause Asahina to lose himself. As riveting as the corporate espionage becomes—a first-rate spy thriller even though its gadgetry is as simple as it gets—the moral tragedy between Asahina and Masako really forms the heart of the film.

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It is tempting to think of Masako as traditional Japan and Asahina as new, industrial Japan, but it’s not that simple. Masako is no fool and has no qualms about sleeping with Asahina even though they are not engaged. She’s a modern girl, but she doesn’t fall into the alienation seen in other films of this era, particularly those of Michelangelo Antonioni, a classmate of Masumura’s at Italy’s famed Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia and a great admirer. (Indeed, this film has a lot in common with Antonioni’s views and shooting style.) Alas, Asahina is all too like Antonioni’s cruelly romantic men. The other characters form a tight ensemble, but Onoda’s turn to the dark side, though getting progressively worse through the film, seems excessive by the end.

Black Test Car seems at first to be a candidate for a What’s Up Tiger Lily? treatment, which may be why it is being marketed as a dark comedy. It’s not, however. This film is an intricately plotted, caustic tale of the price of human frailty in a competitive, money-obsessed world. Thanks, Kimberly, for the turn-on! l

Clips of the film can be viewed at Wildgrounds: Cinema de Sentiers.


21st 09 - 2007 | no comment »

The Passenger (Professione: Reporter, 1975)

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s not often that I think the English translation of a title is better than the original, but in the case of Antonioni’s haunting search for identity and meaning, The Passenger is clearly the better title. If this film were really only about the objectivity of a reporter, it would not have grown larger in my memory instead of receding like most films tend to do. In fact, this film largely eschews objectivity and reporting, allowing the audience unusual freedom to create an experience from the raw materials and choices made by Antonioni, his actors, and the rest of the crew.

passenger%20opening.bmpWho is the passenger? He is David Locke (Jack Nicholson), a British reporter raised in America who is working in an unnamed African nation. We learn from flashbacks and viewing interview footage later in the film that he has already spoken with the dictator of the country. But when we first meet Locke at the beginning of the film, he is moving from one contact to another, exchanging cigarettes for information on where he can find the leaders of a rebellion against the current government. This daisy chain of contacts is the first ride on which Locke will be taken, one that results in another—the proverbial “being taken for a ride.” After a long trek through desert sands, his guide hides him from the group of soldiers, riding by on camels, he specifically came to see. Angered, Locke walks back to his Land Rover and promptly drives it into a sand drift. His frustration bubbles over, and Locke bashes the sides of his vehicle with a shovel he started to use to dig himself out. In the next scene, it is apparent that Locke has walked back to the village and motel at which he is staying.

Asking for water and informing a hotel employee that there is no soap for his shower, Locke wanders to the room of another guest, Robertson (Charles Mulvehille). He finds Robertson sprawled on his bed, which makes Locke chuckle at his langorousness. Then he notices that Robertson is not moving. He’s dead. Locke flashes back to the conversation they had during a bored evening at the motel. Locke reveals his profession and why he is in the country. Robertson says only that he is a businessman, one without family or friends. “What business could you possibly do out here?” asks an incredulous Locke. “I provide people with things they need. They understand this perfectly.” Robertson comments on how beautiful the landscape at dusk looks. Locke dismisses the observation: “I prefer men to landscapes.”

passenger3.jpgWe soon find out that the memories of Robertson are induced by a tape recording of the conversation Locke made surreptitiously. This action is the first hint of an enigma at the center of Locke’s being, since he obviously had no reason to assume that anything Robertson said would be salient to his reporting. Locke’s professional training in reflexive suspiciousness and mediated encounters seem to filter into even personal encounters. In another flashback scene later in the film, we will hear Locke’s now ex-wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre) accuse him of talking but not really engaging. This assessment probably was true up until the moment Locke hatches a plot. He decides to steal Robertson’s identity and pass the dead man off as himself. Although Nicholson and Mulvehille bear some resemblance to each other, I grinned thinking that the old saying “they all look alike” certainly would apply for the Africans in this film charged with contacting the authorities about the dead man.

