Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31 Number 16 July 16, 1968
Doom just round the corner
Doom just round the corner
In the past few years we have had a large spate of spy movies, although it seems to have fallen off recently as the cold war atmosphere has given way to new political and social conflicts. The success of this short-lived wave and nurtured by the cold war and its strategic implications: there was always threat of war but none eventuated. Films as entertainment have always provided action and war, and the one-man spy war became the ideal substitute for the elusive "big" war.
The spy film quickly gravitated into polarised groups. The escapist with its paranoid implications and superman fulfilling all our own fantasies. This is most obviously seen in the James Bond films which have varied in quality, but keep strictly to the proven formula. The other pole, which concerns the more serious directors, attempts to come to terms both with the success of the spy-fantasy character and at the same time examine the spy game along the lines of the many real-life spy exposes. Depending on country or origin, these have naturally all identified with the West, although in some cases there has been some sympathy and understanding for individual Communists, but not in the system.
The first large commercial venture into the realistic spy word was Martin Ritt's film of the highly-successful John le Carre novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. As is sometimes the ease in Hollywood, a serious film can be distinguished by its lack of colour, although it must be said that Ritt's choice of monochrome was justified when we had hitherto been accustomed to our spies in Technicolor. After Ritt, the realistic spy film no longer needed justification, nor did it have to he black-and-white.
Le Carre's novel concerned a disenchanted British agent who is reluctant!) persuaded to go on another mission to East Germany. Also included among the characters was a young British communist woman, admittedly and idealist who becomes sorely disillusioned (not surprisingly) but at least it was the first attempt in films (except of course Morgan) to sympathetially examine the western communist mind. East Germany (because it presents the cold war conflict at its extreme) is an attractive setting for spy films. Hitchcock's Torn Curtain attempted to bring drama and excitement to a rather lame story about an American scientist who is to defect in order to obtain secret information. Hitchcock ruined his film by easting Paul Newman and Julie Andrews and by a vulgar "goodies" and "baddies" attitude.
The most recently seen film which examines once again East Germany is the French-German production. The Defector (l'Espion) (Warners Seven Arts) directed by the late Raoul Levy, best known for his productions of linearly Brigitte Bardot films. The Defector (1968) is the best spy film of the realistic camp. It concerns an American scientist who is blackmailed by CIA agent Roddy McDowell into doing a mission in East Germany while he is visiting the restoration work in various art galleries.
The two main protagonists are Montgomery Clift, the American scientist and Hardy Kruger as a young East German scientist who finds himself pressured by his Government into extracting information From the American. Of course East German security have a go also, and in one nightmare sequence Clift undergoes psychologial torture from some weird and exciting visual effect As the film seen here was 8 minutes or so shorter than the original, it is safe to assume that this sequence was heavily cut Other sequences are also cut.
In his last role Clift looks Sick, yet Suitable. This was his only film since his enforced retirement in 1962. He is barely audible at times confused and deranged, only able to survive his escape back to the West by a determination that can only be explained in has emotional awakening by delectable East German doctor's assistant, Macha Meril, star of Godard's banned (NZ) Une Femme Mariee. Godard himself appears briefly . . . the nearest well ever get?
Levy's direction is controlled, and despite complexities of event and motivation, the plot continues strongly through to the stalemate where the attempt to get Clift to defect is failed and the "defection" of Kruger to the West is cut short by his death (suicide?) before his interrogation by the CIA. His last words are the classic refrain: "Maybe it's better this way". The Defector does not aspire to say all that could, but probably never will, be said about the cold war and espionage, but its modulated tension and plausibility make it superior drama.
Raoul Coutard's colour photography, he also did de Broca's Male Companion, lives up to his reputation as Europe's best. The bleak, beautiful Munich snowscapes are a delight. He uses filters to enhance natural hues, restrained lighting to highlight suspense. His visual effects in "doom room' hotel episode are equally masterful little wonder that Godard has used him on most of his films.
The Defector seems destined to release on the bottom half of double bills to audiences unused to European film-making. The "art" connoisseurs will miss it, but those who do see it will be pleasantly surprised.