This is the second of three films in which a bespectacled, frizzy-haired Michael Caine underplays novelist Len Deighton’s creation Harry Palmer, a semi-bemused, semi-exasperated criminal blackmailed into working as a British spy. It begins in a manner that some of today’s less classically-oriented audiences might find slow and over-explained, only to spin an increasingly complicated web of double-crosses and motives within motives that add up to wry, insouciant example of “spy noir”—the idea that the world of espionage is as brutal and untrustworthy (if somewhat more glamorous) as the labyrinths of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.
In one sense that makes it darker than the James Bond films co-produced by the same Harry Saltzman who produced this one, yet it’s also more of an ironic comedy, thanks to Palmer’s existential detachment from the absurdities he manipulates. He’s only able to participate in the system by maintaining his outsider status within it; this is a trope that was coming to the fore in the cinema of the 60s and 70s, so we could have our machine and rebel against it too.
The opening sequence (apparently second-unit material shot by Peter Medak) nicely contrasts the colorful, decadent, consumer-oriented West Berlin with grey, dour, empty, half-ruined streets of the East. Then the plot finds Palmer called to negotiate the supposed defection of a veteran Russian general played with sinister jollity by Oscar Homolka, who insists he’s still a loyal communist. Palmer doesn’t believe he really wants to defect, but he does as he’s told and then must deal with the fallout. He also falls into bed (though we don’t see it) with a mysterious beauty (Eva Renzi), although this isn’t a romantic movie. A nightclub scene highlights gratuitously obvious female impersonators, presumably to shock the viewers with another example of decadence, but this does make historical sense as Berlin background.
This out-of-print Paramount DVD is now available again through Warner Archive’s on-demand service.
// Notes from the Road
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