The recording gives Locke valuable information about Robertson’s life and outlook. His passport, clothes, plane ticket to Munich, and appointment book give Locke a new direction. At first, the aimlessness and freedom this action brings seems exhilarating. As Robertson, Locke rents a car from Avis and can’t tell the agent where he plans to go or for how long. He chooses Yugoslavia purely at random. He looks in Robertson’s appointment book and sees a locker number and a location. He goes there and opens the locker, from which he retrieves an soft attaché case that contains some papers that have images of guns on them. He drives away and stops impulsively at a small church where a wedding is underway. There he remembers some details of his own fraught marriage. He hides while the wedding party exits the church in a flurry of flower petals. The petals grind under his feet rather poignantly as he moves toward the altar.

Two men, one black African and one German, have followed him to the church. We saw them before at the terminal where Locke retrieved the papers. They ask him if something went wrong, why he hadn’t approached them. Improvising, he says there was a problem. He understands they want to see the papers. The African remarks with approval that he has nearly everything they asked for, save for anti-aircraft weapons. Locke, now unequivocally aware that Robertson was a gun runner, apologizes and hopes the lack of the anti-aircraft fire power is not too much of an inconvenience. The pair gives Locke a large sum of money as down-payment for the weapons. “I’ve heard about you, Mr. Robertson,” says the African. “You’re not like the others. You believe in our cause.” Locke looks more than nonplussed by this statement of feeling. He agrees to meet them again in Barcelona to finalize the transaction.

Robertson had mentioned that he wanted to go back to England, that he hadn’t been there in three years. A mix perhaps of Robertson’s and Locke’s wishes push Locke to head to London and let himself into the house he used to share with Rachel. He goes to their bedroom, reads a note on the door jamb, and moves through the room. A POV shot of him coming toward the bedroom door and exiting allows Antonioni to fix his camera on the contents of the note, a message of love from a new man in Rachel’s life.

passenger-074.jpgAntonioni chooses to reveal more about Locke through Rachel. Learning of David’s death, she goes to the television studio where he used to work and views videotaped interviews he conducted, some, like the interview with the African dictator, for which she traveled with him. Her memories of this particular interview are not pleasant—she castigates him for asking questions of people he knows will lie to him. “It’s part of the game,” he answers in a weary acceptance of his role in the propaganda machine. Rachel, caring more for David now that he is dead, wants to find the man who discovered the body—Robertson. David’s producer Martin (Ian Hendry) agrees to help her find him.
This fascinating set-up creates a psychologically interesting dilemma—Locke as Robertson is running away from himself into a fantasy identity. One part of the conversation between Robertson and Locke comes significantly to mind. Locke says, “We translate every situation, every experience into the same old codes. We just condition ourselves,” to which Robertson retorts predictably, but truthfully, “We are creatures of habit.” In fact, however, Locke is truly starting to transform into Robertson.

By this time, David has gone to Barcelona, following Robertson’s appointments for lack of something else to do. Inside one of Antonio Gaudi’s magnificent buildings, he encounters The Girl (Maria Schneider), an architecture student from France. She will remain with him for the rest of the film, urging him to meet Robertson’s appointments because Robertson believed in something. Her dogged loyalty leads Locke to say more than once, “Why the fuck are you with me?” She never gives him an answer. She doesn’t have a name. He saw her in Munich before he actually met her in Barcelona. She appears to be symbolic or an agent of his destiny, his better self.

passenger.jpgWhen David learns that Rachel and Martin are on his trail, not knowing initially that they are really looking for Robertson (who, paradoxically, David is becoming), he goes on the run with The Girl. In a scene that somewhat parallels his sand-bound truck scene, the oil pan of their car springs a leak far from a repair shop. David gives The Girl some money to catch a bus and ferry out of Spain. He says he will meet her after he finishes Robertson’s final appointment. Naturally, The Girl shows up at the hotel where Robertson/Locke finally become one. Only The Girl, not Rachel, will recognize David at the end of the film.
Antonioni’s film has a timeless quality, with dusty, open streets, desert landscapes, the landscape-inspired buildings of Gaudi, and ancient villages providing an archetypal setting for Locke’s encounter with his Other. The passive destruction of the objective reporter who plays the game has its counterpoint in the active destruction of the gun runner who believes in a cause. Without this belief, of course, there would have been no need for Locke to trade in his identity; there would have been no escape from his ennui, only a new way to express it.

