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.

 

 

 

 

 

Mable Stark: Tiger by the Tail

DATELINE: Trainer Not Tamer

 Mabel & coworker.

For nearly 50 years, from the 1920s to the 1960s, one of the most fearless of tiger trainers was a woman out of the vaudeville, circus world. Her name was Mable Stark, and she was not the first woman to take on the task, but she revolutionized animal training.

This hidden gem of biography is called Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer. She was a patient humanist and used gentle techniquest to control the animals. Move over, Clyde Beatty.

Mabel was not shy flower. She took on Sumatran tigers, considered the most ferocious of all. They have an unpredictable temper—and she had enough claw marks in her life to prove it.

She always said she expected, and wanted to die at the claws of her tigers.

Nearly as ruthless and dangerous as her animals, Mabel came out of the dusty world of dirt farmers. Her father was alcoholic, and her mother married a bigamist child-molester. No wonder she felt no compunction to face wild beasts.

She married the best “lion tamer” in the business—and took his place, refusing to be the usual pretty assistant to the Clyde Beatty-style macho man.

She could put her head in a tiger’s mouth and win even more accolades.

This marvelous documentary by Leslie Zemekis, Though it also features interviews with those women who followed Mabel into the cage, she is a pioneer. She’d tell you that these creatures might be smart, but they were temperamental too. One deviation in word, step, or approach, set them off the script.

She had contact tigers that she raised from cubs, but those were even more dangerous because they never knew distance or understood their size.

With tons of footage and photos from the circus world—and early TV where she made guest appearances often, the film is a record of something lost—a world when kids ran off to the circus and learned a lifestyle singular and outside the norms of society.

This one is sheer entertainment and an education too.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Democrats Self-Destruct in Nevada

DATELINE: Debate of Loser Status

 Hands Up!

What did we learn at the Democrat Nevada debate? Well, we learned most of all that the new candidate is not even on the Nevada caucus ballot this week. So much for voter input.

Beyond that, we learned too too much in all likelihood about what unpleasant people are running for president.

We learned that these candidates are filled with animosity, if not outright hatred, of Mike Bloomberg. And, we learned that they are so petty and set in their ways that not one of them will defeat Donald Trump.

You can start with Warren who showed her true colors, that of an ambitious person so angry that she would likely geld most men in the nation.

We saw an aging, demented Sanders who chokes on the idea that he is a millionaire who pretends to be a socialist. He also hates anyone with more money than he. He also hides his medical records like he has Trump’s tax attorney.

We saw some smaller candidates like Mayor Pete and Amy who have no chance in hell of being taken seriously. And we watched Joe Biden continue to go down for the third time, about ten times.

What a small-minded and unpleasant bunch.

And, they are prepared to attack, like the conspirators of Cassius, the billionaire who might actually win. The other billionaire never took such heat—and Tom Steyer wasn’t even allowed on stage this week.

Apparently, the Democrats have one fixed rule: only one billionaire at a time.

What a fiasco.

 

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.

 

 

New England Legacy: Video Cheating?

DATELINE:  The All-Seeing Video Eyeball

Spygate crashers?

What’s with video cheating and Boston’s managerial brain-trusts? Their genius may be all in the eye of the camera.

We have somehow come to accept every sordid charge that Bill Belichick somehow in some way has cheated his way to win six Super Bowls. From Deflategate to Spygates 1 and 2, he seems to appear in sequels more than Rocky.

This is now the New England championship ring of truth around the world. World champs here come from the bottom of the barrel. The ring is worn on the wrong finger.

And if you had any doubt, you had only to note that now Alex Cora, winner of the 2018 World Series for the Boston Red Sox is up to his video eyeballs in cheating for both the Houston Astros and the Red Sox.

He was awarded the Sox job, it now appears, on the false pretense that he was a mastermind of winning. Well, it now appears he was indeed the mastermind—of a video spy scandal in Houston as their coach. The manager and his general manager have now been fired as a result.

Cora is hiding in plain sight. MLB states he is being investigated for making a video conference room in the Red Sox clubhouse for cheaters to view signs and other insider activities of the opposing dugout.

How long Cora stands up to this withering accusation is anyone’s guess! Chances are, like Belichick, he will hunker down and figure winners never face punishment. Don’t look for Cora to resign in disgrace any more than Trump will for his impeachy behaviors.

