The Kremlin Letter (1970)

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You’re a fool.  What’s worse, you’re a romantic fool. When an unauthorised letter is sent to Moscow alleging the U.S. government’s willingness to help Russia attack Red China, US Navy Intelligence Officer Charles Rone (Patrick O’Neal) has his commission revoked so he can do an extra-governmental espionage mission.  He’s speaks eight languages fluently and has a flawless photographic memory. He and his team are sent to retrieve the letter, going undercover and successfully reaching out to Erika (Bibi Andersson), the wife of a former agent now married to the head of Russia’s secret police, Kosnov (Max von Sydow). Their plans are interrupted, however, when their Moscow hideout is raided by cunning politician Bresnavitch (Orson Welles) and Rone finds himself being played by a network of older spies seeking revenge .My father says bed is integral to this and one must be good at it. Adapted by director John Huston with his regular collaborator Gladys Hill (who began as dialogue director on Welles’ The Stranger) from Noel Behn’s 1966 novel, this complex canvas of betrayal, treason, murder and double cross is in a line with Huston’s film noir period with a soupçon of Beat the Devil‘s absurdism. Its convoluted plot is best appreciated in response to the hijinks of Bond with its determinedly low-key approach allowing the banal thuggery of the spy master to be revealed. The cast is astonishing – Richard Boone as Ward, the peroxide instigator capable of literally anything, sadism, torture and murder;  two Bergman alumni united in transcontinental jiggery pokery; George Sanders playing piano in drag at a gay nightclub and worse, with a penchant for knitting; Barbara Parkins as Niall MacGinnis’ safe-cracking daughter; Vonetta McGee as a Lesbian seductress;  Nigel Green as The Whore, another old spy keen on playing dress up; Lila Kedrova as a Russian brothel keeper;  and Welles’ Gate Theatre mentor Micheál MacLiammóir shows up – in fact he’s the first character we encounter. A crazy cast in a fascinating Cold War timepiece that requires keen attention. Even so, it’s a stretch to have dour O’Neal pose as a gigolo to win Andersson’s affections. Still, Ted Scaife’s cinematography is a thing of beauty. Never mind the story, feel the wit. Huston appears early as the Admiral who gives Rone his marching papers. If you believe in a cause no danger is frightening

Red Sparrow (2018)

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The Cold War did not end, it merely shattered into a thousand pieces.  Russian prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) faces a bleak and uncertain future after she suffers an injury to her leg that ends her performing career. Her uncle Vanya(!) (Matthias Schoenaerts) is deputy director of the SVR and has photos which incriminate her dance partner and rival at the Bolshoi and she inflicts terrible injuries on the pair of them, as he predicted.  He then makes her a deal and she becomes a witness to a state-sponsored killing and either has to die or do what he says.  She needs her sick mother (Joely Richardson) to be cared for. She is sent to Sparrow School, a secret intelligence service set up by Khrushchev, that trains exceptional young people to use their minds and bodies as weapons under the watchful eye of Matron (Charlotte Rampling). Egorova emerges as the most dangerous Sparrow after completing the sadistic training process which turns her into a prostitute for the State, with killer abilities. As she comes to terms with her new job, she encounters CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in Budapest and he tries to convince her that he is the only person she can trust as her mission threatens to undo the security of the US and Russian alike and she agrees to become an agent for the US – or does she? … As the world moves back to Cold War positions, this throwback to that era aims to be a tough sexy thriller but Jason Matthews’ novel adapted by Justin Haythe abounds with clichés which no amount of nudity (gratuitous or otherwise) convince us that this belongs with the great espionage films we all know and love. Long and violent, there are some amusing exchanges, particularly with Putin lookalike Schoenaerts such as when his niece hisses  You sent me to whore school! I thought all Russian women went, but there you go. There are twists upon twists and ultimately they play well, with Lawrence very good in a role which is truly abject and horrible in parts. This is a fast-moving travelogue with a conclusion that is planted well in advance and you don’t need to be a master in spycraft to figure it out. It’s not Graham Greene, but what are you going to do? Lawrence is reunited with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence for this walk on the wild side and it looks splendid:  even the torture is shot prettily.