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Antonioni’s long takes similarly slow down the observer. Locke is taken into the desert by a young African, who sees a camel far in the distance and bolts from Locke’s side. Like Locke, the audience is forced to watch the slow, steady approach of the camel and its passenger, wondering if this is what he has been waiting for, wondering if the encounter will be peaceful or violent. In fact, we only wonder these things because of the actions of the young African, who seems to invest the scene with a meaning we never discover.

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The remarkable long take through the barred window of the room in which Robertson/Locke rests near the end of the film is the textbook example of the possibilities of the long take. Capturing the ordinary rhythms and scenes of life in the village brings the audience inside the frame to perform an action Robertson/Locke repeatedly asks of The Girl: “What do you see?” But Antonioni does more. Rather than put the audience in the reporter’s seat, he uses The Girl to inject meaning into the scene. Asked to leave by Robertson/Locke, The Girl wanders around the square. A couple of vehicles move in and out of the frame; then a vehicle carrying some men who have been looking for Robertson moves into view. What happens throughout this scene is completely conveyed, but only through knowing the meaning of what we are seeing. Ultimately, this is the lesson for which Locke—and we—have taken this ride. l


5th 09 - 2007 | 1 comment »

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

Spy%20new.jpgDirector: Martin Ritt

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?”
— Alec Leamas, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

It’s doubtful most of 1965’s moviegoing public thought anything like the above quote. We were awash in the fantasy spy adventures of James Bond and the hilarious hijinks of Our Man Flint. On television, comedy writers gave us Get Smart, fantasy writers gave us The Prisoner, and an industrial mindset that recognized the world’s eternal love of gadgets gave us Mission: Impossible.

Like a spy “out in the cold,” novelist John Le Carré, a former civil servant in the British Foreign Service, was himself working on the fringes of the West’s thrilled fascination with Cold War intelligence operations, creating a vision of bleak, bureaucratic squalor in place of diamonds and dames. Le Carré’s large body of work often includes operative George Smiley as his central protagonist. By contrast, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Le Carré’s fourth Smiley book and the one that put him on the literary map, has Alec Que Leamas as its central character, a spy bone-weary of the game who must complete one more mission before he can come out of the deep-freeze of the Cold War.

Martin Ritt has made a number of stylish films of mixed quality that are more hot than cool (Paris Blues, The Long, Hot Summer). I’m not sure how he got the nod to do Spy, but this film is definitely his best showing. Helped greatly by the moody black-and-white cinematography of Oswald Morris, Ritt captures the isolation of the men in the shadows who are the perfect embodiment of the desperate, life-and-death play acting of T. S. Eliot’s Hollow Men.

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The film opens with a high-angle look down on Checkpoint Charlie, the flashpoint of the physical absurdity that is the Berlin Wall. Leamas (Richard Burton) is standing in the Western sector telling a guard that he has a man coming through and that it would mean a lot to him if they left the man alone. The guard shrugs. “They shoot, and we are told to shoot back.” Leamas spots his man, Karl Riemeck, walking his bicycle to the gate. The gate lifts, then another, and it looks as if he’s home free. Then the siren sounds. The man mounts his bike in a desperate attempt to outrun the bullets that come flying at him. Leamas watches with a kind of stony horror as his agent falls, a tangle of legs and machine on a wet, cobblestone street.

spy_cold.JPGBack in London, Leamas meets with Control (Cyril Cusack), who recognizes that his agent needs a break. He suggests a desk job, but Leamas insists he’s an operative. In a soothing tone, Control suggests that Leamas would like to come in from the cold, but he is needed to do one more job—get the German agent Mundt (Peter van Eyck) who killed Riemeck, a double agent Leamas had spent a great deal of time turning. The need for revenge and his desire to keep at the job lead Leamas to agree. He is to offer himself as a double agent to get inside German Communist headquarters and implicate Mundt as a double agent, leading to Mundt’s execution.

To set up his cover, Leamas goes to an unemployment office and is referred to a library for a job as a cross-indexer (an ironic turn for someone about to offer himself up as a double-crosser). He meets Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), an idealistic British Communist who works at the library. Leamas does a very convincing job of acting the disillusioned agent who has been “made redundant.” He drinks constantly, lives on the cheap, and in a drunken fit, beats a grocer who refused him credit and lands in jail. Naturally, Nan makes a play for him. So do the Communists.

