1980s, Action-Adventure, Comedy

Airplane! (1980) / Top Secret! (1984)

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Directors/Screenwriters: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Coscreenwriter on Top Secret!: Martyn Burke

By Roderick Heath

Known collectively as ZAZ, the writing and directing team of brothers David and Jerry Zucker and pal Jim Abrahams started their careers in that comedy Mecca, of Madison, Wisconsin, where they were key members of a satirical sketch troupe called the Kentucky Fried Theatre. The burgeoning American, Canadian, and British fringe comedy scenes of the 1970s became a proving ground for so many of the talents who would become stars in in the 1980s, but ZAZ were some of the relatively few from such scenes who found their place behind the camera. They graduated to the big screen in collaboration with John Landis on the 1978 film The Kentucky Fried Movie, and soon were given the chance to make their own movie. The trio decided, rather than simply offer a string of sketches as they had in their previous outing, they would present a mostly coherent lampoon of a specific type of movie and use it as a scarecrow to hang their jokes on. ZAZ, with their encyclopaedic sense of pop culture and authentic streak of movie buff fondness for the sorts of films they would nonetheless ransack for camp and kitsch, decided to take a whack at sending up the disaster movie genre that had been huge business throughout the 1970s for Hollywood. The resulting concoction, Airplane!, released in 1980, was a hugely profitable hit and quickly became enshrined amongst the most beloved comedy cult films.
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By comparison, ZAZ’s 1984 follow-up Top Secret!, a panoramic swipe at spy, war, and Elvis movies, gained a comparatively muted response and lingered more quietly on video store shelves and occasional TV showings, although it too eventually gained veneration. The trio also stumbled with their attempt to create a TV series, Police Squad! (1982), but gained their revenge when they adapted it as a movie, The Naked Gun (1987), and scored another popular hit that birthed two sequels. After tackling a script written by others on Ruthless People (1986) whilst still a team, the trio split to take on solo directing works: Abrahams tackled Big Business (1988), Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael (1990), and the more ZAZ-like Hot Shots! films (1991, 1993). Jerry Zucker proved the most willing to go off-brand with the supernatural romance Ghost (1990) and Arthurian tale First Knight (1995), before stalling with Rat Race (2001), a tribute to one of the ZAZ stylistic influences, Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). David directed the first two Naked Gun entries, worked with the creators of the very ZAZ-like TV series South Park on BASEketball (1998), and later took over the Scary Movie franchise from the Wayans brothers, before undoing himself somewhat with the right-wing patriotic screed An American Carol (2008).
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With Airplane!, ZAZ reinvented the movie parody genre, one that had only known sporadic stabs anyway over the years, and which was generally left to television, which could speedily assimilate and produce a send-up and move on. A good feature-length lampoon, by contrast, had to amass decades’ worth of clichés and points of reference to work. Bob Hope had made his name in movies poking their tongues out at other movies, with the likes of the horror movie burlesques The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), the Western-disassembling farce The Paleface (1950) and its Frank Tashlin-directed sequel (1952). Jacques Tourneur’s The Comedy of Terrors (1963) had made sport of the gothic horror revival of its day and the Carry On films had often revolved around making fun of familiar genres, from historical epics to spy movies. ZAZ spurned however the relatively traditional approach of many of these, for they also channelled the bristling linguistic and behavioural anarchism of the Marx Brothers, frenetic zaniness of H.C. Potter’s Hellzapoppin’ (1941), the free-for-all aesthetic of MAD Magazine, the protean, associative strangeness of Looney Tunes, and the provocative black comedy of Harvard’s National Lampoon, which was also trying to leverage a turn to the big screen around the same time as ZAZ.
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ZAZ’s immediate forerunners as Jewish wiseacres turned comedy auteurs had been Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, who had many of the same influences. Allen had leveraged his own movie career with genre-specific send-ups like What’s Up Tiger Lily? (1966) and Take The Money And Run (1969), whilst Brooks, with the Western survey Blazing Saddles (1974), had kicked off his own popular imprimatur as a movie satirist with a willingness to distort cinematic reality through a jarring blend of retro mores and contemporary attitude, even with meta-movie twists in Blazing Saddles. Where ZAZ went one better than him was in adopting an ever faster pace of gag deployment, and in adding an extra zest of panoramic social satire. One reason for ZAZ’s success in this regard lay in their eager embrace of simultaneous styles of humour: Airplane! maintains its giddy rush of gags simply by trusting that one funny thing is as good as another. For lovers of older movies, the impact of the ZAZ style, like that of the TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, can be a mixed blessing, as it can be hard to appreciate the particular pleasures of the sorts of movies they aimed at without feeling a little hectored. And yet, unlike the Monty Python team, who with their films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Life of Brian (1979), liked to deconstruct stories in time with assaults on social conventions, ZAZ maintained a less cynical affection for the movies they liked to pull apart, and honoured despite their sarcasm the basic story logic of such models.
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Undoubtedly, the greater part of Airplane!’s success lay in the way it offered a machine gun volley of jokes without rhyme and scarcely any reason, a velocity of laughs that made Brooks look positively lackadaisical. But the pace of humour disguised other, deftly organised principles. One smart move was in avoiding directly mocking any particular entry in the ‘70s disaster cycle, instead taking as its basis a lesser-known progenitor to give it a proper narrative backbone. Arthur Hailey, who had written the novel Airport that was filmed in 1970 and kicked off the disaster movie craze, had dabbled in the theme of aerial crisis years earlier, with the Canadian TV play Zero Hour, adapted into a film starring Dana Andrews in 1957. That film, with its story of a war-damaged flying veteran pressganged into landing a passenger plane after its aircrew go down with food poisoning, offered a perfect narrative structure, because it allowed the disaster situation to be at once static and open-ended. Airplane!’s power derives from the way, despite every impediment it throws in his path both plot-wise and comedic, it still credits protagonist Ted Striker (Robert Hays) with a traditional hero’s journey as he tries to overcome self-doubt and trauma and win back his stewardess girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty) in the course of saving the day, an aspect enabled by Hays’ skill in both delivering deadpan humour and evoking everyman empathy. But perhaps the deepest source of Airplane!’s specific pep lay in its driving sense of ironic contrast, between the slick neatness of Hollywood narrative and the bizarre lilt of modern American life circa 1980.
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The Kentucky Fried Movie had already unveiled ZAZ as a team with a delight mixed with derision for the commercialised accoutrements of the ‘70s lifestyle obsession, spawned from the team’s old habit of leaving their VCR recording late-night TV and making sport of the esoterica they found that way—Zero Hour being such relic. Airplane! is obsessed with many of its characters as free-floating bodies of unhinged wont, from Capt. Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves) as a discerning reader of Modern Sperm magazine and advanced-studies purveyor in paedophilic overtures, to his wife in bed with her equine lover, and the rank of people delighting in a chance to deal out some brute force to a hysterical woman. The famous early gag of two announcing voices on a Los Angeles airport PA system, whose disagreement over what the various zones are for soon shades into an argument over the woman getting an abortion, exemplifies this aspect: drab functionalism warps into a deeply personal spat over the fallout of sex and intimacy, inspired by aspects of Airport. ZAZ consciously set up two ways of experiencing movies in opposition. The old, square, WASP style was represented by the cadre of actors once regularly cast as stern and serious types, including Leslie Nielsen, Graves, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack. They collide with a more contemporary landscape, one infected with a polyglot of rich and perverse players. Stack’s adamantine action man Rex Kramer, once a battler of enemy nations during “The War,” is now reduced to calmly hacking his way through a score of pestering new age proselytisers.
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The Airport films had already displayed distinct aspects of knowing camp, which made sending them up, like the Roger Moore-era James Bond films, a difficult task as they were already in essence self-satires: nobody could take Helen Reddy as a singing nun entertaining a deathly ill Linda Blair seriously. Airplane!’s dichotomous strategy helped it pull off the trick. Many ‘70s disaster movies fed parasitically on a faded ideal of movie glamour and star power, casting former big-name performers and finding creative ways of killing them off. ZAZ by contrast dug up actors to get them to repurpose their images, ironically doing better by such actors and even transforming Nielsen and Bridges into late-career comedy stars. This approach rewarded viewers who also remembered and delighted in those old, cheesy movies, and even ones that weren’t that old – Nielsen’s presence was directly inspired by his contribution to The Poseidon Adventure (1972) – but worked just as well if you didn’t: I dare say that as a kid watching Airplane! (when I knew it by its Australian release title, Flying High!) was the first time I’d encountered many such performers and conventions, thus also making it a kind of miniature film school. It also contrasted the more traditionally comedic, hammy, neo-vaudevillian shtick Brooks was keeping alive. Not that Airplane! suppresses that shtick as an influence. The film’s most perpetually quoted exchange, “Surely you can’t be serious!” “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley,” is so pure in channelling those roots you can easily imagine Groucho and Chico Marx uttering it, but it’s given a very specific quality here via Nielsen’s utter conviction in delivering the punchline. Only a highly professional actor with decades of experience in the soul-weathering art of making terrible dialogue sound vital could truly do it justice.
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Some of this explains why immediate precursors to Airplane! didn’t gain nearly so much traction. Neil Israel’s Americathon (1979) had a very similar pitch of exacerbating zeitgeist trends with a strong dose of randy, post-yippie smart-assery, but it had an inverse proportion of political and lifestyle satire to pop culture joking to Airplane!, and its shots at the latter aspect were too vaguely observed to offer the same frisson. James Frawley’s The Big Bus (1976) beat Airplane! to the punch in mocking the disaster movie craze with a very similar approach including casting self-satirising stars and mixing in a panoply of genre movie influences. Indeed, it took on some common touches with enough effect ZAZ didn’t have to bother with them, like the smarmy lounge singer act, but played a much cleaner game and lacked the later film’s all-encompassing licence. ZAZ’s twists tend not to just take a cliché and reproduce it for smirking recognition but build on it, like the notion of a couple of non-English-speakers in the midst of disaster causing contention for the crew here offered via the two black men (Norman Alexander Gibbs and Al White) who speak only in incredibly dense jive argot. This is then given further layering by making the unlikely translator for their native language Barbara Billingsley, the mother from Leave It To Beaver, and then having them regaled by The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (1974) songstress Maureen McGovern in the guise of a singing nun whose version of “Respect” inspires profuse vomiting.
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One further aspect of Airplane!‘s special brilliance lay in the way ZAZ revealed themselves as proper filmmakers, with ready ability to balance comedic performance with cinematic movement. They shift nimbly between set-ups to give each joke its necessary space in a way that strongly contrasts the tendency of today’s comedy filmmakers like Paul Feig to indulge rambling pseudo-improvisation and any-shot-will-do indolence to contain the humour. Some of Airplane!’s best gags, like an airline mechanic (Jimmy Walker) tending to the plane like a gas station hand in the background of a functional scene, or a mockery of beatifically smiling faces leaning into frame as they listen to a beautiful song including one man descending from overhead, depend on a poise of visual exposition beyond many comedy directors. Airplane!‘s willingness to go off-brand in sourcing its laughs, if one that from a certain standpoint refuses to obey any ground rules and so seeming a touch mercenary, nonetheless helped to free up its reflexes rather than merely offer a checklist of honoured cliches. As well as disaster movies Airplane! sidesteps to take swipes at old war movies and then-recent hits, most hilariously illustrated by Ted’s flashback recollection of meeting Elaine in a seedy nightspot, the Mogambo, “populated by every reject and cutthroat from Bombay to Calcutta – it was worse than Detroit.” This sequence ticks off such familiar flourishes of the old movie dive bar as the sexy sauntering legs accompanied by saucy jazz (the owner of the legs here blowing a lick on a trombone) and two soldiers getting into a fight over a card game (except the uniformed battlers here are a pair of girl scouts).
