Thursday, January 24, 2013

In short: The Defector (1966)

Original title: L'espion

A CIA agent (Roddy McDowell) coerces professor of physics James Bower (Montgomery Clift) to do some amateur spying for him while he's visiting Leipzig in Eastern Germany in his capacity as a hobby art expert. A Russian physicist whose books Bower had translated and corrected has some scientific data to sell to the US, but for some reason he'll only give the microfilm containing them to Bower.

Once in Leipzig, things go wrong for our amateur spy quickly. His contact, a local doctor of medicine (Hannes Messemer), is under permanent surveillance by the Stasi and the Russians, and so has to funnel all contacts through one of his assistants, Bower's mandatory love interest played by Macha Méril. Before he has barely even done anything amounting to espionage at all, Bower is greeted by Peter Heinzmann (Hardy Krüger). Heinzmann is a physicist himself but has been recruited to get the microfilm from Bower, if the American ever manages to get his hands on it, that is, but Heinzmann is a man with rather too well developed morals to play spy games. Why, he even disapproves of the awe-inspiring brainwash hotel room his superiors put Bower into, because only evil spies and movie audiences like cheap, surrealist brainwash attempts.

What neither Bower nor Heinzmann know is that the whole thing has been a trap from the start. The Russian scientist has been made for ages, and was only allowed to live long enough to deliver the microfilm to Bower's contact. The microfilm is only McGuffin to get the physicist into compromising situation; once compromised, so the plan goes, Heinzmann's sympathetic manner and similar background will make it easy to convince Bower to defect from the US, making for a wonderful PR coup. Is it any wonder that brilliant plan doesn't work out too well?

Raoul Lévy's The Defector is best known, if it is known at all, for being the last film actor Montgomery Clift made before his death (as well as the last film Lévy made before his death). Not surprisingly, Clift's performance is nervous and slightly off throughout, and it's never quite clear if things like his shaking hands and his at times disoriented gaze are him acting the part of a frightened amateur in a dangerous situation or signs of Clift being at the end of his tether; it's quite disturbing to watch, to be honest, even if it makes the film more convincing.

Apart from this, The Defector is rather too interesting a movie to be only known as the last film made by Clift. It works well as a laconic spy movie that delights in using (West) Germany at its greyest and brownest (with some locations that are situated in my part of the country even), knows about the horrors of DDR wallpaper, does simple and effective psychedelia well in the one scene it opts to use it, and even contains one or two rather tightly realized suspense scenes. It's all pretty grim, with characters trapped in situations they don't fully comprehend, created by powers they can't control in the interest of plans that are absurd at best. In this world, escape is only possible in bitterly ironic ways.

In other words, the film does serious spy movie standards quite well, and is worth watching for that alone.

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