Cold Warrior Spy: Richard Burton

DATELINE: Don’t Make’em Like This Anymore

 Dazzling Burton!

The extraordinary 1965 film of John le Carré’s classic,The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, has been listed on Prime as an action thriller. Of course, it is neither. It is a bleak, sober, cold and dreary film about moral turpitude among the espionage community.

John le Carré himself was an agent of MI-6 who turned into a novelist.

This was a seminal Richard Burton performance: and no one ever, even today, can convey the dissipation and ennui as he can. To watch him staggering around (as a double agent) in rainstorms and walking around bleak streets, avoiding a tail is in itself remarkable. We even see him in a Volkswagen, as an M-6 agent pretending to defect to the East.

George Smiley, the most famous of all the LeCarre agents, is here in the form of an unimpressive figure (actor Rupert Davies) working for Control. We believe it is the first Smiley appearance in a movie, as he later became known for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spyin several movie incarnations (Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman, notably). Here he is a plot key, but mostly as a spoken name.

Claire Bloom is the female lead. It was one of the few movies that Elizabeth Taylor simply could not play with her then husband. She would not make a convincing demure librarian—and had to pass on the role when director Martin Ritt put his foot down and said, “NO!”  Bloom is perfect. Burton was peeved and Taylor hung around the set causing mischief.

Oskar Werner has the other smallish but central part as the nemesis to the British secret agent. He is the elusive and dangerous East German spy that has hamstrung MI-6—and must be discredited to the Soviets.

That’s Burton’s job: not glamourous or exciting, but could mean his life is up for Cold War grabs.

Climax is at the Berlin Wall where double-crossing takes on a double meaning.

 

Burton’s angry speech near the end is worth the entire film.

 

 

Coronavirus or COVID-19: Return of Black Death?

DATELINE: Past is Prologue

 Resurrected London Victims!

To try to gain a perspective on the historical viral earthquakes in society, we went back to a 2014 British documentary called Return of the Black Death.

It gave us a non-comforting and chilling perspective on what is happening today. The archaeologists and virologists involved in this little one-hour film made it clear that the Black Death was no fluke: we can have another plague at any time. Viral decimation is more than ever a possibility, owing to our worldly incompetence.

And, in case you were unaware, the exact DNA of the original plague of 1349 is doing quite well in Africa right now. It’s in the rats and their fleas.

When excavating in London for a new subway five years ago, they encountered an old cemetery from the days of the Black Death. It was uncovered and a dozen or more bodies were disinterred to give some answers about what happened. Believe it or not, they really don’t know because records and medical info was not exactly scientific in those days.

The news is that 60% of Londoners died within 9 months. The Black Death came swiftly from Europe in November and stayed until summer. Since people were already ravaged from bad famines and poor nutrition, they were sitting ducks for the plague.

Burials were key: through funerary rites and procedures, the survivors took comfort. Bodies were laid out, stacked like lasagna (their metaphor in the doc), but the care for the dead buoyed spirits of the living.

These viral horrors can do devastation for the unprepared: but isolation helped in 1349—and it may today, but this could be far worse, owing to jet travel, viral passengers on everything and everyone. It could end up being an annual horror story.

Will 60% of us die? With inept leaders and shoddy politics at the cutting edge, we may be looking at a Black Plague that is more genocidal than anything Hitler devised.

From Afar, but Too Close for Comfort!

 DATELINE: Caracas Maracas

 Smoldering Luis Silva.

A few years back, a film made in Caracas called From Afar caused a minor stir in arty film circles. Indeed, some reviews left by “average” viewers noticed the only people who were intrigued with the movie were “professional” movie-goers.

What a miniscule, expert audience indeed.

Most called this a “hate” story, not because they were homophobic elements to the May-December relationship of a 50-year old denture technician and a teenage boy with an interest in cars, but because it did not fit the convention of an upbeat gay story.

Good grief. Two unusual and secretive people may well behave in non-traditional ways—and perhaps they are not really nice people deep down. Another critical crack at the movie pointed out that the ending was obscure, downbeat, or negative.  Oh, no, not in a gay movie!

