Suspense & espionage films


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?

SELECTED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


   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.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


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.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


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.

THE LAST JOURNEY. Twickenham Films, UK, 1936. Godfrey Tearle, Hugh Williams, Judy Gunn, Mickey Brantford, Julien Mitchell, Olga Lindo, Michael Hogan, Frank Pettingell, Eliot Makeham, Eve Gray, Sydney Fairbrother, Sam Wilkinson, Viola Compton. Screenplay: H. Fowler Mear, based on an original story by Joseph Jefferson Farjeon. Director: Bernard Vorhaus.

   There are a lot of names there in the credits, I grant you, and most of them are total unknowns, but it’s an ensemble cast with lots of screen time for each of them, so I listed them all. Now if I could only mathc up the names with their faces!

   From what I’ve read, must of the British film industry in the 1930s was a vast wasteland, but if so, this has to be one of the better ones, by far. I’ve listed it in my Suspense and Espionage category, but you can forgot the spy part. It’s the story of a railroad engineer about to be railroaded into retirement. H’s not severely disgruntled about that, but he’s gotten into his head that the fireman on his train is having an affair with his wife.

   And as part of the confrontation he plans on having with his previously longtime friend, he plans to run the train as fast as it can until this last journey ends in utter disaster, a plan unknown to the oblivious passengers until train starts to pass through railway stops at breakneck speed without stopping.

   This may be one first “disaster” films of this type ever filmed. On the train are a young newly married couple, he unbeknownst to her a con man interested only in her money; and not on the train but in a motorcar trying to catch up with it her former boy friend; also a male and female pair of thieves trying to get their companion drunk enough to rob him; a well-known doctor whose specialty is hypnotism (this is important); a female abolitionist who wanders up and down the train handing out temperance cards; a stutterer who can’t find anyone who can answer his questions; and so on.

   What adds most to the excitement, including lots of action photography — on the train, on the road, and in the air, are the quick shifts of scenes, faster than most in 1936, as I recall, even in this country. I’d have to see the movie again to see sure I caught everything the first time, and if I decide to do so, I’m sure I won’t be wasting my time.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


THE PARALLAX VIEW. Paramount Pictures, 1974. Warren Beatty, Paula Prentiss, William Daniels, Walter McGinn, Hume Cronyn. Screennplay: David Giler & Lorenzo Semple Jr., based on a novel by Loren Singer. Director: Alan J. Pakula.

   [Since it’s really not possible to adequately discuss Alan J. Pakula’s hyper-paranoid thriller, The Parallax View, without giving away the ending, this review is going to contain a multitude of spoilers. So, if you’d rather watch the movie first, by all means go right ahead and then come right back. Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way … on to the review.]

   Whether you love it or hate it, I think you’re sure to agree with me that The Parallax View is by no means an ordinary film. Some who watched it upon its initial release in 1974 may have not really known what to think of it. It’s a political thriller, but one that defies that genre’s traditional narrative structure in which a flawed, but well-intentioned, protagonist (usually a cop, government agent, reluctant warrior forced back into action) takes on an opposing force (a terrorist group, corrupt cops, etc.) and eventually defeated it, but also loses something fundamentally important (his values, his soul, a woman he loves, etc.) in the process.

   That’s definitely not the case in The Parallax View, a film in which the protagonist is neither a cop, nor is he eventually triumphant. Instead, the movie’s lead character is a hot-headed (and not overly sympathetic) second-rate journalist with more than a smidgen of antisocial tendencies.

   More importantly, he is fundamentally doomed from the start. Simply put: he simply never has a chance. To that extent, The Parallax View fundamentally inverts the Hollywood formula wherein the audience is enticed into rooting for a sympathetic individual to triumph over a villain. Instead, the movie presents a scenario in which the individual not only fails to achieve his goal, but he does so in such a way that his very efforts will never be adequately preserved for posterity. And the villain, such as it is in this untraditional film, is an amorphous, faceless one.

   Let me explain.

   Warren Beatty portrays Joseph Frady, an intrepid, but hardly topnotch journalist. He doesn’t seem to have many friends and, from what little we know about him, he doesn’t seem to be capable of a stable romantic relationship. When the movie begins, Frady is in Seattle where a United States Senator is campaigning for the White House. Since he isn’t properly credentialed, he isn’t able to take the elevator up to the top where there is a fancy reception.

