Suspense & espionage films


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).

JEOPARDY. MGM, 1953. Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Ralph Meeker, Lee Aaker. Director: John Sturges.

   Four years before they were cast as rivals in Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) (reviewed here ), Barry Sullivan and Barbara Stanwyck portrayed a married couple whose dream vacation turned into a living nightmare. Directed by John Sturges, Jeopardy features Sullivan and Stanwyck as Doug and Helen Stilwin who, along with their son Bobby, are headed to a remote area of Baja California for a vacation. Along the way from California to their Mexican destination, they are stopped, for reasons not clearly indicated, by the Mexican police.

   For persons well immersed in the world of crime films and films noir, however, it’s fairly obvious that the police must be looking for someone. And sure, enough, that person happens to be a wily scoundrel by the name of Lawson (Ralph Meeker). An escaped convict on the lam in Mexico, Lawson’s a thoroughly charming villain. He’s a sociopath, to be sure. But he’s also got a soft side, one that Helen Stilwin is more than willing to exploit so as to save her family.

   As the title indicates, the main theme of the film is about persons in imminent peril. Helen finds herself a captive, while her husband Doug finds himself imperiled by the rising tide after a beam falls on him, trapping him on the beach, all the while wondering where his wife might be. If the plot seems somewhat artificially constructed and forced, well that’s because it is. But for a programmer that clocks in at less than 70 minutes, it works well enough to make this a rather spunky, if not overly memorable, entry in the film noir genre.


MOZAMBIQUE. Towers of London / British Lion Films, UK, 1964. Steve Cochran, Hildegarde Neff, Paul Hubschmid, Vivi Bach, Martin Benson. Director: Robert Lynn.

   At least the outdoor scenery is good. That’s basically my assessment of this Harry Alan Towers production about organized crime in Portuguese Africa. Filmed on location, Mozambique is a spy thriller that simply falls flat in producing any sense of intrigue or excitement.

   Even the film’s premise – a Lisbon colonial police inspector enlists Brad Webster (Cochran), a down and out airline pilot, to infiltrate a criminal enterprise in Portugal’s African colony – comes across as contrived. It’s as if someone wanted to film a movie in Mozambique and then came up with a rationale to do so. There are some beautiful women singing in a nightclub, a midget assassin who hides in a suitcase, a lecherous Arab sheik, and various Portuguese and European schemers afoot. But none of it adds up to very much. It’s not altogether without its charms, but it’s hardly a James Bond movie.

   There is one notable aspect to this rather middling affair that is worth mentioning. And that’s Steve Cochran, who appeared in such crime films as White Heat (1949) and Storm Warning (1951) (reviewed here ). Mozambique not only was one of the few films in which Cochran was billed as the leading man, it was also his final film. Cochran, who was also known for his dalliance with Hollywood women such as Mamie van Doran, died on his yacht off the coast of Guatemala the same year the film was released.

SNEAKERS. Universal Pictures, 1992. Robert Redford, Dan Ackroyd, Ben Kingsley, Sidney Portier, River Phoenix, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones. Director: Phil Alden Robinson.

   An aging ex-radical hippie is roped into pulling a steal for what he thinks is the National Security Agency, but of course it really isn’t. At stake is the security of the nation’s computer networks, a hacker’s sweat dream, if ever there was one.

   High tech without much glitter, the movie is slower moving than it should be, but with all these pros on the job, it still manages to be an above average piece of work.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993 (very slightly revised)

COMPANY BUSINESS. MGM, 1991. Gene Hackman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Kurtwood Smith, Géraldine Danon. Screenwriter-Director: Nicholas Meyer.

   An aging former member of the CIA is called out of semi-retirement to oversee the clandestine end-of-the-Cold-War swap with the KGB, with a side payment of two million dollars thrown in.

   Of course things go wrong, and both the agent and the prisoner he’s supposed to turn over go on the run. And they become buddies, after a fashion, and you know how the story goes. The two stars make the movie fun for a while, but overall the best they can make of it is low key and non-involving entertainment, and little else.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993.

