Attractive, thoughtful spy film with an excellent cast
9 January 2006
Released at a time when the larger-than-life type of spy movie (the James Bond series) was in full swing and splashy, satirical ones (such as "Our Man Flynt" and "The Silencers") were about to take off, this is a quieter, more down-to-earth and realistic effort. Segal plays a secret agent assigned to ferret out the headquarters of a Neo-Nazi movement in Berlin. His two predecessors were killed off in their attempts, but he nevertheless proceeds with headstrong (perhaps even bullheaded) confidence without the aid of cover or even a firearm! His investigations (and baiting) lead him to a pretty schoolteacher (Berger) who he immediately takes a liking to and who may be of assistance to him in his quest. Before long, his purposefully clumsy nosing around leads to his capture and interrogation by a very elegantly menacing von Sydow, who wants to know where Segal's own headquarters is! When drug-induced questioning fails to produce results, Segal is booted to the river, but he isn't quite ready to give in yet. He recruits Berger to help him infiltrate the Neo-Nazis and discover their base of operations, but, once again, is thwarted. Finally, he is placed in the no-win position of either choosing to aid von Sydow or allowing Berger to be murdered. The film illustrates the never-ending game of spying and the futility that results as each mission is only accomplished in its own realm, but the big picture goes on and on with little or no resolution. Segal is an unusual actor to be cast as a spy, but his quirky approach and his talent for repartee do assist him in retaining interest (even if its at the expense of the character as originally conceived in the source novels.) Guinness appears as Segal's superior and offers a great deal of presence and class. Von Sydow (one of the few actors to have recovered from playing Jesus Christ and gone on to a varied and lengthy career) is excellent. He brings graceful authority and steely determination to his role. His virtual army of nearly silent, oddball henchmen add to the flavor of paranoia and nervousness. Berger is luminous and exceedingly solid in a complicated role. Always under-appreciated by U.S. audiences, it's a relief to know that she's had a major impact on the German film community in later years. Special guests Sanders and Helpmann bring their special brand of haughty authority to their roles as members of British Intelligence. The film magnificently utilizes West German locations to bring the story to life. Widescreen viewing is a must, if possible, if for no other reason than to fully glimpse the extraordinary stadium built by Hitler for the 1936 Olympic games. The film has that beautiful, pristine look that seems to only come about in mid-60's cinema, made even more so by the clean appearance and tailored lines of the clothing on the supporting cast and the extras. By day, the city is presented so beautifully, it's hard to imagine that such ugly things are going on amidst it. Composer Barry provides an atmospheric score (though one that is somewhat of a departure from the notes and instruments used in his more famous pieces), but silence is put to good use as well. Is there another film with as many sequences of extended, audible footsteps? Fans of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" will notice that film's Mr. Slugworth (Meisner) in a small role as the operator of a swim club (which features some memorably husky, "master race" swimmers emerging from the pool.) The film's screenplay (by noted playwright Pinter) reuses to spoon feed the audience, rather requiring that they rely on their instinct and attention span to pick up the threads of the plot.
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