Leamas is contacted by Peters (Sam Wanamaker) and Carlton (Richard Hardy), who blow him to a nice dinner and all the whiskey he can drink at a strip joint. Leamas agrees to tell all he knows for a large sum of money and a nice place to live in the East. He meets once more with Control at the home of George Smiley (Rupert Davies), then goes to say good-bye to Nan. He is transported to Amsterdam for what he thinks will be two weeks of questioning. When he sees his picture in the paper as a missing agent, we get an enormous reaction shot of Burton looking completely betrayed. His interrogator, Patmore (Bernard Lee), is unimpressed with the information Leamas has provided. He is sent to Germany, where he will most likely be killed. This is what Leamas has been waiting for.

Spy%20Fiedler.jpgOnce there, a cat-and-mouse game ensues, with Leamas pitted against Fiedler (Oskar Werner), Mundt’s assistant, who is trying to get more information. In fact, Fiedler wrests enough data from Leamas to hang Mundt—just what Leamas wants. Then, things really start to get nasty as the true ruthlessness of the spy game snares innocent and guilty alike in traps they failed to anticipate.

The plot of Spy is tight and diabolical, though the film’s denouement is inevitable from the start. Leamas is more than tired—he’s completely adrift. Although he takes the assignment, one senses that he already is out of the game. Burton plays Alec’s disaffection so convincingly that the beginning of the film is extremely confusing. Is he on the mission, or has he really gone off the deep end? This instability makes the film a little difficult to settle into. Burton gives us a little more, however, to help us understand that Leamas is an actor almost as good as the one playing him. When Alec sees the newspaper story about himself, for example, we get a chance to witness the spy create his character before his interrogator returns to the room.

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Claire Bloom is wonderful as Nan. The script doesn’t really build the reasons for Nan’s affection for Alec, but if the romance comes up a little abruptly, it certainly seems genuine. The change of the character’s name in the book from Liz Gold to Nan Perry may have been an attempt to distance the character from a perception that she is Jewish and soften what would have been a more strident variety of Jewish Communism to one that emphasizes world peace. This choice works in making the romance between Nan and Alec seem more genuine, and has the additional benefit of isolating Fiedler as the lone, identified Jew in the film. His opposition to Muntz, a former member of the Hitler Youth, sets up an ideological struggle—perhaps the only genuine one in the film—that makes the pragmatic choices of both sides look very bad indeed.

There are some interesting cinematic choices as well. The whoring aspects of spying come strikingly into focus as Leamas and Carlton sit across from each other in the strip club with the stage in the background and the stripper near the end of her act framed squarely between them. It’s a startling shot, even today. Throughout the film, Burton is lit to highlight a mole that sits under his right eye. It’s distracting, mars his good looks, and provides a metaphor for what his character is in an extremely subtle, archetypal way. The final shot will take your breath away with its clinical simplicity.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was very much a film of its time. Nonetheless, it’s a cautionary tale whose message is scarily appropriate for our stricken political times. l

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24th 12 - 2006 | 4 comments »

The Conformist (Il Conformista, 1970)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The Conformist is a film that has attained legendary status. A beautiful and surprisingly assured work by preeminent director Bernardo Bertolucci and equally respected cinematographer Vittorio Storaro when they were just in their 20s, The Conformist dropped quickly from sight after its rave reception at several film festivals. It only got a very, very limited run in the United States after the likes of Francis Ford Coppola urged Paramount to release it. The film also was scarce in its native country because of its depiction of the popularity of fascism in 1930s Italy.

At long last, Paramount has released a DVD of The Conformist, including a three-part special on the making of the film that includes interviews with Bertolucci and Storaro. This DVD, the most anticipated foreign-film release of the year, does justice to the film (which I saw on the big screen early in 2006) and sheds light on its sometimes frustratingly oblique approach.

The title character is Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant). We first meet him in a hotel room fitted out with ornate, antique furniture, surrounding his nervous movements and ’30s private-eye appearance with traditional elegance. Already there seems to be some sort of disconnect between Marcello and his surroundings. Marcello soon is shown riding in a car with Manganiello (Gastone Moschin), an affably viperish operative for the Italian fascists. From here on, most of the film is shown in flashback as we watch Marcello move from privileged childhood to fledgling spy for the Italian government.

