The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

checkpoint2We’re going through a period of nostalgia for the bad old days of the Cold War. Back then you knew who your enemies were and you all played by the same rules. Sure, it was a dirty game, but our core values were at stake:  justice, freedom, human decency. We’d gone to war with the Nazis to preserve these values; they were worth fighting for, worth sacrificing for. And sacrifice we did, we and our British allies especially.

Oh, yes. And the Russians. They were our allies in World War II, and they also suffered, but things changed. Practically overnight they became our enemies. We were still fighting for justice, freedom, and human decency but now we were fighting Them, the Communists, who represented everything we hated. They were deceitful, underhanded. They cared nothing for human life, betrayed loyal comrades at the drop of a hat. Only the worst characters survived under such a corrupt system. We, on the other hand, remained pure.

John le Carré’s novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold shattered these certainties. Not only did it expose the cynical maneuvering of international espionage—which was nothing like the glamorous world James Bond traveled in. Morally speaking, We were no different from Them. Perhaps we were even worse, because we pretended to be decent whereas they admitted the truth. Nobody’s pure, the good don’t survive anywhere, and there’s no such thing as a noble cause.

Richard Burton’s burned-out spy, Alec Leamus, perfectly conveys the book’s message. Here was someone, as le Carré said, “who had cut throats in 39-45, who had done it all, been through the stuff, who had lived that secret crusader life.” He’s brought back to England, regains his humanity (he falls in love with the wonderful Claire Bloom, who had been Burton’s lover in real life some years earlier) and this is what allows his spook handlers to betray him.

Director Martin Ritt’s sympathies were with the Left, but he held no illusions about the Soviet Union and never joined the Communist party. Blacklisted for years, his own sense of having been betrayed, by Communism (his “lost love”) and by America is what gives the film its power. I’m not sure that the recent action-packed adaptation of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” has the same bite.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Clint doesn’t wear the poncho until the end of the movie. Two hours in, he’s changed outfits several times, trading his dark patterned shirt and duster for a Confederate army uniform, then changing into a sheepskin vest and the trademark beaver hat, but he dons the poncho only as an afterthought.clint

He takes it off a dead Confederate soldier — he’d given the boy his own coat, as a blanket, then didn’t have the heart to take it back after the kid died. He’d given the boy a couple of puffs from his own cigar, too.  Held the thing between the kid’s lips, a surprisingly tender gesture.

Clint and his cigar. That’s how his character shows emotion. When he and the Eli Wallach character, Tuco, first meet and Clint gets the idea of selling the Mexican bandit for the bounty on his head, he seals the deal by putting his cigar in Tuco’s mouth. Later in the picture, the two are heading away from the Spanish Mission where Tuco has been rebuffed by his brother, a priest. Tuco’s trying to put a good face on it, telling Clint’s character that his brother gave him a bowl of soup and begged him not to leave, but Clint’s character knows the truth.

“After a meal, there’s nothing like a good cigar,” he says, handing Tuco his cheroot.

I wouldn’t change a thing about this movie. Not a single thing. Ennio Morricone’s score: can’t get it out of my head. Eli Wallach’s Brooklyn accent: there he is, taking a bubble bath in some half-destroyed hotel room, when a one-armed bad guy barges in, holding a loaded revolver in his left hand. The last time we saw this guy, Tuco had left him for dead after a shoot-out. He’s been out for vengeance ever since, he tells Tuco, and in the time it’s taken him to find the Mexican bandit, he’s learned to shoot left-handed.

Blam! Tuco blows him away.  “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk,” says the Brooklyn boy. Love it!

(2 January 2011)


This film hasn’t aged at all. The Paris exteriors, the cafésbelmondo along the Boulevard Saint-Germain: you feel as if you’re right there, having a drink at the next table. Or driving fast in a stolen cadillac, the young Jean-Paul Belmondo at the wheel. He’s doing that sexy thing where he runs a thumb over his lips, not looking at you or the road, looking at himself in the rearview mirror. Talking to himself, posturing like Humphrey Bogart, pointing a gun out the window and pretending to shoot.