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This skews unexpectedly into a mockery of John Travolta’s famous dance scene from Saturday Night Fever (1977) as genuinely ebullient as it is pitiless in excavating the postures of contemporary urban warrior fantasy encapsulated in the model, as well as its dodgy showmanship, knowing full well the Travolta vehicle sold the notion of the modern cowboy as a duellist on the range of slick moves and quick sex. Airplane! incidentally depicts once-suppressed subcultures becoming conversant with each-other, an idea made into literal jokes with the Jive dudes and the sight of a nun and a kid each reading a magazine on the other social subset’s lifestyle, but extended throughout the narrative more implicitly as ZAZ obey Terry Southern and Lenny Bruce’s project for American satirical comedy as an unveiling of the basic hungers of US society in a way unadorned by high-flown cant. Johnny (Stephen Stucker) is deployed later in the film to wield shafts of camp anarchy (“Fog’s getting thicker!” “And Leon’s getting laaarrrrgggeeer!”). In perhaps the film’s funniest and filthiest sustained gag, Elaine has to refill the plane’s inflatable Automatic Pilot (Otto) in a literal blow-job that leaves the intruding Rumack bewildered and concludes with both lady and dummy smoking in suggestive bliss. This scene works as a totally random excursion into sexy humour but incidentally offers a sharp capsule summary of the Airport series’ preoccupation with contemporary sexual mores: Elaine getting it on after a fashion with Otto is also an act of sensual liberation commensurate with Ted’s recovery of his manly mojo.
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Some jokes don’t fly so well now. Ted’s account of his and Elaine’s stint trying to school a remote African tribe takes a poke at white self-congratulation as Ted suggests his “advanced Western teaching techniques” help the tribe learn basketball when they clearly, instantly grasp and master the game, but also feels a bit graceless in taking on racist cliché. ZAZ’s tilts at ‘70s licentiousness also mediate the looming spectre of ‘80s Reaganism. The many pot-shots at the about-to-be-President, including a running joke based on his 1940 film Knute Rockne, All-American (“Go out there and win just one for the Zipper!”) bespeak ZAZ’s suspicion that the desire to vote for Reagan was also the desire of an America tiring of contemporary lunacy to live in an old movie. Indeed, David Zucker’s later conservative turn suggests he might have empathised with it even then. The mid-film pause for a sing-along as stewardess Randy (the splendid, astonishingly underemployed Lorna Patterson) comforts heart transplant patient Lisa (Jill Whelan) sees her belting out Peter Yarrow’s internationalist anthem “River of Jordan,” an affirmation of general idealism hilariously undercut by not noticing she’s knocked out Lisa’s IV tube. Here ZAZ identify with lacerating exactitude not just silliness of the model scenes in Airport 1975 (1974) but also the way the ‘60s version of poptimism became supplanted by Me Decade obliviousness.
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Similarly, Kramer’s rampage through the pestilential proliferation of airport badgerers depicts exhaustion with the whole panoply of consciousness-raising and social issue-mongering. Airplane! ends gleefully with Ted landing the plane safely and the pompous Kramer continuing to explore the nature of trauma over the radio (“Have you ever been kicked in the head with an iron boot?”) past the point of necessity, and the lifestyle aspect is given its last wink as Otto gains an inflatable mate and takes off to the wild blue yonder. Elmer Bernstein’s ingenious score gives the film a deal of cohesion as he imbues even absurd scenes with a dramatic tenor equal to that of the square-jawed old actors, and sends the film out with a grandiose march that underlines the carnivalesque sense of all-American good-humour. Top Secret!, when it arrived four years later, was already contending with a different social landscape. The old-fashioned values ZAZ had made fun of were regaining currency in mainstream movies; Ted Striker’s redemptive arc soon became that of John Rambo and John McClane and Martin Riggs. The kinds of old spy and war movies the story was based in had already been bundled together with extra lashings of action and spectacle as well as wry knowing in the Indiana Jones films.
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The film’s Elvis stand-in, Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer, making his movie debut), has made his name performing trend-riding, sub-Beach Boys hits. The opening credits depict a music video for his hit song “Skeet Surfin’”, a ditty explaining the pleasures of blasting clay pigeons whilst hanging five, complete with random shots slicing off beach umbrellas and bringing down hang-gliders. Nick is invited to East Germany to participate in a cultural festival being held by the local Commie Nazis as a last-minute substitute for Leonard Bernstein. The festival is being staged as cover for a plot to unleash a device that can wreck NATO warships, a device invented by the imprisoned Dr Paul Flammond (Gough). Flammond’s daughter Hillary (Lucy Gutteridge) is an agent in the underground although he thinks she’s in the Stasi’s hands. Nick becomes involved when he saves Hillary from an assassin during a ballet, arrested by the authorities and imprisoned, where he encounters Flammond and learns of the plot. He and Hillary make contact with a resistance cell led by an agent who proves to be Nigel (Christopher Villiers), the man Hillary grew up with whilst shipwrecked on a desert island but whom she presumed to be dead. Together they launch a mission to rescue Flammond from prison, but of course someone in the resistance ranks is a mole.
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The relatively substantial plot and carefully developed visual and verbal parodying clearly advances on Airplane!. But there remains a similar free-form mix of jokes, with gags based in such random epiphanies as revealing men’s ballet costumes, with a ballerina prancing upon a raft of bulging crotches. One of the most magnificently odd sight gags in movie history comes half-way through when Nick and Hillary sit in a park with a giant statue of a pigeon, upon which flying men land and defecate. Other jokes are based in more specific reference points: Omar Sharif’s spy character Cedric is trapped and crushed in a car a la Goldfinger (1964) only to turn up later stumbling along encased in the crumpled metal. The standard moment in Westerns where some horses are stampeded to forestall pursuit here sees Nick shooing off a herd of waiting pushbikes. Ian McNeice appears as Cedric’s underground contact who poses as a blind seller of novelties and party tricks, several of which he inflicts on the hapless spy in the name of covering their communication. Despite the German setting, Nigel’s underground cell is filled with French resistance warriors whose names are all Francophone clichés: “This is Chevalier…Montage…Detente…Avant Garde…and Déjà Vu.” “Haven’t we not met before, Monsieur?” The unfortunate member Latrine constantly turns up in a state of bloodied suffering.
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The horrors of repression and torture are often found to be less terrifying than some more prosaic forms of torment — after a terrible dream of being back in High School, Nick is blissfully relieved to awaken and see he’s only being whipped by Stasi thugs. Said thugs are a terrifying prospect: “Bruno is almost blind, has to operate wholly by touch. Klaus is a moron, who knows only what he reads in the New York Post.” Top Secret!’s relative failings in comparison to its predecessor take a little teasing out. Whilst it offers a similar survey of familiar actors mocking their stock personas, including Sharif, Jeremy Kemp, Peter Cushing, and Michael Gough, most of their contributions aren’t as sustained or clever. Whilst Top Secret! still takes a time-out for a send-up of a recent popular hit, in this case The Blue Lagoon (1980), it’s a reference point that offers no similar opportunity for a discursion as dynamic as the Mogambo dance. Where the very end of Airplane! gives the film’s comedy and its relative straight aspects a perfectly entwined send-off, Top Secret! seems more to just end. Whilst the film still contains some good riffs contending with sexual mores and perversities (the Anal Intruder) and satirical jolts, it lacks the cohesive comic substrata that aspect offered in the earlier film.
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That said, other aspects of Top Secret! improve on Airplane!. The running jokes are developed with more patience and sneaky wit, like the constant difficulties with language and translation in regards to both languages and spy codes. The choice of tethering a send-up of films based in geopolitics to the fantasy vision of Elvis Presley’s movie vehicles (particularly Harum Scarum, 1965) with their implicit promise of carefree promise in worshipping the beautiful idol of rock’n’roll turns Top Secret! into a sustained interrogation of America’s place in the world at the height of renewed Cold War tensions. Top Secret! offers American leadership in the post-WWII era as a sustained act of show business. Nick repeatedly makes an impact upon the hidebound East German establishment by dint of his rocker showmanship, beating a Soviet tenor to the punch in performing for a ritzy audience, winning over everyone except the fuming military chiefs (even the elderly house band quickly adapts to a rock ethos) and rocking out a pizza parlour when the resistance fighters demand proof he’s not Mel Torme. Nick’s performance at the festival sees him cranking up James Brown’s theatrical desperation with gestures like trying to hang and gas himself. By contrast the East German anthem is a hymn of sinister caution (“Forget it, the guards will kill you, if the electrified fence doesn’t first”) set to the music from a Wisconsin high school’s song.
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The cultural satire here echoes a lot of overt propaganda issued around this time about the west’s free and easy attitude compared to the browbeaten tenor of the eastern bloc, with the twist from ZAZ that acknowledges Nick’s espousal of freedom was considered quite a distance from what a lot of western leaders considered desirable too just a few years earlier. By implication ZAZ consider Hollywood moviemaking and pop music potent forms for creating a mythology for combating repressiveness whilst also perhaps blinding people to the west’s own failings in this regard. That’s a frontier of satire ZAZ mostly shy away from, except when Hillary, explaining her own father’s narrow brush with political collapse as an immigrant to the US: “He was one of the lucky ones, he managed to escape in a balloon during the Jimmy Carter presidency,” and decries how disengaged US youth is: Nick can only protest in counterpoint that his high school history class once spent a week in Philadelphia. The alarm over Reagan’s rise mooted in Airplane! is now solidified: Cold War politics are now plainly being administrated as if in an old movie in broad strokes of morality. Meanwhile the returned Nigel delights Hillary as she measures up various parts of his anatomy and aggravates the nonetheless understanding Nick, although Nigel seems to be harbouring pretty happy memories of being ravaged by the sailors who rescued him from the island. Of course, Nigel turns out to be the mole in the unit, obliging him and Nick to fight it out.
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By comparison with Airplane!’s targeting of films still fresh in the public memory, ZAZ felt Top Secret! might have stumbled in comparison by taking movies greatly receded in pop culture’s rear-view mirror. This aspect nonetheless reveals the second film as a work more deeply ensconced in a film buff’s sensibility, and casual gags hide riches for fellow travellers. Like Cushing’s Swedish book store owner, first glimpsed with a huge bulging eye glimpsed through a magnifying glass only to lower the glass and prove to actually have a huge bulging eye: this works as a casually surreal visual joke but also happens to recreate and mock an image from a couple of Cushing horror vehicles. A glimpse of a looming telephone Kemp’s army bigwig picks up turns out to actually be ridiculously large rather than a product of dramatic forced perspective. Whilst Airplane! showed ZAZ had abilities as visual jokesters, Top Secret! is a much freer, far more deftly staged work of physical comedy and moviemaking style, closer to the style of Richard Lester (to whom Top Secret! nods by tossing in a singing horse that warbles “A Hard Day’s Night”), with some touches even approaching the likes of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, with reaches of staged comedy Airplane! only briefly reached for in moments like the plane crashing through a terminal window.
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The film’s very start offers the sight of Cedric and a German soldier battling atop a train, with Cedric ducking to allow his foe to be swatted off by a bridge only for the bridge to crumble around the soldier. Nick’s introduction sees him trying to paint the rural landscape from his train window and proving to have skilfully recreated the motion blur. The Resistance’s battles with the Germans sees the hulking, cigar-eating Chocolate Mousse (Eddie Tagoe) knocking out squads of enemies with improbably good shooting. Later he causes a German armoured car to swerve off the road with his shooting, although it takes the car slightly tapping a parked Pinto to cause a devastating explosion. A stop at a train station as Nick and his manager Martin (Billy J. Mitchell) sees the platform itself start rolling away leaving the stationary train and a passenger chasing after it, in a poke at the set-bound action of a lot of classic Hollywood movies. Kilmer and Gutteridge perform a ridiculous traditional dance whilst arguing politics, a very Brooksian touch. The to-and-fro dashing of the Resistance fighters pauses to become a Broadway kick routine. A German soldier tossed off the prison battlements hits the ground only to shatter like a plaster statue. One of the best violations of the fourth wall in any movie comes when Nick rattles off all the improbable events that’s befallen him and Hillary, and she acknowledges, “Yes, it all sounds like the plot of some bad movie.” Whereupon she and Nick stand stiff and awkward with their gazes turning ever so nervously towards the audience.
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Kilmer’s physicality and authentic movie star lustre are invaluable to the movie’s energy, Kilmer performing Nick’s dance moves and dashing through the comedy action scenes with a gusto no other film’s ever asked of him, not even his sorry outings as Batman and The Saint. His performance of “Straighten Out The Rug” in the pizzeria sees Nick do a breakdance spin so well he saws a hole in the floor, whilst dancing guys swing rag doll partners around their heads. Kilmer is almost too much the real deal for a burlesque. The brilliantly strange climax sees Nick and Nigel fall off a truck as they fight it out and plunge into a river where they engage in an underwater fist fight in a sunken Western saloon, a sequence that must have taken some extraordinary effort to achieve. Nick knocks out his foe and strides out through the swinging doors to the Bonanza theme. The very end feels abrupt in a way that suggests problems with editing, and indeed ZAZ did leave a lot on the cutting room floor, but it does honour its models again as Hillary contemplates with sad wisdom, like many an old war movie heroine before her, whether to stay in the fight or wing away to a new life: “Things change. People change. Hairstyles change. Interest rates fluctuate.” The fight for freedom in a world where an actor or TV celebrity can be elected president goes on.