It is what it is. But, activist gay types are limiting the rainbow colors. Only positive gay images should appear in your movie.

The two star-actors (Luis Silva as Elder, Alfredo Castro as Armando) are quite perfect in their roles. As a stand-offish older man who really isn’t into sex with an angry, passionate younger man who is “straight,” we have the makings of a power play of chess moves.

There is indeed something smoldering below the surface in which the younger (named ironically Elder) may be manipulated into a trigger man for a dirty job.

This is not a movie for those who see subtle psychology as “boring.” If you cannot read a Henry James short story, you may not be able to sit through a 90-minute film about motives under the surface.

As for us, we give all movies an even-break. This one deserves much more for its integrity.

 

 

 

 

 

Just Friends is Just Marvelous!

DATELINE: A Sleeper to Wake You Up!

 New Stars!

We had the pleasure of watching a Dutch movie that was not insipid, nor overly obvious. Just Friends is a gay movie with a light touch.

Subtitles are secondary to the beautiful production and images, and Josha Stradowsk is stunning to look at, and he meets a Syrian played by Majd Mardo. They have chemistry and are delightful in their growing friendship.

The usual angst over coming out and family conflict are truly not part of the sophisticated tale. They are sexy, chic, and well-to-do. There are other conflicts that impede their relations, but Majd takes a job as housekeeper at Josha’s grandmother.

She is a delight too, as matchmaker and wise old lady.

These are intelligent young men, and their maturity makes for a story that appeals to all viewers. Josha is the one who has a hobby with his drone, and he sees Madj surfing from above. It is intriguing how connections are made.

Without a doubt, you seldom meet people in character movies that you really would like to spend time with, but these two are pleasant dinner companions.

What impediments to their friendship that must be overcome are not melodramatic and work out, making your time with this story fly like the drone, over the Netherlands and its beautiful world.

If you’ve been stung by horrible gay-themed movies of all stripes, you need your faith in a good film restored. This is the antidote.

Knives In and Out of Fashion

DATELINE: Old-Fashioned Murder Comedy

Massachusetts mansion.

The comedy murder mystery of the year, of perhaps the decade, is a Charlie Chan rip-off that is as trendy as it is traditional. Knives Out  raises the question of why would anyone have a display of hundreds of knives in his parlor.

We think the set designer deserved an Oscar, or a strait-jacket.

An all-star cast of suspects seem to have as much fun making, perhaps more than those of us watching it. Director Rian Johnson moves his cast to the real star of the movie: a gothic house most suitable for his plot outside of Boston.

The lunacy of the house furnishings is like a Victorian nightmare, hardly something anyone would design, even an Agatha Christie murder mystery writer (Christopher Plummer) who hates movie versions of his books.

The family gathers for his 85thbirthday—including his mother who must be 100 at least. And, the family members and staff are equally troublesome.

The cast even gathers for the reading of the will, which entails just about everyone—except the murder victim.

The best line delivered by Chris Evans is about cornpone Daniel Craig, playng super sleuth Benoit Blanc as “CSI- KFC,”   in shades of Sherlock with Hercole thrown in. But, we keep seeing James Bond slumming.

Director Johnson is utterly cruel with his camera. We have never seen these old stars looking so old. Every crevice, crease, and open pore, is ready for your perusal. Even Daniel Craig looks surprisingly aged in the wood.

The red herrings fly by at an alarming rate, so quickly it’s hard to keep track of the lies and false statements. We suppose Plummer’s nurse may be from Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, or Paraguay, as everyone cites a different locale.

The few scenes around Boston are amusing for those of us who are homebodies—and we snickered when Gary Tanguay, a Boston sports reporter, showed up as a newsguy at another station.

It’s a silly romp and more like what old movies used to be, and those Sherlock/Chan/Poirot stories were more succinct. We suppose there could be a new series for James Bond here if he so chooses.

Serge Lifar: A Life with Ego & Dance

 DATELINE: Collaborator

 Lifar with Diaghilev & Stravinsky.

The French documentary is entitled A Revolution in Dance, and that is applied to Serge Lifar, a danseur and ballet maître who went from the era of Diaghilev to the dawn of Nureyev.