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. Paramount Pictures, 1975. Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, Max von Sydow, John Houseman, Addison Powell. Screenplay: Lorenzo Semple Jr. & David Rayfiel, based on the novel Six Days of the Condor, by James Grady. Director: Sydney Pollack.

   This is a movie that for some unaccountable reason I’ve missed seeing until now. I regret that. This is a good one. Robert Redford has played a good many roles over the years, but as Joseph Turner, a bookish low-grade employee of the CIA (code name Condor), he is without a doubt a character he was meant to play.

   Outwardly working for an obscure corner of the world called the American Literary Historical Society in downtown Manhattan, he ducks out the back way one rainy lunchtime to get sandwiches for everyone, only to return and find everyone shot and killed at their desks. What to do? Call his superior and ask to be called in, of course.

   This turns out to be more easily said than done. He quickly discovers that whoever was responsible for the slaughter at his normally stodgy workplace wants him dead as well — and he has no idea who that might be. Who can he trust? No one.

   Along the way he carjacks a young woman, Kathy Hale by name and a photographer by trade, at gunpoint. She is played by Faye Dunaway, perhaps one of a handful of actresses at the time who could manage not to be totally outshone om the screen by Redford’s boyishly handsome charisma. Kathy is naturally very reluctant to believe Turner’s story, but as in all movies like this, she gradually comes around.

   I loved the first half of this movie. When it comes to unraveling the secrets of the inner workings of the CIA, I was less enamored, but that like comparing an “A plus” to an “A,” and I am not grading on the curve.

   Cliff Robertson, as Turner’s immediate superior, gets to play Cliff Robertson, which he does very well, as usual. The standout performance in the second half is Max von Sydow, who plays a wonderfully cosmopolitan hitman who plays for whichever side is paying him at the time, at the same time giving young Turner an insider’s look at the world he was quite happily unaware of before.

   The film is beautifully photographed, the story holds together, and the performances are terrific. What more could you ask?


   As a fan of John Barry and his Bond work especially, I enjoy this album. Based on a book by Len Deighton and featuring a nameless spy (who would become know as Harry Palmer due to this film), the movie starred Michael Caine, and was directed by Sidney J. Furie. The producer was one of the Bond producers, Harry Saltzman.


TEN DAYS IN PARIS. Columbia Pictures, UK, 1939; US, 1940. Also released as Missing Ten Days and Spy in the Pantry. Rex Harrison, Kaaren Verne, C. V. France, Joan Marion, Leo Genn, John Abbot, Andre Morell, Robert Rendel, Antony Holles. Screenplay by John Meehan Jr. and James Curtis, based on the novel The Disappearance of Roger Tremayne by Bruce Graeme. Directed by Tim Whelan.

   Ten Days in Paris is a comedy spy thriller with an excellent pedigree. To begin with, it stars Rex Harrison with support work from Leo Genn, John Abbott, Andre Morell, and the beautiful Kaaren Verne, and it is directed by Tim Whelan (Q Planes, aka Clouds Over Europe).

   Add to that a jaunty and exciting score by Miklos Rozsa and the fact it is based on a novel by Bruce Graeme (creator of a gentleman thief named Blackshirt very popular in the 1920s and 30s, and the author of many more non-series works), plus a witty and rapidly paced script, and you have a fine sub Hitchcockian romp.

   Harrison is a young Englishman, Robert Stephens, walking down the street on a Paris evening when a shot rings out, and he falls to the ground. Luckily the wound is superficial, but when he wakes up the last thing he recalls is a plane crash as he was flying over from London, and a passenger he offered a lift whose name he didn’t know.

   Being a bit of a playboy, neither his father or the French police believe his story that the last ten days are a total blank, especially because there is a note in his pocket obviously from a woman signed D. As soon as he is out of the hospital he finds himself approached by Andre (John Abbot) who seems to know him and who orders him to return to Madame D. She turns out to be the beautiful Kaaren Verne, and her chauffer/butler Barnes.

