The Kremlin Letter (1970)

The Kremlin Letter.jpg

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

Advertisements

Red Sparrow (2018)

Red Sparrow

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.

The Duellists (1977)

The Duellists.jpg

Keep away from him. Keep ahead of him. Put your trust in Napoleon.  Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) and Gabriel Féraud (Harvey Keitel) are French soldiers under Napoleon in 1800. A trivial quarrel between the two men becomes a lifelong grudge, and as war rages on across the continent, the officers repeatedly challenge one another to violent sword and pistol duels:  in Augsburg and later in Russia, when they are isolated in the frozen wastes united against their mutual enemy. After 15 years, they have both distinguished themselves through military service and become generals and d’Hubert is happily married to Adèle (Cristina Raines); however, the rivals’ mutual hatred never ceases, even when the initial cause is long forgotten and now a final opportunity to kill each other arises …  Gerald Vaughan-Hughes adapted the Joseph Conrad story The Duel and it became Ridley Scott’s directing debut, more acclaimed for how it looks than how it moves and clearly in debt to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon even if it lacks that masterpiece’s disguised intensity. Frank Tidy’s luscious cinematography, shrouded now in fog, now in sunrise, is of the sumptuous variety and frankly once I saw the geese in the first frames, this had me at Hello. A terrific ensemble of British supporting actors rounds out the cast and for some critics this highlights the deficits in the characterising and performing of the leads – but in a sense, it merely underlines how separate they are from the crowd in their mutual obsession. They are angry, driven, and, in Féraud’s case, essentially and unfathomably vicious in his quest for superiority. As their colleagues freeze to death into statuesque stalactites in that disastrous excursion to Russia, there’s a brilliant moment when d’Hubert turns to Féraud and declares, Pistols next! Diana Quick makes a wonderful impression as Laura, a camp follower, Tom Conti is wry as Dr. Jacquin and Robert Stephens is lively as General Teillard. Alun Armstrong, Maurice Colbourne, Meg Wynn Owen (Hazel Bellamy in TV’s Upstairs, Downstairs) and Jenny Runacre all make the most of their roles. This is an old-fashioned tale of a gentleman’s honour, a concept now so outmoded and mystifying as to be from another dimension entirely. The ending is perfect. Narrated by Stacy Keach.  The duellist demands satisfaction. Honour, for him, is an appetite. This story is about an eccentric kind of hunger

The November Man (2014)

The November Man theatricl.jpg

Pierce Brosnan had his eye on Bill Granger’s books for a number of years and acquired the rights to There Are No Spies (the seventh in the series) long before he brought it to the screen under the umbrella of his own production company.  Roger Donaldson is the man he hired to direct this pretty grim actioner set in eastern Europe and Russia about a betrayal in the ranks that brings retired CIA agent Peter Devereux (Brosnan) out in the open to try to rescue his former lover. It ultimately involves the kidnapping of Devereux’s young daughter – whom he had by the woman who is killed off in the first twenty minutes in a violent action sequence that clarifies that nobody is taking prisoners. The fact that his former protege David Mason (Luke Bracey) is now apparently on the opposite side of right causes all sorts of moral quandaries in a story concerning double-crossing and political expediency and rivalries.  It’s all about a former Russian General now in line to become President and the refugee case worker (Olga Kurylenko) who wants to expose him for very personal reasons that go back to the second Chechen war. That and a hatchet-faced Russian hitwoman (like Gisele Bundchen before the rhinoplasty) who has a nasty habit of shooting people in the head. There’s no doubt Brosnan was a fantastic James Bond – he played him as a dark character with some terrifically droll lines – but this is a humourless outing and the post-communist world does not look like a very attractive place. Another film has been announced but it would require a much defter hand than what’s on display here.  It was adapted by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek.

Love and Death (1975)

love-and-death-movie

I fell over laughing when I first saw this on TV aged about 13 so I thought it was time to revisit and see if it holds up. With a screenplay by Allen, Donald Ogden Stewart and Mildred Cram you’d have a high expectation of this satire of Russian literature and the Napoleonic war being extremely funny and it is! Cram was a very popular short story writer and got the Academy Award for the perenially popular Love Affair (1939) which most of us know better from its modern iteration, Sleepless in Seattle. DOS of course was a famous humorist and wit, a member of the Algonquin Round Table and had a slew of movie credits to his name. He is immortalised as Bill Gorton in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. A member of the Anti-Nazi League prior to WW2, he was nailed by HUAC and had to abandon the US for the UK. Let’s just say he was a lot funnier than any of the censorious goons who hounded him out. Allen? He takes the concept of Monsieur Beaucaire and puts himself in the Bob Hope role, a coward running through swathes of Tolstoy with a disrespectful pitchfork in pursuit of real-life lady love Diane Keaton, playing the helpless trampy cousin he adores, and it’s an amuse-bouche for Annie Hall, that other devoted homage to anti-heroic schmuckery, sex and all-round meaninglessness in the face of egotistical slaughter. This is the film that birthed the exchange, Sex without love is an empty experience/As empty experiences go, it’s one of the best:  not necessarily what you’d expect in a piss-take of War and Peace. Supremely silly with screamingly witty lines and an abundance of hilarious sight gags – even the bloody battlefield scenes are a hoot. Gotta go watch it again and pretend I’m still 13. With Harold Gould, Olga Georges-Picot, Jessica Harper, and Death.

