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Monday, May 6, 2013

L'ESPION / THE DEFECTOR (1966)

Montgomery Clift’s last film is usually written off as a low-budget test-run made solely to prove he was up for mainstream Hollywood work after four years off the screen.* But it holds surprising interest on its own. Its director, Raoul Lévy, a leading Nouvelle Vague producer on a rare helming gig, was aiming for a New Wave SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD/’65 type of espionage thriller. But the Cold War/ East German intrigue cheats on its scorecard with professional spies, amateur spies & innocent dupes inconsistently switching teams with no explanation. And Lévy doesn’t appear especially gifted at keeping things straight behind the camera. Happily, the basic look of the film, marvelously caught by New Wave lenser Raoul Coutard, supplies a compelling atmosphere even when things don’t quite add up. Clift is game, but looks terribly frail, as if fresh out of a Concentration Camp, a backstory idea that might well have been followed up. It gives his stuntwork an extra edge of danger. The rest of the cast does well with their half-formed characters. Hardy Krüger is a lot like Oskar Werner’s character in SPY and Roddy McDowall is smooth, smooth, smooth as Clift’s secret handler. But the real treat comes when David Opatoshu’s Soviet spy-master greets an uncredited Jean-Luc Godard with a big Russian-style kiss on the lips. (And you thought Godard was a Maoist at the time.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The film Clift hoped to make was John Huston’s REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE/’67, but he died just months after completing this. Marlon Brando took over to startling effect. Then, a few months after Clift died, director Lévy committed suicide. And the film? It never received a proper Stateside distribution. (Note the title on the poster, THE DESERTOR.)

DOUBLE-BILL: The obvious choice is THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. Even better, try Hitchcock’s failed espionage thriller from the same year, TORN CURTAIN/'66, which is loaded with strikingly similar story elements.

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