Standard
1960s, Espionage, Thriller

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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Director: John Frankenheimer

By Roderick Heath

Almost since the day it was released, The Manchurian Candidate has known an aura of perceptiveness bordering on the prophetic. This quality extends from its alarming anticipations of the spate of assassinations of high-profile American political figures in the 1960s, to the dogging accusations of conspiracy and corrupting influence of Russia behind Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president, which sent political journalists scurrying to use the film’s title for an appropriate likeness. This, if nothing else, proved that The Manchurian Candidate remains a touchstone, in spite of the fact that John Frankenheimer’s fourth and greatest film is hardly a cool, analytical, realistic take on the exalted spheres of power and policy at the height of the Cold War. It is, rather, a wild, perverse, near-surreal study in personal and political horror, a look into a point in the modern psyche where all opposites blur together and evolve far faster than our ability to comprehend them. Perhaps, indeed, only such a film could really hope to encompass the schizoid extremes of the age. Cinematically and generically, the film is just as unique. The Manchurian Candidate plays out one level as straightforward and gripping tale, and indeed could well be the first truly modern political thriller, replete with the usual paraphernalia of the style–conspiracy by cabals within government, the lurking sniper, and the relentless, almost outmatched lone hero. Generations of such films, from Alan Pakula’s tense 1970s conspiracy dramas to the Bourne series, owe it something. But on another level, it’s a madcap fever dream that captures the tone of the most hysterical conspiracy theory, and on yet another, a bleak and epic revision of the Greek tragic mode for a malign epoch, one where the entities on high playing infinitely cruel games with people’s fates are no longer gods, but nations and ideologies, with the fixtures of identity that hold us to fate remaining unchanged.
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Like many of his generation’s talents, Frankenheimer emerged not from the studio system or direct from the stage as before, but from television in the late 1950s, ranks that also included the likes of Arthur Penn, Delbert Mann, Franklin J. Schaffner, Martin Ritt, Robert Altman, and Sidney Lumet. Frankenheimer had learned how to deal with the straitened productions and how to put across the intimate, often socially conscious vicissitudes of early television drama. He gained particular credit for shooting a Rod Serling script for The Comedian, which established Frankenheimer’s interest in tales about difficult and obnoxious characters, whilst his first two films, The Young Stranger (1957) and The Young Savages (1961), both wore their civic ethics on their sleeves and boasted titles concerned with teen misfits whose resentments and short fuses put them at the mercy of hypocritical power or leave them stranded between communities and afflicted by alienation and troubled states of mind. Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) was a portrait of dogged humanism persisting in a man totally removed, for good reason, from humanity. Such straightforward studies set Frankenheimer neatly amidst the likes of Mann and Ritt as a maker of solid, adult, if rather middlebrow dramas. But his third film, All Fall Down (1962), whilst still revolving around a young man’s attempts to make sense of the world and people around him, signalled a shift into more complex and pensive dramatic concerns, and also made him acquainted with the potential of Angela Lansbury, largely untapped in her time as an ingénue in Hollywood. With The Manchurian Candidate, Frankenheimer was handed a doozy of a script by George Axelrod, adapted from Richard Condon’s novel, which took as its starting point an eerie and widespread legend thrown up in the early years of the Korean War that captured GIs and allied soldiers were being subjected to “brainwashing” techniques of intense indoctrination induced under stress to make them mouthpieces for propaganda. Condon’s concept went several steps further in proposing that some might well have been programmed as unwitting sleeper agents waiting to be pressed into some covert action.
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The Manchurian Candidate’s antihero, Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), is glimpsed at the outset as a barking martinet, rounding up his unit for a night patrol to their sneering contempt and dutiful obedience, as he’s forcing them to abandon their off-duty boozing and whoring to go hump around enemy territory in the dark. But the squad, under the command of Capt. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), is lured quickly into the hands of a waiting Communist outfit by their double-agent guide Chunjin (Henry Silva). The enemy leap out of the dark, successfully knock out the entire squad, and take them to waiting helicopters to be spirited away. The opening credits set the seal on this brief and creepy opening (in a way, not so coincidentally, reminiscent of the prologue commercial break as used in TV), and when the film recommences, Raymond is being met on his return home by saluting senior officers and wildly enthusiastic crowds celebrating his homecoming as a hero and Medal of Honor recipient. The return of Raymond and his fellow soldiers sees all apparently easily reabsorbed into everyday life. Even Raymond, who lives under the thumb of his archly political and vicious mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Lansbury), uses his new status to get a job working for a political journalist, Holborn Gaines (Lloyd Corrigan), and break out on his own. But a gruelling, terrifying, recurring dream begins to afflict the former squad members, including Marco and Cpl. Allen Melvin (James Edwards), in which they remember their time in captivity. Russian and Chinese military leaders and scientists have gathered to listen to Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), who boasts of the effectiveness of his new hypnotic controls over them, and even demonstrates this control by having Raymond murder two of his squad mates. The terrible immediacy of these dreams is enough to have Marco and Melvin awakening in the night in blind terror and muck sweats. Ironically, only Raymond seems not to be afflicted by such dreams, but this proves to be because he’s the special object of these machinations, deeply implanted with a series of controls and commands, chosen specifically as a programmed weapon that can be switched on and off on cue, and destined for an ultimate goal that will shake the world.
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It’s easy to imagine that if The Manchurian Candidate had been made today (not discounting Jonathan Demme’s solid remake from 2004) it would have hinged much more on the question of whether Marco’s obsessive dream-memories are real or imagined. Frankenheimer’s opening offers outright depiction of the unit’s entrapment and capture, giving the game away right off the bat. But it’s actually a very clever move, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s similar ploy in Vertigo (1958), one that stops the audience from wasting energy asking if all this is real to watch instead to see what’s going to give the game away, thus building tension and dread about what will happen when the veils drop. The missing time during which the squad was in Communist hands is slowly revealed in two dream sequences replete with virtuoso cinema work and brazen wit. Frankenheimer’s camera pivots in long, deadpan revolutions that see the apparently anodyne surrounds of a hotel lobby filled with lady flower fanciers turn into a technocratic amphitheatre where Soviet and Chinese bigwigs listen whilst the hypnotised soldiers lounge in various states of attention and boredom, and the chirpy chairlady of the flower fanciers (Maye Henderson) transforms into Yen Lo explaining he’s given the soldiers the suggestion they’re being forced to wait out a rainy day in New Jersey in their company; African-American Melvin sees the women as black. “Always a little humour,” is Yen Lo’s motto, and Frankenheimer’s, too: the funny aspect to all this both introduces the film’s key motif of bottomless evil wearing an everyday face and also mediates the slow pivot from humorous disbelief and strangeness to a horrifying understanding of what is actually happening. Intimate displays of violence result, as Raymond shoots the squad’s young “mascot” member through the head, his brain matter spurting with iconographic precision across a giant poster of Stalin’s face.
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The creed of the surrealists is made manifest in The Manchurian Candidate, as dreams point the way to reality, knitting connections that would seem otherwise ridiculous or tendentious with startling alacrity. It’s true both within the story and in contemplating how the film’s ideas work. At its heart, though, is a simple observation, that the so-called extremists of modern life need their opposites to gain definition, to provide meaning, feeding off them and gaining strength, even finding common ground of outlook in the desire to shatter the status quo. In this regard there’s nothing fantastical about The Manchurian Candidate: it simply exacerbates and provides a thrillingly strange metaphor to illustrate this point. Undoubtedly, in 1962, the aspect of Condon’s satire that would have seemed most timely was its biting portrayal of McCarthyism: Tailgunner Joe is transmuted into Raymond’s stepfather, John Yerkes Iselin (a pearl of a comedic performance from James Gregory), who breaks into the press conferences of the Secretary of Defense (Barry Kelley) and gives fiery speeches on the Senate floor denouncing Communist infiltration. Iselin is quickly revealed as an alcoholic twit whose gift for theatrical display is manipulated and pushed along by Eleanor. One of the film’s broader (if still very funny) gags comes when Iselin, frustrated by trying to remember the number of communists that are supposed to be in the State Department, begs Eleanor to give him one that’s easy to remember: Frankenheimer cuts from her staring at the bottle of Heinz steak sauce he’s shaking to him announcing to the U.S. Senate that 57 Commies infect the department  (indeed, given the recent outbreak of “alternative facts,” this also feels weirdly timely again). The droll depiction of Iselin as stooge and feckless puppet of the imperious and ruthless Eleanor, again like the dream sequences, soon shades a comic element into something much more foreboding and terrible, as Eleanor soon proves to be connected with the plot that has turned Raymond into an unwitting puppet himself.
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Whilst the plot takes the paranoid essence of the fear of Communism evinced at the time to a perfect consummation – they really are trying to take over our minds! – central to The Manchurian Candidate’s impudent take on Cold War politics is its exploitation of the suspicion that the far wings of both sides of politics at the time, and perhaps in any time, are essentially the same, with motivations that seem completely opposed but often hide mirroring wants. This note is sounded both comically here, as Yen Lo takes the chance to go to Macy’s when in New York whilst the manager of the local cover operation takes pride in turning a profit, and with daunting seriousness, as Eleanor plots a scheme wherein she uses the Communists to stage a coup that give Iselin, and thus her, powers that will “make martial law look like anarchy” as prelude to a savage and possibly cataclysmic war of revenge. The essence of the Marxist view of history, that it is driven by impersonal forces, is embodied in Raymond’s loss of identity and control, and sublimated into greater causes; but so, too, is the faith in the individualistic and the entrepreneurial in American capitalism, as Eleanor carefully crafts her ascent to absolute power, complete with studious brand-building. Another biting observation here is the way republics fosters a peculiar but extremely potent aristocracy, to which Eleanor and Raymond belong–Raymond’s horror for sentimentality and other common pursuits (“Twelve days of Christmas  one day of Christmas is loathsome enough”) stem both from his schooling in such snobbery and his attempts to rebel against the precepts of slogans and officially prescribed feelings.
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Not mentioned in the film is a telling touch from the novel, in which some of Eleanor’s monstrosity is revealed to be the product of sexual abuse by her own father, a deeply buried mandrake root of evil based in the desire, like that of the ancient Pharaohs of Egypt, to keep power entirely within a gene line through incest. This last aspect, constantly lurking under the dense Freudian-mythical matter at the heart of the human drama, does come out when Eleanor, with her son seemingly under perfect slavish control, kisses him in definite erotic prelude. There’s scarcely a taboo untouched in The Manchurian Candidate, befitting a film about the utter perversion of contemporary communal life by forces within it and working upon it. Thanks in part to Harvey’s dynamic if, unavoidably, often unpleasantly phlegmatic performance, “lovable Sergeant Shaw” is one of the great cinematic characters, so uncommon in his barely suppressed fury layered over a very deeply repressed sexuality, his stringent honesty and astringent snobbery, his detachment from and contempt for the usual signifiers of healthy all-American identity, as well as his mother’s relentless perversion of the bodies both politic and familial. He has much in common with the tortured young heroes of Frankenheimer’s early films, with his feelings of exclusion from the run of everyday life, his bitterness towards his parents, and his status as puppet being manipulated for other people’s ends. Sometimes he seems like the barely human cyborg he’s been programmed to be, except that a constant undercurrent of virulent trauma and raw feeling sometimes slips his façade, as when he drunkenly narrates to Marco the story of his one busted romance, with Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish), the good-natured daughter of her mother’s political enemy, Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver).
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Raymond is privileged a flashback that seems initially much less gruelling than Marco and Melvin’s dreams, a recollection of romantic happiness in which he met the energetic and outgoing Jocelyn and her upright liberal father, only for Eleanor’s swift action in killing the romance to present a spectacle of coercion and emotional violence that makes being captured and brainwashed seem almost preferable. Slowly but surely, the deep humanity of Raymond emerges, even as his helplessness before his programmed state constantly asserts itself when he’s triggered into his mesmeric state, marching out with calm, detached demeanour to kill. Raymond is pushed to kill both of the positive father figures he gains in the course of the film, his mentor Gaines and then Senator Jordan, whilst his actual father is a ghost supplanted by the grotesque Iselin. His only connections are with Marco, who grudgingly becomes something like a friend with the underlying understanding that Marco’s path to salvation is probably Raymond’s way to hell, and Jocelyn, who, after marrying Raymond when she’s reunited with him thanks to a contrived but backfired attempt by Eleanor to make an ally of her father, convinces Marco she can help repair him, inspiring a moment of sentiment that has utterly hideous results. Eleanor, heading off the new danger such an improvement in Raymond’s life portends as well as his own anger, suddenly takes control of him and sends him back to his new family, shooting down Jordan and then Jocelyn when she tries to intervene, just as he’s been ordered to. There are few scenes as heartbreaking in cinema, particularly in Harvey’s use of body language, his languid heavy limbs and attitude of a sleepwalker as he leaves the scene, reminiscent of Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, another misbegotten son.
