Suspense & espionage films


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


NIGHT PEOPLE. 20th Century Fox, 1954. Gregory Peck, Broderick Crawford, Anita Björk, Rita Gam, Walter Abel, Buddy Ebsen. Screenwriter-Director: Nunnally Johnson.

   The labyrinthine plot is a feature, not a bug. It’s the murkiness of the whole rotten deal that’s on display in Night People, a Twentieth-Century Fox production starring Gregory Peck and Broderick Crawford as two men attempting to navigate the return of a kidnapped American enlisted man in Cold War Berlin.

   Peck stars as Col. Van Dyke, a hard-nosed cynic who has learned that diplomacy means not only patience, but also making deals with the devil.

   Crawford is perfectly cast as Charles Leatherby, the kidnapped GI’s father. A car parts industrialist from Toledo, he believes that his fast-talking and his vast wealth will certainly expedite the release of his son. After all, money talks. His influence with elected officials back home is well known.

   But what starts off as a semi-straightforward case soon reveals itself to be a far more complicated and morally dubious scenario. It turns out that the communists want an elderly German couple, both known anti-Nazis in their day, as the price to pay.

   Initially, Leatherby is inclined to trade the couple if it means getting his boy back. He starts to get cold feet, however, when he ends up spending time in the hospital with the couple, both of whom chose to poison themselves rather than end up back in a Soviet prison. Things get even more shadowy when it comes out that the German woman isn’t German at all and that the GI’s captors may not be Soviets after all.

   [WARNING: Plot Alert]   There’s one aspect to the film that continues to frustrate me, and that has to do with a character that presents herself to Van Dyke as a go-between who works both the American and Soviet sides. “Hoffy” Hoffmeir (Anita Björk) is an ex-lover of Van Dyke’s who says she’ll be able to set up the nighttime exchange between the two enemy forces staring each other down across Checkpoint Charlie.

   It’s a spy film whose main theme is deception, so it comes as no surprise that she too isn’t exactly honest about her true identity. But the way the screenplay is written, it’s never clear whether she’s been an imposter all the time or whether she’s been part of an elaborate plot to gain the confidence of Van Dyke from the very beginning.

   But perhaps that was the whole point. Maybe you can’t even trust a beautiful woman whose life you’ve spent hours researching. Maybe nobody anybody in Cold War Berlin was fully honest about their true identities, let alone what they may or may not have done during the Nazi regime. If Van Dyke is the hardnosed cynic, Leatherby represents the optimistic, can-do American whose illusions are shattered in the chilly Berlin night.


REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


IRA LEVIN – The Boys from Brazil. Random House, hardcover, 1976. Dell, paperback, 1977. Reprinted several times since.

THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. 20th Century Fox, 1978. Gregory Peck (Dr. Josef Mengele), Laurence Olivier, James Mason, Lilli Palmer, Uta Hagen, Steven Guttenberg, Denholm Elliott, Rosemary Harris, John Dehner, John Rubinstein, Anne Meara, Jeremy Black. Based on the book by Ira Levin. Director: Franklin J. Schaffner.

   What makes Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil such a compelling read is that it seamlessly situates a compelling mystery within the context of an international thriller and blends it with elements of science fiction and horror. Although nominally a story about a Nazi hunter investigating a postwar plot initiated by Dr. Josef Mengele in which the sadistic doctor has targeted some ninety-four civil servants and middle class men for murder, Levin’s work also incorporates aspects found more commonly in the paperback medical thrillers that flooded the market in the 1970s.

   Given Mengele’s notoriety for experimenting on twins in Auschwitz, it’s no surprise that the key to the plot involves his desire to utilize his scientific training to promote his vision of a pure Aryan race. But how? That’s for Yakov Liebermann (played by Laurence Olivier in the film as Ezra Liebermann) to find out. A Simon Wiesenthal-like Nazi hunter and Holocaust survivor living in Vienna, Liebermann has built his reputation on his ability to find Nazis hiding in plain, or not so plain, sight and have them extradited for trial. Among them is Frieda Maloney, a former camp guard who later became an American citizen. As in any good thriller, Levin makes sure that seemingly unrelated stories intersect in a meaningful way. For Maloney’s work at an adoption agency in New York ends up being what allows Liebermann to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

   As the title of the work indicates, there are boys – children – and they are from Brazil. But they aren’t just any ordinary children. Here’s where the creepiness of medical horror and science fiction enter into the story. Without giving too much away, let me just say that what Liebermann discovers is both horrifying and somewhat ludicrous. But that doesn’t stop The Boys from Brazil from being a deeply original work, one that clearly was meant both to entertain and to raise provocative questions about the nature of evil and how it might manifest itself in one’s very genes.