Marcello is friends with a blind fascist named Italo (José Quaglio). This not-very-subtle symbol for Italy under Mussolini broadcasts fascist propaganda on the radio and introduces an eager Marcello to the Colonel (Fosco Giachetti), who can help Marcello realize his ambitions. Marcello enters a monumental building, his tiny figure like an ant moving across a vast marble expanse. He enters the wrong room for a brief moment and catches a glimpse of a ranking fascist seducing a woman in mourning attire who is laying across his desk. Marcello’s and the woman’s eyes meet for an instant. Excusing himself quietly, Marcello goes on to the Colonel’s office.

Marcello offers to try to infiltrate the antifascist movement through his former philosophy professor, a middle-aged man named Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) who is a self-exile in Paris. The Colonel knows Marcello is not a true believer, nor is he being bribed to work for the fascists. The Colonel cannot guess Marcello’s motive for signing on to the cause, but he willingly accepts. When the Colonel learns Marcello is soon to be married, he considers a honeymoon in Paris as the ideal cover.

A happy Marcello goes to dine with his fiancee Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) and her mother (Yvonne Sanson). Giulia is a simple-minded bourgeois whom Marcello chose because of her sheer ordinariness, her good looks, and her sexually eager nature. He teases her about their honeymoon destination, and she teases him with an invitation to love right on the carpet of the sitting room. (This invitation must have been the inspiration for a similar offer from Angelica Huston to Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor.) Giulia’s black-and-white striped dress and the shadows created by the light coming through the blinds suggest a noirish atmosphere, but moreso a rigid geometry surrounding Marcello. His desire, like all fascists, is for strict order.

The Clericis’ train makes a stop before they proceed to Paris. Marcello moves quickly along a dock, moving behind a painting at an outdoor market of a boat on a dockside, and emerging from behind the painting into the exact scene it depicted. Marcello meets Manganiello in a boathouse where the older fascist is being entertained by a red-haired whore. Manganiello sends her over to greet his friend. He takes one look at her and hugs her close. Marcello is given a handgun, and in a move that frightens Manganiello, points it straight at the him. Marcello then assumes a couple more attitudes with the gun, practicing not only how to hold and aim it, but also to look like a man who holds, aims, and fires guns. Instead of infiltrating the Quadri antifascist cell, he is ordered to kill the man.

Once the newlyweds are ensconced in their hotel room (the room we saw in the opening scene), Marcello phones Quadri to suggest a meeting for old times’ sake. Quadri invites the Clericis over for tea. They are greeted at the door by a large dog and Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda). Marcello seems thunderstruck by her, and we get the distinct impression that they know each other. In fact, Sanda played the woman in black and the whore. She is clearly the woman of Marcello’s dreams, and he spends the rest of his trip to Paris pursuing her.

For her part, Anna distrusts Marcello and has her eye on Giulia. The two women go out shopping for gowns they can wear dancing, and while they prepare for the evening out, Anna has sexual contact with an initially angry and then willing Giulia. Immediately after this encounter, Anna goes to Marcello and falls into his arms. Her interest in Marcello, however, is to plead with him to spare her life and that of her husband.


Manganiello has tried to contact Marcello, but having lost his taste for his task because it puts Anna in danger, Marcello dodges him. Finally, there can be no more delay. We return to the present, as the two men follow the Quadris up a snow-covered mountain road as they make their way to their vacation home outside of Paris. The Quadris’ way is blocked by a car that has skidded in front of them, the driver apparently stricken. Manganiello blocks their way from behind. Against Anna’s cautions, her husband leaves the car to check on the other driver. At that moment, a number of trench-coated fascists – Marcello’s and Manganiello’s coconspirators – emerge from the surrounding woods and set upon Quadri with knifes in a scene reminiscent of the assassination of Julius Caesar. Anna flees her car and spies Marcello in the backseat of the rear car. She bangs on his window, wailing like an animal for his help. He might have helped her or mercifully shot her to end her misery, but he sits by and does nothing. She runs off and is stalked and shot dead in a scene of utter brutality.

The film fast-forwards to the end of the war. Marcello plays with his young daughter as the household listens to the radio in their house in Rome as news of Mussolini’s arrest and demonstrations throughout the city rings out. Giulia reminisces regretfully about the Quadris, but forgives Marcello for his fascist loyalty. “It was good for your career,” she says in unreflexive, bourgeois justification. Italo calls Marcello for help, and Marcello grabs his coat, though it is dangerous for known fascists to be in the streets. Giulia tries to stop him, but he says he must go, that he wants to see what it looks like when a dictatorship falls. On the street, he has an encounter that upsets everything he ever believed about himself and turns him into a raging lunatic. His fascist control is gone from inside him as well as from the city that swallows him up in the night.