With covert and sly methods, the teenage Lifar managed to put himself before the grand Maestro—and caught the eye of the aging powerbroker. It led to an education, seven years of stardom in the Ballets Russes, and a future however Lifar chose to go.

After Diaghilev’s death in Venice, Lifar went to the Paris Opera House and made himself a home for thirty years. Literally, a home. He was there day and night, choreographing and plotting.

His outrageous demeanor became the stuff of social life and gossip columns. It was only incidental that he made ballets—and innovative ones too, Icare, based on the Greek legend of Icarus.

For a dozen years, he was the staple of the Opera House and transformed the focus of the Paris scene on dance. Then, the roof fell in: sort of.

When the Nazis captured Paris in 1940, Lifar was a stateless person—and played ball with Joseph Goebbels. He even met Hitler, at least twice we know of, and he allegedly refused to go to Berlin to start a corps de ballet there. We suspect Lifar would never deny Hitler directly. It led to charges later that he was a Nazi collaborator. He was even seen parading around in a Nazi uniform and the theatre for his performances were Aryan Nazi officers who loved his shows.

After the war, a tribunal banned him from dancing in France—but he wheedled his way out of that guilty verdict and was back on stage by 1947. You could say he overstayed his welcome, remaining a principal danseur until his mid-50s when his bones creaked over the stage.

When he finally retired, he was still a tabloid sensation, a good headline and an outrageous media person until he was 81 and the new era had fairly forgotten this legend.

Alien Secrets Beneath the Ice

DATELINE: Linda Moulton Howe 

One of the foremost female investigators in the UFO business is Linda Moulton Howe. Now she is acting like an auteur: directing, writing, producing, editing, and narrating her own special documentary on Antarctica: Secrets Beneath the Ice.

She astounds with her no-nonsense journalism.

With two whistleblowers with their identities in secret too, we have Lt. Commander Navy Seals telling us what they encountered: six giant facilities going miles under the ice at the South Pole. These giant levels are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

A coalition of governments have conspired to keep all this secret—and have done so since the days of the Cold War, which apparently thawed in Antarctica.

Howe also manages to extract shocking details that the Sphinx is part of the seven races of aliens who have been involved in Earth development. Some feel we have outlived our usefulness and want to be rid of the vermin on the planet. A few others want to protect us.

Howe learns the Sphinx is 35,000 years old and other pyramids with more information are buried under tons of sand.

If this is not enough, we learn that there are portals or instant wormholes on Earth, dozens of them known to the secret nation coalition. A few go from Alaska to Pearl Harbor. Some may go deep into the universe, or other universes!

If you want more shocks, this documentary has them all, including a trade agreement and space force that is out there on the dark side of the Moon. Apparently Trump and Putin have much in common with their secret alien allies.

And, yes, the Nazis clearly were in Antarctica and in contact with one of the destructive alien races that wants to diminish Earth’s population.

We seldom say that a documentary like this requires an additional viewing, but there was much to digest in this hour-long expose.

 

Radius, or Radiation?

DATELINE: Instant Classic!

 Klattenhoff acts puzzled!

An independent film made in Manitoba has the distinction of being a fascinating fantasy-sci fi-thriller of most unusual quality.

Radiustakes its simple plot and never exceeds its tight grasp on the situation.

Supernatural? Science fiction? Fantasy? This film defies categories and transcends all of them.

Radiusmanages to hold our curiosity and shock us with a lack of monsters, UFOs, or other junk you’d expect. Special effects are minimal, but have a fascinating power that reminded us of those 1950s sci-fi thrillers.

Two people with amnesia are hopelessly tied to each other. If they go outside of a parameter of fifty feet, one emits a deathly energy that kills any living creature.

Diego Klattenhoff and Charlotte Sullivan are the essential two-actor cast. All others are doomed to some mysterious death ray almost immediately. Klattenhoff also served as producer on the picture.

Trying to figure out what’s going on never violates your intelligence quotient. It grows steadily—and the revelations are more and more disturbing. If there is a paranormal, inter-dimensional connection, it has provided justice and redemption for the main character. It is morality coming from some esoteric alien force.