   The film adaptation of Levin’s work, while nominated for several Academy Awards, benefits greatly from Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Mengele but alternatively suffers from Sir Laurence Olivier’s role as Liebermann. Apparently enough people found it Oscar worthy. I didn’t. From his faux German or Yiddish accent to his over-animated mannerisms, Olivier is clearly acting in a manner that prevented me from fully seeing his screen time as anything other than a performance. Peck became Mengele. Olivier was simply unable to disappear into the role. I thought the same thing when I watched him portray a cantor in The Jazz Singer (1980).

   There are some good moments, but overall the film, apart from a memorable score from Jerry Goldsmith, is rather lackluster. It certainly doesn’t hold up nearly as well as Marathon Man (1976), in which Olivier played a Nazi fugitive from South America who has traveled to Manhattan to claim his diamonds.

   But do look for a young Steve Guttenberg (billed as Steven Guttenberg) in a supporting role as an intrepid Jewish political activist who travels to Paraguay to track down and to photograph Nazi war criminals hiding there. I watched a copy on BluRay from Shout Factory. It looks great.


SPY TRAIN. Monogram, 1943. Richard Travis, Catherine Craig, Chick Chandler, Thelma White, Evelyn Brent. Director: Harold Young.

   An overall (and honest) assessment of this dopey low-budget anti-Nazi film from the 1940s is that it’s just another dopey low-budget anti-Nazi film from the 1940s. And yet, once past the opening premise — that thanks to a boneheaded error by one of the bad guys — there’s a bomb in a suitcase on a train and it’s set to go off at 10 PM or if anyone tries to open it — it’s actually a lot of fun to watch.

   The setting — mostly confined to two or three cars on a speeding train — and the name recognition of the various players — are modest. Richard Travis plays an author who’s trying to visit his rclsive newspaper publisher to find out why his articles on Nazis hard at work in this country have such an become suppressed. Luckily the man’s daughter (Catherine Craig) is on board the train, and he does his best to cozy up to her.

   And here are a couple of lines that I thought funny that I hadn’t heard before. She discovers who he is from seeing his photo on the back cover of his latest book:

   Jane: “Pretty good book — who wrote it for you?”

   Bruce: “I’m glad you liked it — who read it to you?”

   Bruce’s companion. a photographer played by Chick Chandler, also has some funny lines as he constantly complains about being stuck with Jane’s maid (Thelma White).

   In the end the Nazis get their just desserts. That plus a speeding train. What more could you want?

DAMASCUS COVER. World premiere: Boston Film Festival, September 2017. Theatrical release: Vertical Entertainment, US, 20 July 2018. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Olivia Thirlby, Jürgen Prochnow, Igal Naor, Navid Negahban, John Hurt (his last film). Based on the novel by Howard Kaplan (1977). Director: Daniel Zelik Berk.

   Based on the evidence provided by this Israeli-produced espionage thriller, if you’re an author, you should never give up on having your book adapted into a movie. Forty years is an awfully long time, though!

   The book was written in 1977, but the film is updated to 1989, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays a young Mossad agent who is assigned the task of going into Syria undercover to rescue a chemical scientist and his family. Posing as a German named Hans Hoffmann, he moves from one contact to another with some success, meeting a charming American photojournalist (played by Olivia Thirlby) along the way. The problem is, in all stories of this kind, he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

   His superior, a bewhiskered old gentleman known only as Miki (John Hurt), has other plans for the mission. There are plenty of twists to the tale, a definite throwback to the many spy films of the 1960s and 70s — the serious ones such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold— not that I’m claiming that this film is anywhere near that caliber, but I don’t want you to think that the people involving in making it had the James Bond motif in mind when they did, or any other imitations of the latter.

   With Casablanca standing in for Damascus in the filming, there is a small subplot involving Nazi war criminals living in Assad’s Syria that I believe is more developed in the novel than in it is in the film.

   The movie is far from perfect — it is a little confusing at times — but it is well-filmed, and even if the story line has been well-mined before now, if you enjoyed movies that have fallen in this category in the past, you can sit back and enjoy this venture into those days of old one more time.

SNOWBOUND. RKO Radio Pictures, UK, 1948. Universal Pictures, US, 1949. Robert Newton, Dennis Price, Stanley Holloway, Herbert Lom, Marcel Dalio, Mila Parely. Based on the novel The Lonely Skier, by Hammond Innes. (US title: Fire in the Snow. Harper, 1947.) Director: David Macdonald.

   There are some interesting aspects to this post-war spy-adventure film set in the Italian Alps, but unfortunately there are not enough of them for me to give it more than a half-hearted recommendation.

