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.

 

 

Fire Mountain of Martinique

DATELINE: Trouble in Paradise

Rubble and bodies, after pyroclastic flow!

In May of 1902 was, perhaps, the most devastating and bizarre volcanic explosion ever known in world history. On a paradise of pleasure in the Caribbean, the entire town of Saint-Pierre was wiped out in 3 minutes.

Only one man survived, and he was in a prison cell with walls over a meter thick. He was found 4 days later with terrible burns. There had been a shock wave first that raced through the town before pyroclastic gas choked victims.

People died of burns, with their clothes fully intact. It was bizarre.

Thirty thousand people died hideously in place:  no lava, no ash buried them: they died from gas flows of 1000 degrees that rushed down the volcano. Some people burned up and fell down on Sunday morning, attending church on a holy day to end Carnaval season.

Some people blew apart from inside their bodies: it was a pyroclastic flow, relatively unknown back then. This was not your classic volcano out of Hollywood special effects. It was more like Dante’s Inferno.

For weeks there had been cannon-fire explosions, lightning storms, and the officials of the town refused to order an evacuation.

Back then, Mont Pelee was considered the “debonair” volcano: placid, sleeping, and seldom doing much damage apart from the horrid smell of rotten eggs that permeated the area.

When Mont Pelee awoke, it killed everything in eight square miles. It must be a haunted area.

This documentary even features actual photos and movie newsreel from that May of 1902. It was considered divine punishment for the revels and immorality of the week before when Mardi Gras outrages included lifting up the skirt of a statue of the Blessed Virgin.

If you want to see a disaster that has been little documented, listen to expert volcanologist Mark Davis as he relates the devastation. A fascinating and horrific hour depicting three minutes of hell.