Archive for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

The Drain in Brains Dazed Mainly Michael Caine

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2017 by dcairns

I nipped back to that nice book fair and was able to pick up two more Len Deightons. I’ve found I like Len when he writes the unnamed spy, but have yet to really groove to any of his books written in his own voice. It’s like this narrator figure was an act of ventriloquism that enabled Deighton to unlock something in himself that otherwise stays unexpressed. The other books I’ve read have no poetry and little humour. Maybe because the anonymous operative is constantly disgruntled, he can be interesting on any subject ~

It was the sort of January morning that has enough sunshine to point up the dirt without raising the temperature.

So now I’ve read The Ipcress File, which led me to review THE IPCRESS FILE, Sidney J. Furie’s film, scripted by W.H. Canaway (a novelist, o.a. of Sammy Going South, filmed by Alexander Mackendrick) & James Doran (and Edinburgh man with a mostly TV-based career). Furie, a Canadian who came to the UK because he loved our kitchen sink dramas, and promptly found himself making muck like DR. BLOOD’S COFFIN, and THE YOUNG ONES with Cliff Richard. But, while no film career ever ends well, there are such things as happy middles, and Furie got to make THE LEATHER BOYS, a seminal social-realism drama with Rita Tushingham and Dudley Sutton.

(And Furie is still making films, which is lovely.)

The Minister’s flat overlooked Trafalgar Square and was furnished like Oliver Messel did it for Oscar Wilde. He sat in the Sheraton, I sat in the Hepplewhite and we peeped at each other through the aspidistra plant.

Apparently, Furie hated Canaway & Doran’s script, starting the shoot by denouncing it to the whole cast and crew, throwing his copy on the floor and stamping on it. (Star Michael Caine presumes he must have borrowed someone else’s from then on.) The only way he could see to make the film tolerable was to shoot it in a highly contrived, eccentric manner — as if the camera and audience were themselves spying on the action.

This involves Deutsch tilts intended not just for the “something is wrong here” effect intended by Carol Reed in THE THIRD MAN (whose canted angles usually ARE literal POV shots) but also to artfully simulate the sense of a camera haphazardly placed by agents; occluding foreground objects that are allowed to dominate the frame (the notorious Sid Furie shot, even used for his signature credit); this gets extended to over-the-shoulder shots that are all shoulder.

(The Furie technique works like gangbusters here and in the similarly paranoid THE ENTITY, where invisible eyes really ARE watching. In THE APPALOOSA, when he films a distant Brando through the slit between a massive shoulder and a massive sombrero, the effect is inadvertently hilarious.)

There’s also a SYMPHONY OF LAMPS going on here, which David Bordwell makes good points about here. The lamp thing brings us into John Alton film noir territory — Furie and Alton are the only guys to regularly put their camera inside lampshades.

There’s also a red thing going on. Not just the fight filmed, counterintuitively, from inside a phone booth, and the London bus used as a shock plot twist, but regular danger-danger placements of red objects in this greyish urban world. At a climactic reveal, we get a RED LAMP blocking two-thirds of the frame as the film’s various motifs join hands.

It was interesting to read the novel and find how the movie invents whole characters (Gordon Jackson, who seems to have been lifted from the sequel, Horse Under Water) and invents most of the scenes and omits most of those in the book. There are a couple of key twists that are kept, because they’re so damn good, but the mode of exposition is way different — while the book is narrated by the unnamed spy, the movie has whole passages of spymasters Guy Doleman and Nigel Green batting exposition back and forth unblinkingly.

In some ways it’s certainly dumbed down, to make us know where we are (except in one key sequence) so that it doesn’t need to end, as the book does, with a long conversation that explains all the accumulated mysteries, which would have played like an Agatha Christie whodunnit, or the psychiatrist bit in PSYCHO. Sometimes this creates its own problems — when Caine deduces, with no real reason, that the bad guys are based in a disused factory (because one of them was arrested near it), it’s borderline confusing. The book spent a good bit of time explaining the reasoning that leads him to pinpoint bad-guy HQ in a suburban house.