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Moments like this point to the paradox at the heart of The Manchurian Candidate’s almost sui generis status. As rich with ideas and as clever in its machinery as it is, it’s the film’s strong grasp on the human level that makes it so powerful, the urgency with which it telegraphs the way its characters experience life and the torturous travails they’re subjected to, with the added irony that the qualities of the inhuman are seen as politically valuable. Only Eleanor seems excepted from the normal roundelay of suffering and confusion everyone else knows, and even she’s trapped to a certain extent, her carefully cultivated plots and ties having been turned around on her by the deliberate use of her son rather than some anonymous patsy as the perfect killer she wanted. Eleanor’s psychic twin in American cinema is Psycho’s Mrs. Bates (never actually seen, but also a monster who manages to infest her son’s body and mind), and her ancestor Livia, the relentless force of imperial tree pruning in Robert Graves’ I Claudius, from which Condon might have taken possibly a little too much licence. Lansbury’s bravura performance communicates the degree to which Eleanor is the nonartificial version of the thing her son has become, a series of guises and gestures, clasping, wheedling, crassly self-promoting, all hiding a will to power that would make Stalin wince.
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Although the science fiction element in it is only very slight, nonetheless the film constantly nudges more psychologically into the genre with the feeling that it is depicting the birth of a bastardised race of mutants (interestingly, Frankenheimer would tackle that theme more directly decades later on the debacle The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1996). Paul Frees’ voiceover near the film’s beginning signals the latent connection with George Pal’s scifi, posthuman myths like The War of the Worlds (1953). Yet the film’s structural influence is ancient, borrowing motifs from Greek myth and theatre and dressing them in such contemporary drag. “It’s like listening to Orestes gripe about Clytemnestra,” Marco quips to Raymond during a bout of drinking and maudlin reflection, as the latter explains his hatred for Eleanor. It’s a knowing line that underlines the already-percolating atmosphere of something primeval lurking below the surface of all the atom-age angst, as well as nodding towards the narrative’s sarcastic approach to that vital populariser of Greek myth, Freud. Has humanity changed at all in the intervening millennia since Sophocles and Euripides? Are even the new theatre of mass media and the arts of mind control still subject to principles laid out in the infancy of rational contemplation? It is ancient, it is the future, and everything flows to and from the great Oedipal swamp. Frankenheimer’s image-play leads into the epic climactic scene in which Marco tries to tap Raymond’s programming and a false card deck of queens of diamonds, their faces bleeding sweat, glowing-eyed in states of extraordinary awareness, Marco finally emerging as conjure master and Raymond’s buried alternate identity plumbed. The vital aspect lacked by Frankenheimer’s otherwise superlative follow-up, Seven Days in May (1964), was this edge of the fantastic, the super-theatrical, of taking the theme of malfeasance in power and placing it into the nightmare realm where it proves endlessly metamorphic.
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The Manchurian Candidate is deeply involved with the new age not just of politics and technology, but also of mass media. Frankenheimer’s background in television both equipped him with technical smarts so that he was able to startle many when he was able to use TV pictures on film and also a deep awareness of the medium’s new role in civic discourse and the creation of shared reality. During a scene in which Iselin makes a ruckus during the Defense Secretary’s press conference, which Marco haplessly tries to orchestrate, Frankenheimer makes a show of the duel of faces as seen through television screens, elucidating the new arena of battle. The mantra programmed into Marco and the rest of the squad attesting that Raymond Shaw is “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I ever met in my life,” feels comically reminiscent of both smile-and-be-damned political endorsement and advertising spin, a ready-made catchphrase coined all the better to sell Raymond as the perfect American hero. Again, a joke mediates the deepening of the theme, as Raymond quips after Jocelyn turns on a TV that the world is split into those who turn them on and those who turn them off. The war of iconography glimpsed throughout the film stretches out onto a more classical field of combat as Raymond’s programming is switched on by playing cards, in particular the queen of diamonds, perfect avatar for the brittle and glittering empress Eleanor but also, in a brilliantly visualised twist, leading him back to Jocelyn, who turns up at a fancy dress party dressed as that oh-so-totemic suit. Frankenheimer makes a constant motif of Lincoln’s image throughout as the inverse of meaning but mirror of use in terms of political iconography as the Communist heroes blown up to titanic size. Iselin and people at the climactic political convention dress as him, busts of the president festoon Iselin’s house, and Honest Abe’s noble nose and beard seem to jutting everywhere in solemn, silent mockery of the republic’s stagger into the atomic age, constantly ripe for a slide into anarchy or authoritarianism.
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Sinatra, although a producer, took the less showy role of Marco, and it served him well, as although Harvey and Lansbury dominate much of the film, he plays river guide on the trip up to Hades. Sinatra’s persona as the knight of cool purveyed as a singer almost always gave way in his mature screen career to far more thoughtful and ambivalent characters, perhaps as a way of mediating the intense discomfort that made him such an infamously dichotomous character. Either way, Marco as a role plays on his bulletproof aura to lend power to the spectacle of him as sweltering crack-up. Marco’s recovery and return to able and persistent hero cuts across the increasingly neurotic and fraying tone of the story. In an early scene, Marco is visited by an army pal, Colonel Milt (Douglas Henderson), who surveys the great piles of unhealthily intellectual reading matter Marco’s been consuming in his insomniac hours, reading which, ironically, has equipped Marco, in the mould of the perfect Kennedy-Camelot-era hero, for a new frontier of struggle, one for control of the mind (one reason why in spite of its abyssal cynicism, I still often think of this as the exemplary Camelot-era film), and Marco listlessly explains his reading habits, giving himself away as a closet intellectual, not the muscular man of action the military needs. Sinatra’s punch-drunk performance sells the scene and invests the first half of the film in particular, with a sense of aching, fraying anxiety, one that begins to ease once he meets kind-hearted hipster Eugenie Rose ‘Rosie’ Chaney (Janet Leigh), who readily falls into an exchange of brittle punning and queasy humour to ease him out of his panic attack.
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Once again there’s a mirroring aspect in the appearance of female saviours for the busted heroes–Jocelyn’s rescue of the snake-bitten Raymond in flashback rhymes with Marco’s freak-out on a train attracting the Rosie’s attention, except the two romances lead in gruellingly diverse directions. Parrish does a particularly good job inhabiting the role of knife through mouldy cheese, a force dispelling miasma (better than Leigh manages, frankly, one reason perhaps why many see ulterior motives in her, however unsupported by script or source); in the moments when she’s on screen and Raymond’s repression vanishes, replaced by a fervent if stunted romanticism, everything seems possible. The film’s purposefully dissonant tone is perhaps most strongly illustrated when Raymond is accidentally triggered into his dissociative state by a yammering barkeeper rattling off an anecdote about his brother-in-law, with the punch line, a suggestion to go jump in Central Park Lake, sending Raymond off to do just that, chased by a bewildered Marco, who deduces important details from the ridiculous incident. This scene is both driven by and resembles a barroom joke, whilst also elucidating an aspect of the film and all its fanciful paraphernalia, a tale of generations of men gone off to war and returning only to find themselves plunged back into again by casual jests and everyday moments. The Manchurian Candidate could be regarded as a study in what would eventually be called PTSD, with Raymond’s periodic shift into another persona and Marco and Melvin’s traumas the manifestation of broken psyches urgently trying to tell them something is wrong, something hidden by the official resumption of peace and the even flow of history.
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The narrative’s roots in the Korean War, so often called the Forgotten War, gives this aspect particular piquancy: Raymond anointment as official hero carries with it symbolic power, a desire to find a perfect icon in the midst of a very imperfect situation, and for that reason has been willingly and calculatingly supplied. Also, like Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951) and Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1959) (the best combat dramas set during the conflict; Edwards had been in both, embodying the new, smart, forthright black soldier in the desegregated army), the landscape of a new America is in play and in contention, with African-American characters, including Melvin and Marco’s major sounding board, a wry black army psychiatrist (Joe Adams), playing distinctive new roles. Even the Fu Manchu-esque quality to the theme of wicked Chinese brainwashers is purveyed with jabs of burlesque drollery, particularly in Yen Lo’s talkative, pleasant demeanour and his shots of weird humour, like quoting an advertising line (that connection again) when noting he has the captured Yankees smoking yak dung just for kicks, and the protests of a Russian delegate to his presentation over the necessity of sacrificing a whole imaginary company for the sake of Raymond’s heroic cover story. Chunjin turns up posing as a would-be lackey begging Raymond for a job, all the better to actually oversee his control, at least until Marco turns up seeking answers and, on first sight of the supposed minion, launches into a balls-and-all karate fight that sees them lay waste to Raymond’s apartment in a sequence that might well have inspired the tussles between Clouseau and Cato in the Pink Panther films.
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Like many an eager young American director before him and after, Frankenheimer’s style was powerfully influenced by Orson Welles. The influence is obvious in Frankenheimer’s forced-perspective shots bristling with Hogarthian energy and looming faces, people turning into aspects of the landscape or relics of ages and objects turning faintly animate. Canted camera angles illustrate moments of nauseous disorientation, as when Marco confronts Rosie with a newspaper revealing the murder of Jocelyn and her father, and desperate action, during Marco’s final rush to try to head off the final act in the long and torturous plot. Hitchcock’s influence is also certainly in the mix, in the punch-at-the-camera shot that commences Marco’s fight with Chunjin, in the brutalist jump cuts conveying the sleep-rupturing power of the awful dreams taken from Vertigo, and The Man Who Knew Too Much’s (1934/56) imprint on the carefully orchestrated climax in a bustling forum. But there’s also the incipient influence of new wave and TV news techniques informing the creeping super-modernity of the story, handheld camerawork suddenly and vibrantly creeping into the lexicon of mainstream Hollywood during moments of furor in public places like the press conference and the political rally. Indeed, as prejudicial as it sounds, Frankenheimer’s use of handheld technique probably planted the seeds for the eventual evolution of the pseudo-realist habits that would later grip mainstream cinema. Certainly the most famous flourish Frankenheimer conjures, one he’d revisit in variations in later films, comes when Raymond shoots Senator Jordan, his bullet passing through the milk bottle he’s holding, the white liquid spitting out in sickly simulacrum of blood.
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Just as Frankenheimer appropriates Hitchcockian gamesmanship and relocates Vertigo’s swooning sense of dissolving reality where, nonetheless, hidden facts scuttle into the light, in a political realm, he also drags the frames of reference of Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) into the post-WWII world, one where the thwarted American aristocracy has sought new ways to control a metastasising body politic. That world’s saturnine scion is pulled into the game of representation called democracy by an apparatus far beyond the relatively straightforward and easy comeuppance Charles Foster Kane received: no singers in love nests can derail this train, and consent will be manufactured with Hollywood bravura. Jordan’s determination to resist Eleanor is easily dealt with by the simple expedience of having him killed, and the pompous, central-casting-delivered presidential nominee, Benjamin K. Arthur (Robert Riordan), is set up in the crosshairs to be a prop in a piece of political theatre that’s been crafted with all the exacting showmanship of any televised extravaganza. Marco’s attempt to return autonomy to Raymond is a dangerous act of faith that the machine can be smashed and that Raymond’s will is strong enough to withstand the truth.
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The riveting finale, endlessly ripped off, is still charged with an ambiguity and a surprise pay-off that most imitations never think to offer, as Marco tries to track down Raymond amidst the clamour and excitement of a national convention where the frenetic excitement of American politics at a zenith rages on but the crosshairs of Raymond’s sniper scope zeroes in on the nominee, blending newsreel and staged footage. Raymond’s final gesture, gunning down not his assigned target but his mother and stepfather, is both a cracking good comeuppance and last-second twist, and also designated importantly not merely as personal revenge but Raymond’s ultimate act of self-liberation, a feat of self-sacrifice and faith in the thing he was supposed to destroy. The superfluous, but affecting epilogue underlines the symbolism of Raymond’s last act of pinning on his Medal of Honor before shooting himself: he had earned it at last. Surely Raymond’s act of faith will be lost, unprovable, in the swirl of conventional understanding, with only Marco left to bear witness. Raymond’s tragedy is everyone’s, every citizen brought up in our world where words of no worth feed us, and all of us do without knowing why. His triumph is that he needs no applause for standing up for himself and everyone else.