   It may be (a) it follows the book too closely, or (b) not closely enough. Without ever having read the book, I’m inclined to go with (a), as the first half of the film simply meanders here and there far too much, without anything of interest happening. Under the circumstances, of course, you can take my inclination and store it in you sock drawer for the next rainy day when you feel you need one.

   In any case, here’s the basic story line. Robert Newton, now a film director in England, recruits a former soldier under his command (Dennis Price) to go to an isolated ski cottage in the Alps and report back to him everything that he finds going on there.

   And what’s going on is the arrival of several other characters, including one self-described contessa (Mila Parely) who all act in mysterious ways and all of whom seem to know each other, but seem disinclined to admit it. There is also not much doubt that these not nice people. Price’s bumbling inquiries fail to elicit much in the way of information, but on the plus side, he finds himself being more and more attracted to the mysterious contessa.

   Every review I’ve read of the movie comes right out and explains what’s going on, but I’ve decided not to. Suffice it to say that Robert Newton, who doesn’t turn up again after the first ten minutes until the movie is well over halfway over, and not till then does it get out of first gear. Herbert Lom makes for a great villain in the meantime, though — not surprisingly — even though we the viewer have no idea what it is that prompts such glowering looks.

   The finale, when it finally arrives, is a good one, but all in all, it’s not good enough to make up for a weak opening half lasting nearly sixty minutes or so.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1973. George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Paul Sorvino, John Dehner. Screenwriter: Buck Henry, based on the novel by Robert Merle. Director: Mike Nichols.

   The first thing you need to know about this movie is that, in it, George C. Scott talks to dolphins. And the dolphins, at least one of them, talks back with loving affection, telling him how much he loves him. Now if you can suspend disbelief on this rather fantastic matter, you may also be able to suspend disbelief regarding the movie poster’s famous tagline and how it gives away the whole plot: “Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the President of the United States!”

   Now, I know what you’re thinking. The Day of the Dolphin must be a fun, quirky action-adventure movie with an over the top performance from Scott. It has to be, right? Wrong. Inexplicably, director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) decided to play it straight, taking the source material deeply seriously, embellishing it with cinematic artistry and artifice.

   All of which makes this movie one of the oddest motion pictures I’ve ever seen. Technically, it’s extremely well filmed. And Scott was a trooper, giving a stellar performance as a marine biologist who has unknowingly been working for a shadowy group within the government that hopes to assassinate the president.

   But it all comes back to Alpha. That’s the name of the prized talking dolphin. Actually, it’s “Fa” for short. As in Al-Fa. You see “Fa loves Pa.” Or so he says in a squeaky voice. The viewer is supposed to take this all seriously. Maybe you can. I couldn’t. But that didn’t stop me from watching The Day of the Dolphin to the very end.

   It’s got sheer chutzpah for even existing, this strange little neglected film that concludes on a most somber note with the protagonists quietly waiting for their deaths at the hands of powerful hidden forces in the government. For a movie with talking animals, this one is a downer.

   Final note: interesting factoid, originally Roman Polanski was set to direct this film and was in London working on pre-production when he learned that Sharon Tate had been murdered in Los Angeles by the Manson Family.

HONG KONG CONFIDENTIAL. United Artists, 1958. Gene Barry, Beverly Tyler, Allison Hayes, Ed Kemmer, Michael Pate, Philip Ahn. Director: Edward L. Cahn.

   The only reason I can suggest to you as to why you might want to see this poor excuse for an espionage thriller is the presence of Allison Hayes, she of the slinky pantsuit and the deliciously arched eyebrows. Unless, of course, you’re a Gene Barry fan, in which you will not want to miss him doing a song and dance routine in his alter ego role as a nightclub performer.

   The plot, a threadbare one to say the least, has to do with the kidnapped son of the leader of the ruler of a small Arab nation in the Mideast where the Russians are stirring up trouble. How secret agent Casey Reed (Barry) connects up that essence of story with a cheap gang of gold smugglers in Hong Kong is something I seemed to have missed. Luckily for those of us still watching, Allison Hayes is Casey’s contact person with gang of thieves, much to dismay of Beverly Tyler, who plays Casey’s piano player and who is not so secretly in love with him.

   This is one of those sadly inadequate movies in which a narrator is needed to pitch in and help cover up the gaps between scenes, doing his best to explain what Casey is thinking every step of the way as he tries to work his way into the gang’s good graces.

   While I can’t otherwise recommend this movie, I did watch it all the way through, and that’s a fact. I wish I could say more, but this shorter than usual review will have to do.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE KREMLIN LETTER. 20th Century Fox, 1970. Patrick O’Neal, Richard Boone, Max von Sydow, Bibi Anderssona, Barbara Parkins, George Sanders, Nigel Green, Orson Welles, Dean Jagger. Based on the novel by Noel Behm. Director: John Huston.