Those old interviews in which Alex Cora waxed eloquent on his admiration for Bill Belichick now take on sinister tones.

No, it will be for the true-blue Red Stockings front office to fire him. Will they? It now seems like he may fall under the New England umbrella of winners never quit and winning is the only deodorant. Managers like Casey Stengel belonged to a different century and a different club.

Boys from Brazil: Where the Nuts Are

DATELINE: Hitler Clones 

 Peck as Mengele!

Back in the day, Ira Levin was one hot writer. He was knocking out Broadway and movie hits with aplomb, and writing novels too. He was entertainment and controversy, wit and delight. Apart from Death Trap, he gave us Boys from Brazil.

One of his least favorite set-pieces was the novel and movie about Josef Mengele. How short-sighted they were back in those days. The main criticism centered on Atticus Finch, the hero of all things American, being done up as a pasty and hideous looking Mengele. Yes, sir, that’s Gregory Peck in the lead role, horrifying.

He is magnificent, but back then he was stung by severe criticism. His performance may be one side of over-the-top , but when you ae playing one of the evilest fiends in history, it’s hard to pull back.

The cast is utterly astounding

Playing the old Jewish Nazi hunter whose efforts have gone past relevance is Laurence Olivier. Even Peck’s Mengele has no respect for the old-timer who warns young and hunky Steve Guttenberg to get out of Paraguay before there is one less nice Jewish boy. In an early role, Guttenberg is a sacrifice to plot, replaced by his clone John Rubinstein.

James Mason, who always accounted for Nazis of varying stripes, plays a Prussian aristocratic Nazi. Every nuance of his performance, especially with Peck, is a subtext of delight. And, you have to stand back in sheer horror at a gala soiree of Nazis in Paraguay in the 1980s.

Throw in a passel of well-known character actors—from Anne Meara and Uta Hagen to John Dehner and Denholm Elliot—and you have a hoot of acting. What other movie features two 70ish stars in a dirty, knock-down fight to death at the climax?

Yes, Ira Levin knew how to entertain and write a film that was 40 years ahead of its time.

What brought the fiercest criticism was the crypto-science of the age: genetic research! The public could not accept Mengele’s theories that he could clone humans—and create a new Master Race leader. How silly they were back then! It would only take 30 years to make the story less crypto.

The boys back in Brazil were hardly your run of the mill Nazi party members: Mengele was after the big fish. He had enough DNA from Hitler to make a bunch of them from now until kingdom come!

Today, that is cutting edge. It’s quite a movie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lafayette: We are Still Here!

DATELINE: Not Honored in France 

It’s seems this one-hour documentary is built on the assumption that no one remembers the Marquis de Lafayette. It starts out with the premise that history books have somehow cut his name from the important people of the American Revolution.

Lafayette: the Lost Heronever was lost. He was always there, always a hero, always known. He was the youngest Major General in American history: 19 years old.

So, all those Americans who have gone to France to rescue it in times of trouble, shouting out, “Lafayette, we are here!” have simply confounded fellow citizens.

There are about 50 cities named after the French officer around the United States.

Lafayette did not lose his own head in the French Revolution mainly because he eschewed the royal trappings of France. Yet, he was royalty and one of the richest men of the country. He had open access to the King who did lose his head.

Lafayette was, most surprisingly, a rebellious teenager. We don’t mean growing up: we mean he shocked Gen. Washington when he arrived in Philadelphia because he was 19. Yes, he bought his own ship, paid for his own army, and bought his commission. But, he believed in the American dream of freedom and democracy. He taught himself English to be able to speak to Americans.

 

You have to be surprised that he danced with Marie Antoinette at a ball and was laughed at for his bad dancing. You have to be shocked that he had dinner with the King of England’s brother—who also supported the American colonists.

He was super-rich and had influence at the French court and was married at 16. So, when people call him a man, we are puzzled. When the re-enactor looks like he is 40, we are non-plussed.

Yes, we were shocked at how little we knew about this boy leader who turned out to be the son Washington never had. When he visited America on its 50thanniversary, he scooped up some dirt from Washington’s grave: he wanted to buried with some American soil in France.

