This begins literally with a bang (a safe being blown open in the first second) and moves swiftly through an almost telegraphic series of scenes, a montage of images and sounds with “narration” on the radio, to convey that Eddie Chapman (Christopher Plummer) is a smooth safecracker and ladies’ man who lands in prison on the island of Jersey shortly before the Nazis take it over at the start of WWII. He brazenly offers his services to the German secret service, as peopled by Gert Frobe, Romy Schneider, and Yul Brynner. There’s another montage of training for special missions—parachuting, learning codes, etc. It all looks rather like a lark. The pace slows a bit for the rest of the 126-minute movie, as Chapman goes back and forth from Britain’s secret service (Trevor Howard), playing both ends against his middle.
The film is moderately suspenseful, handsomely mounted, fueled by exotic star power (though only Brynner has charismatic intensity), and sometimes verging on dull. Chapman is depicted as out for himself, unmotivated by higher causes than getting out of prison and being on the winning side, a cynical if charming anti-hero for the late ‘60s Dirty Dozen era. Most of the Germans he works with are likable for different reasons (though not the suspicious SS guy), with Brynner’s Baron even belonging to the circle of aristrocratic generals who tried to snuff Hitler. (This is one of the film’s liberties, as the real Baron survived the war and even remained friends with Chapman.)
Although based on a true story, resemblances to characters living or dead are slightly more coincidental than resemblances to James Bond. British director Terence Young helmed several WWII adventures but made his international breakthrough with the genre- and decade-defining Dr. No, From Russia with Love and Thunderball. Here he’s applying the sleekness and sexiness of that mythic figure to somewhat more realistic scrapes of a real-life person, still clearly conceived as a Bondian bad boy by way of the era’s heisting and capering jewel thieves (Robert Wagner, Steve McQueen, etc.).
We see Plummer in bed with three women (not simultaneously), though this has basis in fact. The Bond vibe is bolstered by the presence of Frobe (Goldfinger) and Claudine Auger (Thunderball). There’s even a closing title song that tries to sound like Thunderball. Although Young’s greatest film is arguably the smaller-scale suspense of Wait Until Dark, his Bonds were his most influential achievement, even upon himself. Yet it must also be admitted that Chapman is the type of figure who inspired Bond, so who’s influencing whom?
// Notes from the Road
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