   There is no actual letter in this movie. Or maybe there is, but it’s not important. Such is the mystery – if not incoherence – of John Huston’s bleak spy thriller, The Kremlin Letter. As a movie in which atmosphere and mood count far more than plot, this somewhat neglected thriller features Patrick O’Neal (Castle Keep) as Charles Rone, a US Navy officer turned spy.

   On the behest of the enigmatic Highwayman (Dean Jagger) and his assistant, the jocular but devious Ward (Richard Boone), he is sent on a mission to Moscow to retrieve the eponymous Kremlin letter, a document signed by a high ranking US intelligence official promising American support to the Soviet Union should the Russians decide to wage war on Red China.

   Along for the ride are Janis (Nigel Green), a seedy pimp and drug pusher; “The Warlock” (George Sanders), an urbane homosexual and San Francisco drag queen who is willing to use his sexual proclivities to unlock secrets from closeted gay men in Moscovite society; and B.A. (Barbara Perkins of Valley of the Dolls fame), who has the uncanny ability to crack safes with her feet.

   Much of the movie is devoted to watching these unlikely spies do all sorts of things in Moscow. The movie shifts from one scene from another, but if it’s continuity you’re looking for, you’re not going to find it here. If you want a bleak portrayal of a cruel world where spies will do anything for their respective countries, The Kremlin Letter may be exactly what you’re looking for.

   There’s no James Bond glamour here, but there’s plenty of cruelty and manipulation. As for the Kremlin letter that the team is looking for, it turns out to be a McGuffin. But despite Huston in the director’s seat, The Kremlin Letter is far from being a prized black bird from Malta that’s worth killing for.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


21 HOURS AT MUNICH. Made-for-TV movie. ABC, 7 November 1976. William Holden, Shirley Knight, Franco Nero, Anthony Quayle, Richard Basehart. Director: William A. Graham.

   Surprisingly bloody and violent for a made-for-TV movie (released theatrically overseas), 21 Hours at Munich is a minimalist docudrama recreation of the Palestinian terror attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Franco Nero stars as Issa, the leader of the Palestinian Black September organization. He’s portrayed as a killer, albeit a reluctant one who is more interested in freeing his brothers from Israeli jails.

   Over the course of a day, he faces off against Munich Chief of Police Manfred Schreiber (William Holden) who is determined to save as many lives of the Israeli captives as possible. Rounding out the cast are Richard Basehart as German prime minister Willi Brandt, Shirley Knight as a Olympics security officer tasked with acting as a liaison between the authorities and the terrorists, and Anthony Quayle as an Israeli general who is deeply skeptical of the German authorities’ ability to pull off a successful counter-terrorist operation.

   A lot of the proceedings are unfortunately devoted to repetitive conversations between Issa and Schrieber in which the latter asks for more time to reply to the terrorists’ demands and the formerer fumes with anger. The more effective moments, however, are in the portrayals of the bursts of tragic violence that marred an event nominally devoted to the brotherhood of man. The downbeat ending is followed by voice-over narration that resounds on a decidedly pessimistic note. Teleplay by Edward Hume and Howard Fast.

DANGEROUS CROSSING. 20th Century Fox, 1953. Jeanne Crain, Michael Rennie, Max Showalter (as Casey Adams), Carl Betz, Mary Anderson, Marjorie Hoshelle, Willis Bouchey. Based on the radio play “Cabin B-13” by John Dickson Carr. Director: Joseph M. Newman.

   You probably know the story, or one very much like it. After a young honeymooning couple board a trans-Atlantic ocean liner in New York City, married for only a day, the husband (Carl Betz) goes off to run an errand at the purser’s office and promptly disappears. The new bride (Jeanne Crain) simply can’t believe it.

   An intensive search takes place and shows that the husband is nowhere on board. The couple’s stateroom is empty, the wife’s luggage is in a room down the corridor, and most telling, there’s no one on board who can even say they saw the two of them together.

   There is only one person is not thoroughly convinced that she is crazy, and that’s the ship’s doctor (Michael Rennie). If not for him, the new Mrs. Bowman would surely think she has gone mad.

   To my mind, this is one of the great suspense movies of all time — or at least it could have been and should have been. It begins well, but it doesn’t maintain the same sharp, keen edge it should have over the full length of the movie.

   It does have its moments, however. You certainly should not watch this film if you suffer from any of the ten warning signs of paranoia. The ocean crossing is a foggy one, with the constant blaring of foghorns, and that helps considerably. Nonetheless, as you sit there watching, you’ll probably begin to wonder what might have happened if someone like Alfred Hitchcock had gotten his hands on it.

— Reprinted from Mystery*File #24, August 1990. (slightly expanded and revised).


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