Suspense & espionage films


Scheduled for November. Hopefully theaters will be open by then. It looks like this one needs a big screen:

SALT. Columbia Pictures, 2010. Angelina Jolie (Evelyn Salt), Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski, August Diehl. Screenwriter: Kurt Wimmer. Director: Phillip Noyce.

   I have a theory that that says that the reason they called this movie Salt was so that they could call the sequel Salt II. But even though this movie cries out for one – a sequel, that is – it never came about. It is a shame, because not only did it do well at the box office, but I found it both faster and flashier than several James Bond movies which I will not mention here.

   Originally created with Tom Cruise in mind for the leading role, Angelie Jolie, as a CIA agent accused of secretly working for the Russians, proves that she can do the stunts (not herself, surely, all of them) and take as much physical punishment (on the screen) as any male actor in the world, including Tom Cruise.

   If by which you take that to mean that there are plenty of car chases, gunfire, explosions and attempted assassinations to fill anyone’s dance card for the evening, that is exactly what I wish you to take, with eye-opening twists in the plot to give you enough whiplash to keep your chiropractor busy for a week.

   It is not until it’s over until you realize how unlikely the whole affair was. And yet, even now that it’s over, I have to tell you that I found this the most enjoyable out-and-out thriller movie I have seen all year.

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

COTTAGE TO LET, aka BOMBSIGHT STOLEN. Gainsborough, UK. 1941. Leslie Banks, Alastair Sim, John Mills, George Cole, Michael Wilding, and a host of solid British supporting players. Screenplay by Anatole de Grunwald, from a play by John Kerr. Directed by Anthony Asquith.

   A surprisingly jaunty film to come out of England during the Blitz, and a solidly entertaining one.

   The plot circles around a cottage in Scotland that has been designated as a recovery hospital for wounded airmen. It has never had a patient, but:

   It houses the laboratory of an eccentric inventor (Leslie Banks) and:

   The grande dame who owns it decides it would be a perfect place to accommodate children evacuated from London during the Blitz. She gets only one, a scruffy street urchin (George Cole, in his film debut age 15) not knowing that:

   The agents who manage the Grande Dame’s property (he sign is an in-joke) have rented it out to Alastair Sim. and then:

   They get their first patient, a likeable downed flier (John Mills.)

   Add a comely nurse for romance, an officious butler for comic relief and it looks like a set-up for light comedy. But then:

   It develops that Banks’ inventions are really helping Britain in the War Effort, but information on them is leaking out to the Germans. So British Intelligence has sent someone there to ferret out the spy, and we’re supposed to guess Who is What while they all act suspiciously — except for the cockney kid from London, who is a fan of Sherlock Holmes (“The greatest bloke what ever lived!”) and uses his powers of deduction….

   From this point on, Cottage spins between deft comedy, suspense, and heart-stopping action in the early Hitchcock-Gilliatt vein, with cunning traps, narrow escapes, and characters with a bit more depth than one expects. Leslie Bank chafes so convincingly at official red tape that one suspects he may be selling his own secrets to the Nazis. John Mills is really quite moving as the flier who is not what he seems to be, and Alastair Sim, funny as ever, is surprisingly sinister in his best moments.

   This film began a life-long friendship between George Cole and Alastair Sim, who put him in many of his movies. It’s also a lot of fun, with a showy shoot-out in a tawdry hall of mirrors. Don’t be put off by the soporific title — this is the Goods!

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID FRIEND:

   

MIDNIGHT LACE. Universal Pictures, 1960. Doris Day, Rex Harrison, John Gavin, Myrna Loy, Roddy McDowall, Herbert Marshall, Natasha Parry, Hermione Baddeley, John Williams, Anthony Dawson. Director: David Miller

   Kit Preston (Doris Day) is an American heiress, living with her financier husband Tony (Rex Harrison) in affluent Grosvenor Square. Three months into their marriage, all seems well, but during a night-time walk alone through the foggy London streets, Kit hears a high, ghostly voice which, as well as knowing her name, threatens to kill her. Kit escapes, though her story is received light-heartedly by Tony, who believes a merciless practical joker is behind the incident. Next day, an accident at a construction site nearly kills Kit, and she is saved by good-looking contractor Brian Younger (John Gavin), who also, somehow, knows her name. Things get even more sinister when Kit receives a mysterious telephone call and is terrorised anew by the voice – now vowing to kill her by the end of the month.

