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.

Winter Kills an Assassination Plot

DATELINE:  Not Citizen Kane

Taylor as Madam Hollywood Miss Taylor, We Presume?

Richard Condon’s novel called Winter Kills, a roman a clef of the Kennedy Assassination, makes for one of the earliest of conspiracy theory movies. Winter Kills is by the man who wrote the Manchurian Candidate and Prizzi’s Honor.

Vincent Canby of the NY Times called it equal to Citizen Kane, but that seems a stretch. It is more akin to Oliver Stone’s JFK.

A stunning cast of cameos appear and disappear quickly. The opening credits are about as jaw-dropping as Murder on the Orient Express:  Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Dorothy Malone, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Boone, Eli Wallach, and on and on.

How could it go wrong? Well, you can start by scratching your head over the notion that movie is billed as a tragic comedy.

The Kennedy murder in 1963 may be a comedy of errors in its commission and solution, but hardly a comedy.

The film takes the off-putting hints of conspiracy and gives them fake names:  Joe Diamond for Jack Ruby, etc.

Jeff Bridges is the young man (at his most attractive in 1979) who is the brother of an assassinated president who decides to solve the crime himself. In the meantime, conspirators are killing everyone around him. His attitude is bizarre, like someone has strung together unrelated scenes (blame goes to the director).

John Huston gives another irascible performance as the President’s father and Dorothy Malone is his mother.

The film predates the Internet but makes some intriguing theories that a master-programmed spy network of computers is following everyone as early as 1960. It is a stunning prediction on today’s world. That alone is gripping and clairvoyant.

All the usual suspects are present: Hollywood moguls, billionaires, crackpot businessmen, mobsters, Cubans, political hacks, the CIA, and on and on. We know the drill by now, but back in 1980, this was shocking. With more evidence now available, the theories here are standard conclusions today.

As for the movie, it is over-the-top and worth your attention. Not Citizen Kane, it is equal to Stone’s JFK.

 

 

 

 

 

Hell and High Water for Comanches

DATELINE:  Move Over, McMurtry

 hell

Looking for all the world like a Larry McMurtry story about the modern West, or one of those films of Martin Ritt, the new movie with Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster, and Chris Pine, stands out on the barren landscape.

It’s not wrong to put it on a short list with No Country for Old Men.

High or High Water features a highly intelligent script, with motifs of billboards along the highway—and the repeated issue of rednecks being smart.

It does not hurt to have parallel storylines:  two bank-robbing brothers and a modern version of Lone Ranger and Tonto on their tail. Therein is a sharply focused tale.

Foster and Pine give performances as the brothers that suggest acting DNA is thicker than high water. Bridges outpaces Tommy Lee Jones at his laconic, sarcastic best to interplay with his Indian companion and fellow Ranger.

The old Ranger wants to outsmart the desperado brothers, looking to his last case before retirement. The brothers want to outsmart the banks and legal system. It smacks of an earlier time, and one witness is surprised that robbers are not Mexicans.

Minor characters may be the best barometer of fate. There is a kind of friendly camaraderie among the West’s denizens—which leads the Bridges character to comment “how much I love West Texas.”

Like the stories of McMurtry a generation ago, we see how much fate is in the genes of character. Directed with sharp clarity by David McKenzie, the film was called originally Comancheria—after the tribe and region where the Native Americans set the bar for Westerns.

This modern Western rises above that high water mark.