Standard
1950s, Horror/Eerie, Scifi

I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958)

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Director: Gene Fowler Jr

By Roderick Heath

Ladies, has your husband turned into a stranger? Is he withdrawn? Pensive? Acting oddly? Is your bedroom colder than the refrigerator? Does he seem to be hiding a very different face from you? Then you may have to consider he might be an alien imposter.

The science fiction cinema that enjoyed a wave of popularity in the 1950s saw officious optimism and dark introspection jostling in close proximity, constantly battling for psychic supremacy. The broad and obvious association of the atomic age’s terrors with the panoply of giant monsters that stalked across the screen and the intrigued, visionary idealism of potential space travel were accompanied by subtler variations. Starting with Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space (1953), the theme of possession or outright replacement of human beings by aliens became a recurring notion. This theme was quickly reused in a slew of genre films that followed, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Invaders from Mars (1956), War of the Satellites (1957), I Married a Monster from Outer Space, The Trollenberg Terror (1958) and Village of the Damned (1961). All of these films exploited the fear of a loved-one suddenly turning into a stranger, the everyday and familiar suddenly subverted and turned into masking travesty. What was going on in the popular and artistic psyche at the time to make this a notion powerful enough to serve such repetition? Certainly this fear could cover vast territories in the modern psyche, from the most intimate personal disillusionment to raging schizoid fantasies, all somehow latching onto the new extremities and uprooted mood of the age.
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Where the earlier films stopped at the fringe of bedroom, however, I Married a Monster moves right into that realm, a move fraught with peril for filmmakers in those waning days before the age of the contraceptive pill and the sexual revolution blew it all open. The early rumblings of something changing were already echoing through prominent melodramas like those of Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, and Mark Robson, to which I Married a Monster, one of the most genuinely odd and subtext-laden of major ‘50s sci-fi films, feels closely related, whilst also touching on territory Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang had been exploring for decades, the zones of mystery between human beings and the seething psychosexual forces enacted there. I Married a Monster digs incisively into the headspace of its moment of making, delving into questions about that fulcrum period that something like Mad Men tries to examine second-hand: the difficulties and discomforts with prescribed social norms in the time and how it manifested in utterly “normal” settings, and diagnosing fraying social contracts. Director Gene Fowler Jnr broke into momentary genre cinema auteurship with the equally oddball, metaphor-heavy I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), establishing a template of transformative unease and primal fear situated in entirely normal circumstances, symbolised by apparently idyllic Eisenhower-age Midwestern towns. Both films tellingly co-opted the common magazine article ploy of the time in their titles, of breathless confessionals and reports from the dangerous zones of life.
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With I Married a Monster, with its script penned by Louis Vittes, who previously penned the more prosaic monster movie Monster from Green Hell (1957), Fowler shifted attention from teenage angst to marital, kicking off with an archetypal collective of male friends gathered for a bucks party at the local country club of another pleasant regional town, with Bill Farrell (Tom Tryon) due to be married the next day. Sourly miserable jokes are thrown about, but Bill sets out to check in with his bride with happy confidence, driving along the dark rural road back to town. He brakes suddenly to try and avoid hitting what looks like a body stretched on the road. The body disappears as Bill investigates, who is set upon by a bizarre octopoidal alien that glows in the dark, and enveloped by a creeping mist that spirits him away. Bill still turns up the next day to his wedding to fretful Marge Bradley (Gloria Talbott), and the couple head off to their honeymoon at a seaside resort that quickly turns as cheerless as the thundery weather: Bill has suddenly developed an aptitude for driving in the dark with his headlights off, and when they get to their hotel, instead of diving into bed with his nervously eager bride, Bill prefers to gaze into the lightning in poetic raptures, and the strobing light reveals that somewhere under his handsome, all-American exterior lurks an extra-terrestrial.
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Months later, the increasingly disturbed Marge pines for children but her marriage isn’t delivering those, or anything else. Her GP, Dr Wayne (Ken Lynch), checks her as A-1 fertility-wise, and suggests Bill come see him, an idea that turns the already chilly atmosphere around the house Arctic. Even worse, when Marge buys “Bill” a young pup as a birthday present, the formerly dog-loving man finds the animal aggressive and suspicious, and later, when Marge is safely in bed, “Bill” descends to kill the dog and passes it off as an accidental death. Beginning to suspect something genuinely strange is going on, Marge follows “Bill” when he leaves the house one and tracks him into the woods outside of town, where she sees things that seem beyond human reality: an alien being floats in gaseous form out of “Bill”’s body and reforms solid before heading into a secreted space ship. The shell of “Bill” falls flat on the ground, insects crawling over its stony face, and Marge flees in dizzy panic.
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Fowler defuses any doubts about whether Marge’s controlling perspective is unreliable by making it clear early on what’s happening, but nonetheless expertly grows a sense of tingling atmosphere as he patiently charts the mounting evidence she finds that this conspiracy is not just in her mind, and the avoidance of making any mystery about the substitution shifts focus agreeably onto what are the motives of the aliens and how Marge will respond. Fowler intelligibly contrasts domestic domiciles of the suburbs with not just the mutable menace of the woods that fringe such safe, civilised zones, but also with the inner precincts of the town, a crude caricature of urbanity yearning for the status of a grown-up city where outcasts, reprobates, unhappy upright citizens, demimondaines, and drifters keep odd hours and the underbelly of this world is usually kept safely contained. Whereas in Teenage Werewolf Fowler’s junior artificial werewolf stalked pals on moonlit country paths, here Marge’s flight through the woods turns into a whirl of hallucinatory fears, looming alien faces and zombie-Bill chasing her in her mind. Like the same year’s The Blob (for which I Married a Monster was actually produced to partner on a double bill), Fowler turns the venturesome night of a small town into a zone of simultaneous threat and embrace in the suburban enclave, the Everytown locale turned into island amidst darkness where beasts roam.
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Fowler’s promise as a director was never really fulfilled: whilst his first two works are still the objects of fervent cult admiration, as often happened with directors who revealed an affinity with the fantastic genres, his subsequent works out of those genres rose in respectability but declined in interest and in between a bit of TV directing, he returned to original job of editor. Importantly, Fowler had cut The Woman in the Window (1944) and While the City Sleeps (1956) for Fritz Lang, and Lang’s impact on Fowler seems particularly deep: Lang’s feel for environment as actor in the cinematic space, his fondness for thickets of psychological disease in his characters, and constantly recurring themes of sinister conspiracy, oppressive regimes, and infiltration are all clearly apparent here. I Married a Monster sports intelligent filmmaking, with arresting moments evoking the strong influence of not just Lang but also Alfred Hitchcock on his efforts. A sequence depicting Marge lying in bed listening to her husband’s approach, cross-cutting with his steps up the stairs, strongly suggests Suspicion (1941) and Notorious (1946), both films that likewise revolve around female protagonists under threat in their marriages (notably, Fowler also had Hitchcock’s regular editor George Tomasini working for him here).
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Fowler pulls off the kind of invisible edit Hitchcock and Orson Welles were fond of early in the film with a hint of dextrous humour and thematic import when he uses flashing lightning to mask a shift from the window of the hotel restaurant newlywed Marge and “Bill” are nervously toasting each-other in, to their room upstairs: Fowler hides his technique with the same device he reveals his alien – the lightning – and mixes in a joke about deceptions and slippery realities. The Farrell house becomes a noir-ish zone of shadow and telling compartmentalisation, repeating shots of “Bill” and Marge in turn watching their partner in the kitchen from the living room, observing each-other playing at domesticity whilst filled with unease and shame. Fowler notably echoes a moment in Lang’s Fury (1936) when Marge finds herself floundering in the middle of town after fleeing the aliens in the woods and hears blaring, cheery music, only to find a dull and desolate bar with a few sleazy denizens. Wiseguy Weldon (James Anderson) and punchy barman Grady (Max Rosenbloom) mock her reports of monsters as the ravings of a frustrated closet alcoholic, but are also tantalised by this wild-eyed escapee from Squaresville. Weldon tracks her to her house and hangs about hoping she’ll emerge again looking for fun, only to be confronted by the town’s two assimilated policemen Schultz and Swanson (Jack Orrison and Peter Baldwin) and executed by them when realises what’s going on. Marge tells their chief, Capt. Collins (John Eldredge), what’s happening, and he counsels patience, but of course, flashing lightning reveals that he too has been possessed.
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Fowler’s little universe proliferates with ingenious fragments of surrealist destabilisation, which often pack a sneaky thematic wallop and totemic encapsulation of the genre’s essence. Mysterious mists slide out of urban alleyways, enfold men and erase them. The hatch for an alien spaceship is secreted amidst the woods just beyond the fringes of a town. Dead animals mark the progress of monsters hiding in suburbia. The obsessions of Middle America, like security and stability, are tweaked only slightly to be turned into punitive sarcasms. The streets of the idyllic town become zones of fascistic repression, so that a lurking “criminal type” is not just confronted and waved on by enforcers of the illusion of peace, but knocked unconscious and shot dead on the street. An unhappy marriage and the moans of a billion wives that their husband just isn’t the man they fell in love with anymore becomes a literal wedding to an alien interloper. The tread of a husband’s feet on the stairs, so easily translated into fear of an abusive spouse or Marge’s own sexual anxieties, becomes the step of the secreted beast. Aliens watch humans from the forest and study their behaviour with intent of conquest and mimic their bodies, then sit around in bars refusing to drink like teetotallers, but end up using the time to whine about their mates and their lots in life just like their hosts.
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In the film’s most strikingly eerie scene, the teasing hooker who hangs about Grady’s, Francine (Valerie Allen), wanders the desolate space of the town’s centre, sauntering with a hungry sensuality that’s clearly anything but domestic. Beings emblematic of free-floating sexuality and reproductive craving come into contact and conflict, as Francine tries to chat up a stranger with a hooded jacket she sees staring at dolls in a store-front window: too late does she see that her prospective John is an alien. The alien blasts her with a ray gun as she runs off, momentarily turning her to a blazing spectre before fading into oblivion, before the monster turns back to its weird, sad, solitary study of another species’ iconographic celebration of its offspring. It’s already been made clear by this time that the aliens do want to mate with human women, as the gang of replaced males have discussed. One quality that elevates I Married a Monster is not just its broad metaphors but its web of reversals and epiphanies. The gang of male friends annexed by the aliens who stand in place of normality, far from being agreeably Norman Rockwellian types signifying free and easy Americana, aren’t particularly likeable. In fact they’re mostly a mob of liquor-swilling, disgruntled, misogynist jerks conjoined by their general dread of the trappings of domesticity they nonetheless head into dutifully. The only difference between them and the aliens is that the aliens know why they’re passing.
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These men in grey flannel – most of them work in insurance – are already a step away from losing themselves anyway. If they resist, like Sam Benson (Alan Dexter), they’re assimilated by the aliens. Sam’s double then does the work of proposing to his long-time girlfriend Helen Rhodes (Jean Carson). Helen is in turn so delighted from being saved from being a “career woman” that she remains wilfully oblivious to Marge’s warnings that connubial bliss isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Another of Bill’s pals, Harry Phillips, drunkenly proposes “mass suicide” as the solution to marriage: after he’s replaced by an alien, Harry then complains in exactly the same bitter way about how disgusting his new body is. One of the tell-tale signs of assimilation is sudden giving up of drinking, a biological necessity for the allergic aliens but also a neat gag on the presumed niceties of marital life that the other, unchanged males still chafe against. Another of Bill’s pals, Ted Hanks (Chuck Wassil), rails against the chains of marriage (“Even a convict gets time off for good behaviour.”) and tries to make humour out of his wife Caroline’s (Darlene Fields) emasculating gift for baseball pitching that almost got her a try-out for the Yankees. Once most of the gang are assimilated, they gather with their wives for a picnic where the alien Sam falls out of a rowboat: the aliens are as unfamiliar with water as they are with liquor, so Ted leaps into the lake alone to haul Sam out whilst the others all stand, shirtless and buff, a hilarious spectacle of masculinity turned passive and ineffectual.
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Caroline’s pregnancy however forestalls Ted’s replacement and, later, fatherhood brings him out all smiles, handing cigars to Marge and Dr Wayne – not a casual detail, as Wayne, by now convinced of the truth of Marge’s warnings, realises that the town’s recent fathers must still be human, providing a reliable force to muster and take on the infiltrators. I Married a Monster posits parenthood as not just as an act of biological urging but as a commodity of value, a communal need as well as a personal one, one which the male aliens are forced, ironically, to share intimately with the broody women of Earth. Once the veil drops between “Bill” and Marge and the alien appeals to his potential mate for understanding, he explains that all of his species’ women have died out during their long and agonising exodus from their dying planet, and now they have no choice but to seek mates on the way. “You have no idea how rare life is those cold, countless miles of space,” “Bill” reports with a hint of haunted exhaustion, correlating the deadness of the void with the infertility that has stricken his race and the distances between the two worlds with those between men and women. “We came together for breeding purposes only,” “Bill” says of his species’ unemotional nature, but begs Marge for understanding as he confesses to be “learning what love is.”
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Of course, like most ‘50s sci-fi films, the Cold War’s special paranoias infest I Married a Monster, and the aliens, with their coldly unemotional, communal ethos, readily call to mind the archest caricatures of Communists as unfeeling, obedient hive minds. But the film suggests other varieties of modern pressure upon the essential stability of the idealised nuclear family unit that would soon burst it open. Critics and theorists have argued for decades over the political meaning of Siegel’s pod people, but in the end the suggestion that they represented a kind of Rorschach test for our anxieties in an age buffeted by the uprooting of old securities feels most accurate. I Married a Monster has this quality too, but the film ultimately evokes more personal, interior anxieties. Much in the same way that Invaders from Mars beautifully communicates a child’s fear of the loss parental love amidst its tacky wonders, I Married a Monster is most crucially about the idea communicated in its title, the fear of the otherness in the partner who romantic ideals tell us are supposed to be fused into our very sense of self. The film is explored chiefly from the wife’s point of view in being tethered to a man who cannot perform for her in bed. Talbott’s performance, her only real star moment, fits her oh-so-‘50s apparel, angular and vivid, shot through with breathless need and tremulous determination. Like the same year’s much less accomplished but still gaudily symbolic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, I Married a Monster conflates marital melodrama with monster movie and proto-feminist inquiry: both Marge here and Allison Hayes’ fraying heiress in 50 Foot Woman are beset by aliens who neatly turn percolating unease into ripe manifestations, and troubled by men they love without recourse.
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The infiltrating aliens of It Came From Outer Space were detached from the Earthlings, merely following their own programme; the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers inimical opportunists mimicking humanity but erasing its essence. Here something more different again is at work, for I Married a Monster is simultaneously enriching and disturbing in the quiet but powerful empathy it offers for both sides of its coin. The fake “Bill” is revealed as a creature that feels the lightest breezes of humanity in his human form, and responds with yearning, albeit a yearning laced with colonialist entitlement, an entitlement the other aliens never doubt. Tryon was an actor who had near brushes with major stardom (particularly in The Cardinal, 1963) but quit to become an accomplished horror writer, and he was cast with alacrity here. With his vivid cheekbones and Action Man doll’s physique, he’s almost a caricatured ideal of ‘50s manhood, but Tryon’s ambiguity is always apparent, the actor displaying churning emotion under his stolid surface with deceptive passion. Tryon was beset by sexual confusion until he finally came out in the early ‘70s, and the film’s strong undercurrent towards reading as a metaphor, at least in part, about hiding as a gay man with a beard wife feels acute even when you don’t know this biographical detail. The newly replaced “Sam” visits “Bill”, ostensibly over an insurance policy, where “Sam” has to reveal himself with an overt gesture when “Bill” won’t get the hint, whereupon “Bill” welcomes him to the club, in a scene that feels like an elaborate form of cruising. Not for nothing, then, do the town’s successful breeders go out hunting for the hidden misfits who cannot reproduce. Notably, although Tryon disliked having to act in this film he tackled the theme of people being drafted into playing roles in an uncanny community himself in his later novel “Harvest Home.”
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Whilst the fantasies are still mostly veiled here, a new phase of the horror and sci-fi genres based in the fervent fear of physical perversion seems nascent. So too, indeed, does the shifting balance between horror and sci-fi themselves, a year after Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein. There was often little distance between the genres during the decade anyway, in works like Them! and Creature from the Black Lagoon (both 1954) with their inky, nightmarish sagas of monstrous advent, with only the most fundamental underpinnings of the two genres – the irrationalism of horror and the solid cause-and-effect of sci-fi – to distinguish them. Here, the emphasis on the psychological nature of the disquiet and the dark visual palette betray the shift. I Married a Monster’s anticipations are interesting and vital, including David Lynch’s placement of surrealist fragmentation in homey surrounds in Blue Velvet (1986) and TV’s Twin Peaks, whilst the eroticised fear of deviant birth and strange sexuality inevitably feel like precursors to David Cronenberg and the progeny of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Marge’s recoiling horror at the thought of being impregnated with an essentially alien foetus looks forward to Cronenberg’s darkest fantasies like the infamous births of The Brood (1978) and The Fly (1986) in particular, making I Married a Monster, in spite of the dated social assumptions it anatomises, one of the most forward-looking of the major ‘50s sci-fi films, as well as just about the last.
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Putting its slippery meanings and weightier invocations aside, I Married a Monster is above all a fun, smart, well-made film (all the more impressively so for its budget) that delivers everything you want from a ‘50s monster movie: only the slightly pokey pacing and structuring of the middle third mar it, plus the slightly laborious effect of some of the dialogue scenes, the product in part perhaps of screenwriter Vittes camping out on set to make sure all his lines were served up exactly. But Fowler delivers a great finale as Marge realises she’s completely trapped by the secret regime that controls the town, but finally convinces Dr Wayne of what’s going on. This sets Ted and other recent fathers on the warpath, moving in a posse to hunt for the space ship and stage a raid on the two unmasked aliens guarding their ship. The attackers find themselves hopelessly outgunned as bullets just pock the skins of the spongy alien flesh in an ingenious little special effect, whilst the ray guns of the enemy blast the men to atoms. But Fowler employs a fun irony as one of the men’s German Shepherd dogs successful bring down the two aliens by attacking and ripping open their distended, tentacle-like neck arteries: it’s a bit of payback for their canine brethren killed earlier that also, amusingly, underlines the film’s theme of species self-loyalty.
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The men are then able to penetrate the alien craft where, in another fillip of quality strangeness, the missing men are found dangling like sides of beef, hooked up to projection devices to sustain the aliens’ disguises. The rush to free the men however precipitates tragedy for the aliens who have taken their places, especially “Bill”, who has suffered from being taught what humanity as he remained nonetheless tethered to alien mission, only to be inevitably destroyed whilst fighting for his species’ future, and also is aware of it in a more personal manner thanks to his new human impulses to make it worse: “Bill”, “Schultz”, and “Swanson” dash to intervene but as each host is disconnected they fall one by one and dissolve into gruesome stew: back in his office, the fake Chief Collins pulls out a tiny transmitter and signals to his brethren to give this wild and nasty planet before melting into the same mush. Real Bill pops out of the spaceship into Marge’s arms moments after his doppelganger meets his end, and the fade out presents a last, haunting vista, of an alien fleet moving past Earth and heading on to friendlier climes. “It’s a nice idea anyway,” the fake Bill said earlier, writing his own epitaph, “Making visitors feel welcome.”