   At the behest of Kit’s friend and neighbour Peggy (Natasha Parry), Tony takes Kit to Scotland Yard. Inspector Byrnes (John Williams) suspects Kit may be lying in order to receive attention from her busy husband. Kit continues to be terrorised by phone calls and remains on edge whenever she ventures outside. On one such occasion, she again encounters Brian, who reveals he used to suffer blackouts during the war. Kit is later menaced by a scarred man at home (Anthony Dawson), but nobody believes her.

   Even Tony thinks she is delusional, particularly when a doctor suggests Kit may be suffering from a split personality and arranging the calls herself. Tony is already distracted by work – an embezzler is stealing funds from his company – but decides to take Kit on holiday to Venice after she breaks down in despair. The caller, though, rings again and promises to kill her that evening. Tony and Kit plan a trap, one that quickly gets out of hand…

   Think Doris Day, and most people will think of romantic-comedies like Pillow Talk and That Touch of Mink, the musicals Calamity Jane and Young at Heart, and ‘Que Sera Sera’. But, of course, that song came from Hitch’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, which sometimes seems to be forgotten when considering Day’s catalogue. Perhaps because it was emphatically a Hitchcock film, with no less a titan than James Stewart in the main role, but it at least proved she could perform persuasively in another genre. She did it again, sandwiched between two Rock Hudson pairings, in 1960’s Midnight Lace. Coincidentally, or not, this psychological thriller pulls plenty from the Hitchcock playbook. In fact, it was hard for me to think of it as anything else. Aside from Day, it features three other actors who had been cast by Hitchcock in other films – Anthony Dawson and John Williams from Dial M for Murder, and almost-Bond John Gavin from Psycho.

   All of whom are reliably good whatever they are in, and though Dawson has far less to do here, he remains an ominous presence throughout, skulking enigmatically in doorways and giving Day – and us – the shivers. John Williams, happily, is playing more or less the same role as he did six years earlier, remaining every bit the quintessential Scotland Yard detective. Midnight Lace has other similarities too, being set in London and revolving around a wealthy blonde woman, married to a dark-haired Englishman named Tony, while her life is in danger. Grace Kelly, of course, had no warnings, while here Day is given almost nothing else. Relentlessly menaced, and disbelieved by everyone she knows, Kit begins to lose her sanity – something which the audience may already be questioning too.

   The films charts this descent, but in broad strokes, making the whole thing seem more like the grim, foreboding Suspicion rather than a psychoanalytical study like Spellbound. Obviously, it also evokes Gaslight, though this is a little less sinister as Kit never truly believes she is mad. The film would today be described as domestic noir.

   Though I like this name, it does rather ignore the fact that the genre stretches back at least to the eighteenth century gothic fictions which Jane Austen partially parodied with Northanger Abbey, then onwards into the romantic suspense novels of Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt and V. C. Andrews. The heroines in such things, however, were more independent than Kit is here. She doesn’t investigate the situation, merely suffers it, while a man comes to her aid at the end. There’s a short scene at the opera where she is politely assertive to a creepy, though thankfully furless, Roddy McDowall, and it would have been nice to see her demonstrate such steel elsewhere. Were it remade today, its star would almost certainly demand more fight from the character, though perhaps that would remove the elements of danger and helplessness which otherwise defines this gripping, atmospheric thriller. Highly recommended.

Rating:  *****

   

I SEE YOU. Saban Films, 2019. Helen Hunt, Jon Tenney, Judah Lewis, Owen Teague, Libe Barer, Alan Williams. Writer: Devon Graye. Director: Adam Randall.

   It’s best to go into thriller movies such as this one totally cold. Although I don’t believe the one below does, even the trailers can tell you more than you might want to know about the twists and turns the story line has in mind.

   I’ll do my best to keep such things a secret, but I have feeling that many reviews won’t, so please be careful out there.

   I See You begins with several threads of the story all at once, but all somewhat disconnected, but not really. First, a young ten year old boy disappears while bicycling through a heavily wooded area close to a small town where one of the police officers (Greg Harper, played by Jon Tenney) is having a domestic problem with his wife (Helen Hunt). He has discovered that she has taken on a lover, and while she has apologized, neither he nor their teen-aged son has decided to forgive her.

   Strangely enough, the case of the missing boy has all the earmarks of a culprit now in jail. Was he wrongly convicted, or is their a copycat at work? Even more strangely, scary events are beginning to happen at the Harpers’ home. Silverware is missing, the record player begin playing by itself, and Mr. Harper is locked in a closet. Worse, a coffee mug falls from the roof on Mrs. Harper’s former lover, and he is later found dead in their basement.

