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Todo Modo

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domenica 12 giugno 2011

Cold war paranoia: Franklyn J. Schaffner’s The double man and John Huston’s The Kremlin letter.

East Berlin during the cold war, a general of the Red Army is meeting with another high ranking officer to discuss a plan to infiltrate undercover agents in the US. It’s a risky operation but the officer is sure he’s going to succeed. The general reminds him that the price to pay in case of fail is life. Cut to the Austrian mountains, a young guy while skiing falls to death in a gully. The boy was the son of Dan Slater (Yul Brynner), an executive director at CIA, who as soon as he has received the news leaves his post to attend the funeral in Europe. Being aware this could be possibly a trap, Slater wants to find out who eventually killed his son. The boy was attending an International school there, run by an old Slater’s friend and former spy Frank Weathly (Clive Revill). Everybody is claiming it was an accident and that the boy fell. But just before to leave to go back, Slater finds in his bag his son’s jacket with two holes in it: the boy has been stabbed with a ski pole and maybe pushed from a cliff. Slater decides to stay longer, while his boss is complaining and wants him to leave immediately, it could be the place of  a very possible set up.
It is indeed, since Slater has been followed and led on the tracks of the assassins by the very same Russian officer who has started his operation with Slater as his first target. The plan involves even Gina (Britt Ekland), a young and beautiful girl, in the dark about the whole plot.
Written by Frank Tarloff and Alfred Hayes from the Harry Maxfield’s novel Legacy of a spy, The double man is the typical example of the cold war paranoia of the sixties and was directed by the so little celebrated Franklin J. Schaffner in 1967, just an year before he was going to deliver one of his most accomplished work and one of the best Sci Fi film ever made The Planet of the Apes.
The double man has been often dismissed as predictable and kind of a missed opportunity. But without being a great film has his own points of merit and even with some flaws in most of the cases delivers the goods. There are some wrong production and script choices: the title and the prologue are too much of a giveaway of what the twist of the film is going to be, since the “Reds” plan is to exchange Slater with a body double, a Russian agent that has gone under plastic surgery and that looks exactly like him (both parts played by Brynner). In this case the title and the fact that in the prologue the plan is called “crazy” and “impossible”, suggest too much to the viewer, and when the revelation happens in the third act of the film, it comes unsurprising to an expert audience. Other problems are the music score and cinematography: too invasive and recurring the first sounding like a TV series “leit motif”, while the second fails to create the proper atmosphere with its anonymous colour palette and with a TV tone as well. But there is a lot of good stuff in here, mostly due to Schaffner’s tight direction, specially in the third act, with a long chase sequence that is worth watching, being engaging and full of suspense. There some turns in the script that are exciting and that could have been improved renouncing to an happy ending that looks like have been filmed more to please the producers than to be the functional closing of the story: in it Wheatley has to face Slater and his double without knowing who is the real one. After he has killed one of them, the viewer is in the dark about who has been shot, until the very last sequence. The double had a scratch on his face, caused by a fight with Gina, and after the shooting Brynner’s face is framed only from one side to keep the audience guessing until the last minute. This is a clever trick, and the movie dark tone would have gained more power, leaving the spectators with the doubt and skipping the mentioned happy end in favour of a puzzling one.
Not with this standing, the movie is still interesting, and Slater is an unsympathetic character and the audience really has difficulty to relate to him. This is an unconventional choice and the casting of Yul Brynner, with his iconic presence, is of great help and brings to Slater all the coldness and unemotional temperament of an high trained, cold blooded, spy. For this reason the end in which is suggested that Slater could have a possible future affair with Gina is as improbable as unconvincing. As the theme of the double is only suggested and could have been exploited with more efficiency. The author only scratched the surface of an intriguing premise: Slater and his double are only two sides of the same coin. Both of them have their own convictions and they will stop at nothing to achieve their goal. They are very much look alike not only in the resemblance terms but also in the behaviour: the imperialist and the communist are exactly the same in their inhuman approach to life made only of violence.
Released for the first time in the US as part of The Warner Archive Collection (DVD-R), The double man has been available in Spain and Germany since a while, the German DVD is the one examined here, an official Warner edition. The movie has been re-mastered and there are just few dirts, here and there. Sound is good and the AR is 1.78:1 while the original OAR is supposed to be 1.85:1. But I noticed that the main titles are 1.66:1, the probable aspect ratio the movie has been filmed. In fact some takes, specially the close ups, denote a severe cropping of the faces that seems unnatural and unwanted. Overall quality is good, in line with other Warner’s catalogue titles.
This is not one of Schaffner’s best, but it is still worth watching, due to his excellent film skills that should be recognized more when in fact he has always been considered only not more than a craftsman. A director whose filmography includes: The best man, Papillon, Patton and the mentioned Planet of the Apes, would deserve a major recognition that has been reserved instead to much less talented filmmakers.

The Kremlin letter

At the peak of the Cold War, a group of undercover agents is sent to Russia to recover a compromising letter, in which the US government states he would be ready to come to terms with the Russian one, in order to destroy a nuclear plant in China.
Shot in 1970 and released the same year to critical dismiss, Letter to Kremlin is the case of  a big production with honest intentions gone wrong. In recent years due to the audience’s affection to the great Huston and the star crowded cast, there was a sort of revaluation of the movie that is unfortunately misleading the ones that approach this work for the first time. The script is full of confusing twists and characters are not fully developed with their semi obscure motivations that are thrown away in a few minutes showdown. The attempt to create a minimalist approach showing the daily life of undercover agents, succeeds only in part, making suffer the whole rhythm of the story that is too talky and with a lot of characters showing up just for few scenes, making no point. 
There are some engaging moments, and a bleak, sardonic atmosphere flits during the whole film, but it is not enough to save the day of the production and it’s not clear if this was intentional. The description of the underground Soviet night life is ridiculous, even if the point of the authors is clear: there’s no difference between it and the Western one. But the nightclubs with prostitutes and transvestites look so naïve that the film seems more a cheap grindhouse than a studio product. Not with this standing the last five minutes manage to deliver, with an unexpected and powerful punch in the face of the viewer that makes the whole show worth watching.
A rare case in which a fierce and daring touch is able to cover for the many previously mistakes, improving the subtext of the story making it what it was supposed to be from the beginning: a parable of human cruelty and its double crossing nature. While criticizing and attacking a way of life, the eastern one, our is no better. It is not a matter of capitalism versus communism, it’s the primordial wild beast in each one of us: that push to prevail over someone else, that mankind can’t get rid of.
Performances are ok, in some cases excellent, it is still nice to see such talented people assembled together even with poor result: Orson Welles, Richard Boone, George Sanders, Max Von Sydow and Bibi Andersson just to name few. Not all of them are  fully convincing, but they manage with their charisma to be at least interesting.
Production values are top notch, the movie was shot on location in Finland for Russia, with credible results and on stage in Rome, Italy.
Released for the first time on DVD in US by Twilight Time The Kremlin Letter is available on order in a 3000 units limited pressing with no extras but with a track featuring the isolated score. It has been made available by Fox in Spain at the same time of the US release in a regular edition with no extras, the one that has been examined here.
I believe the masters to be the same, since Twilight Time editions of officially licensed Fox catalogue titles are using materials provided by the studio. The film has been re-mastered and digitally cleaned looking and sounding excellent. The OAR is 2.35:1 and has been 16X9 enhanced.
I suggest this film to Huston’s completists and those who want a different, even if problematic, approach to a spy story. Could have been a great opportunity to overcome the typical double O seven storytelling, but sadly is only a missed one.

Film Mass is ended you may go in peace
The Vikar


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