Standard
1970s, 1980s, British cinema, Espionage, Television

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (TV, 1979) / Smiley’s People (TV, 1982)

Directors: John Irvin ; Simon Langton

By Roderick Heath

The Cold War seems to be coming back into fashion as a storytelling subject as well as a political fashion. Years after it ended, and following the fragmentary anxieties of the post 9/11 world, this time might be starting to look almost cosy in its firmly delineated conflicts and ideological boundaries, especially to anyone not old enough to remember the low-key aura of terror I readily recall from watching politicians of the era bicker with the stakes of nuclear war in play. In any event, with the popularity of sheer entertainments like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and Salt (2009), as well as the more substantial, like Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd (2005), Florian von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006), and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days (2007), the Cold War milieu seems to be reviving as a popular cinematic topic. The fact that Tomas Alfredson, director of Let The Right One In (2008), is currently making a feature adaptation of John Le Carré’s hit 1976 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, bears out this new legitimacy. Of course, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a dense, intelligent, witty, gripping tome, is the sort of material that is worth making a movie of in any era. For anyone who’s seen the first adaptation of the book, the lengthy BBC-TV miniseries featuring Alec Guinness as Le Carré’s protagonist George Smiley, the first question that leaps to mind is, nonetheless, “Why bother?”

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and some other Le Carré adaptations, stand alongside the likes of Dr. Strangelove (1964) amongst the relatively few Cold War artefacts that have retained relevance, because they’re as much about something malignant lodged deeply in the modern psyche as they are about politics. “I’ve always felt that the security services are the only true expression of a nation’s character,” Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson) pronounces late in Tinker Tailor, and one could easily substitute the word “nation” for something broader in terms of the story’s enquiries. For Le Carré’s perspective on the post-WWII world is a coolly cynical one, one full of “half-devils versus half-angels,” as Connie Sachs (Beryl Reid), former MI6 info savant, describes them. Tinker Tailor and sequel Smiley’s People revolve around intricate detective stories that are blended on many levels with character studies, cryptic discernment and intellectual obscurity, and ironically realistic portraiture of geopolitics and the grubby heroes of espionage. Le Carré is the pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell, who worked for MI6 in the late ’50s and early ’60s, in the period after the infamous Cambridge Five betrayals had left British intelligence reeling. Tinker Tailor was in very large part his sidelong account of that milieu.

“George Smiley, the Chelsea pensioner himself, god help us, fought every war since Thermopylae, hot, cold, and deep frozen!” is how Connie describes Le Carré’s favourite hero, who had evolved from a shadowy, unctuous-seeming functionary in his early novels (he was played by Rupert Davies in Martin Ritt’s strong film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1963, and by James Mason, though the character was renamed, in Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair, 1965) into a doggedly admirable, if still, when necessary, a chilly, expediency-favouring hero. Smiley’s own degradation and casting out of the fold of “The Circus,” as the headquarters of the service is known to the intelligence fraternity, proves to be the first act in the long odyssey by which he gains revenge on the traitors and enemy spymaster responsible for making much of his service a living hell of constantly watching agents being caught, tortured, and shot. At the outset of Tinker Tailor, Smiley’s boss, the emaciated, dying, reclusive “Control” (Alexander Knox), is desperate, convinced there’s a mole in the higher echelons of The Circus. He brings in one of his aging, but still stalwart reliables, Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen), to meet with a Czech general who supposedly can supply the name. But Jim is shot and captured, and Control, Smiley, and everyone else linked closely to them is either forcibly retired or exiled in unrewarding posts.