   This all spooky enough for several dozen movies, but the explanation is even spookier. This is all I will tell you, but I will say that the second half of the movie is even better than the first half, assuming that thrillers like this are among your favorite movie-watching fare.
   

MRS POLLIFAX – SPY. United Artists, 1971. Rosalind Russell (Mrs. Pollifax), Darren McGavin, Nehemiah Persoff, Harold Gould, Albert Paulsen, John Beck, Dana Elcar, James Wellman. Screenplay by Rosalind Russell (as C.A. McKnight), based on the novel The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman. Director: Leslie Martinson.

   I have a small confession to make. I’ve never read any of Dorothy Gilman’s books about the genteel elderly lady spy, Mrs Emily Pollifax, of which there are 14 of them, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax being the first. The combination of a cozy mystery with a serious spy story was just never anything I wanted to follow up on, even though I’ve had many an opportunity to do so.

   The good news is that in spite of some television-level production values early on, Mrs. Pollifax – Spy turned out to be an enjoyably amusing way to spend two hours. To back up some, though, Emily Pollifax is a widow living in Montclair, New Jersey, who has always wanted to be a spy, and now that her children are grown and living far across the country, she decides to offer her services to, where else, the CIA.

   And believe it or not, they have just the right assignment for her. She’s to go to Mexico as an ordinary tourist – no great difficulty there! – and bring back a book in which vital information is concealed. There’s a rough patch in the story line right along here, as it was hard to follow exactly what goes wrong,, but of course in a movie or book such as this, something indeed is guaranteed to go wrong.

   So wrong indeed that Mrs Pollifax ends up in a ancient citadel of a prison in Albania, handcuffed to a fellow spy, but a real one, named Farrell (a delightfully exasperated Darren McGavin). Well, pluck being Mrs. Pollifax’s middle name, the first thing she decides to do is to work out a plan to escape.

   I am not telling you anything you will not be surprised to know, but the ever resourceful lady does just that. At two hours in length, the movie is longer than it really should have been, but watching the fantastically talented Rosalind Russell in action will get you through the parts that sag just fine. (And as a closing note in that regard, this was evidently a pet project of hers, and at the age of 64, she carries on in her inimitable and consistently irrepressible fashion, in this her final theatrical film.)

   

   I’ve not seen a James Bond movie since Casino Royale, the first one in which Daniel Craig had the starring role. I don’t see anything in this one that appeals to me, either, but there’s plenty of time for me to change my mind about that.

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:


RUSSIAN ROULETTE. Embassy Pictures, 1975. George Segal, Christina Raines, Bo Brundin, Denholm Elliot, Richard Romanus, Gordon Jackson, Louise Fletcher, Peter Donat, Nigel Stock, Val Avery, Screenplay by Stanley Mann, Jack Trolley, Arnold Margolin, and Tom Ardles, based on the latter’s novel, Kosygin is Coming. Directed by Lou Lombardo.

   I was halfway into this late Cold War, early Glastnost, thriller set in a wet grungy version of a Vancouver so unattractive Canada should have boycotted the studio that made it when I realized I had seen it before. I’m not sure why I so roundly forgot it, but I surely did.

   In retrospect I suspect PTSD (no, I am not making light of PTSD, I have PTSD) from having seen it the first time.

   George Segal is Corporal Shaver of the RCMP, a plainclothes cop with an attitude and a life vaguely falling apart because he is on leave for punching his superior, Peter Donat, in the eye. As we meet him he is meeting with seedy Special Branch agent Denholm Elliot in a bar for Veterans with amputations (just why Elliot and Segal are members is never quite covered, nor is why if both belong to a small club neither knows the other).

   Elliot has the good sense to play the whole film as if he can’t quite figure out how to get out of it.

   Anyway, Elliot has a job to offer Shaver, one that might save his police career, and at the minor cost of his conscience. Rudoplph Henke (Val Avery) is a deviant Russian dissident living in Vancouver, a pain in the ass to everyone, and the Canadian government would like him out of the way during an upcoming diplomatic visit by Soviet Premier Kosygin — something the KGB, in the person of an insistent Soviet security expert (Bo Brundin) is pressing.

   All Segal has to do is kidnap the unpleasant Henke and keep him on ice for a few days. Hey, it’s Canada, no pesky Constitution to deal with, no big deal, right ?