Reds (1981)

Reds poster.jpg

Warren Beatty is emerging from his shell with another film this Fall (about Howard Hughes) and it’s been a long time coming. He takes his time (over some things, apparently) and it’s always worth waiting for. This epic film about American radical John Reed took a very long time to make – weather conditions were part of the problem, the script was the other. The spine of the story is his romance with a married woman, Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), who was a dilettante journalist who left her husband to shack up with him,  and their love triangle with poet (later playwright) Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson). He travels to Russia to document the Revolution and returns a Bolshevik. In any dimensional epic a romance is inscribed as the secondary line of narrative but this is really dominated by the personal story because it’s principally about characters who are diverted by ideas and ideologies – free love is just about escaping responsibility, not assuming it. Discovering too late in the day that Soviet rule is corrupt and corrosive and murderous (with Jerzy Kosinski a suitably intimidating Zinoviev), our heroes are incapable of being saved from their own foolishness. Notable for its cinematography (Vittorio Storaro who got an Oscar) and a score by Stephen Sondehim and Dave Grusin, this includes ‘witness’ interviews with personalities as diverse as Henry Miller and Rebecca West and is perhaps the kind of film Godard would have made if anyone had been silly enough to give him Beatty’s budget. Maureen Stapleton won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her no-nonsense Emma Goldman and Beatty won for Best Director.

Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

Our_Kind_of_Traitor_(film).png

I was mystified by the title sequence to this film – slomo images of ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. Then a Russian family get murdered in the snowy forests. It wrong-footed me as I suspect it was meant to do. Because this is really a very long howl of protest by the great John Le Carre about the horrendous nature of corruption at the heart of the British establishment and the City of London, that sacred cow of Labourite and Tory alike, whose exponential development has led to the nicest residential areas turned into bulletproofed enclaves for Russian mobsters. Perry (Ewan McGregor) is a lecturer in poetics, in Morocco with his lawyer wife Gail (Naomie Harris) on a holiday we realise is intended to repair their marriage following his relationship with a student. He meets loud and noisy Dima (Stellan Skarsgard) at a party, becomes embroiled with his family and secretly agrees to bring a memory stick to London for the attention of MI6 who send Hector (Damian Lewis) to examine its contents. Dima launders money for the  Russian Mafia. Hector’s aim to get Dima and his family away from the Mafia’s clutches in exchange for information  is quickly disavowed when it becomes apparent he doesn’t yet have enough to get ‘the Prince’, head of the Russians, who wants to go legit with the help of a politician (Jeremy Northam) by laundering money properly through setting up a bank in the City. So Perry and his wife are asked to help a rogue mission for MI6. Danger, Will Robinson … This is a very specific kind of spy thriller and one that quietly sneaks into your brain, rather like a political worm unsettling your conscience, as Dima contaminates Perry’s. Hossein Amini’s adaptation does a fair job structuring what is hardly a classic spy tale but its morality lingers, as does the  realisation that Dima’s ultimate situation has been triggered by the classic act of familial  entrapment, witnessed, funnily enough, by Gail. Susanna White had the pleasure of directing Le Carre as a doorman to the Einstein Museum in a production of which he had an Executive role: those famous images of the scientist sticking his tongue out replay when it hits you what a confidence trick this film has pulled off. It makes you THINK.

Cross of Iron (1977)

Cross of Iron movie poster.jpg

When I was growing up one of my favourite novels was The Willing Flesh by Willi Heinrich. The story of a German platoon abandoned behind Russian lines in World War Two is thrilling.  I loved it so much I wrote a sequel to it – in French! (For a high school writing assignment. It was read out to a no doubt enthralled throng on a day I chose … not to attend!) So it came as rather a shock to find that it had been adapted as a film years earlier under this title. Julius Epstein, Walter Kelley and James Hamilton are the writers responsible. I acquired my copy from a video outlet in Belfast (along with Big Wednesday, a favourite) and someone called Mervyn complimented me on my choice. In truth James Coburn was never my idea of Sergeant Steiner and while it receives typically robust treatment by director Sam Peckinpah, for me, it is a hard film to love despite it being a great anti-war tract.  I recommend the book wholeheartedly.