Suspense & espionage films


THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST. Paramount, 1967. James Coburn, Godfrey Cambridge, Severn Darden, Joan Delaney, Pat Harrington, Barry McGuire, Jill Banner, Will Geer, William Daniels and Joan Darling. Written and directed by Theodore J. Flicker.

   This will open with a rant, so skip the first few paragraphs and scan down till you see the words “The President’s Analyst” again. Got that? “The President’s Analyst.” I mean the next time you see it. Not now, further down. Okay? Now the rant.

   Last month I cut the cable with ATT DirecTV and switched internet services. Getting the new service hooked up and my TV set switched to Antenna was fairly simple. Getting away from ATT was not.

   Working on instructions from ATT, FedEx handled the return with aplomb, ATT acknowledged receipt of the Modem — but not the Cable stuff.

   My “whuzzah?”call to ATT began an acquaintance with “Brian,” “Jessica,” “Donald” and others (American names must be popular in India.) who said my ATT service was “concert” but they couldn’t credit me for the equipment until the end of the “birring cykor.”

   Turns out ATT policy said I’d be charged for the next month for the very good reason that it was ATT policy to cancer (?) service at the end of the month following notice. After some telephone pinball, someone — “Trixie,” I think — allowed me to speak with a supervisor about this, and after 10 minutes on hold, cut me off.

   To make a long story a little less long, I went through this a few more times, with “Larry,” “Moe” and “Aditya” before reaching a supervisor (“Bonnie”) who said she couldn’t alter ATT “Pohsee” and anyone who could was by definition too important to talk to me.

   So anyway, I related all this to a friend, who responded “Three words, Dan: The President’s Analyst.”


   It took me back to my Senior Year of High School, when adulthood beckoned with a coy wink, and the World was falling apart. Somewhere in the midst of this gaudy chaos, James Coburn was emerging as a movie star, and The President’s Analyst solidified his image as a somewhat off-beat persona in a film that never quite makes up its mind what it wants to be about — and is all the better for it.

   It starts out as a one-joke movie: Coburn is retained as the POTUS’ on-call shrink, and finds himself growing paranoid — or is he really being watched? Well of course he is. What kind of movie would you have if he wasn’t?

   So when he cracks under the strain and goes on the run, TPA shifts from Political Comedy to Spy Spoof as our hero finds himself pursued by the Secret Agencies of every government on Earth and takes cover: first with a family of militant liberals (deftly played by William Daniels and Joan Darling) then, less amusingly, with Barry McGuire’s hippie band.

   I should pause here to mention Godfrey Cambridge and Severn Darden as an American agent and his Soviet counterpart, both roles well written and feelingly played, notably in a fractured and melancholy reminiscence about departed enemies. Later on, Daniels and Darling do a hilarious bit of suburban self-defense, then there’s a balletic sequence of Coburn plucking the gowans fine with a fair young maiden in a field of wildflowers — while being stalked by scores of assassins, agents and assorted men in black.

   All that though is just writer/director Flicker showing off his stylish wit as TPA changes course once again. Finally captured by Darden’s Russian Spy, Coburn realizes that his best weapon is the one he was trained to use, and he sets about escaping from Darden by understanding him — a ploy used earlier in films like Blind Alley and The Dark Past, but never to such humorous effect.

    Whereupon (you guessed it) the movie bounces off a wild wall, and the sinister agency behind the whole thing is revealed as… Well if you didn’t guess it, I won’t reveal it now, but Pat Harrington plays the PR man for Artifice Trapping & Treachery with a cozening cheerfulness just wonderful to watch. Even better, his little show is followed by a noisy burst of gunfire, explosions & derring-do just as satisfying in its own brainless way.

   The President’s Analyst is no classic. It’s just a little too trendy for its own good. But it’s also unlike any other film you’re likely to see, and worth a look.

   And by the way, I found out that BBB trumps ATT, and got a Happy Ending all my own.


THE YIN AND THE YANG OF MR. GO. Ross Film Productions, UK, 1970. James Mason, Jeff Bridges, Jack McGowran, Irene Tsu, Peter Lind Hayes, Clarissa Kaye(-Mason), Broderick Crawford and Burgess Meredith, who also wrote & directed.

   People ask me why I spend time on bad movies. “Dan,” they ask me, “Why does a good-looking, intelligent man like you spend time on bad movies?”