   Meanwhile a flashy American, Richard Romanus, has arrived in Vancouver with a gun and a photograph of Henke. Obviously things are going to get complicated.

   And there lies the problem, aside from the grungy look of the film. The plot is absurdly complicated, and a film that builds up some real suspense toward the end with a race to save the target, is burdened by questions that don’t get answered and a Rube Goldberg construct of complications that really don’t seem necessary.

   If the Soviets had operated like this, we wouldn’t have had to wait nearly twenty years until they failed.

   So when Segal goes to kidnap Henke, only to have him snatched under his nose by someone else, rather than go to Elliot or his superiors, he decides to play private eye and find out what happened to Henke. This involves the receptionist at the RCMP he has broken up with (Raines) and her friend, a totally wasted Louise Fletcher. Because obviously a scene indicating Henke was violently kidnapped doesn’t need reporting to the authorities, who blithely assume Segal did his job.

   Later he doesn’t bother to report when his friend, another policeman, is murdered and left in Raines bathroom for information Segal already got somewhere else (and if it is that easy to find why kill … well, this film doesn’t bother to think these things through). Nothing had happened since Segal made a bad guy walk the plank off a railroad bridge and a body always picks things up. At least it does in better movies than this.

   We however pretty much know why Segal’s character is on suspension. He’s a lousy cop, he punched a superior, bungled a simple job and lied about it, drowned a suspect and claimed his new expensive sports car, and failed to report the death of a policeman.

   It doesn’t help that at several points Segal’s Shaver just suddenly knows things, like that Romanus, who offers him a lift when his car is towed (from a ski resort Segal has driven all the way to so he can speak to colleague Gordon Jackson who is coming back to town anyway), is trying to kidnap him. Just out of nowhere, because he’s the hero and Romanus character is about to be written out of the story, he knows the American giving him a lift is out to kidnap him.

   He doesn’t recognize him, Romanus hasn’t been following him, there is nothing suspicious about his car being towed (until later when it is, and meanwhile Segal hasn’t tied his car being towed to the coincidence of his being nearly kidnapped), and he doesn’t learn anything valuable from Romanus, though he does get Romanus nice Jensen Interceptor rather than the clunker he’s been driving.

   As far as I can tell, Romanus’s whole point in the film is so Segal’s character gets to drive that car.

   I had a Jensen in the seventies. It is worth at least a Richard Romanuses, I promise you.

   Of course. as you might imagine, Elliot and everyone is lying to Segal, and he begins to piece it together. Henke isn’t a Russian dissident, but an American CIA agent (why in the hell a CIA agent would pose as an anti-Soviet and live in Vancouver to spy on the Soviets is one of the bigger holes in the plot), and everyone but Segal knows that including the KGB Colonel who promptly kidnaps Segal and Raines and reveals his plot to assassinate Kosygin, for getting too friendly with the West, using the drugged CIA agent covered in explosives (and no, they never do explain how he is supposed to get close enough to blow up Kosygin since he is stoned out of his gourd) sitting in the doorway of a phony police helicopter (because the RCMP would never notice a stray helicopter while trying to protect a world leader or stop a staggering man wearing explosives from getting near a world leader).

   Raines and Segal escape from the farm where they are being held, and at least some suspense (about mid-film the director spends a pointless ten minutes as Segal goes from one Chinese restaurant to another looking for Elliot) kicks in as a race/chase ensues with cars zipping everywhere, quick cuts to the helicopter and drugged Henke, a whole Road Runner thing with Segal and the Soviet Colonel, and rooftop shootout between Segal, the Colonel, and the helicopter in downtown Vancouver, that, true to the quality of work Segal’s Shaver has shown up to now, ends with him murdering a CIA agent he could have stopped with a bullet to the knee.

   At one point he and Raines escape by causing a car wreck. He then takes the keys to the handcuffs from the dead driver and frees them, but does he take the gun the man almost certainly has — no, because if he had a gun, he could just shoot a couple of bad guys who are about to chase him. It’s that kind of brainless plotting that sabotages this at every turn.

   When he hands his boss Donat the rifle he confiscated from another policeman at film’s end, I half expected Donat to shoot him. The man is a menace. Clouseau is more capable.

   Did I mention this movie makes some of the worse music choices in the history of suspense movies that work to sabotage an already confused and confusing story?

   I’m not sure what anyone thought they were doing. The whole movie is ugly. Literally they cannot find one attractive thing is all of Vancouver and the surrounding countryside. Even the ski lodge is photographed ugly.