So what is it that drives Marcello? What is it that he believes about himself that leads him to pursue social conformity in spite of the irrational urges that spill forth when he is confronted with Anna and her lookalikes? We are led to believe that a homosexual encounter Marcello had when he was 14 that resulted in him shooting his seducer has made him feel different. Bertolucci and Storaro state in the DVD interviews that it is the shooting that set him apart as a killer in his own mind, but I think there is much more going on than that. The man who seduced him was his chauffeur, and this man rescued the young Marcello from the tauntings of his schoolmates, who had attempted to remove his pants. So, we see right away that he doesn’t fit in, perhaps because of his family’s wealth, perhaps because he has betrayed some hint of homosexual longing.

Before Marcello marries Giulia, he goes with his morphine-addicted mother (Milly) to see his father (Giuseppe Addobbati), who has been institutionalized in an insane asylum (in fact, a massive building constructed at Mussolini’s orders). It would certainly not surprise me if Marcello was a little touched himself, or at the very least, fearful of being overtaken by the madness that felled his father and drove his mother’s addiction. Those who seek to fence out the irrational will naturally gravitate to the safe, narrow tracks of society’s rules, and certainly to fascism. (It’s easy to see how the neoconservatism of modern times that bears a strong resemblance to fascism might have arisen from the sexually and politically open 1960s and ’70s.)

Marcello’s attitude toward women is at least as repressed as his other urges. When the Quadris and Clericis go out for Chinese food and dancing, Anna asks Giulia to dance. The two do a seductive tango that disturbs the conventional couples on the dance floor and scandalizes Marcello. Quadri is content with their behavior: “They both look so pretty.” He has accepted the bisexual Anna as she is, whereas Marcello holds his wife in contempt and thinks nothing of abandoning her on their honeymoon for Anna. While he may feel an irresistible regard for Anna, it is, perhaps, more threatening to think that his conventional wife is more sexually liberated that he could have imagined. As the ultimate irrational in a man’s psyche, women must be as predictable as possible for the man Marcello desperately wants to become.

The central metaphor of this film is Plato’s cave. When Marcello and his old professor meet, Marcello reminds Quadri of the lesson about the prisoners chained to face the back of a cave, seeing only the shadows of the objects moving behind them. As in Plato’s cave, Marcello himself seems to be a shadow. This is emphasized when Marcello’s shadow on the wall of Quadri’s study vanishes when the professor opens the window blinds.

Like all of Bertolucci’s films, The Conformist is deeply sensual. Storaro provides sumptuous visual effects that make the film appear to be a dream inside a dream. Bertolucci says in the DVD interview that he always thought it was a shame that films had to be edited from the daily rushes. For him, the rushes represent the unfiltered creativity of the entire enterprise. Nonetheless, Storaro and film editor Franco Arcalli manage to keep an impressionistic, almost surrealist feel even as they create a mood and narrative drive that build from illusion to horror. Lead actor Jean-Louis Trintignant is just a little too cryptic for my tastes. He doesn’t suggest depths under still waters, and I think that would have helped this film in its first half. Marcello is a part made for Matt Damon. As heretical is this may seem, Alberto Moravia’s novel on which this film is based may be due for a reinterpretation. Of course, no one should, or will, ever remake The Conformist. l


22nd 02 - 2006 | 4 comments »

The Ipcress File (1965)

Director: Sidney J. Furie

Ipcress.jpg

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The Cold War that pitted Western Europe and the United States against the Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe proved fertile to the imaginations of writers, filmmakers, and fans of both. As a child in 1960s America, I remember enjoying the black-and-white, cone-nosed spooks in Mad Magazine‘s “Spy vs. Spy” cartoon, Don Adams as bumbling spy Maxwell Smart in the TV series “Get Smart,” British TV imports like “The Prisoner” and “Secret Agent” (“they’re giving you a number and taking ‘way your name”), and of course, the ultracool 007 in the exciting James Bond movie franchise based on Ian Fleming’s popular book series. Taken together, I suppose my impressions of spies were that they either were silly and confused or cool supermen whom fate could toss but never tumble. Neither vision was based in reality, but I wasn’t sufficiently interested at the time to learn more.