   And maybe it was for the best, since the Senator ends up getting assassinated. What Frady doesn’t see (since he isn’t there as far as we can tell), but we as the viewer do see (this is important) is that there are actually two gunmen, both dressed as waiters. After the senator falls to the ground, security staff rush one of the gunmen and end up chasing him to the top of the structure, where he eventually plunges to his death. But they chased the wrong man. The real shooter got away. But that doesn’t stop a government committee, clearly modeled on the Warren Commission, from concluding that the assassination was the work of a single lone gunman.

   Flash forward three years and Frady’s working for a California newspaper, covering low-level crimes and generally getting into trouble. He receives a visit from his ex-girlfriend, Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), also a reporter. Notably, she was one of the reporters who was on the Space Needle that fateful day three years ago and witnessed the two “waiters” interacting with one another just moments before the shooting. She has some foreboding news for Frady, claiming that a lot of the people on the Space Needle that day have recently died in suspicious circumstances. Frady doesn’t buy it. He not only accepts the official version of events, but also thinks that Lee (Prentiss) is mentally unstable. All that changes when she ends up dead, the supposed victim of drug abuse.

   Her death is the film’s inciting event, the one that leads the protagonist (Frady) to take action (investigate Lee’s death). Frady goes to see a friend, an ex-FBI agent so as to obtain a fake identity (that of a social misfit) that would allow him to discretely investigate the mysterious death of one of Lee’s colleagues who was also on the Space Needle.

   After watching the movie as a whole, one begins to realize that Frady’s (Beatty) very first move may have fundamentally doomed him from the start. For by taking on the identity of a social misfit, Frady has positioned himself for eventual destruction. This begs the question that plagues the whole movie: at what point does Frady become the object of others’ machinations rather than an autonomous moral agent capable of shaping his own decisions within the world in which he finds himself?

   Frady’s investigation, meandering as it is, eventually leads him to a print advertisement from some entity called the Parallax Corporation. They seem to be looking for a certain type of person to join their mysterious company. Frady soon concludes that Parallax is in the business of recruiting assassins and becomes determined to infiltrate the faceless corporation. His investigation leads him to take two personality tests to see if he is the right “fit” for Parallax. While the first is a written one, the second is both auditory and visual.

   Frady is subject to a five-minute montage film in which words are overlaid with visual images of both patriotism and violence. Owing much to Soviet montage film theory, the film-within-a-film sequence (embedded below) fundamentally shifts the film away from a fairly predictable political thriller to something much more ambitious. Simply put, The Parallax View stops being a mere political thriller and more a meta-movie about film as an artistic and visual medium and the ways in which films can shape our understanding of the political world.

   For what happens to Frady after he watches the montage is both bizarre, in a narrative sense, and an implied commentary on how people think they understand pivotal moments in political history. After a series of fairly off kilter sequences, Frady ends up at a Los Angeles convention center where another US Senator is preparing for a major campaign speech. He suspects, rather knows, that Parallax is going to make an attempt on this Senator’s life and he’s determined to stop them.

   But he’s too late. The assassination goes forward. More shockingly, Frady immediately realizes that he has been set up as the patsy for the killing. He – or the social misfit whose identity he has assumed in order to investigate Parallax – is going to go down in history as the crazed lone gunman responsible for the killing. Just as in Seattle, a committee will conclude that he acted alone. Such is the conspiratorial view of history as presented in The Parallax View.

   Yet, one need not even remotely subscribe to conspiratorial thinking to appreciate what Pakula attempted to pull off in this movie. For as I understand it, Frady was doomed from the moment he took on the fake identity. And here’s why: Parallax was never in the business of recruiting assassins. They are in the business of recruiting patsies, individuals with personality types who would make convincing fall guys for killings carried out by their professional cadres.

   In some ways, that’s what’s most subversive about the movie. For if Parallax was in the business of recruiting patsies and not assassins, then Frady was simply just another pawn on Parallax’s chessboard. At some moment, he ceased being the lone individual struggling to find out the truth and just an object being molded into the perfect pasty. The key question – and one the movie never answers – is when. At what point does Parallax decide that Frady is going to be one of their fall guys?

   Up to now, I’ve essentially focused my attention on the film’s plot. But the plot cannot be separated from the visual means by which the narrative unfolds. Much of the movie is filmed in wide shots, wherein individuals are subsumed in comparison to imposing structures such as the Space Needle, a dam, and an office building. Befitting the film’s title, much of the movie is about points of view and how the spectator’s point of view often determined what he perceives to be the truth. Owing much to film noir, The Parallax View is likewise preoccupied with what happens in the shadows, both figuratively and literally.