   Segal is better than the material, but wasted, and the amateurish confused direction and screenplay are frankly terrible. Good actors are given underwritten dialogue with no motivation and much of what does happen in the film is stretched to the breaking point where it could have been covered in a few lines of decent exposition.

   About fifteen minutes of suspense at the end doesn’t excuse the fact that nothing, including the big chase, makes any sense at all. They don’t give the viewer the chance Russian roulette (that’s another problem, the title gives too much away) does in real life. They load this one with duds and fire them all at the unsuspecting audience.

   But other than that, I liked it.


HOPSCOTCH. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1980. Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty, Herbert Lom, David Matthau, Lucy Saroyan. Screenplay by Brian Garfield and Bryan Forbes, based on the novel by the former. Director: Ronald Neame.

   It wasn’t intentional, but I saw this right after after watching Spy Game (reviewed here ), another film based on what happens after men in the spy business are about to retire, or in this case, unwillingly bounced out of the job. This is what happens to Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) when he lets his counterpart for the Soviet Union (Herbert Lom) go free when caught red-handed just doing his job.

   Matthau’s rationale is that it’s better to know who’s who on the other side rather the wait to learn who the new guy might be. But furious, Ned Beatty as Matthau’s new inexperienced boss, boots him out, permanently.

   What is there for Matthau to do but a little revenge, which comes in the form of writing his memoirs, which he starts sending out to publishers one chapter at a time, and staying ahead of Beatty and his former co-workers one jump at a time.

   It is but a game to him, and it is a lot of fun for the viewer too, but the viewer (this one, anyway) begins to realize that the game is all too easy for Miles Kendig. The game is far too one-sided. Ned Beatty, for all his profanity and foot-stomping, doesn’t stand a chance.

   The remaining pleasure therefore lies in watching Walter Matthau, he of the lugubrious, lived-in face, as an old pro at work. Glenda Jackson as his long-time lady friend, doesn’t have all that much else to do, but whenever the two of them are on the screen together, the chemistry between them makes sparks fly.

   All in all, though, when compared to Spy Game, the only category for which I would rate Hopscotch more than second best is light comedy, at which there was none better than Walter Matthau, that and the additional presence of Glenda Jackson.

   As a movie, it’s a lot of fun to watch, I grant you, but when what’s happening on the screen starts repeating itself, you know the movie’s over, and way too soon. And worse, there’s never a sense of urgency or tension in the story that’s told. Even if played as a comedy, which this one is, stories of a master spy at work should never be as relaxing as this one.


SPY GAME. Universal Pictures, 2001. Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, Catherine McCormack, Stephen Dillane, Larry Bryggman, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, David Hemmings. Director: Tony Scott.

   One of my favorite subgenres of the spy film or novel is that of the grizzled old field agent (figuratively speaking) who’s approaching his last day on the job is approaching quickly, whether voluntarily or (in some cases) being shoved out the door in a quiet but efficient bum’s rush. This one’s the former, but it makes no difference. When a small crisis comes up, Matthew Muir (Robert Redford) gets quite a bit of satisfaction in knowing that he’s really still at the top of his game.

   On his last day at the CIA, it helps that he still on contacts around the world who can give him a full warning that something has happened in China that he needs to know about, well before he’s called into a meeting with his superiors, men in suits all, with no particular expertise in the field.

   What has happened is that one of Muir’s former proteges, a fellow named Bishop (Brad Pitt), has gotten himself captured trying to free another prisoner, and unless the US makes some concessions on an trade agreement still being negotiated, Bishop will be executed. Muir has only 24 hours to clean things up.

   Much of the film is taken up by flashbacks to show how Muir developed Bishop as an agent, starting back in the Vietnam War. The relationship, while generally friendly, was also very often a prickly one, and of course it was a girl Bishop is attracted to that causes a serious rupture in their relationship. But in the present, Bishop has to somehow be rescued, and it is the wiles of Muir that are needed, while at the same time keeping the brass at the top off his back.

   It’s a neat trick if he can do it, and it is Robert Redford who is perfect in the part of the visibly aging Muir, who shows us all that you should never count out older guys when it comes down to getting things done, and that experience matters too.

   So as I say, this movie was a lot of fun to watch. Adding to the verisimilitude of a story taking place in wartorn Middle Eastern locale, much of the movie was filmed in Lebanon, with lots of well photographed action to go along with the tricks and chits that Muir is able to call in. I enjoyed this one.


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