Russian Agents in The Serpent

DATELINE: Cold War Star Vehicle Still Resonates

the serpent

If deals with the Russians worries you, we found the perfect movie: The Serpent, a movie from the height of the Cold War that you may have missed. We are not sure it even played in American theatres.

We remain stunned by the stellar cast:  Henry Fonda, playing the head of the CIA, a version of Allen Dulles; his counterpart from England, in the person of Dirk Bogarde, and Farley Granger as Fonda’s aide-de-camp. Also around is 1940s star Robert Alda (yes, Alan’s father) as an interrogator of Russian defector Yul Brynner. Virna Lisi is around as  femme fatale. This concoction was directed by French master Henri Verneuil.

This is wishful John LeCarre, pulled from the bottom drawer of your spy genre. Yet, it is compelling to see the stars walking through the CIA headquarters in the age before computers.

We loved the scene of Brynner wired up for a lie detector test. He has more cables on him than an Xfinity technician, including a facial harness that Mr. Ed once wore.

We are shown the hard-working CIA agents at Langley—and it is hard work because they have to read stacks of newspapers and listen to radio broadcasts. There are computers in the CIA, but forget unobtrusiveness. These computers pre-date Marshall McLuhan. Not one is smaller than a two-story house.

Brynner plays one of the Kremlin bigwigs thrown out of power by Brezhnev in the mid-1960s—and he has plenty to tell the Americans, if they deign to trust him.

The Russians were pulling the wool over the eyes of Americans when Trump was a young entrepreneur without a thought of collusion.

By lending their considerable presence to the shenanigans, you have something more than a low-budget spy drama. We hesitate to call it a thriller. It could more rightly be labelled a sleeper. We certainly enjoyed it.

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Not So Blithe, Spirit!

DATELINE: Third Time is No Charm

Not Blithe

Bogarde & Gordon Blow It Big Time!

We all know the legendary story of the actor on his deathbed who said, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

To die on live national television is now an actor’s lost dream. You can’t blow it on live TV when they won’t let you work for genuine laughs unless it is stand-up.

There are still ways to prove your mettle as an actor when you are a highly respected movie star. One is to perform live comedy in a play—say the likes of Noel Coward. Now that seems easy. Didn’t Rex Harrison throw away lines all the time in Coward style?

We recently watched Noel Coward doing his own Blithe Spirit on live television in 1956 (a video copy, old wags). And now, we wanted to see one of our favorite actors Dirk Bogarde give it a shot in 1966.

He seemed right on the surface: British, handsome, pleasant, but deep down his specialty has always been some kind of existential suffering. He should have left that style at the door. It works in Death in Venice, not here.

Poor Bogarde. His comedy seems less manners and more black. Someone must have told him he was doing Edward Albee, not Noel Coward. He shouts at his wife like they are a road show of Burton and Taylor.

He steps on every laugh. Alas, in this Hallmark Hall of Fame production from 1966, so does his costar Ruth Gordon as Madame Acarti. Her singular acting delivery seems not to know where pause meets laugh.

Rachel Roberts actually suffers most here as Ruth because she is on the money around the penny-pinchers of laughs. Rosemary Harris is Elvira in traditional fashion.

Yes, comedy is hard when you die on live TV. Don’t go looking for this version of Blithe Spirit unless you are into historical tragedy.