How did Godard get that intimate feel, and sustain it over an entire picture? You’re in Jean Seberg’s rather cramped hotel room, in bed with Belmondo. It’s Saturday afternoon and you’re just hanging around, bored. One minute you’re watching him boxing in his underwear, the next he’s telling you his all-or-nothing philosophy of life, which is only half-cooked, or half-true—you don’t know which half—like everything he tells you.

But you keep watching anyhow, not because he’s Belmondo . . .  Okay, you keep watching because he’s Belmondo, but also because you’ve been let in on his character’s private thoughts. You and the rest of the audience, but it’s as if you alone are witnessing the day unfold as naturally as a day in your own life. That’s what makes Breathless so great. It feels fresh, original, even fifty years on, and after repeated viewings.

You’re watching Belmondo run from the cops. He’s been shot in the back and he’s zig-zagging down the street, clutching his wound.  He falls just as he reaches the crosswalk.  Jean Seberg’s trailing behind and she’s there in time to hear his last words:  “C’est vraiment dégueulasse.”

She didn’t catch them, or she doesn’t understand what he meant.  Isn’t life like that?

Pelle The Conqueror

Frozen epics have a certain charm when there’s two feet of snow outside and the temperature is below zero.  Sitting on the couch, wrapped in an afghan, you can watch Scandinavians battle the elements and their own demons while sipping a glass of red wine.

The chill penetrates, though.  Max von Sydow is the Swedish widower who travels to Denmark with his young son, Pelle, in search of work and a better life.  Luck is not on his side; the two end up at a farm run by a brutal overseer.  Beauty, love, innocence:  all are crushed in this harsh environment.  Pelle is hardened by the misery and cruelty he observes and yet somehow manages to stay open to life.  This is the miracle of the film:  the boy’s wonder and gentle spirit survives.

Along the way, you get some stark landscapes.  Snow-covered fields give way to bleak and rain-lashed vistas of early spring.  Scenes of the stormy ocean, a schooner tossed on the waves, breaking up in the North Sea.  A man dies.  The sunlit summer days pass by all too quickly.   Mostly it’s winter, but in the last scene we see Pelle turn his back on cold Denmark and make for America.  A boy can dream.

(4 February 2011)

Great Expectations

The characters are Charles Dickens’s, as is the story (mostly), but David Lean made Great Expectations memorable.  Ask anyone who was a kid in 1946, when the film came out.  They’ll tell you that the opening sequence where Pip is surprised by an escaped convict while visiting his mother’s grave still gives them nightmares.

And who can forget Miss Havisham, the strange, obsessed old lady, still dressed in her bridal gown?  She’s been living in her darkened mansion for decades, growing more bitter by the day.  Mice dart in and out of the crumbling wedding cake on the cobweb-covered banquet table.  She summons Pip to play with her adopted daughter, Estella.  Lovely, haughty Estella, still a girl when she and Pip are introduced, but already cruel, remote.

“You can break his heart,” Miss Havisham tells her, savoring the prospect.

And to Pip she gives this chilling order:  “If she favors you, love her.  If she tears your heart to pieces, love her.”  Sinister Miss Havisham lives long enough to see her hopes fulfilled, and experiences a pang of regret when Pip confronts her with the evidence of his unhappiness.  But the damage cannot be undone.

Redemption arrives from an unexpected source.  Magwitch, the escaped convict whom Pip tried to help, if only out of fear, has been the boy’s secret benefactor for years.  He arranged to have Pip educated, to make him a gentleman.  Now he turns up in London to see the results with his own eyes.  Here is a bad man transformed by love.  Naturally, this being Dickens, he must pay the price for the crimes he committed, but he dies content, with Pip at his bedside in the prison infirmary.  And Pip is the better for having known him—although here the film and the novel part company.

Watch the movie, then do what I’m doing.  Reread the book.  You’ll enjoy it more than you did in high school.

 (7 February 2011)

To Sir with Love

I was eleven in 1967 when this film came out and I can’t say I remember much of the story.  The title song, though.  We used to slow dance to it at parties and my graduating sixth grade class sang it to our teachers, none of whom were anywhere near as cool as Sidney Poitier.