Six months later, George is fetched out of retirement by Peter Guillam (Michael Jayston), one of Smiley’s protégés who’s been stuck running “scalp-hunters”—low-rent agents who specialise in enticing defectors—at the behest of The Circus’s civil service overlord Oliver Lacon (Anthony Bate). Smiley overhears the tale of one of Guillam’s agents, Ricky Tarr (Hywel Bennett), who, on a nondescript mission in Portugal, had an affair with a female Russian agent named Irina (Susan Kodicek). She spoke to Tarr of the mole’s existence, but disappeared shortly thereafter. Lacon can only rely on Smiley to investigate now. With Guillam’s help, Smiley studies the new ruling cabal at The Circus: the new boss, pompous poltroon Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge); quirky but dynamic Circus hero Bill Haydon; dour, working-class Roy Bland (Terence Rigby); and Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton), a fishy Hungarian playing the perfect English gentleman. That quartet were ennobled by fostering the supposedly astounding Russian mole “Merlin,” whose flow of information, dubbed “Witchcraft,” seems to have put The Circus back onto an even footing with the CIA. Control had dismissed this source as too good to be true, and Smiley, working on that theory, begins to ever-so-carefully unravel the chain of events around Prideaux’s capture, and through that, discern the mole’s identity.

All these ins and outs could be mistaken for the operations of cyborgs engaged in some kind of arcane game if it weren’t for the ever-elusive human factor, the way personal weakness, so theoretically unpredictable and yet so often exactly predictable, can infect any enterprise. For the spymasters of both sides, their webs are extensions of their personalities. These men’s whole lives have become entwined with their work, to the extent that George’s wife was seduced by a traitor. For the English side, The Circus is a functioning asylum for outdated Empire men, Etonian losers, colonial riff-raff, and uprooted Eurotrash. They exist to be easily shot full of holes by any passing fanatic. The monkish czar of the KGB, known only as Karla (played in tantalizing, wordless snippets by Patrick Stewart), gains great menace and power from his position in a totalitarian system, but is eventually rendered lost and desperate within that system by his one, human lapse. If George is the hero, and Karla the villain, it only comes out in the fine details; George merely split with his wife, where Karla sent his to the Gulag. Amongst these paranoid, professionally existential, often borderline disreputable people who become spies, sex and money are eternal currencies, whilst the most successful and powerful are those who largely avoid these temptations. In this, the enigmatic Smiley and his great nemesis Karla seem to stand ahead of the pack, and the battle between them is enacted not only in institutions but in the bedroom. Smiley has to contend constantly with the open secret that his estranged wife Ann (Sian Phillips) had an affair with Bill Haydon, and Haydon’s own omnivorous appetites also long ago included Prideaux as his partner in both business and pleasure. In between them are people with a kaleidoscopic range of grubby rendezvous and amusing foibles. Ricky Tarr, a kind of extremely low-rent James Bond wannabe, plays the noble romantic with Irina, but he’s actually a seedy bigamist who only accidentally helps Smiley through a ruse involving one of his wives he has a kid with.

There’s a moment about 45 minutes into Tinker Tailor when George polishes his glasses and slides them on as he asks a pointed question of Tarr, the timbre of his voice and the set of his face changed subtly yet entirely, providing one of Guinness’s most sublime bits of acting in his career: it’s Smiley’s equivalent of girding himself for battle, and the Cold Warrior lurking within his nondescript shell reveals itself with bracing clarity. Smiley, aging, determinedly anonymous, and old-school in his black mackintosh and homburg—the image of a bland civil servant—is the most unlikely of spy heroes, and it’s precisely this that makes him so interesting. He’s a bottomless well of both his own and other peoples’ secrets, and his own discursive, politely dissembling style only occasionally slips. Whilst Ann is the commonly known adulterer in their marriage, what Smiley’s befuddled detachment cost them both in that regard is ambiguous. A genius as a user of people, he’s almost a total dud as a social being, a quality that makes him all the better a spy. People tend to project their own anxieties and wants onto his becalmed exterior: for some, his visits are the god-sent appearances of a guardian angel, and for others, the calls of the grim reaper. Whereas the motivations of others are clear enough, for example, Guillam, who wants to uncover the mole who certainly cost the lives of many of his agents, Smiley seems both more mechanical and yet also deeper.

Le Carré’s stories are often cited as the antiseptic, realistic ripostes to the fantasies of James Bond, and that’s fair enough, though it’s a bit unfair to the surprising terseness of some of Ian Fleming’s writing and also a bit reductive to Le Carré’s talents and the texture of these adaptations. They’re shot through with the cool, yet empathetic cynicism and the utterly parched humour and irony of Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and Somerset Maugham, writers who surely influenced Le Carré, and the blend of the mundane and the surreally intense is quite Hitchcockian. Lacon’s name gives a tip of the hat to the laconic humour that’s prevalent throughout. One of the more specific beauties of Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People is that they’re in no hurry whatsoever. That’s usually a put-down, but the gravitas and moodiness of the stories, as well as their hypnotic outlay of detail great and small, demands rigidly controlled pacing. This is perfectly suited to television’s procedural intimacy, and also most effectively reveals the way Smiley’s method takes the smallest fragments of a puzzle, which would seem utterly opaque to others, and synthesises from them theories for which he then carefully accumulates evidence. Pattern and truth resolve from apparently bottomless murk, all mixed up with behaviour and personality, as well as political and social sensibility. Stylistically, the series are masterpieces of unyielding yet suggestive minimalism, right from their keenly illustrative opening title sequences—in Tinker Tailor, a set of Matryoshka dolls being stripped down to the last figure, which has no face; for Smiley’s People, shots of decaying paint on wood and an exploding piece of chalk redolent of the entwining macro and microcosmic forces at play.

Tinker Tailor, in particular, is also a situational study in group dynamics, the way certain cabals of personality types linked by aptitude as well as attitude can take over any workplace. The manipulations of the mole have been to promote the bullying, greedy, barely competent Alleline into the top job precisely because he’s not particularly good at anything but the appearance of competence, which is prized beyond all other things, whilst Smiley discerns clearly that the people who are best at their job have all been exiled because they were the ones most able to discern the real problems. The fact that Haydon, the most likeable, colourful, and impudent of The Circus proves to be the mole, is the cruelest stroke for all concerned, and yet there’s something inevitable about it. The first time I watched Tinker Tailor, I said aloud within the first two minutes that Haydon, thanks to his ineffably cute entrance with a cup of tea, had to be a traitor, and five hours later I found I was right.

There’s also a complex web of both amity and hatred that can transcend nominal boundaries to be unravelled. Smiley’s relationship with Karla proves perhaps to have more genuine intimacy than he has with anyone in his immediate life, and the affection that can develop between enemies often proves more durable than that between the members of The Circus. Amongst the people feeding off the intelligence services, pimps and blackmailers sometimes prove to have deeper morals and more immediate motives, for example, Otto “The Magician” Leipzig (Vladek Sheybal) and his bordello-managing partner Claus Kretzschmar (Mario Adorf) in Smiley’s People, than the higher-class opportunists running them. “Smiley’s people” is more than just a work group: it’s almost a metaphor for people who are capable of doing their jobs with the minimum of balderdash, and part of the background drama and satire of the two series is generational change, from the aging, slightly clapped-out, yet deeply professional WWII generation Smiley represents, to bombastic neocons like Alleline (whose backers, Smiley says, were “golfers and Conservatives”) and to an abrasively lower-class, brassier breed represented in Smiley’s People by new Circus chief Saul Enderby (Barry Foster) and his underling Strickland (Bill Patterson). Connie refers nostalgically to “her boys, her lovely boys” in speaking of the sexy, nostalgic allure of what had been a lustre that’s long since been buffed off The Circus and everything involved with the Cold War. Haydon’s motives for turning traitor seem inextricably bound up with his own disappointment at Britain’s shrinking place in world affairs and his sense of being cheated of being a potential master of the universe.

If Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has a kind of Grecian concision to the way its pieces fit together, Smiley’s People is a bit more the blockbuster, a longer, more sprawling work. Whereas Tinker Tailor was transcribed by Arthur Hopcraft, Le Carré cowrote the teleplay of Smiley’s People, and if it lacks the mordant symmetry of its predecessor, more of Le Carré’s deftly funny and revealing vignettes, and supple emotional punches, slip through. At the end of Tinker Tailor, Smiley is essentially in charge of The Circus, left to rebuild the organisation almost from scratch. (The middle chapter of the trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy, wasn’t filmed because of its potentially costly Hong Kong setting). This time around, the path is even more torturous, from a seemingly random series of events to a career reckoning for Smiley, who has again retired after handing over The Circus to new blood. Madame Ostrakova (Eileen Atkins), a Russian exile living in Paris, is visited by slimy Soviet bullyboy Oleg Kirov (Dudley Sutton, best known for his contribution as the chief witch-hunter to Ken Russell’s The Devils) and offered the chance to have the daughter she left behind in Russia sent to live with her. Ostrakova realises that the girl in the photos Kirov hands her can’t be her daughter, and so contacts the émigré organization run by the once-fearsome, but now aged Estonian General (Curd Jürgens, in his last ever role). The General contacts Leipzig, and what Leipzig digs up gets both him and The General murdered. Smiley is called in again by Lacon, who’s sliding into something of a featherheaded mid-life crisis after his own wife has left him, because the General had demanded Smiley act as his go-between with The Circus.

Lacon expects it to prove a cash grab by some has-beens, but Smiley hates the way the General, a rigid and brave former warrior, was patronised in the new atmosphere. Digging into his final actions, Smiley uncovers what Leipzig gave the General: a photo negative showing Leipzig and Kirov together in bed together with prostitutes, a proof that could destroy Kirov and, more importantly, recalls to Smiley a long-buried titbit of gossip that Karla had been using Kirov years before to find ripe candidates to palm the same female impostor onto. This lady proves to be Karla’s own schizophrenic daughter, Tatiana (Tusse Silberg), the inevitably psychologically shattered offspring of the Machiavellian genius and a partisan heroine he had executed when she went “soft on the Revolution.” Knowing very well that her disease can’t be treated properly in the USSR, Karla has her in a clinic in Switzerland, and wants to secure her as a Western citizen. With differing levels and brands of help of Esterhase, Guillam, Connie, and outsiders like Ostrakova and Kretzschmar, Smiley uncovers this secret. When he ensnares the hapless former economic professor and diplomat Grigoriev (Michael Lonsdale) Karla uses to keep an eye on his daughter and pay for her treatment, Smiley finally has everything he needs to force Karla into defecting.

The change in tone from Tinker Tailor is minor but distinct, and readily observable in Smiley, who, in operating as a “rogue elephant” with barely any official brief, determines to be less delicate and veiled in his efforts and attitudes. That resolve proves occasionally brutal in his desire to be surgical, as when he forcibly reminds Hilary (Norma West), a burnt-out former Circus agent who’s now Connie’s business and romantic partner, of how the laws of The Circus still bind her. Everyone wants him to go away and let them forget the still-binding parts they played in the Cold War and its still living legacy, but his fresh force of purpose (“I’ve been sleepwalking. I’ve woken up!” he declares to Connie) prods him into newly heroic territory. Smiley ventures into the no man’s land between East and West Germany where Leipzig lives, finds his battered corpse, and has to contend with Gypsy louts who suggest some waiting species of barbarian waiting to inherit the earth in one of its greyest zones. Smiley then returns to rescue Ostrakova from her Parisian apartment where she’s been besieged as Karla’s agent assassins, calling in the aid of Guillam (played this time by the equally good, if less appropriately steely, Michael Byrne), who’s been given the cushy post of head of the Parisian office. There’s a lovely moment when George goes to sleep on Guillam’s couch, and Guillam lays a blanket over the taciturn, yet very human old warrior.