We cannot stress enough how surprised we were at the high-quality production, direction, acting. Some viewers were apparently bothered that the film did not devolve into the usual clichés.

We enjoy such discoveries and love to share them. Take in this film.

 

Blue Maximum for the Blue Max

DATELINE: Chess in the Sky  

 Real Stars Fly High!

We missed this little forgotten gem back in 1966, and today it is just a delicious extravaganza from the over-the-top studio system on its last legs. It is another faux epic but it is as big as the sky.

Clocking in at nearly three hours, The Blue Max was an important war movie for the Vietnam era. It told the story of chivalry in Germany during World War I. There, a common infantryman rises to air corps—and is ambitious enough to rival Von Richtofen.

The film has the benefit of George Peppard as his most unpleasant rogue antihero. However, the picture does not take off for forty minutes. That’s when James Mason and Ursula Andress take to the air as a German general of some sort and his countess wife.

Suddenly the movie comes alive. And Mason and Andress steal every scene they’re in. Elegant, aristocratic, and disdainful, you could not have two more delightful actors to change the pace of a war movie.

When Mason calls Peppard as “common as dirt” and a hero for the masses, you have the new era of movies entering on a biplane that could only shoot down King Kong in the movies.

There are long stretches of dog fights between Peppard and British planes, which are spectacular, but we can’t help but think this is nasty combat and is meant to kill the other pilot, not merely shoot him down. It dampens the undercurrent of a fun war.

A large cast also displays ugly hand-to-hand combat with bayonets, interspersed with Jeremy Kemp and Peppard’s rivalry over their extra-marital interest in Kemp’s auntie Ursula.

Scenes of glorious air flight are contrasted with uninspired ground troop massacres. We know that the chess match between Mason and Andress will result in Peppard having his Blue Max match his blue eyes at any cost, but he will end up the patsy of the villains. It’s worth watching two great film stars (Mason and Andress) in full throttle.

Charlie Chan from 1936

DATELINE: A Cursed Movie?

 Unlikely Swedish Hawaiian

We really don’t see the hubbub over an actor playing ethnic or racial roles if there is dignity and nothing racist in the situation. Apart from taking a key role in the payroll department away from an actor of Chinese Hawaiian extraction, there seems only minimal harm.

In Charlie Chan’s Secret, you have the peak of a respectful Chan movie. He has no comic sidekick son and characters call him “Mr. Chan” out of respect. Fifty years later a black actor playing a detective insisted they “call me Mr. Tibbs.”

Swedish actor Warner Oland is about as far as you can go from being Chinese American. And, that so-called accent is actually a cadence without using certain words. It doesn’t seem offensive, but we are laid back on this movie, turning us into an offensive apologist unfortunately.

You would never make this movie today, but that’s the point. It was made over 80 years ago. And, it has a certain charm in its sociological innocence. Within a few years, the role became a racially offensive joke, which may show the cycles of racism.

Charlie Chan’s Secretfeatures sunken luxury liners, missing persons, a center for psychic research, fake mediums, and assorted red herrings among the rich in San Francisco.

The usual suspects all have reason to kill the heir to the fortune of the Colby family: lawyer, psychic researcher, greedy cousin, all benefit from his death. Comic relief is provided by an overly nervous butler (marvelous Herbert Mundin who died young in a car crash a few years later).

Yet, there were other curses on the movie. Within a few years, the prime suspect actor Arthur Edmund Carewe died by suicide shortly after the movie’s release when he learned of health problems.

And, of course, Warner Oland went on vacation to Sweden and died there of bronchial pneumonia. Several other actors found their careers at dead ends after this picture. It really was the Curse of Charlie’s Secret.

Trump as Movie Critic &/or Norma Desmond

 DATELINE: Old Time Movies!

At a campaign rally this week, Donald Trump showed another facet of his koo-koo bird presidency. He started attacking Hollywood’s Oscar choice of The Parasitefor best picture. It seems he does not care for South Korea’s movie industry.