   Funny you should ask that.

   Most bad films are simply bad, and you won’t read about them here. But now and again, a film is strikingly, memorably, bad, and these I think should be appreciated on their own terms. I mean, when you watch a good movie, or even a competently-made one, you and the filmmaker share common assumptions, and you have some idea what to expect. Here, I was on my own, adrift in a film that could go anywhere.

   I’d like to think this was not the film Burgess Meredith envisioned when he started making it. Word around the ’net is that it was plagued by financial problems, beset by internal strife, and some scenes were clearly added post-production. How else to explain scenes of Brod Crawford acting alone in a room, intercut with scenes of other actors supposedly conversing with him — and none of them even in the movie proper!

   But the fact is, the more I got into this cinematic fever swamp, the more I wondered how anyone could have thought any of it could have made a watchable movie. The cheap color, bad sound and choppy editing don’t help, but they can’t hide the fact that Mr. Go was misconceived and born to calamity.

   Needless to say, I was spellbound.

   For starters, this film is narrated by Buddha. Not some guy named Buddha, THE Buddha: Gautama. Siddhartha. Shakyamuni. The guy with all the statues sitting cross-legged. That’s the one, and every so often we cut to a picture of him and he fills in the narrative gaps in voice-over.

   Said narrative involves Yin Yang Go, a Chinese-German master criminal played by James Mason, in his usual Bored-British manner, headquartered in Macao or Hong Kong (the script is never sure which) and out to get the secret of a new advanced super-weapon from Scientist Pete Martin, played by Peter Lynd Hayes—who will always be Mr. Zabladowski to me.

   To this end, Mason recruits draft-dodger Jeff Bridges to exploit Martin’s weakness for the Rough Trade. Bridges doe his bit in a mildly shocking scene, Mason gets the secret plans, sells them to the bad guys (who are led by his wife, Clarissa Kaye-Mason) who kidnap Bridges’ girlfriend for some reason. Then Brod Crawford’s man (Jack McGowran) shows up and starts chasing everybody. Mason, Bridges and some of the bad guys escape on a helicopter while Clarissa Kaye-Mason tortures Jeff’s girlfriend on a boat, and then….


    …and then Buddha shoots a magical ray from his forehead and turns James Mason into a Good Guy.

   You heard it here, folks. James Mason & Jeff Bridges, still being chased by McGowran, go after the bad guys. And then comes something else I’ve never seen before: Bridges overacts outrageously — in the fight scenes! No kidding, every time he bursts through a door, throws a punch or leaps off a balcony, he strikes a pose like Mighty Mouse.

   By this time I was thoroughly dazzled. And then….

   And then someone apparently took the trouble to tape over this commercial VHS copy, replacing the ending with one of those programs where an artist shows the viewer how to paint awful paintings. And it is a tribute of sorts to The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go that it took me a minute or two to realize I was no longer watching it.

   I suppose I should seek out a complete DVD or VHS tape of Mr. Go and see how it ends, but I like to remember it like this: Disjointed, misbalanced, completely unpredictable and — and I haven’t even mentioned Director Meredith playing a Chinese herbalist Doctor, or the Loveboat music that jumps and prances in the background, whether it fits or not — no, I like to think that Mr. Go is supposed to end with everybody learning to paint badly.

   And even if that’s not the director’s cut, it’s the version I will cherish.

SPLIT SECOND. RKO Radio Pictures, 1953. Stephen McNally, Alexis Smith, Jan Sterling, Keith Andes, Arthur Hunnicutt, Paul Kelly, Robert Paige, Richard Egan, Frank de Kova. Director: Dick Powell.

   A large ensemble cast portraying a group of strangers, mostly, being held captive in a Nevada ghost town by am escaped killer (Stephen McNally) and his two confederates, one of whom (Paul Kelly) is seriously wounded. Others include a journalist (Keith Andes) and the female hoofer (Jan Sterling) he had picked up earlier as a hitchhiker. Also trapped are a woman (Alexis Smith) doing in Nevada what women with unwanted husbands did in the 50s, along with her current male companion (Robert Paige).

   Adding considerable stress to the situation is the fact that a nuclear bomb test is scheduled to take place at six the next morning, and they are less than a mile from ground zero.