Bent nail painted with finest Kensington gore by Hammer man Phil Leakey, assuming a proto-DON’T LOOK NOW glow

The unnamed spy now has a name, Harry Palmer. “Harry” is an alias briefly used in the book, and “Palmer” is marvelously apt — our man “palms” a bent nail to use as a tool, and injures his palm with it at the end — an oddly Christ-like image. Unlike the character in the novel (older and fatter), our hero is not only a cynic but a former crook — his antipathy towards his bosses is slightly greater if anything, since he’s only a spy under duress — the alternative will be a prison sentence. Caine’s insubordination to Doleman was judged so entertaining that Doleman’s character was maintained through the sequels — the spy has a different boss from the second book on.

The book’s Lebanese interval is relocated to an underground car park, which seems like a bit of a low-budget comedown on paper, but not the way Furie and DoP Otto Heller shoot it.

The brainwashing in the book might actually work — it’s basically psychological torture designed to produce a nervous breakdown, which is possible, if of dubious use. (Wild animals spend their entire lives avoiding death, but are apparently happy and healthy: it takes behaviorist scientists to reduce them to quivering wrecks. They can certainly do the same to us.) The film invents all this psychedelic lightshow stuff (ahead of the curve for 1965) and claims it produces amnesia. Needlessly silly, but it turns the movie into a treatise on free will — though Palmer’s choices are terribly circumscribed, since he’s an indentured civil servant of H.M. Gov. THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD might be the most depressive of the anti-Bond films, but under Caine’s mordant wit and dumb insolence, behind the letching after “birds,” and seeping through the plangent wail of the sax on John Barry’s KNACK-style score, there’s a melancholic sense of defeat that felt perfect for election week in the UK.

PS: I’m on The Billion Dollar Brain now, and looking forward to revisiting Ken Russell’s surprisingly faithful movie version…





Mystery of the Pencil Museum

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 28, 2012 by dcairns

“This film was produced by committee,” said SIGHTSEERS director Ben Wheatley with faultless deadpan, “It was heavily focus-grouped, and we decided that a film with a small dog, serial murder, and a lot of minor English tourist attractions would be a hit.”

The filmmaker was speaking, along with writers and co-stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram (a ringer for the late Nicol Williamson) at a Dublin screening of the new movie from the maker of KILL LIST. I lucked into a free ticket to the show at the Light House, a spacious cinema next to the place used as Checkpoint Charlie in THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD.

Wheatley (right) and most of his surviving cast.

SIGHTSEERS is a semi-improvised black comedy — it begins with a caravan holiday and becomes a killing spree. Oram is the experienced murderer, killing to settle petty disputes, like John Waters’ SERIAL MOM, rather than to satisfy perverted desires like most real-life mass murderers. Lowe is the inexperienced, unworldly woman breaking away from her grasping mother for the first time, and learning to exult in the joys of homicide, which nicely compliment those of sex and knitting (the hand-knitted crotch-less undies from this film will surely go on to be the most valuable movie prop since Rosebud).

For some reason Wheatley departs from KILL LIST’s deadpan approach to violence, modeled on Youtube verité footage: at times, the mayhem here has a gloating, late Fulci feel, a sort of “Here is a shot of our costly special effect” quality, which took me out of the film. But at times the location filming is extremely beautiful, and it gave me a surprise respect for the unknown attractions of the British countryside. “You don’t see places like the pencil Museum in many films,” said one viewer. “It’s in SKYFALL, actually,” said Wheatley.

Much of the semi-improvised film’s charm comes from the Brummie accents — Birmingham is known as an unglamorous and uncinematic city. It has historically low cinema attendance, and I think the only film to ever premier there may have been Beeban Kidron’s VROOM. It died like a dog. Peter Sellers, having essayed an excellent Brummie accent in HEAVENS ABOVE!, using it to de-glamorize a rather Christ-like (for him) character, returned to the accent in CASINO ROYALE, because it gave Bond impersonator Evelyn Tremble a suitably mundane vibe. Not even a vibe, really, more of a hum.

I’d call SIGHTSEERS a kind of BADLANDS meets NUTS IN MAY. I don’t really like Mike Leigh’s theatrical vision of ordinariness, and I generally like ordinariness in films only when it comes into contrast with extraordinariness. This movie does that. Wheatley is on a quite a roll, and surely we’ll hear a lot more from the talented Lowe & Oram.