The French, of course, moved his American bought statue from a place of prominence in Paris to a backwater location. He is without honor in his own home.

We must say we are seldom amused by our lack of knowledge, but this documentary amused us.

 

 

 

 

Kremlin Letter: Postage Due

DATELINE: IMF Gone Wrong

  George Sanders Goes Out in Flames! 

In 1970 if you wanted a thinking man’s spy thriller, you went to a film based on John LeCarre, and if you wanted a thriller with twists, you went to Mission: Impossible. If you wanted laughs, you turned to James Bond.

If Huston wanted to do Mission: Impossible,he needed the music. This movie version is rife with sex talk and use of sexual blackmail as part of the work habits of spies.

All these spies are retired and go by weird nicknames or coded identities. No matter.

So, it figures that John Huston would manage to straddle the fence and give us a spy thriller that has all these elements—and the imprimatur of one of the great directors: John Huston.

The Kremlin Letteris sheer, unadulterated  nonsense with twist of logic that defies explanation. Yet, it is glorious in its location settings—and startling cast of giants.

You will see in no particular order: Orson Welles, Max Von Sydow, Raf Vallone, Richard Boone, Dean Jagger, and Patrick O’Neal, and in a career killing performance—George Sanders in drag.

We don’t know if this movie led to Mr. Sanders’ untimely exit in Spain shortly after making this movie. He claimed he was bored. Well, we never saw him offer so much energy than as a piano-playing crossdresser in a gay club.

There is talk about two gay characters hooking up: Welles and Sanders. That would have been worth the price of admission, but the film really devolves into one of those sex-talk double-cross twisters.

What has any of this to do with retrieving a letter that seems worthless (but everyone will kill for it). That’s the old McGuffin of Hitchcock.

And Huston had turned to appearing on camera by then—and again gives himself a role in the picture. No spies come in from the cold, and everyone has a license to kill.

We knew this was going to be a treat from the opening credits. Huston still had the juice in those days—and could deliver a real movie in a world of nouveau auteurs.

 

 

 

To Be Taken by Takei

DATELINE: Across Culture and Sexual Stereotypes

George pulls an Errol Flynn Moment on Star Trek!

You have known him as the original Sulu on Star Trek since 1966. George Takei is as familiar as an old shoe. His autobio- documentary is To Be Takei.

Yet, his life is both moving and horrifying. As a child he was sent to several Japanese camps in Arkansas because his family was deemed disloyal and dangerous. He was subjected to an American concentration camp—and though embittered, never let it ruin his life.

Howard Stern’s radio program gave him a voice outside his acting—and made him an activist in the gay rights scene. He was in the closet until 2005 when he charged out and married his 20-year companion Brad Altman.

The little bio is filled with clips of his performances—from Twilight Zone to Rodan (voice-over) to costarring with John Wayne in The Green Berets. His family supported his acting career, but felt he would be typecast and given limited roles. He appears to have transcended the Asian stereotype while becoming the new Franklin Pangborn.

There are surprises, of course: Leonard Nimoy genuinely liked and respected him—and the animosity between Takei and Shatner is beyond uncomfortable. We don’t know what put these two into feud mode, but there it is in this film at every turn.

If the life-story tends to focus considerably on his life partner, it is understandable—as they fought for gay marriage in California. They ran into hostile people like Schwarzenegger, but George also won over Ronald Reagan to win restitution for the Japanese Americans who suffered in camps during World War II.

His busy life continues with no end in sight. To be Takei is to be a show biz dynamo/dreidel. He continues to spin and provide everyone with a big charge.

 

 

 

 

Armstrong: Your Perfect All-American Boy

DATELINE: Perfect Choice

  First Man!

Why watch a docudrama about the life of Neil Armstrong? You can see his home movies and watch him in newsreel footage. The extraordinary documentary called Armstrong presents a most intriguing man you never knew.

In fact, no one seemed to know him. He was quiet as a church-mouse, reclusive amid a social world of military and popular science.  His friends (so labeled) said he was silent and to himself, meaning they did not know him. They knew only that he was a top-notch aviator, smart and talented.

His siblings could tease him about reading an aeronautics, and he’d smile in response. If anything will strike you about how handsome he was, it is that he was also so young-looking, even at 40 when he went to the Moon.

