Saturday, August 17, 2013

Cold War In Film: One Strong, One Weak

Last Tuesday was the 52nd anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall. On the morning of August 13, 1961, East Berliners woke to find soldiers had blocked off the streets, cut off rail links, and begun building a wall. The city's division followed that of Germany as millions of people in the east were isolated. Over the course of the next 27 years, between 600-700 people died (no exact number is known) trying to flee from East Germany before the Wall eventually fell in 1989.

The Berlin Wall stood as a symbol of Communism and the Cold War and also as a reminder of the potential for nuclear holocaust. In the 1960's, the Cold War became a popular movie theme. There were a few good ones, but most were mediocre.

I was a little surprised to discover that Alfred Hitchcock had made one of the weak ones, Torn Curtain. An American scientist (Paul Newman) defects to East Germany to obtain information about an anti-ballistic missile program. The movie is formulaic and full of implausibility. In the early 1960's, Hitchcock's was on a roll. His three previous movies Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964) were inventive and suspenseful stories that pressed the limits of censorship. However, Torn Curtainis a predicable spy caper that falls flat. There are a few good scenes, but overall, the movie is a failure.

By contrast, Martin Ritt's, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a classic. It's about a British agent that is sent to East Germany to plant disinformation. Filmed in black and white, and starring Richard Burton (one of his few restrained performances), Claire Bloom, and Oskar Werner, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is an unflinching look at the spy business. There are no good guys in this movie, just wretched characters engaged in a ruthless occupation. Ritt's economical use of dialogue, subdued cinematography, and somber set decoration makes for an intense drama that still holds up.

Movie Trivia: The movie's first scene at Checkpoint Charlie was filmed on a studio set in Ireland. It bears little resemblance to the street (Friedrichsstraße) where where Checkpoint Charlie actually stands.

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