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.

 

 

Spy, Catcher, Red Sox Journeyman

DATELINE:  Moe Berg

Rudd:Berg at Fenway Rudd/Berg at Fenway!

Move over, Mookie Betts: another Red Sox player is sharing the spotlight this year.

The Catcher was a Spy is the true story of the mysterious Boston Red Sox player who joined the OSS (early CIA) and was given an assignment to assassinate a Nazi scientist when he visited Switzerland.

Once again, Paul Rudd answers the call to the bullpen, and he manages to play Moe Berg, a Jewish American athlete. He is beginning, however, to look a little frayed around the edges.

If you grew up in Boston with baseball fans of your grandfather’s generation, the legend of Moe Berg was well-known. Now, it is available for all to see.

Berg was a secretive man by nature. Indeed, the first 15 minutes of the movie intimates he was gay and a closet figure of the 1930s. The movie must give us an R rating with a sex scene with his girlfriend after all that.

Moe was a .235 career hitter (though he says .245 later in the movie). He goes to Japan before the war with Babe Ruth’s all-stars to play exhibition games—and already is doing spy work on his own.

No one is able to slip under his radar. A stellar cast tries, including Jeff Daniels as his superior at OSS, Guy Pearce as his military associate, and Paul Giamatti as a scientist on the mission.

Berg spoke 12 languages fluently, went to Princeton and studied at the Sorbonne. No one they called him the Professor among his high-school drop-out teammates. Later, Dom DiMaggio played for the Sox and was also called the “Little Professor,” after Berg.

The scenes at Fenway Park in 1940 are quite accurate, and the film gives us a convincing world of 1940s in turmoil. It is not a great film, but certainly a worthy effort of the true story of the heroes of World War II, though Berg refused any commendations after the war.

He stayed reclusive to the end, and in character.