You will also know that Neil Armstrong would never participate in any fraud or coverup. He was mid-Western American honest, like Abe Lincoln. He went to the Moon—and you better believe it.

Harrison Ford, no less, speaks the words of Neil. It is a perfect choice, as we hear from Armstrong’s fellow astronauts. Of all, Frank Borman clearly is the one who likes him and admires him most. Even Neil’s youngest son notes his father was “not verbose.”

No, Buzz Aldrin declined to participate in this documentary.

He was a Korean War hero who saw death up close and remained shaken and stoic to the world. This was a remarkable man. He dismissed comparisons to Columbus with humor: he did not want to end up someplace other than his destrination, as happened to Columbjus.

In one home movie he gives a book by willy Ley to his young son for Christmas. How amusing, as Ley was a friend of Jan Merlin (my frequent coauthor) and cience advisor to  the 1950s science fiction show, Tom Corbett. Ah, connections, third degree.

 

 

 

 

 

Darwin, Living in Death Valley!

Darwin: Evolution of Death Valley

 No Services Ahead.

Death Valley is the end of the line. How fitting that Darwinis the end of the road. The subtitle here is “No Services Ahead.” It is meant to discourage people from visiting. You cannot go to a place that is the polar opposite of Downton Abbey—unless it is Darwin.

This film is not a documentary about the collapse of the New England Patriot dynasty and the end of Tom Brady.

The film is nearly ten years old, and we figure half of those in the movie are now buried in the town cemetery. Who could be left?

If your idea of stark beauty with the sty of trashed junk cars and beat-up trailers is a town, you have found your niche.

About 35 souls live there, mostly old and waiting for nothing in particular. It looks like a spot the Grim Reaper might visit when he is not busy. Two residents, the youngest, prepare to leave: they are a transgender couple. One is undergoing testosterone therapy.

The town folk are quite tolerant, despite the history of violence and death for over 100 years. Nowadays, even the graveyard is fading away. Locals bury their own, and many cannot recall who is buried where.

On a short trip outside of town, a couple takes you to the place where Charles Manson lived in the desert with his motley crew of despicable types. One resident described Manson as a piece of human refuse.

The place has been vandalized.

We kept wondering about electricity (there are poles and wires) but no wi-fi reception. There is a post office run by a woman with an attitude, though she hasn’t killed anyone, she boasts.

You may not want to visit, and you may not want to watch this show of reclusiveness. We puzzled over how they were all overweight when there seems only to be a few small vegetable gardens around.

Darwinmay be home to these lost souls, aging hippies, and mentally challenged motley crew. You won’t want to spend the full 90 minutes on this film. It’s more depressing than watching Tom Brady’s deterioration.

 

 

 

Rachel Carson of Silent Spring

DATELINE: DDT & Radiation Conjoin

  Carson Takes Them ON!

American Experience presented another brilliant and important biography a few years ago: on Rachel Louise Carson, who saw the horror and dangers of DDT in the years before World War II.

A reclusivse, scholarly woman years ahead of the curve, she started off by calling herself R.L. Carson because she thought a genderless male would be received better in a science field as writer.

She was unable to complete her Ph.D. in biology, owing to family responsibilities, and also suffered a set-back when Reader’s Digestrejected her warning about the poisonous chemical, DDT. After all, killing mosquitos and ticks was more important than any health issue.

Carson was horrified when the US government sprayed DDT down the pants of Italians after the war to kill lice. Some even sprayed it on their food to prove it could be digested.

She also began to see a parallel to radiation poisoning from fall-out after H-bomb testing. Yet, a better world through chemistry was America’s mantra. You even had Nixon and Kennedy eating tainted cranberries during the 1960 campaign to show how business owned government.

The lonely woman who lived mostly an internal life without close friends, loved the ocean, lived on the shores of Maine and worked at Woods Hole. She managed to place two best-sellers at the same time on theTimes best-seller list.

Silent Spring was not initially well-received: perhaps it was American hubris, or disdain for scholarly women, but Carson was dedicated and knew what she had to warn the world.

In one of the first corporate targets, every major chemical company went after her with one of the earliest attacks by media publicity. Their unfair and bizarre defense of pesticides is today horrifying.

Rachel Carson still is the patron saint of climate abuse—and still is hated by the political money-grubbers.