Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold [dir. Martin Ritt]

My first exposure to  John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was in a BBC audio drama adaptation of the book that runs approximately an hour longer than the film. I have to say, with that additional hour, the drama packed in a greater element of credibility and depth than this nonetheless admirable film.

Le Carré's story deals with Alex Leamas (Richard Burton), an apparently down on his luck former secret service operative, discharged after a disastrous operation in which one of his agents in enemy territory (East Germany) was killed when defecting to the west. While Leamas is reduced to working a barely-paying library job (and accepting the friendly advances of his fellow employee Nancy - Claire Bloom - an ardent believer in communism), he is picked up by a shadowy agency looking to persuade him to part with important covert information for a fee. This is in fact a ruse: Working on the advice of his superiors Control and George Smiley, Leamas is a 'mole' leaking out false information devised to topple Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck), a dangerous agent from the enemy side. It is imperative for the success of the plan that the enemy must believe they are extracting this information from an embittered defector, and so Leamas must live the part of a hard-drinking self-loathing reluctant traitor.

As I recall, in the audio drama, the reveal of Leamas being a 'double agent' comes out gradually in the form of repeated flashbacks to when Smiley is advising him on the strategy to be followed. The film puts it up quite early, and there is no ambiguity about Leamas' position. But till he is actually contacted by the enemy, he must for all intents and purposes be nothing other than a perpetually intoxicated bitter failure. Into this sad lonely existence, the affections of his library colleague come as a warm breeze to the man perpetually "out in the cold" and even as he otherwise faithfully plays his part, he cannot resist getting into a relationship. And it is then that the enemy gets in touch.

The next phase of the drama is when Leamas is passed on from one handler to another, each probing him for information and stringing him along with a bottle, and promises of payment and asylum. He is eventually met by Fiedler (Oskar Werner), a top party member of Jewish origin with a grudge against the former Nazi Mundt. In a careful series of revelations, bolstered by frequent temper tantrums and demands for his payment, Leamas plays Fiedler, always making it look like he is parting with the information against his conscience. In a conventional spy thriller, this deception would have a triumphant climax with Leamas redeemed as a hero. But both Le Carré in his book and director Martin Ritt in his film adaptation looked to present a more murky reality of espionage and without being explicit, one can say that Leamas in turn finds that he may himself be a pawn in a larger game. The ending is a poignant tragedy that makes the story far more memorable.

Although Richard Burton's theatricality still occasionally surfaces in the lead role (apparently he and director Martin Ritt clashed bitterly over the latter's continuous instruction to "keep it down, Rich"), his real life struggles with tax exile and alcohol (and stormy marriage to Elizabeth Taylor) play into his identification with the part. Plus, he is able to convey a certain charisma even in a disheveled state, making Nancy's attraction to a drunk loser more plausible. Martin Ritt helms with knowing understatement - the settings are dreary and the speeches are in low, measured tones (Cyril Cusack's interpretation of Control tutoring Leamas is a masterclass). The most showy scene is a visit to a nightclub with a cabaret performance, and even that is executed with admirable subtlety. Tambi Larsen's evocative set design and Oswald Morris' gritty B&W cinematography effectively capture the murky proceedings. Also worth mentioning is the moody Sol Kaplan score.

Even if it suffers a bit in terms of condensing its source, this film of is by itself an excellent noir-inflected bleak spy drama.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Somewhere in Time [dir. Jeannot Szwarc]

I don't seem to have spoken about it here before, but some years ago I had seen Jeannot Szwarc's 1980 fantasy romance Somewhere in Time (SiT). Last night I revisited it when I felt like indulging in some Christopher Reeve.

SiT is scripted by Richard Matheson, based on his own 1975 novel Bid Time Return. The movie has a 'meh' rep from several critics including Roger Ebert and my favorite fantasy film reviewer Richard Shrike. To be sure, the brickbats are not unfounded. The mechanics of time travel are pure bunkum - no particle physics or quantum mechanics at play here, you just will yourself strongly enough to be in a specific time (right down to the exact date) and pouf, there you are! 

Playwright Reeve is the one that undergoes this bargain-basement DIY form of time travel, in search of an actress (Jane Seymour) he has fallen in love with from a vintage photograph. Well, not just that; it appears that he has previously encountered this woman, albeit a much older avatar in which she pressed a fob watch into his hand with the words, "Come back to me". Although his effort to track the woman in the present reaches a literal dead-end (she having passed away some years ago), Reeve is convinced that they somehow knew each other in 1912. Armed with some decidedly hokey advice from a philosophy lecturer, alongside a vintage-era suit and a few coins of the period, he embarks on the trip through time to meet the love of his dreams at a specific moment in the past.