   All of this leads me to a discussion that is sure to provoke some debate. Is The Parallax View a successful film or an overly ambitious well-intentioned failure? Or is it something in between? Is it merely pretentious or does it work at provoking the viewer into thinking critically about what he just watched? That surely depends upon your point of view or, more fundamentally, on what you think you just watched.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


I ESCAPED FROM THE GESTAPO. Monogram Pictures, 1943. Dean Jagger, John Carradine, Mary Brian, Bill Henry, Sidney Blackmer, Ian Keith. Director: Harold Young.

   Talk about great casting. I Escaped from the Gestapo stars Dean Jagger as Torgut Lane, an escaped convict forced to work against his will as a counterfeiter for a Nazi spy ring and John Carradine as “Martin,” a Nazi saboteur and the head of the aforementioned spy ring. Both men portray their characters to the hilt in this offbeat, occasionally thematically quite dark, World War II era thriller, one that cinematically looks something like a cross between an action-packed film serial and an early film noir.

   With a running time of seventy-five minutes, this programmer provides a surprising degree of characterization for noted forger Torgut Lane, demonstrating that during wartime even criminals can remain fierce American patriots. After Lane receives assistance in breaking out of prison, he soon comes to learn that his newfound friends aren’t friends at all. Rather, they are Nazi saboteurs based in Los Angeles who have decided they’ll hold Lane in virtual slavery while he works to produce counterfeit bank notes for them. Lane may be a criminal. But he’s no Nazi! And from the very beginning of his newfound captivity, he begins looking for ways to undermine the sinister Nazi plan against democracy.

   I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how perfectly suited John Carradine is to the role of the mysterious “Martin,” the Nazi ringleader. Urbane and polished on the surface, Martin’s deep down a true cold-hearted brute. In one particularly galling scene – one which likely shocked respectable audiences at the time – Martin sits and reads a book while his henchman beats Torgut Lane with a rubber hose. It’s a scene that would have fit well in the context of a late 1940s film noir, but seems unusually violent for a film released in 1943.

   It’s also worth mentioning that the film also contains a rather unique subplot involving a Gestapo agent tasked with guarding Lane. The man named Gordon (Bill Henry) never smiles and has a killer’s look in his eyes. This leads Lane, who is clearly adept at reading people, to nickname Gordon “The Butcher.” As it turns out, Lane’s instincts are spot on. The man guarding him has a brutal past and is guilt-ridden from the atrocities in which he has participated against European Jewry while he was still in Europe. Lane is able to exploit this guilt to his own benefit. It’s a plot element that further solidifies my opinion that I Escaped from the Gestapo is far from a forgettable morale booster during wartime and is well worth a look.

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


INNOCENT BYSTANDERS. Stanley Baker, Geraldine Chaplin, Donald Pleasence, Dana Andrews, Sue Lloyd. Screenwriter: James Mitchell, based on his own book, published as by James Munro. Director: Peter Collinson.

   Somewhere, deep in the heart of Innocent Bystanders, there’s a pretty darn good story about international espionage ready to be told. But I’d be kidding you if I told you that the Stanley Baker vehicle, such as it is, resembles anything that could even be remotely considered cohesive, gripping spy movie.

   Clumsily directed and sloppily edited, the film lumbers from dramatic scene to fight scene, all the while giving the viewer very little reason to care about how it’s all going to turn out. That is, until the last thirty minutes or so, when one begins to get the impression that the movie is going to turn into a trenchant look at Great Power politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. But, alas, it’s not to be.

   Baker portrays aging British master spy/assassin John Craig, a secret agent whose glory days may well be past. His conniving boss, Loomis (Donald Pleasence) gives him one last chance to prove his mettle. He tasks Craig with finding Kaplan, a Russian Jewish agronomist who escaped a Soviet prison. Apparently, Kaplan has developed a scientific technique that will allow the desert to bloom. So it’s not surprising that the CIA is also interesting in finding him.

   Most of the movie’s running time is devoted to following Craig and his newfound female companion, Miriam Loman (Geraldine Chaplin) who may or may not be an American or Israeli spy, as they travel from New York to Turkey in search of the enigmatic Kaplan. It doesn’t take long for Loman to fall in love with Craig, something I’ll never fully understand. He has neither the charm nor the wit of James Bond and is something of a bore. Still, the plot needed something to keep the viewer somewhat entertained, at least until they are able to locate Kaplan.

   As it turns out, Kaplan has an even bigger problem that the American and British intelligence agencies on his trail. He’s somehow ticked off a secretive group of Russian Jewish dissidents who are now working for the KGB. Or something. It all devolves into nonsense, making this movie a truly oddball feature. It’s one of those movies adapted from a book that probably could have worked, had the script been more coherent and did more to explain the motivations of its myriad characters. But it didn’t.

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