   The movie has a good many fans, but unfortunately I found it far less intense and suspenseful than I was supposed to, even with the time of the blast moved up an hour. As the crazed murderer in charge of his small gang, Stephen McNally is over the top when it comes to the “crazed” part of his role, while Keith Andes holds back a little too much. Perfect in her role, however, is Jan Sterling, caught between her attraction to Andes and diverting the crude advances of McNally.

   While the camera work is fluid and very effective, the direction itself (Dick Powell’s debut) is often stagey and in effect calls attention to itself more than pleased me. Worse are the holes in the plot. Here’s one of them that puzzled me throughout the movie: How do so many people manage to avoid the roadblocks into the area to begin with?


ROBERT SHECKLEY – The Game of X: A Novel of Upsmanship Espionage. Delacorte Press, hardcover, 1965. Dell #2788, paperback, 1966; Ace, paperback, 1980 (?). Film: Condorman, 1981.

CONDORMAN. Walt Disney/Buena Vista, 1981. Michael Crawford, Oliver Reed, Barbara Carrera. Loosely based on the novel The Game of X, by Robert Sheckley. Directed by Charles Jarrett.

   William Nye (yes, Bill Nye) is a likable, if not overly bright sort hanging on in Europe by the skin of his teeth, and reluctant to go home, so when a friend who works for an obscure agency that lends the CIA a hand once in a while offers Nye a simple job, to entrap a spy so they can turn him, a modest and nonthreatening spy, Nye accepts the job, and finds shutting the spy in question up is far harder than entrapping him.

   But things soon get out of hand when Nye’s new boss, Colonel Baker, takes note of a certain phenomena once the debriefs the spy Nye helped entrap.

   …other possibilities glimmered like marsh fire: a shadow agent can undertake much more dangerous assignments than his fleshy counterparts. A specter is not susceptible to capture by normal methods.

   Yes, there was work for Agent X — as Baker had already begun to think of him. Agent X utilized that law of human nature which makes con men the easiest victims of a con game. The law of autopredation, Baker decided to call it; the iron rule by which an inevitably merciful Nature turns the specialized strength of the predator into a fatal weakness, and thus betrays a vested interest in long-range averages.

   Nye assumes he is done and goes back to trying to make a living doing things like illegally bartending, when he suddenly finds himself drawn back in. Karinovsky, the spy he unwittingly turned, wants to come in from the cold, and naturally he wants the brilliant Agent X to do the job. All Nye has to do is what he is told, pretend again to be the ruthless Agent X, and all will be well.

   Of course the Russians aren’t going to just let Karinovsky go, but for the most part they are a fairly useless group, for the most part …

   “Forster is head of Soviet Intelligence Operations, Northeast Italian sector. He’s a formidable fellow, a big, powerful chap, skilled with small arms and quite ingenious at planning. Definitely a man on his way up. But I suspect that he’s overconfident.”

   “How am I supposed to handle him?”

   The Colonel thought about that for a while. At last he said, “I think the best plan would be to avoid him entirely.”

   And anyone who has ever read a thriller can imagine how that is going to go. Nye has hardly set foot in Venice where the game is set to be played before he has been picked up by Foster, who is impressed to be face to face with the famous Agent X.

   “I wonder, Nye, if you are as good as your dossier indicates. In all frankness, you don’t look particularly dangerous. A casual observer would judge you barely competent. And yet, your record in the Far East speaks for itself. Specialist in guerrilla warfare. Expert in small arms and explosives. Skilled saboteur and arsonist. Licensed to fly fighter aircraft. A former hydroplane operator and master diver. … Have I left anything out?”

   “You forgot my medals in lacrosse and jai alai,” I said. Inwardly I was cursing Colonel Baker’s overreaching imagination. He had poured too much gilt on the lily; in striving to create a paragon, he had only succeeded in producing a paradox.

   Not long after Nye finds himself kidnapped (again) by one Dr. Jansen (… a dwarf, about two and a half feet high, with a large, finely shaped head and blue pop eyes behind heavy glasses. He wore a dark business suit with a rubber apron over it. He also wore a beard. He looked like a tiny Paul Muni playing a miniature Pasteur.) who plans to torture him for details of Karinovsky’s defection, but Nye blunders his way to safety — or was it a brilliant move by Agent X? No matter what Nye does he seems to be feeding the legend of Agent X.

