Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) -- Martin Ritt

British agent Alex Leamus (Richard Burton) is head of the Berlin station at the height of the Cold War. When he witnesses the death of a fellow agent at Checkpoint Charlie (the border between West and East Berlin), London wonders if it isn't time for Leamus "to come in from the cold," believing he may be burnt out, in need of a less stressful desk job. Leamus insists he is fine and accepts another field assignment: uncover the mole in their operation who has been passing secrets to the enemy. (A now well-worn plot device, this story may be the first to use it.)

Leamus pretends that he has been retired. Seemingly adrift, he appears to turn to drink and becomes increasingly belligerent and desperate in a effort to fool the opposition, which begins to wonder if he is ripe for defection, or at least, pliable for information. They make contact and soon Leamus finds himself trapped, a pawn in someone else's scheme.

Soldiers patrol Checkpoint Charlie in the background.

This is a magnificent film. It perfectly captures the ugly side of the spy business and shows how agents are chewed up and dehumanized by the underlying political forces at work. Agents are mere cogs in the scheme of events, disposable and replaceable.

Strip away all the espionage stuff, it's also about a man's realization that his life's work has little purpose. It's all a stupid game. He is achingly alone, wondering and fatalistic. Burton gives the best performance of his career, using his real-life alcoholism to great effect. If anyone looks a burnt out case, it's Burton. He is entirely credible and sympathetic as he channels the audience's confusion as to what is actually happening. Near the end of the film he gives a brief soliloquy that wraps up his disgust nicely:

Leamus meets a contact from the other side.

Alec Leamus: 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: little men, 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?

Martin Ritt directed; and except for Hud, two years earlier, he never approached this quality of work. One of his best decisions here is to film in black and white, mirroring the bleak lives of his characters. This is a far cry from the suave and sexy picture of James Bond. Ritt's opening scene is wonderful: a Dublin location served as Berlin. Wet streets reflect ominous searchlights and soldiers march on patrol, their breath visible in the cold. It is quite chilling and creepy.

Oskar Werner plays Fiedler, a dangerously ambitious Russian communist who wants to use Burton to discredit a superior, Mundt. Werner was in the middle of a three-film run for which he is best known to American audiences: Ship of Fools (1965), The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and Fahrenheit 451 (1966). His portrayal of a devoted but devious comrade gives the film an appropriate feel of quiet menace.

Werner as Fiedler.

Claire Bloom is a woman Leamus meets in a bookstore, and who accompanies him behind the Iron Curtain. To Leamus she is naive, but kind and attractive. If he doesn't love her by the end he sees in her a last chance for happiness.

As in the terrific book by John Le Carre, the film is bookended with scenes at the Berlin Wall. Leamus sits astride the top of the concrete barrier, escape to the West on one side, and freedom of another sort on the other. Le Carre would go on to become the most successful, and likely best, writer of British spy fiction. He knew the subject, having worked for British Intelligence during the 50s and 60s, and thus, has an unmatched ability to infuse his stories with authenticity.

Author Le Carre.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

High Noon (1952) -- Fred Zinnemann

Will Kane's wedding day is about to be interrupted. Outlaw Frank Miller is out of prison and looking for revenge against the marshal who put him away for five years. Miller's brother and two followers wait at the depot for the noon train; and despite desperate efforts, Kane can't convince anyone to help. Even his new wife appears ready to abandon him. Compelled by conscience, Kane rejects the advice of everyone to get out of town before it's too late. He'll stay and face Miller, even if it's alone.

There's good reason this seminal Western maintains its status as one of the best of its genre after sixty years. Director Zinnemann's superb direction, its tight story line, and wonderful acting by Gary Cooper as Kane demonstrate the best of film. It opens with a scene that immediately creates suspense, making the audience wonder what's in store: as a lone cowboy waits on a hill we watch another come over a rise. They are soon joined by a third. A rough looking lot we know they are up to no good. Lee Van Cleef and Robert Wilke play two of the outlaws. Both would soon become familiar heavies to movie audiences.

