Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Films of the Cold War

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, as the only super powers to emerge from the ashes of the Second World War, lasted approximately 40 years. Tensions ebbed and flowed throughout the 1950s, until four events in quick succession in the early 1960s raised world anxieties to new levels: the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, construction of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Kennedy assassination. People had good reason to feel that mankind teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation.

The national angst, fueled by a high performance propaganda machine powered out of Washington, helped President Kennedy launch the Space Race in a May, 1961 speech. The endeavor, drama at its most spine tingling, was restorative to boot. It redirected the collective mind of a nervous American public from Armageddon to an ambitious quest, one of discovery that would require heroic courage, a goal that appealed to the young president. In the bargain, success meant staying one step ahead of our arch enemy, the Communists.

Hollywood also took notice, understanding that the Cold War offered commercial opportunities. In fact, it had been scratching the surface of the genre for over a decade in films like It Came From Outer Space and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, thinly veiled references to the threat of Soviet invasion or attack, or the more restrained and gloomy On the Beach. But in its constant search for bigger box office, America’s deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union prompted Hollywood to capitalize on the heightened fears of the American public.

It began producing topical films that seemed right out of the day’s newspaper headlines. Many contained a doomsday message—mankind simply couldn’t be trusted to control the terrible weapons it had created. In the process it moved the Cold War genre from allegory to realism. Here are some of the best from the period: The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Seven Days in May (1964), Fail-Safe (1964), The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965), and The Bedford Incident (1965). All are in stark black and white with fine production values to create the right mood for suspense.

The Manchurian Candidate - 1962

Captain Bennett Marco is a confused army intelligence officer. A recurring nightmare haunts his sleep since his return from Korea. Inexplicably, it is of a women’s garden party lecture on hydrangeas with Marco and the soldiers of his patrol sitting on folding chairs on a stage appearing bored. That is the viewer’s introduction to what is arguably the best political thriller of all time.

Chinese Communists have concocted a devilish scheme to brainwash the Americans, including Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw, who back in the states is an idolized hero and Medal of Honor winner. Shaw reportedly saved the captain and his men while taking out an enemy machine gun nest. Marco, without emotion, says of Shaw, “he is the kindest, bravest, warmest, and most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” But something is amiss. Marco knows the sergeant is insufferable, a man impossible to like. He can’t put his finger on it but Shaw is not what he seems.

Based on the Richard Condon best seller, Director John Frankenheimer made a film that ostensibly is about how an enemy turns a captured American soldier into its trained assassin to commit an unspeakable crime for political gain. He ejects the novel’s more lurid passages, strong hints of incest, and concentrates on the darker story: how politicians and the media in this country brainwash American citizens, and the disturbing ease with which people fall prey to the unchecked ambition of those schooled in manipulation. He unfolds the story with precision and purpose.

Frank Sinatra, as Marco, adequately captures his character’s confusion, albeit at times he could be more subtle—he wonders if he’s going crazy. Lawrence Harvey plays Shaw to perfection—his pent up disgust of just about everything, including himself, simmers just below the surface. Watch the face of both stars to remember that good acting doesn’t require dialog.

Angela Landsbury, in a well-deserved Oscar nominated performance as supporting actress, plays the diabolical Eleanor Iselin, Shaw’s dominating and image conscious mother. She’ll stop at nothing to get her husband into the White House—even murder. James Gregory gives the best performance of his career. McCarthy-like, he plays Landsbury’s red-baiting husband, Senator Iselin.

When first released—coincidentally during the climatic week of the Cuban Missile Crises—the film met with tepid reviews. New York Times reviewer, Bosley Crowther, ridiculed its premise. Still he wrote of its “racy and sharp” dialog and Frankenheimer’s direction, which Crowther found “exciting in the style of Orson Wells.” It now enjoys cult status.