So, how does “To Sir With Love” stand up today?  Not very well, I’m afraid.  British theater was dealing with “serious” issues of class and, to a lesser extent, race.  Poitier had already acted in the first production of A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, then starred in the film version.  In that play, he had a much angrier role; even Virgil Tibbs,  his character in the award-winning “In the Heat of the Night,” had his edgy side.

But this film largely side-steps the issues, indulging in the kind of reverse-psychology approach to dealing with “troubled youth” that was common among guidance counselors and social workers of the era.  Poitier teaches the inner-city London hoodlums to treat him and one another with respect.  “No man likes a slut for long,” he tells the girls.  “Only the worst type will marry them.”  Straight talk from a straight guy.  sidney-poitier-judy-geeson-to-sir-with-loveHe takes them to a couple of museums and shows sensitivity for their personal problems.  Once or twice he loses his temper — these are probably the most genuine moments in the film — but there are plenty of embarrassing scenes.

I don’t blame Poitier, mind you.  A grown man in a suit, doing The Frug, is not a pretty sight.  But that title song’s a keeper.  When they sang it on the first-season “Glee” finale, even coach Sue Sylvester teared up.

(13 February 2011)

Doctor Zhivago

Omar Sharif plays a Russian and Doctor Zhivago was shot mostly in Spain by a British director, produced by an Italian. “Lara’s Theme,” the schmaltzy leitmotif that evokes the Julie Christie character, can still be heard in elevators today. Aspects of this picture seem dated, but there’s an awful lot to like, especially in these troubled times.


Let’s start with an early scene:  it is 1912 and a group of workers are demonstrating in the streets of Moscow, led by the idealistic Pasha Antipov, a young social democrat.  An equally young and idealistic Yuri Zhivago watches the scene from a balcony, and witnesses the violence as the workers are mowed down by Cossaks on horseback.  Pasha is radicalized by the event and becomes a revolutionary, lashing out against the regime responsible for such brutality, but growing more ruthless as the story progresses.

Yuri turns away, turns inward.  Each new upheaval in Russia, each act of violence, reaffirms his determination to live, to love, and to create.  Sharif registers pain in those soulful brown eyes.  Unlike Pasha or the commander of the partisan unit that conscripts him later in the picture, his character never loses his humanity, never sacrifices his concern for individuals, their lives, their hopes, their needs in the name of “justice” or some other abstract good.

Doctor_Zhivago_Image4_756_426_81_sAnd so we come to another key scene.  Yuri and Lara have taken refuge in the frozen dacha that belonged to Yuri’s wife’s family.  In the early morning, Yuri sits at his desk writing poems.  Wolves howl at the edge of the property, but inside the frost-starred window, we see the warm glow of Yuri’s candle.  A mere moment of safety, of peace; we know it cannot last.  But the beauty of that moment sustains us. May we all find hope in the glow of Yuri’s humanity.

A Man in our House

You can tell that the director of “A Man in our House,” Henri Barakat, learned his trade in Paris.  Here’s the story:  during the period of British colonial rule, a student radical, Ibrahim Hamdy (played by Omar Sharif)Man in Our House assassinates the Egyptian prime minister.  Beaten by the authorities, he manages to escape with the help of his fellow radicals and takes refuge with an ordinary middle-class family.

The film has the feel of a classic French thriller.  Claustrophobic scenes inside the family’s Cairo apartment alternate with shots of the Egyptian police as they close in on Ibrahim.  The sleazy cousin finds out that the family is harboring a terrorist and threatens to reveal him to the authorities.  A romance blossoms between Ibrahim and Nawal, the youngest daughter.  Of course it ends tragically, with Ibrahim sacrificing himself for the cause.  But freedom is dearer than life, and Nawal understands this.

While the genre is French, the movie’s message is staunchly Egyptian.  Keep in mind that “A Man in our House” was made under Nasser, in response to the ruler’s call for a new nationalist cinema.  Who could resist an opportunity to use film not simply to entertain, but to educate and unite a population?  “The people judged him,” Ibrahim says, justifying the assassination as an act of political protest; “I carried out the execution.”