Despite the Falling Snow (2016)

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Winter is coming. So my thoughts naturally gravitate to films whose titles reflect grim weather. Political and otherwise … Shamim Sarif adapted his own Cold War novel which has a parallel narrative structure. In 1992 Alexander Ivanov or Sasha (Charles Dance) is living in NYC, a long-time exile from Russia where he was part of the political elite. His artist niece Lauren  (Rebecca Ferguson) lives with him, unaware of his past. Her portrait of her late aunt Katya stirs memories. Between 1959 and 1961 we learn of his romance (he’s played by Sam Reid) with Katya (also Ferguson) a Russian woman turned American agent who was using him for his access to arms secrets and who married him. She had sworn revenge on the Stalinist regime that saw her parents murdered. Her boyfriend Misha (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) helps her but then she really falls in love with Sasha and persuades him to defect with her … In 1992 Lauren wants to go to Moscow for an exhibition and a woman journalist Marina (Antje Traue) with whom she begins having sex is revealed to have a connection to her late aunt’s espionage activities, fully revealed when Sasha visits and Misha (Anthony Head) crawls out of the woodwork. Sasha learns what really happens to his lost love. This starts convincingly, with Sasha’s Cold War defection to the US, but overall the tension in the drama isn’t especially well handled and some of the intimate scenes are not put over well by the cast. Bizarrely, Dance and Head resemble the actors playing each other’s younger selves, which kills the drama. A promising story that seems like something from an entirely different age – until you start listening to the news.

Rumble Fish (1983)

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If you could have written one book in your life and you had a choice out of everything what would it be? I’ll nail my colours here and say I would love to have been Susie Hinton and wish that I was capable of writing something so plaintively romantic and atmospheric and attracting Francis Ford Coppola to the camera when it came to adapting it for the screen. (Isn’t it better to have written a wonderful, meaningful, heartfelt book that is so small it fits in your pocket and everyone has read at an important time in their lives than a large tome nobody has?). He shot this back to back with The Outsiders, that other great short novel she wrote. And it all happened because her fans at a Fresno school petitioned Coppola to do it. It’s the story of smalltown Oklahoma teenage gangs. Rusty James (Matt Dillon) leads one of them. He lives with his drunkard dad (Dennis Hopper) and he’s not too smart. He worships his absent older brother, The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke channeling Albert Camus) who’s a pretty legendary guy around these parts, at least when gangs ruled the roost and he ruled the gangs. Rusty James breaks his brother’s anti-rumble pact, the Motorcycle Boy reappears and everything changes … A beautiful, stately, painterly work  (by Stephen H. Burum) in monochrome – with the exception of those colourful Siamese fighting fish! – when all the actors were young and oh so achingly beautiful (with the obvious exceptions of Hopper and trash star William Smith). This is one of those films you either get or you don’t. With an homage to Penrod, an amazingly choreographed fight scene or two, a love story with Diane Lane and a radical score by Stewart Copeland, there’s only one thing left to say:  The Motorcycle Boy Reigns.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

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Poor Tom Cruise. He is one hell of an actor and in what is still probably his greatest performance in Born of the Fourth of July he found himself in a wheelchair-off against Daniel Day-Lewis. (Don’t try to tell me DDL has never given a crap performance – I’ve seen Nine, for Pete’s sake.) Mind you, he came back a decade later with a stunner of abject nastiness in Magnolia. So that’s the Oscar noms taken care of for now. But he is one hell of an auteur – as star and producer he has hooked up with some of the smartest people around, which means he’s pretty smart too. And he knows how to indulge what used to be called the cinema of attractions in any analysis of the early days of the business:  thrill a minute, sensation-building, audience-pleasing. He is a properly savvy star with charisma to burn and I love pretty much everything he does. In the fourth installment of the TV reboot, he makes the best episode since the first one (IMHO) and starts by breaking out of a prison in Moscow, gets blamed for blowing up the Kremlin when a competitor rides the coat-tails of his op and then the Secretary of the IMF (and I don’t mean Christine Lagarde) gets offed in front of him … so he’s disavowed.  It all gets nuclear and since Cruise is famous for doing most of his own stunts those of us who have vertigo have to avert our eyes when he tackles the Burj Khalifa. Gosh it’s terrific.  The way the team is pulled together (Paula Patton, great, Simon Pegg, a bit WTF?, Jeremy Renner, fairly suspect) is efficient, the trickery is marvellous and Brad Bird directs in super kinetic style as you’d expect from a man made in animation.The screenplay by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec is a marvel of economy and they provide really good performing opportunities for both of the main women (Lea Seydoux is one hell of a villain). I love this series and what is even better for us is that episode 5 is probably the best of the lot with a truly promising ending to an endlessly Bond-like scenario … If you’re interested in reading about Cruise as action hero I’ve written a series of articles about his collaborations with screenwriting legend Robert Towne for Creative Screenwriting magazine. They can be found starting here:  http://creativescreenwriting.com/mission-impossible-surprising-depths.