Dr. Strangelove - 1964

Justly acclaimed as one of the greatest American films, let alone Hollywood’s best Cold War effort, Dr. Strangelove is arguably director Stanley Kubrick’s best. It remains an unparalleled black comedy, and while it excels in every aspect, it is the memorable characters and great performances that bring the story to life. Two actors not known for comedy are particularly funny: George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden.

Hayden is an insane general, Jack D. Ripper. Convinced that Communists are conspiring to pollute America’s “precious bodily fluids” by contaminating the water supply with fluoride, he dispatches his bomber wing to destroy Russia. Scott plays the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Buck” Turgidson. Called to the White House by the President, he barely conceals his delight—the planes cannot be recalled. Turgidson grins broadly, emits a motor sound, and spreads his arms to swoop like a kid to demonstrate for the President how the B-52 bombers will stay beneath the enemy radar. The character is modeled after Curtis LeMay, the real life early 1960s Chairman of the JCS and rabid anti-Communist.

Peter Sellers gives a tour de force in three separate roles: a British officer out of his league with the crazed Ripper; American President Merkin Muffley; and the bizarre Dr. Strangelove, a German scientist who has problems controlling his Nazi salute. Much of the film takes place in the White House war room, a set that critic Roger Ebert called “one of the most memorable of movie interiors.” Here the president and his odd team of advisers assemble with the Russian ambassador to discuss options. Strangelove discloses the existence of a secret "Doomsday Device," a weapon the Russians will unleash in retaliation. It will destroy all plant and animal life on Earth.

Slim Pickens, in another role originally written for Peter Sellers until he broke an ankle, plays gun-ho Major “King” Kong. He commands the lone plane that makes it to the target. An H-bomb becomes his personal bunking bronco in one of the most unforgettable exits in all film.

The film is full of great lines. Among the best: “Dimitri, we have a little problem ….”; “A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff."; and the most famous: "Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!"

The film captured four Oscar nominations: for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Sellers), and Best Screenplay, but came away empty-handed.

Seven Days in May - 1964

Director John Frankenheimer delves into the Cold War genre a second time and puts a twist on the already traditional plot line, with the Russians merely an off-screen presence.

Frederick March plays President Lyman, a liberal who fears that the nuclear age has killed man’s faith in his ability to influence what happens to him. About to introduce a disarmament treaty to the U.S. Senate, he is up against Burt Lancaster as General James Mattoon Scott. The right-wing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Scott plans a military takeover because he fears the president is compromising the safety of the country. Kurt Douglas plays Lancaster’s aide, Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey, who accidentally uncovers the plot by stumbling onto the cover story—a supposed betting pool for the upcoming Preakness. Each of the headliners infuses his character with authority and conviction to give a convincing and textured performance. Jiggs admires General Scott and is disheartened to take his suspicions to the president, while Scott acts out of genuine fear that the president’s policy threatens the county he loves.

The supporting cast is terrific. Martin Balsam plays Lyman’s friend and right-hand man in the White House; Edmund O’Brien is a Senator with a drinking problem; and Ava Gardner is a Washington socialite whose best days are behind her. O’Brien earned an Oscar nomination. He pays a surprise visit to a mysterious base in the middle of the Arizona desert where Lancaster is training a special assault force. It is a wonderful set piece. When the Senator is forcibly held incommunicado and tempted with booze, you can’t help but worry about his safety.

Rod Serling wrote the screenplay, adapted from Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey’s best-selling novel. Serling brings his Twilight Zone magic with crisp dialog that crackles as the protagonists go at one another. The final confrontation between March and Lancaster is a highlight, with an aggravated President Lyman dressing down the self-rightist officer: "Then, by God, run for office! You have such a fervent, passionate, evangelical faith in this country…why in the name of God don’t you have any faith in the system of government you’re so hell-bent to protect?"

And like his film The Manchurian Candidate two years earlier, Frankenheimer presents a cautionary tale here. It is not only the military that citizens need be wary of, but also two other American institutions that in the early 60s were still generally held in high regard, the press and Congress. Members of both have joined Scott’s cabal and put their personal agendas ahead of the Constitution. Neither can be trusted.