Miller's gang waits for the noon train.
Zinnemann does a terrific job cutting between characters throughout the film. Here his camera darts back and forth from the riders and the wedding party in town. Later, he uses it even more effectively, showing closeups of all major characters as the train whistle announces Miller is about to arrive. Zinnemann knew how to use a camera. To emphasize Kane's predicament he includes a famous high-crane shot of the marshal looking vulnerable and alone on the empty street.

Zinnemann makes a smart choice to not show the outlaws as particularly menacing, leaving the threat to our imagination. There is one subtle moment when one breaks a store window to steal a woman's hat, which he stuffs under his belt. You know he intends on harassing some girl after the gunfight. In any case, it's enough that it's four against one.

Wonderfully paced, the action is in near real time, with frequent shots of clocks to let you know how soon the train will arrive. And Kane's face progressively shows more strain and desperation. The film editing won a deserved Academy Award.

The town is populated with familiar faces and the script gives many their moment to shine. Thomas Mitchell, a dependable character actor, is the mayor. A long-time friend of Kane's, he gives a nice speech in the church, but wants the marshal to leave rather than fight, foolishly believing Miller is no danger without Kane's presence. This is perhaps the film's best scene; most clearly demonstrating how people talk big, but when it comes to required action, urge others to take the risk. Real courage is a scarce commodity. These are the most upstanding members of the community, seemingly most invested in keeping the town safe. But they shirk any responsibility. One man says that's what they pay the marshal for.

It happens throughout the film, but Cooper's understated and subtle style of acting is on great display here as his disappointment shows on his face and in his voice.

Lon Chaney Jr., the former marshal and Kane's mentor is beaten down, gripped with arthritis and full of cynicism. Kane tries to elicit his help, but is told that it's not worth it:

Martin:You risk your skin catching killers and the juries turn them loose so they can come back and shoot at you again. If you're honest you're poor your whole life and in the end you wind up dying all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothing. For a tin star.

Kane is the ultimate hero, a man alone who acts on principle. That he decides to stay and face Miller and his gang in the face of long odds is admirable, if not welcomed by the cowardly townspeople. The judge echoes the former marshal, telling Kane "This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important." 
Look for long-time Western TV character actor Jack Elam as the town drunk, sleeping it off in jail. He gets one line of dialog, which is more than bad guy Van Cleef gets. Harry Morgan plays a cowardly friend who commands his wife to lie when Kane comes looking for assistance. 

It's easy to see why Grace Kelly became a star. More than a pretty face, though she is certainly that, she does a fine job as the Quaker girl that Kane marries. Her character is conflicted, but spirited. Opposed to violence of any kind, she is finally the only one to come to her husband's aid.

Grace Kelly as Amy Kane. 
Properly seen as allegory for the Hollywood blacklist, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther understood the underlying significance: "High Noon is a stinging comprehension of courage and cowardice, done with directness and momentum in a familiar Western frame. It bears a close relation to things that are happening in the world today, where people are being terrorized by bullies and surrendering their freedoms out of senselessness and fear." Among those attacked by Washington D.C. right-wing fanatics led by Eugene McCarthy was the film's writer, Carl Foreman.

This film should have won Best Picture, but lost to The Greatest Show on Earth, in a vote that today is commonly thought one of the worst injustices in Oscar history. Cooper won his second Best Actor award (the first being for Sergeant York 11 years earlier). He was fifty but looked older. Some critics rejected the age difference between husband and wife (Kelly was just 23), but it does not seem that outlandish given the period.

Gary Cooper as Will Kane.
In his career Zinnemann would garner 7 nominations for Best Director, winning twice, including the next year for From Here to Eternity. As much as I love John Ford, the winner in 1952 for The Quiet Man, Zinnemann's High Noon seems more deserving from a technical standpoint.

Dimitri Tiomkin won an Oscar for the music. Along with lyricist Ned Washington they wrote the theme, Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'. Tex Ritter provides the vocal.