Such terrific little touches dot both series, from the many, many choice bits of dialogue to the revealing peccadilloes that constantly show up characters’ pretensions. Amongst my favourites in Tinker Tailor are when Smiley goes to visit Prideuax, who, still recovering from bullet wounds and torture and working as a private school teacher, warns Smiley, “If you’re not alone, I’ll break your neck!” and other moments that depict Prideaux’s hero-worship by Roach, a schoolboy who’s a budding Smiley. In Smiley’s People there’s a particularly funny moment in which some sympathetic operatives who are try to coerce Grigoriev applaud him when he stands up to his obnoxious wife over the phone. Smiley’s visit to Kretzschmar’s “nightclub,” wiping the steam off his glasses in waiting through several live sex acts, is likewise hilarious in its incongruity. The climax of Tinker Tailor is not action pizzazz—though the sequence in which Smiley and Guillam smoke out the mole is suspense-mongering at its most efficient—but Smiley’s interview with an emotionally shattered, imprisoned Haydon. Richardson’s acting in the scene is some of the most perfectly judged I’ve ever seen, and remarkable even amongst a cast that is an embarrassment of riches, from the fitting career caps for Jürgens and Knox, to small roles, including Michael Gough and Ingrid Pitt as the General’s dowdy employees, and Alan Rickman as a hotel clerk, years before he would appear in a feature film. Reid, as Connie, makes the most of her character’s plumy wit, and Atkins as Ostrakova is especially good when upon receiving bad news from Smiley, absorbs it in a slight pause and gets on with her life. Weak points in the cast tend to stand out a mile, like Paul Herzberg’s overly fruity accent as the General’s young go-between in Smiley’s People.

It’s Guinness who had the biggest, hardest job, a couple of years after Star Wars had made him both exponentially more famous and rich than he had been before. Guinness reportedly fretted anxiously about his performance even whilst filming the second series. That’s not so surprising, in spite of what ought to have been Guinness’s unshakable professional confidence by that stage, because what Smiley is thinking, and even what he means when he’s speaking, is so often barely apparent and yet detectable on the finest frequencies, and Guinness’s unswerving dedication to realizing Smiley in such a fashion was a sustained challenge. The scene of Smiley’s final exchange with Haydon is especially refined work, his boiling yet rigidly controlled anger only apparent in slight fumbling and over-large gestures, and the care with which he gets Haydon to give back his pen, in pointed contrast to how he let Karla, who he respected, keep the cigarette lighter that was Smiley’s gift from Ann. Tinker Tailor’s director, John Irvin, went on to an initially interesting cinematic career, adapting Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War (1984) with a similar necessary feel for minutiae to balance the action, and the underrated, no-nonsense war film Hamburger Hill (1987). Smiley’s People helmsman Simon Langton, on the other hand, stuck mostly to TV work, turning in a very different kind of cult hit with the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The emotional charge of the final sequences of Smiley’s People isn’t small, and yet Le Carré’s deeply ambivalent tone is retained. Even as George finally brings his nemesis to heel and theoretically avenges so much loss, the two old and haggard men only glare at each other, the ghost of Tatiana, emblem and offspring of their way of life, as an hysterical, dissociative mess, haunts them both, and Smiley’s lighter, dropped by Karla on the ground, remains there. It’s no victory he’s gained, only an end. Both he and Karla are ultimately two old men lost in no man’s land. The cumulative result is television at its greatest.

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2000s, Espionage

The Good Shepherd (2006)

Director: Robert De Niro

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By Roderick Heath

Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) seems a nondescript Washington public servant, to the extent of taking the crowded bus to work. Yet he is a CIA boss who finds his name at the top of a short list of suspected traitors after the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion fails. Edward prods friends within and without the Agency for a guide through the menacing tangle of hinted threats and accusations. He receives in the post a dim photograph of a pair of lovers in a hotel room accompanied by an indistinct recording of their conversation, and takes these to the CIA techies to have their secrets extracted.

During the process of this painstaking teasing out of information, Edward muses on his life and career in the Agency. He was a Yale student in 1939 and belonged to the world’s least-secret secret society, the Skull and Bones. The personal secret he gave to them as his pledge was that his father, a prospective Secretary of the Navy, killed himself after accusations of disloyalty. Edward stole away the suicide note before his family could find it. The Skull and Bones club is a statement of the sons of the WASP establishment, ex- and current members congregating for familial feasts and celebrations that happen to be a nexus of power.

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Edward is an English major, with a gorgeous, deaf girlfriend, Laura (Tammy Blanchard), but who has been propositioned repeatedly by his professor, Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon). He is approached by an FBI agent (Alec Baldwin) to spy on Fredericks, who has been organising a pro-Nazi Germany club amongst the students. Edward’s actions get Fredericks fired. At one of the Skull and Bones congregations, Edward finds himself the object of provocative desire for Margaret Russell (Angelina Jolie), nicknamed Clover, sister of Edward’s friend and sponsor in the society, John (Gabriel Macht). Clover pushes herself on restrained, remote Edward. He is soon forced to abandon Laura and marry the pregnant Clover.

A dark, densely woven tapestry, The Good Shepherd is not a crowd-pleaser. It builds a mood of quiet, sustained dread. Obviously influenced by John Le Carré’s George Smiley series, it is based loosely on the life the legendary James Jesus Angleton, who also inspired the title character of Norman Mailer’s underrated epic novel Harlot’s Ghost. Like Le Carre’s approach, De Niro’s film, written by Eric Roth and a pet project for both men for many years, analyses the type of men who become spies and finds them light years removed from James Bond.

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The most successful are those impervious to emotional attachment. Edward is taught a series of brutal lessons in his world. The first is that you don’t know who your friends are. When Edward is recruited as an OSS agent and sent to London during the Blitz, he finds his boss is Fredericks, whose anti-Nazi trawling operation Edward ruined. You also don’t know who your enemies are. Edward is asked by slick Cambridge creep Arch Cummings (Billy Crudup) to help eliminate Fredericks because his “democratic” homosexuality makes him ripe for leaks. Fredericks is beaten to death and dumped in the Thames. After the war, stationed in Berlin, Edward has an affair with a German secretary, Hanna (Martina Gedeck), who he realises is a Soviet mole. She is promptly assassinated. Returning home, Edward finds Clover and his son are virtual strangers.

A recurring note is that all of Edward’s sexual encounters are bitter jokes—with Laura, who chickens out of their first night together; with Clover; with Hanna; with Laura again many years later, a one-night tryst that is photographed. The photos are sent to Clover, whose rage makes an introverted, professionally paranoid man even more so. Sex, the surrendering of control, is the weakest link in the security chain. It destroys Fredericks and others. Yet Edward is seen first as a young man performing as Buttercup in a collegiate performance of HMS Pinafore; ironically, it’s the freest and easiest he ever seems, the act of hiding in gender ambiguity a short-lived liberation.

Edward’s hobby is constructing model ships in bottles, emphasising his kind’s attempts to bottle a complex world in a singler jar of truth. Edward is one of the most inscrutable heroes ever portrayed in a major film. He is neither a ready hero, nor an anti-hero acting out our darker fantasies, nor even a case study we can feel superior to. He is instead a truly tragic protagonist. His implacable façade conceals a lifelong, desperate attempt to prove his character. His motives are unclear even to him. He has kept his father’s suicide note, which may or may not confirm his betrayal, but never read it. So, an unanswered anxiety drives Edward to work in a field demanding tests to his own nature that his father failed, knowing that to swerve off the path is to court self-destruction. He becomes a patriot, but consumes the life force of everyone who loves him, from Fredericks, to his son, Edward Jr. (Eddie Redmayne), who, in trying to connect with his remote father, joins the CIA, too.

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Around Edward’s story swirls the tumultuous history of the CIA. Edward is courted by Bill Sullivan (De Niro), who is assembling the Agency with a plan that only irreproachable WASP scions, as the most “trustworthy” of Americans, shall run the Agency. The Agency takes down leftist South American politicians and plays the long game with the KGB. In Berlin, Edward encountered a Russian opposite (Oleg Shtefanko), code-named “Ulysses,” who becomes his chief adversary. A defector, Mironov (John Sessions), joins the CIA circle, promising information about Ulysses; as a joke, he is given a copy of James Joyce’s novel. Yet another defector (Mark Ivanir) turns up, claiming, despite Brocco’s torture, that he is the real Mironov, and that the other man is a plant of Ulysses’ before throwing himself out the window to his death.

The Good Shepherd highlights the conflicted nature of the CIA as an historical force. “I see this as America’s eyes and ears; I don’t want it to become its heart and soul,” Sullivan muses, acknowledging the necessity of the organisation whilst regretting that necessity. Edward and the other chiefs consciously ignore the second Mironov’s warnings because he told them what they don’t want to hear—that they are dupes and that they need to inflate the threat of the ailing Soviet Union to justify their existence. One senior CIA honcho, Phillip Allen (William Hurt), enjoys making silken threats and exploits his position for financial gain.

The film is also a satire on the high WASP echelon of the United States, on how they put themselves and their agendas first and foremost. At one point, Edward is asked to liaise with a gangster, Joseph Palmi (Joe Pesci), exiled from Cuba by the Castro revolution. Palmi prods Edward in wanting to understand the mentality of his class:

“Let me ask you something . . . we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish, they have the homeland, Jews, their tradition; even the niggers, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?”

“The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting,” Wilson replies, not smugly, but as if it’s the accumulation of a long meditation.

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The film is a gradual accumulation of details that point to the identity of the mysterious lovers in the recording and photo: Edward’s his own son and his African, Soviet-employed girlfriend Miriam (Liya Kebede), the ultimate joke on Edward’s sexless, white-bread patriotism. Edward Jr. leaked the Bay of Pigs invasion. Worse still, Ulysses has stage-managed this affair—except that Edward and the girl are truly in love, and want to marry. Ulysses promises to protect them if Edward becomes a double-agent. Edward refuses and seems to succeed in talking Ulysses into letting the young couple go their merry way. But Miriam is thrown out of an airplane on her way to join Edward Jr., leaving him distraught and Clover crying out, “What have you done?”

Edward stages a vengeful house cleaning, unmasking Mironov as Ulysses’ mole (he keeps his microfilm in the spine of the Joyce novel) and forcing Allen to quit by threatening him with evidence of pilfering. These actions finally stake his claim to untouchable status in the Agency, having proven his honesty with the most bitter of tests. Edward finally opens his father’s note, which confirms he was a traitor, and then burns it. He has avoided becoming his father and destroying himself, but only by destroying almost everyone around him.

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It’s a superb performance by Damon, a logical role for an actor who specialises in playing men whose great talents and capacities are at odds with their surface blandness. Damon holds our attention, like Alec Guinness did with Smiley, by playing a man who thinks much and says little. There’s an amusing edge to casting the “world’s sexiest man” as an emotional and sexual enigma, as well as casting perennial sexiest woman Jolie as his wife. Introduced as the vulpine, voracious maneater that is Jolie’s own stock persona, she finds herself exiled to a life of repression, depression, and humiliation in this pre-feminist period, her wits and abilities degraded and ignored by a man who can’t afford to open up to her. The supporting cast, from Gambon to Blanchard to Crudup offer superlative work.

De Niro’s direction is perhaps the most ordinary element of the film. It does possess the same intense concentration that marks his best performances, if none of his concussive flair. He doesn’t have the skill for revealing detail and procedure that, say, David Fincher brought to Zodiac. He settles for fiercely controlling pace and mood, and whilst his film occasionally bogs in dour confusion, it never becomes facile. If there are facile points, it’s in some silly symbolism in Roth’s otherwise excellent script, like deaf Laura being the true love of a man who listens in for a living. Some subplots, like those of Cummings, a Kim Philby stand-in, and Allen, are opaque and brief.

Nonetheless, The Good Shepherd is a hypnotic and haunting film with something to say. It wraps up in the early ’60s, Edward wandering the halls of the new Langley headquarters, a lonely man in a sterile environment, revealing this as a fin de siecle for an era and a sensibility, the ossification of American power and a certain kind of family and social life. The lack of a heroic flash-forward to the end of the Cold War emphasises that this work is never finished, that the glorious gettin’ up morning never comes.

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