The book and film were inspired by the disarmament debate raging in Washington at the time. A temporary suspension of nuclear testing by both super powers in 1958 failed to produce a lasting treaty and by 1962, each nation had resumed the proliferation race.

Fail-Safe - 1964

It is the height of the Cold War. Strategic Air Command routinely flies missions to the fail safe position—the line beyond which pilots are to cease communications and ignore orders to return to base. A computer glitch sends a squadron of six B-58 bombers off to obliterate Moscow. They carry a payload of two-megaton hydrogen bombs. The U.S. President, played by an increasingly frustrated Henry Fonda, soon is on the hotline to the Russian Premier trying to explain the foul up.

Tensions mount and cold sweat starts to pour as efforts to recall the bombers fail. American fighters ordered to intercept the bombers exhaust their fuel and crash into the Arctic Sea, and Soviet MIGs dispatched to shoot down the highly skilled bombers only manage to stop five. Eventually, the president is left with a chilling option to avert a possible retaliatory strike and nuclear Armageddon. He issues an order too incredible to contemplate.

This is a grim and pessimistic tale. Up against the incomparable Dr. Strangelove, released nine months earlier, this film was all but ignored at the box office. It lacks any of the black humor embedded in Kubrick’s masterpiece; instead, relying on straight dramatic performances in an intentionally claustrophobic setting. With the feel of a documentary throughout, it is a riveting film.

Nowhere is the contrast between Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe more obvious than in the conversations between the American and Russian leaders. Kubrick and Peter Sellers played it for camp, while here, director Sidney Lumet and Fonda play it dead serious. Lumet is a master with the camera, making exquisite use of shadows and tight angles to keep the mood tense and the audience nervous.

The cast is top notch. Fonda is the headliner, a decent and morally grounded man facing a Hobson’s choice. Walter Matthau, known best for his later comedic roles, shines as a cynical professor and Pentagon advisor with some unusual theories about nuclear warfare. He is coldly practical and believes the Russians are “calculating machines,” who will “look at the balance sheet and see they cannot win.” He’s convinced they will surrender rather than retaliate. Dan O’Herlihy a brigadier general in the US Air Force and old classmate of the president is troubled by a nightmare about a matador. Ed Binns is Jack Grady, a by-the-book Air Force Colonel who leads the bomber squadron.

Given the jaw-dropping ending, it’s no wonder the Department of Defense refused to cooperate with filming.

The Bedford Incident - 1965

This film shows that the Cold War did not just play out in the seats of government in Washington, London, and Moscow; but also in isolated, inhospitable locations. Richard Widmark plays Eric Finlander, an over-zealous Navy captain of a guided missile destroyer, the USS Bedford. His harassment of a Soviet submarine that veers into Greenland territorial waters borders on the obsessive. A modern day version of Ahab, he shadows the sub in a dangerous game of cat and mouse in the frigid North Atlantic, hoping to force it to the surface—against orders from NATO.

Finlander’s motives are questionable. A dubious past caused him to have been recently passed over for the rank of Admiral, leading him to take out his frustrations on the enemy and his own crew. The hunt is everything and he drives his crew to exhaustion. Inevitably, the crew gets wound so tight they are prone to mistakes, which here can lead to disaster.

Director James Harris builds tension throughout and maintains suspense by never showing the inside of the enemy sub; events unfold only from the perspective of the American vessel. Still, it is clear that the Soviet crew suffers from increasingly foul air from the sub’s diesel engines as its oxygen is depleted. As the sub commander naturally grows more desperate and Widmark more determined, three men aboard the American vessel become increasingly nervous that its captain will push the game too far.

Sidney Poitier is one, along for the ride as a noisy photojournalist doing a story on the “provocative” captain. He tries to bait Finlander into saying something he shouldn’t in one of the film’s best scenes, as Finlander, showing little tolerance of reporters, struggles to maintain control. Widmark—always an underrated actor—is excellent, rubbing his face nervously and seething with bitterness.