   The Game of X, subtitled “A Novel of Upsmanship Espioinage” is from the pen of satirical science fiction writer Robert Sheckley, whose work graced many of the best magazines and collections in the fifties and sixties, and who tried a more serious hand at thrillers with his Stephen Dain novels and his mix of science fiction and thriller the “Victim” series that began with his short story “The Seventh Victim” (Galaxy SF, 1953) that came to the screen as The Tenth Victim, about a society where in order to deal with over population and boredom people take art in a game of hunter and hunted elaborately assassinating each other for profit and televised entertainment.

   As you might expect with that pedigree the book is a very funny send up of spies and spying and the whole James Bond milieu, with Nye blundering from one success to another until at the end Colonel Baker is no longer sure whether he made Agent X up or if Nye was X all along, and as Nye asks himself, “Why, after all, did I have to live with reality? Wasn’t illusion a perfectly suitable condition?”

   Game of X came to the screen as a rather handsome and fairly faithful Disney film called Condorman with future Phantom of the Opera star Michael Crawford as a comic book artist who finds himself recruited to play his creation, Condorman. Oliver Reed was well cast as the redoubtable Foster. Some of the fun of the book is lost in silliness and camp, but then there is a fair amount of silliness in the book to begin with. A sharper, more Sheckley-like edge would have helped no end.

   The Game of X fits nicely on the shelf with some of the better spy spoofs of the era, John Gardner’s The Liquidator, Martin Waddell’s Otley, and books such as Eric Ambler’s The Light of Day and Victor Canning’s The Great Affair. William Nye may not be the brightest bulb, but he proves an affable companion for a jaunty adventure in the sometimes blackly humorous world of unlikely spies.

SUDDENLY. United Artists, 1954. Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, James Gleason, Nancy Gates, Kim Charney, Willis Bouchey, Paul Frees. Screenwriter: Richard Sale. Director: Lewis Allen.

   This, I am sure, was quite the thriller in its day, and anyone can see why. A gang of three killers commandeers a house overlooking the railroad station in the small town of Suddenly. Why? The President of the United Stated is scheduled to transfer trains there that afternoon, and the three men, led by Army vet John Baron (Frank Sinatra), know this and have been hired to kill him.

   In the Benson household are a grandfather, his daughter-in-law, whose husband died in the war, and his young grandson Pidge. Joining them during the siege is the local sheriff (Sterling Hayden), who has had his romantic overtures to Pidge’s mother rejected. Since the death of her husband she has turned pacifist. Pidge is not even allowed to play with guns.

   All the ingredients of the story that are needed are in the paragraph above, save one. We never learn who hired the assassins, nor why. In terms of the story, it’s not really necessary. The point is, rather, that the Bensons’ house is no longer the safe haven it used to be. Can they improvise and use their brains to find a way to survive?

   I may be among a small minority on this, but I don’t believe the movie stands up very well. To me, the suspense is all but nil, with no real sense of urgency, the dialogue is often didactic and forced, and no, I don’t believe that Frank Sinatra was a very good actor. Lots of personality, yes, but unless he was playing an obvious clone of himself, his performances on the big screen have always seemed affected and overdone to me, and Suddenly is no exception.


ERIC AMBLER – Journey Into Fear. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1940. Alfred A. Knopf, US, hardcover, 1940. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and paperback. Movie: RKO, 1943. Also: New World, 1975. TV adaptation: Climax!. Season 3, Episode 2, 11 October 1956.

JOURNEY INTO FEAR. RKO, 1943. Joseph Cotten, Dolores Del Rio, Ruth Warrick, Agnes Moorehead, Jack Durant, Everett Sloane, Orson Welles. Screenplay: Joseph Cotten (and Orson Welles, Richard Collins & Ben Hecht uncredited), based on the novel by Eric Ambler. Directors: Directed by Norman Foster & Orson Welles (the latter uncredited).

   With a plot featuring a regular man caught up in a high stakes game of international espionage, Journey Into Fear remains a classic of the spy fiction genre. And for good reason. It gives the reader with a protagonist that most readers can sympathize with, a British naval engineer named Graham. It also provides a recognizable and formidable foe in Nazi Germany. Because Graham has been hired by the neutral Turks to bolster their naval forces, he has come to the attention of the leadership in Berlin.