As previously stated, there is zero science to the process, and even after the time travel has occurred, the expected anachronism plays little part in the events that follow. But to the people that love this film (and there can be no middle road here, either you love it or you think it's tosh), this doesn't matter a whit. The core engine powering SiT is a chaste, delightfully old-fashioned and therefore timeless romance between Reeve and Seymour, that works like poignant wish-fulfillment. Reeve was not the most versatile actor, but when he played a gentleman, be it as a super-powered Kryptonian or this dashing scribe, he conveyed a wonderfully warm chivalrous presence few other actors can hope to match. And Seymour's actress is his equal: she has on her side ethereal beauty, complemented with a rare grace and suggestion of deep inner passions. With chemistry like this, who cares about narrative superficiality and hansom-sized plot holes? Christopher Plummer is the third angle, as Seymour's manager who is obsessed with his protege's career on the stage and sees Reeve only as a danger to his precious find. It is suggested, though never substantiated upon, that Plummer may know more than he lets on about Reeve's sudden entry into her life. All three (along with John Barry's memorable score and Isidore Mankofsky's evocative cinematography) give life to a film that shamelessly, but also gloriously, defines romantic melodrama.

It is also interesting that while a flop in the US, the film was apparently a big hit in Hong Kong. One wonders if it is because Asian audiences are more used to the idea of reincarnation and saw the film more as a (p)reincarnated love story than finding fault with the science of the time travel.

PS: Just so you don't think I am a lonely champion for this film, there is a society called INSITE (International Network of Somewhere In Time Enthusiasts) dedicated to celebrating and keeping alive the memory of this film, who put out a newsletter, arranged reunions of cast and crew and even tours of the major shoot locations.

PS2: People who liked this film (and/or Matheson's novel) should check out Ken Grimwood's 1987 book Replay, which may have been inspired by this, but takes the idea to another place altogether, and was justly included in publisher Gollancz's Fantasy Masterworks series.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Like Someone in Love [dir. Abbas Kiarostami]

A young girl in a slick Tokyo club (Rin Takanashi) is arguing over the phone with her suspicious boyfriend. She is then met by the club owner (Denden), who after doling out some life advice asks her to go for an assignment . We realize she's a part-time prostitute, he's the pimp. She wants to pass on it, as she has exams and also a visiting grandmother that wants to meet her at the railway station before returning back. The owner is polite but firm: the client is someone he respects deeply, and she is the right type for him. While taking a long-distance cab to the client's place, she asks the driver to circle the railway station a couple of times where she observes a woman that may be her grandmother. She lets off some quiet sobs, then falls asleep in the cab while it ferries her to the client. Expecting a high-profile politician or tycoon, she is surprised to find that the client is a comfortable but definitely middle-class retired professor...who also happens to be her grandfather's age.

After having made several notable Iranian films, Abbas Kiarostami went full international to make films in French (Certified Copy) and Japanese (Like Someone in Love - LSIL). I haven't seen the former, but what strikes me best about LSIL is how much it appears like a film made by a modern Yasujiro Ozu - The respect for spaces and silences, the formal conversation, inner thoughts expressed in glances and in tangential remarks. Of course, Kiarostami's previous landmark films are also noted for their circumlocutory approach.

The introduction scene of the girl is important to what happens next. The professor (Tadashi Okuno) has obviously planned a romantic evening with sparkling wine and fine food (perhaps this refined academic wants to soften the idea of a hired tryst), but after some ice-breaking conversation, the emotionally exhausted girl just flops into bed and falls asleep. Sighing resignedly, the old man tucks her in, as a grandparent would. The next day we see him driving her back. We don't know if at any point in the night (or early morning) they do the deed she was called for. Like other Kiarostami films, LSIL features a lot of riding around in cars (not the Fast and Furious kind, mind).

When the girl gets off at the university, she is met by the boyfriend who assumes the old man to be her grandfather; the professor plays along. The young man expresses his views about women in general, and the girl in particular, exposing deep insecurities. But he also warms up to the old man's advice about trust in love, which renews hope for his relationship with the girl, even offers to fix a problem in the car at his garage. At a slightly later point the young man realizes the actual relation between his girlfriend and the professor.

LSIL is a chamber piece, and compared to some of Kiarostami's older work, lightweight. It quietly exposes certain emotional situations. and leaves the consequences for the viewer to imagine; in that modest aim, it does well. The film is anchored mainly around the 3 lead performances (the girl, the professor, the boyfriend) and the actors come across wonderfully. In the little that I saw of the making, Kiarostami talks about how Tadashi Okuno had been previously only an extra, not even having any lines. As the girl's pimp, veteran actor Denden in a single scene makes a big impression.

While not essential viewing, LSIL is a nice example of the director trying out small experiments in new settings.