Finlander also ignores reasoned advice from the ship’s doctor, Martin Balsam in another solid character role performance, and from a U.N. observer, a former U-Boat commander who knows something about the mentality and tendencies of submarine commanders under duress.

Filmed in England at Shepperton Studios, director Harris does a nice job with set design and sound. The sonar pings, howling wind and fog, giant icebergs, and most of all the claustrophobic bridge, all converge to heighten the realism. Harris previously worked as Kubrik’s partner on Dr. Strangelove.

Look for Donald Sutherland in an early role.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold - 1965

Directed by Martin Ritt from the John le Carré novel, which Graham Greene called the “best spy story he ever read,” this is Richard Burton’s film. He plays Alec Leamas, a tired, burnt out British agent stationed in Berlin. Looking at his face, its sunken and dark eyes, and his vacant expression, one can’t help but believe this guy has been through the ringer—been “out in the cold”—for too long.

When an assignment ends in him losing an agent, Leamas is called home. Disgraced, he is “retired” and sinks into depression and booze as he tries to assimilate himself back into normal society as a lowly clerk in a used bookstore. It is a ruse; the Home Office says there is a mole in its midst blowing the cover of its agents. Leamas pretends to defect, and that’s where Ritt and le Carré spin a web of intrigue that takes Burton and the viewer on an emotional ride.

Eventually, Leamas realizes his mission is to sow misinformation and that he is a pawn to save the life of a double agent. He is part of an ugly game, with no winner—one where you can’t trust anyone, least of all your own government. By the end, his disgust with the game, its deceit, and with himself, is palpable.

You could never mistake Leamas’ world for James Bond or Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. Ideologies are blurred, and there are no gimmicks or outlandish technology here, just gritty human interplay that slowly beats down the players. Revealing the real oppressive world of espionage, at one point Leamas vents: “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?”

Ritt expertly transforms le Carré’s grey, depressing world from the page to the screen. In a neat bit of symmetry the film begins and ends at the Berlin Wall. The best scene takes place near the end. In an emotional monologue, Leamas reveals the depth of his disillusionment. He releases all the hate, resentment, and cynicism at the system that cares nothing of its agents. It takes place in a cramped car in the rain, and you feel the claustrophobia present in the place, and in his mind. His mission complete, he is about to escape back to the West, but what has he to escape to? In the end he finds his way back to humanity.

Burton received a Best Actor nomination. He should have won but lost to Lee Marvin for Cat Ballou.

Other notable Cold War films of the period worth viewing include: On the Beach (1959), The Ipcress File (1965), and Ice Station Zebra (1968).


  1. Excellent look at some excellent movies that came out of a very interesting period.

    Some days I feel like M in "Casino Royale" when she said "Christ, I miss the Cold War." Not only for the riveting drama it brought to the screen, but chiefly for a little Cold War humour. Stuff like "One, Two, Three" and "The Mouse That Roared" crack me up - as well as my history buff daughter. You don't meet many 21 year olds who appreciate a good Khrushchev joke nowadays.

  2. Hi, CW. Thanks for commenting. The Cold War sure was great grist for movies. Fighting terrorists just isn't the same. "One, Two, Three" has really grown on me over the years. It's silly but Cagney is so darn good you can;t help but laugh.

  3. This is an excellent review of some amazing movies. Regarding "Dr. Strangelove" and "Fail Safe" - I always wondered which came first. No wonder "Fail Safe" had a bad time of it at the box office!

  4. Thanks, silverscreenings. I'd guess Fail Safe was just a little too serious. That's about the time I remember in school teachers having us practice the "head under the desk" drill. Anyway, I always get a kick out of seeing Larry Hagmen in Fail Safe. I expect him to break out into a Texas drawl.

  5. I love your blog. I tried to add myself as a follower but I don't think you can do that on blogger anymore. I did add you to my blog list on my blog.

    Great article!