   Not wanting Turkey to enter the war on the side of the Allies, the Nazis dispatch a pair of killers to neutralize Graham and to delay the possible Turkish entry into the Second World War. All Graham wants to do is return from his work in Istanbul back to his native England in safety.

   What makes Journey Into Fear work so extraordinarily well is that the novel in actuality features two stories, one external and one internal. The external story follows Graham as he descends into the seedy world of Istanbul nightlife, into a Turkish police station where he comes face to face with the head of the Turkish secret police, and aboard a freighter bound to Genoa. Much as in a locked door mystery, the coterie of strange characters along for the ride provides imaginative readers with plenty to grapple with intellectually. Who might be a Nazi agent? Who might be looking after Graham on behalf of the Turks who want to see him return to England in one piece?

   Graham’s internal journey, the one that takes him deep into his innermost fears is the more compelling one. Here’s one example of how Ambler’s utilization of close third person narration allows the reader to get a glimpse of Graham’s particular way of thinking. This is from the latter portion of the novel when he faces down the very real possibility that his death at the hands of Nazi agents is imminent:

   “He must not be frightened. Death, he told himself, would not be so bad. A moment of astonishment, and it would be over. He had to die sooner or later, and a bullet through the back of the skull now would be better than months of illness when he was old. Forty years was not a bad lifetime to have lived. There were many young men in Europe at that moment who would regard the attainment of such an age as an enviable achievement.”

   It is this aspect of Graham, the psychological one, that fails to make its way into the 1943 RKO cinematic adaptation. In the movie, Graham, rather than a Brit, is an American and he is portrayed as a rather cowardly and charmless doofus by Joseph Cotten. A far cry from his role as the complex, multilayered Eugene Morgan in Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Cotten plays Graham as a rather bland, one dimensional everyman.

   True, he is able to summon up the courage to face down his opponents when it becomes absolutely necessary. But Cotten’s Graham is hardly the stuff that the best spy films are made of. Neither a doomed protagonist in the film noir sense of the term, nor an average man forced to do extraordinary things to survive (think: Cary Grant in North by Northwest), the cinematic Graham is somewhere in the vast middle. This makes him a far less compelling character than the psychologically tormented Graham that the reader identifies with in the novel.

   The greatest pleasure in reading Ambler’s masterwork in espionage fiction may not necessarily found in the story, compelling though it may be. Rather, it is in Ambler’s sparse but descriptive prose that one can easily lose oneself. Ambler’s prose flows naturally, with each sentence logically progressing from the previous one.

   Perhaps it was his training as an engineer which allowed him to map out his paragraphs as if they were each small blueprints for a much larger project. This is not to imply that his language is mechanical in the pejorative sense of the term. Rather, it is to highlight how fine tuned his prose actually is. It neither meanders nor muddles. It just flows. Brilliantly.


OPERATION FINALE. MGM, 2018. Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Mélanie Laurent, Lior Raz, Nick Kroll. Director: Chris Weitz.

   The Israeli hunt for, and capture of, Adolf Eichmann is a story that has been told numerous times in memoirs, historical accounts, and in visual media including in Operation Eichmann (1961) reviewed here. Although the television movie The House on Garibaldi Street (1979) directed by Peter Collinson remains, to my mind, the standard by which other cinematic representations of this particular intelligence mission should be measured, Operation Finale (2018) is nevertheless a compelling and suspenseful feature film that merits a look for those interested in the topic.

   Perhaps the strongest aspect this recent theatrical release has going for it is the presence of British actor Ben Kingsley. Unlike Collinson’s TV movie, in which Eichmann was presented as a man far too banal to be truly evil, in Operation Finale, Kingsley gives the Nazi architect of the Final Solution a sociopathic charm and a sense of malice. He’s a master manipulator, a natural predator capable of finding his opponent’s weakness and exploiting it.

   In the film it’s Mossad operative Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) who ends up as Eichmann’s psychological sparring partner. After the Mossad successfully kidnaps Eichmann and holds him in a safe house in Argentina, they learn that El Al will agree to fly Eichmann out of the country and to Israel only if the SS officer voluntarily signs a form agreeing to stand trial in Jerusalem.

   This, rather than the actual operation to identify and to kidnap Eichmann, is the core of the film’s emotional and narrative thrust. Malkin, haunted by his sister’s death during the Holocaust, is tasked with the goal of coaxing an agreement to stand trial out of Eichmann, a man who would rather die at the hands of his captors than be forced into a courtroom, let alone one in the Jewish State.