 

If it had been made in North Korea, he might have been more tolerant. Perhaps he just has an intolerance for parasites, or movies that attack and ridicule rich people.

We firmly believe that Trump never watched The Parasitebecause of its subtitles. We all know that he is a dyslexic reader and has trouble with big words and fast scrolling of verbiage. His own notes are large block letter words that are monosyllabic.

However, he did cite 1950’s Sunset Boulevard as his idea of a great movie. We presume his followers have never seen it, and young people would never watch a black & white movie.

You may not recall the Billy Wilder-Charlie Brackett movie from 1950. It was a dark satire extravaganza about the dissolution of a silent screen siren.

Gloria Swanson took the role that Garbo refused and said the immortal words of Norma Desmond who is accused of once being big in movies: “I am still big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

Trump may well paraphrase the famous line: “I am big. It’s the White House that got small.”

You know that Trump is always ready for his close-up—and in fact, demands it every day. He is about ready to have the police and men in white coats come and take him away, just like poor old Norma Desmond.

 

Ossurworld’s William Russo just published a book on producer Charles Brackett who made Sunset Boulevard. It’s title is TITANIC’S FORGOTTEN MOVIE, available in softcover or ebook for smart readers.

  Man off the Eiffel Tower

DATELINE: Flawed Movie 

 Laughton in detective hero mode.

Making a motion picture on location in Europe in the late 1940s was done masterfully by Carol Reed and The Third Man. Trying to emulate that came a Paris-based production called Man on the Eiffel Tower.

Filmed entirely in Paris and in color, it was meant to be a travelogue to whet the appetite of arm-chair tourists and fans of Hercule Poirot, with a bad stand-in, Inspector Maigret.

It should have been interesting and one of the post-war gems. Alas, despite car rides through the streets of Paris, lunch on the Eiffel Tower, and a climax in which the supervillain plans to jump off with breathtaking views, the movie is a mess.

It is a Maigret mystery with Laughton as a slightly irascible, overweight, curmudgeon. He is perfect and does his usual schtick in routine fashion, playing opposite a foppish and dissipated looking Franchot Tone. Laughton is not Hercule (who is Belgian, we know), but might have had trouble with the fastidious role.

Taking over directing duties when Laughton threatened to quit the movie (and you can see why he may have considered it), is Burgess Meredith. We see him here a decade before he played a similar role on Twilight Zone in a classic episode about a man wearing thick eyeglasses.

Also aboard is empty-suit leading man Robert Hutton, also looking less boyish than usual.

Perhaps the source material of the famous detective failed them, but the movie leaps and bounds to try to capture the flavor of Paris from rooftop chases to taxi rides around the ambiance of the Left Bank. It is mostly American actors or Brits pretending to be as French as the actual settings.

It just didn’t work, and throw in a music score that is intrusive and overbearing, and you have undercut drama, suspense, performances, and plot.

What a disappointment. This film is a classic of bad movie-making. The producer tried to bury it by hiding all the prints, but failed.

 

 

 

  Double Your Spies

DATELINE: Double or Nothing?

 Gere & Topher!

It only took us a decade to come around to The Double, a Russian spy infiltrates the CIA and/or FBI thriller. This one slipped through the cracks ten years ago, and we wondered why.

Perhaps the stars were box-office poison back then. Today, they look like classic performers, doing Hamlet.

You might be held back because of the smarmy leads: there is Richard Gere, in varying shades of white and gray as he plays himself in 25-year flashbacks as the ubiquitous CIA wrecking crew.

Then, there is the ever-irksome millennial Topher Grace as the research librarian turned field agent for the FBI.

They are forced to team up to find the former Soviet agent called Cassius who led one of the most dangerous murder groups out of Russia back in the 1980s.

You need only watch the trailer for this film, and you have a pretty good idea who the double is and how dangerous he may be. You will be on the road of the Red Herring.

Topher Grace’s analytical agent claims Cassius is not dead, not executed by Gere in his last act before retiring. They disagree, and then we begin to suspect that the double is the agent leading the hunt.