It is only at this late date that I realize there were alternative views of spies, ones closer to the truth, available in the 60s. One prime example that showed audiences where spies came from and a bit more of what they actually did was The Ipcress File. Based on a novel by Len Deighton, The Ipcress File shows British spies largely without the upper-class pedigrees and casual success assumed by the James Bond flicks. Instead, these spooks are former military men—”passed over majors” as one of the characters says to another—probably with less-than-stellar academic careers at second-rate private schools.

The main character, a lowly operative named Harry Palmer (Michael Caine), is a working-class bloke who, when given the choice between jail and espionage, chose the latter. He is described as follows: “Insubordinate! Insolent! A trickster. Perhaps with criminal tendencies.”
Palmer hardly cuts a dashing figure, with his double-thick glasses and menial work in surveillance. When we first meet him, he’s oversleeping—alone—as a wind-up alarm clock rattles on for a godawful long time. Reporting late to his surveillance assignment, he is redirected to his boss, Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman), and reassigned to the counterespionage unit of Major Dalby (Nigel Green) to replace an agent who was killed during the kidnapping of a scientist he was guarding. Orders are to retrieve the scientist, one of more than 100 lost to government service through retirement, a better offer in the private sector, or a rather mysterious inability to work. We’re not talking a commando rescue into a heavily armed compound in the middle of the ocean here. The British government plans to buy him back from the kidnappers, plain and simple. Toward that end, the agents under Dalby are sent out to find the mastermind of the kidnapping, a fellow named Brantby (code name “Bluejay”), played with effete relish by Frank Gatliff. Palmer easily locates him with the help of a friend in Scotland Yard, but Brantby refuses to be pinned down.

A rescue attempt is made based on a hunch Palmer has about where the scientist is being held. No trace of the man is found, but a length of audiotape stamped with the word “Ipcress” is found in a still-warm stove. Conventional negotiations somehow are arranged by Dalby, the scientist is paid for and returned, but he is later found to have been rendered entirely useless to the government. A colleague of Palmer’s (Gordon Jackson) suspects stress-induced brainwashing and shares his evidence with Palmer, putting both their lives at risk.

The Ipcress File is a fairly predictable story of dirty tricks in the spy business, at least to those of us who have been watching these kinds of movies for years. What made it remarkable at the time and what still makes it remarkable is what a crucible of its time it was. We are watching Britain in transition, as the regal view the nation always had of itself started to give way to a more realistic approach to life on the island. As Rod Heath pointed out in his essay on this blog “Look Back: Influences and Major Figures of the British Free Cinema,” this was a film of the “generation that had been drafted into the Second World War, gained status and experience in their temporary socialisation of British society as well as a college education, but found themselves deeply frustrated, as the whole country did, in the post-War malaise.”

Palmer appears to be a gourmet cook and patron of the fine arts, presaging today’s yuppies with his bending (but not breaking) of the rules and his taste for the finer things without the entitlement of birth and breeding to them. Spying consists of filling out paperwork, playing politics with other policing agencies in and outside of one’s own government, and being told what a lousy job one is doing. Palmer’s not indignant that the scientist has been brainwashed—he doesn’t really care about the intellectual loss to his country—he’s upset that Brantby got good money for damaged goods. In the end, when Palmer complains to Ross that he might have been killed or driven mad by Ross’s manipulation of him to find a mole in the organization, he gets his comeuppance when Ross counters, “That’s what you’re paid to do.” So much for spying as a lifestyle. It’s just a job, and not a very good one at that. At least Palmer gets to be a successful womanizer.

The Ipcress File is filled with sharp dialogue, interesting performances and character actors, and an excess of trick camera angles so popular with the practia movement. The low, skewed camera angles that predominate make it seem as though the cinematographer was Toulouse-Lautrec. There is also a great fondness for frames of all sorts. Oftentimes, characters are trapped inside doorways and window frames. You can also find them behind cages and bars of various types. My favorite was a bird’s-eye shot through the top of a lampshade onto the face of a dead man on the floor. The look is amusing but amateurish. These camera angles do not seem justified by the material, particularly as presented. Where noir uses such devices to distort reality, a film that deals in kitchen-sink realism should strive for a more verite feel. Still, I can forgive the enthusiasm that went into these set-ups, and kind of wish I’d been in on the planning. I enjoyed The Ipcress File a lot. l

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