Friday, October 2, 2009

Reeling Backward: Berlin Spy Sagas

I'm trying something a little different here for the classic film review -- I'll be comparing two Cold War spy films set in post-WWII Berlin. The films are "The Man Between" from 1953 and 1965's "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold."

Both movies feature a protagonist who's cynical and world-weary, yet finds a way to do the right thing. They both end with thrilling climaxes at the East/West Germany border. And both star Claire Bloom.

"Spy" was directed by Martin Ritt from the novel by John le Carre; "Man" was directed by Carol Reed, best known for "The Third Man," which covered similar ground.

Richard Burton played the "Spy," while James Mason was the "Man." Both men's characters carefully cultivate a sense of self-loathing, which in each case is pierced by their relationship with the Claire Bloom character. She plays the innocent, or at least naive, woman who falls for a man knowing full well he is rife with faults.

In "Spy," Bloom plays Nan, an English member of the Communist Party. She works in a library and quietly agitates for her beliefs. Then one day Alec Leamas (Burton) comes to work as an assistant librarian. He's approaching middle age, a disgraced spy, and a drunk. Little does she know that this is a carefully orchestrated ruse to make the East Germans think he is a turncoat.

After Leamas goes over the wall -- in this case, the Berlin Wall -- he is quickly caught in a bit of subterfuge between his Marxist counterparts. There's a battle of wills between the number two spymaster, Fiedler, and his boss, Mundt. Leamas has been sent over to discredit Mundt, but when Nan is brought in as a witness, she unwittingly becomes a pawn in a complex game of spy intrigue.

"Man" is set earlier, in the days before the Berlin Wall was built. But the border is no less forbidding. Still, Susanne (Bloom), a young English girl visiting her brother and his German wife, finds that she can cross over to the East German side without too much trouble. There she meets Ivo Kern (Mason), a shadowy charmer who has some nefarious hold over Susanne's sister-in-law.

In short order she learns that Ivo is the man working both sides against each other, with his own skin his primary concern. In a thrilling extended chase sequence that occupies the last 45 minutes or so, Ivo and Susanne are caught on the wrong side of the border with all the Communists on the lookout for them. It's during these scenes, where Ivo repeatedly attempts to dissuade Susanne from any amorous feelings toward him, that we see what's really in his heart.

Both films are shot in grim black-and-white that lends a gritty, cinema verite feeling. It's interesting how in "Man" there is Communist propaganda all around, especially images of Joseph Stalin, while in "Cold" the backgrounds are drab and cramped, without ornamentation.

Each films ends with a showdown during an attempted border crossing, as Bloom and her paramours attempt to flee back over to the West German side. I don't think I'm spoiling anything when I say they both end in tragedy.

This is the third Claire Bloom film I've featured recently in this space -- she played Hera in "Clash of the Titans" -- and I must say I've enjoyed discovering her as an actress. She's had a long and productive career, and at age 78 she's still going with regular television appearances.

She had her first major role the year before "Man," playing the ingenue who steals Charlie Chaplin's heart in "Limelight," his last movie -- well, his last good movie, anyway. I'll be keeping an eye out for more of her work.

Both films: 3.5 stars

(Programming note: I couldn't find a trailer or a current DVD available for "The Man Between.")

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