   She lives outside of Paris with her father, a retired general, and her precocious son whom only Barnes can handle, and is engaged to marry a Major in the French army (Andre Morrell) who is planning secret fortifications with her father for the war that is almost certain to come (ironic in retrospect considering the fate of the Maginot Line).

   The boy’s nanny, Denise (Joan Marion), is another spy planted by spy master Lanson (Leo Genn), and she, and every other woman in the house are enamored of the suave Barnes (playing on Harrison’s reputation as a lady’s man even then).

   Soon enough Barnes/Stephens is recognized and the race is on, as Genn plans to sabotage a supply train headed to the underground facility with a time bomb setting off the ammunition aboard and destroying the fortifications. Harrison and Verne race to stop the train, quipping all the way, she interrogating him about all his rumored affairs as Barnes, as he pleads amnesia, and both duck bullets from the French outposts they run through as time runs out.

   The film is dated, and the model work is obvious, but neither the cast nor the script falter, and if one or two things are left hanging loose, you really aren’t supposed to be that anal about the bubbles in champagne so long as it isn’t flat, and this isn’t. Highlights include Harrison playing William Tell with an automatic to interrogate a spy, a picnic that ends with a soaked and half-naked Harrison and Verne literally treed by a pack of dogs, the interplay between Verne and Harrison, and that final race to stop the train.

   Ten Days in Paris is a dessert wine, not a fine vintage, but a pleasant brut, bubbly, witty, and ideal for a pleasant diversion. It doesn’t rank with Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes or Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich, but it has its own charms and displays them with elan.


WHO? Allied Artists, 1975. Released on video as Roboman. Elliott Gould, Trevor Howard, Joseph Bova, James Noble. Based on the book by Algis Budrys. Director: Jack Gold.

   Part cold war thriller, part science fiction, Who? is an enjoyably complex movie that defies conventional expectations and aesthetic norms. Filmed in an almost semi-documentary style, the story not only unfolds in a nonlinear manner, but it also leaves the viewer guessing until the very end as to what the movie’s message or artistic statement, was really all about. Although the movie has its noticeable flaws, it is overall the result of a type of bold experimental film-making that’s sadly all too absent today.

   Elliott Gould portrays FBI Agent Sean Rogers. He’s quirky with a hairstyle a little too wild for a counterespionage agent, but an impassioned national servant nonetheless, a true skeptic always doubting and asking questions. He faces what appears to be the challenge of his career in the face of Lucas Martino (Joseph Bova), an American scientist recently released from captivity in East Berlin. The problem facing Rogers is that he’s not sure Martino is who he claims to be. The reason why, as viewers will soon learn, is that Martino has apparently been in a horrific car accident. Eastern bloc scientists reconstructed as a robotic man, one with a silver metal skull and mechanical body parts.

   But just who is this robotic man? Is he really Martino or is he a Soviet spy? Rogers simply can’t accept that this silver coated remnant of a man is truly Martino. He’s sure that his Soviet nemesis, Colonel Azarin (Trevor Howard) has somehow managed to either brainwash Martino into being a Soviet agent or that the man under the mask isn’t Martino at all. Complicating matters for Rogers is the fact that Martino seems to be who he says he is. He’s got Martino’s memories and personality traits.

   In order to build up to the big reveal as to the actual identity of the man released from Soviet captivity, the story unfolds on two parallel tracks, shifting the viewer’s perspective in terms of both time and space. The present dynamic between Rogers and Martino is contrasted with the past dynamic between Azarin and Martino when the scientist was captive in East Berlin.

   As it turns out, there’s not a whole world of difference between Rogers and Azarin. Both are committed patriots who care far more of what Martino could do for them than about Martino himself. Ultimately, however, it is Martino — or whoever it is under the mask — that will decide what his role in this world is going to be. In that sense, the film is very much part of the humanistic science fiction tradition, one that utilizes the tropes of speculative fiction in order to say something about what it means to be an individual.

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