For all its polemics, Barakat’s attention to the details of daily life gives the film an authentic feel.  We see the family gathering around the dinner table to break their fast during Ramadan.  We observe the rules, spoken and unspoken, governing interactions between the sexes, witness the children’s respect for their parents, the responsibility the father feels for protecting his family even as his nascent patriotism is awakened.  All of this is conveyed so naturally that we forgive “A Man in our House” its melodramatic aspects.  And when the sleazy cousin regains his dignity by identifying with the cause of independence, he explains his sudden change of heart in terms that resonate with the events in Tahrir Square.  “The man I was turning in sacrificed his life for my pride.”

(20 February 2011)

Monsieur Ibrahim

It’s tempting to view the title character of this film as the last in a progression of Omar Sharifs. The young firebrand of “A Man in our House” makes way for the more reflective, but no less passionate Doctor Zhivago.Ibrahim And here we have the seventy-one-year-old Sharif making peace with his past and handing over the mantle of his successful international acting career to the next generation.

“Monsieur Ibrahim” is a sweet, insubstantial film suffused with nostalgia for a Paris that never was. Kind-hearted prostitutes solicit customers on the well-swept streets of a working-class neighborhood against a soundtrack of sixties rock ‘n roll. There’s a whiff (but just a whiff) of anti-Arab feeling, a backstory involving parental abandonment, a suicide that leaves barely a trace on the adolescent hero’s psyche. Momo’s too busy coming of age to drown in his sorrows, especially since he has Sharif’s Turkish shopkeeper character, Ibrahim, as a surrogate father.

The two go off on a jaunt in a red sports car, to visit Ibrahim’s native land. He shows Momo a couple of churches and a mosque. Then he takes him to watch a Sema ceremony in his own Sufi tradition, dervishes whirling around their hearts, as Ibrahim explains the dance. “They lose all their bearings, that burden we call balance.”

Intriguing notion, but nobody loses their balance in this film. We see Ibrahim absorbed in the dance, but as an observer. A close-up of Sharif’s beautiful face: “They become like torches. They burn in a blazing fire,” he tells Momo. That’s the young Omar Sharif talking. The firebrand, the poet, the lover. But this version renounces the dance, ending his journey in the village he left. ”I’ve arrived,” he says on his deathbed. ”I didn’t know.”

And Momo? He goes back to Paris and takes over the shop.

(26 February 2011)

The Blue Angel

I don’t want to neglect Marlene Dietrich’s performance, or the terrific Heinrich Mann story on which “The Blue Angel” is based, but let me begin with the style of this picture.

Josef von Sternberg had a painter’s eye.  Every scene he directed is composed like an Expressionist work of art.  Take a look at some of Max Beckmann’s etchings.  Dressing Room, for example,

or Café Musik.

Now watch this clip from the film.  There you go, a mini-course on Weimar art and you get to listen to Dietrich sing “Falling in Love Again” as an added bonus.

Von Sternberg cared more about the look of his pictures than about the feelings of his actors, whom he regarded as “marionettes, pieces of color on my canvas.”  But Dietrich was the perfect marionette, and the legendary affair they conducted during the filming of “The Blue Angel” contributed to her reputation as a femme fatale, enabling audiences to see her forever after as von Sternberg did:  sensuous, provocative, cruel, and utterly irresistible.  The type of woman who leads men to their doom — and they go willingly — and sings about it afterwards.

blaue angelEmil Jannings specialized in playing degraded men in German films.  As Professor Rath, the high school teacher who falls for Dietrich’s Lola Lola, his performance is so perfect it’s painful to watch.  But it rings true, the way his childlike infatuation with the cabaret singer turns into jealous rage as Lola tires of him and drifts to another man.  The original story had more of a message.  Von Sternberg chose to end with the image of the dying professor clutching his desk, as if trying to regain his lost dignity.  Meanwhile, back at the Cabaret, Lola straddles a chair and lures her next victim with a sly song.  “Watch out for blondes, they have a certain flair, for stripping you bare and then leaving you.”

Forewarned is not forearmed in this case, I’m afraid.