All of this is droll and clever until improbable meets impossible in the grand finale. We still aren’t sure who was supposed to kill whom for what government. Oh, Martin Sheen is along as head of the CIA. So, you can trust him.

As for the rest of these double agents, you sympathize at your own risk. Well, it was diverting.

Many Years Ago at Marienbad

DATELINE: Classic Movie Requires Another View

 

The amazing classic French “art” film called Last Year at Marienbad was a tremendous influence on TV commercials. It was too esoteric to do much else for dumb audiences.

Well, the film has been re-mastered—and is stunning to see. The rococo corridors we saunter for long ambling walks are fresh with elegant details.

The narrator with ennui seems even more parfait for the job. And, you cannot find a more stylized actress than Delphine Seyrig. She couldn’t follow up this act with any other film performance, which is a career defining acting job.

You soon are staggered by the actors who wander the hallways making the same comments repeatedly. They never blink. It is rather disconcerting, but Resnais never let them blink in a scene, and most of the time they are moving at a snail’s pace.

We loved the cameo of Alfred Hitchcock to set the tone in the first 15 minutes.

Is it Marienbad or Frederiksbad? The grounds outside the hotel are so bizarre as to fit the nature of the tale.

And, the tale is a ghost story. Long before Stephen King took us to a Colorado haunt, the Marienbad location is even more horrific without one shred of blood. However, there are mysterious deaths. Who shot whom? And who fell off the balustrade?

The game with matchsticks is maddening—and fate.

The characters often refer to seeing phantoms or not being alive. Well, yes, they are all dead, reliving that hideous season when the lake frozen over in 1928, or was it 1929? They have lost track of time for good reason. They keep reliving every creepy moment.

This is a hypnotic and truly overwhelming movie that will be beyond the attention-deficit audiences of today. Watch in small doses. You will fall back under its influence almost immediately—and you will re-live every moment at Marienbad forever. Years will not matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summit with Rat Pack

DATELINE: Ocean’s 11 History!

  Frank & Jack!

A bad, inconsequential movie seldom is a watershed of history. So, to find a film that provides a great context for politics, social life, entertainment, and cult of celebrity, you have to stand back and simply be agog at its temerity.

Ocean’s 11, the original 1960 movie, turned out to be seminal and a turning point in mindless fluff having serious impact. The Ocean 11 Story will surprise you.

This gang was called the Summit (and it’s a pinnacle of some lunacy). Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Jr., were denizens of the Las Vegas show world. That was the descendant of vaudeville—taken a turn toward Godfather syndicate crime and gambling.

These entertainers brought thousands to the desert to pack five casinos along a neon strip. They created a world of entertainment unto itself.

And, the mob was beholden. Their pranks, self-deprecating humor, and interjecting in each other’s shows became an act itself. They soon were joining forces: “maybe” someone else would show up and liven up the audience. Tickets were prized.

Sinatra’s mob connections (notably played out in the Puzo tale, Godfather) made him royalty. His friends like Sam Giancanna could guarantee a Hollywood career however he wanted it.

Then, his hostility to Lawford ended when the actor married into the Kennedy family—and JFK ran for President with Franks support. It was the first time a pop star turned his hit song into a campaign rally tune.

Ties between Sinatra, beautiful Hollywood starlets, and a Kennedy president, became legend: Marilyn Monroe was in there too.

A double-edged mob could protect Kennedy—or kill him.

And, the Rat Pack lived it up, never sleeping, making a cheesy movie with the casino help. It was a movie about robbing the casinos—and the mob loved it.

You could have High Hopes and a Kind of Fool as these loose show-stoppers unloaded on screen and off. They moved off second-banana status with Sinatra’s Oscar coming from here and going to Eternity, Martin’s break from Lewis, and a black man on equal footing.

The Summit of talent heckled each other—and brought in tons of money and popularity. They would never do more than one take in their movie—which was merely an extension of their stage shenanigans. They lacked self-discipline, but who needed it?

They made Las Vegas, and they made Kennedy president. They loved the danger of the Mob, and no one dared cross them. It was a golden age of promiscuity and booze.

This hour documentary turns out to be highly significant about how silly inanity could dominate a century.