   Although there’s nothing truly groundbreaking in Operation Finale, it’s overall a solid production that handles its sensitive historical material with care. My one main complaint with the film is that the Israeli agents, with the notable exception of Lior Raz, the Israeli actor who portrays Mossad head Isser Harel, are just a little too polished for their roles, both in terms of dress, makeup, and tone.

   Isaac is a talented actor and he delivers a strong, serious performance that isn’t marred by Hollywood melodrama. It just does not compare with Topol’s haunting performance in The House on Garibaldi Street in which he infuses the role of Peter Malkin with such hatred for the Nazis that it nearly drives his character mad.

   Look for French actress Mélanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds) as a female Mossad agent in love with Peter Malkin.


LEN DEIGHTON – The Ipcress File. “Harry Palmer” #1. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1962. Simon & Schuster, US, hardcover, 1963. Fawcett Crest, US, paperback, 1965. Reprinted many times.

THE IPCRESS FILE. Rank Films, UK, 1965. Universal, US, 1965. Michael Caine (Harry Palmer), Nigel Green, Guy Doleman, Sue Lloyd, Gordon Jackson, Aubrey Richards. Based on the novel by Len Deighton. Director: Sidney J. Furie.

   The screenwriters of the stylishly downbeat film The Ipcress File made the correct decision by introducing the notion of the eponymous file to the audience in the first half of the film’s running time. One structural problem in Len Deighton’s otherwise exceedingly compelling work of espionage fiction is that it’s not until the very tail end of the text that the author discloses what “IPCRESS” really means and how it fits into all that has transpired.

   Somehow it lessens not only the impact of the word, but also the terrifying possibilities it portends for both the story’s protagonist and Western democracy as a whole.

   To no one’s surprise, particularly those who are familiar with tropes from the spy genre, IPCRESS is an acronymm in this case for “Induction of Psychoneuroses by Conditioned Reflex under Stress.” That makes perfect sense, since Len Deighton’s work is Cold War fiction at its best. It is also fundamentally a thriller about mind control, particularly the West’s fear that the Eastern bloc as well as its more dogmatic and revolutionary Maoist cousins would develop a means of reprogramming Westerners into docile communist agents.

   In the movie adaptation, British agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) comes across the word IPCRESS fairly early on during his investigation into the disappearance of a British physicist. He’s not sure what it means, but when a colleague who uncovers the true meaning of the word is murdered, he knows that he’s up against individuals willing to destroy people psychologically for the sake of their ideology or money or both.

   Fundamental to the story is Palmer and how he fits, or alternatively doesn’t fit, into the mold of a spy. A military officer with a troubled past and a penchant for insubordination, Palmer is the anti-James Bond. He’s working class and lives a far from glamorous lifestyle. There are no exotic locales filled with beautiful women, yachts, or sports cars for him.

   While the novel features sequences in both Lebanon and the South Pacific, the filmmakers made the right call and set the movie entirely in London, emphasizing the city’s persistently gray sky and its foreboding industrial spaces. Caine, with his Cockney accent and devil may care attitude, is a perfect fit for the role. Audiences must have agreed for Caine reprised the role in two other Palmer films in the 1960s: Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967).

   In both the novel and the film version of The Ipcress File, Palmer’s investigation into the man allegedly responsible for both kidnapping and reprogramming British scientists so that they would be unable to work eventually leads him straight into the lion’s den. He gets captured and is forced to endure the mind control techniques that have wreaked havoc on some of England’s finest scientists, figuratively turning their brains into mush.

   This is where the film gets psychedelic, very much akin to a scene toward the end of The Venetian Affair (1967), a movie similarly about communist brainwashing techniques, in which Robert Vaughn’s character is subject to an equally sinister method of mind control at the hands of a villain working for Communist China.

   Sidney J. Furie’s direction, with his use of strange, unsettling angles, lends the film a disquieting feel. There’s not a lot of sunlight on display here, either literally or metaphorically. Palmer’s not doing his duty for Queen and Country as much as he is for his pay check and to avoid a military prison for transgressions he committed while serving in Germany.

   In this film everyone is expendable and no one can be trusted. John Barry’s jazzy score gives this cynical and bleak alternative to the James Bond franchise a hip London vibe without the heroic fanfare.


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.


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.

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