The Upturned Glass (1947)

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Part of a DVD set with three great British thrillers, The Upturned Glass stars James Mason as an ultra serious neurosurgeon who tells a college class about a case of a sane man murdering in cold blood. We soon figure out that Mason’s Dr. Michael Young is the “sane” murderer he believes exists. Dr. Michael Young meets Emma Wright whose daughter has a condition that will lead to blindness unless this talented surgeon can operate right away. As the case progresses and the girl improves, Michael and Emma grow close. Both have spouses far away and they continue seeing each other after the girl’s treatment ends. Of course, they fall in love.

So why the need for murder?

Emma is found dead and Michael attends the inquest. He can’t believe it’s an accident. He notices some strange glances between Emma’s daughter and her jealous, greedy sister-in-law, who learns that Emma has cheated on her brother. The two were never close and this was the sister-in-law’s reason to get even.

This superstar surgeon is soon taking matters into his own hands.

The film had lots of unpredictable turns and kept my attention from the first scene. Hitchcock drew upon it for some of his later films. It’s sure to entertain.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

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Based on John le Carré’s novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold stars Richard Burton as a jaded, used, alcoholic spy, who’s seemingly put out to pasture then pulled back in when the blue bloods running MI-6 need him. It’s a trip back to the cold war. Michael Sragow’s essay for the Criterion Collection aptly captures the essence of the film:

Martin Ritt’s 1965 movie of John le Carré’s first great novel (and first best seller), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, declares “a plague on all your houses” to capitalists, Communists, and ruthless intelligence operatives. It’s one espionage movie that neither comes on like gangbusters nor sneaks up on you like a cat burglar. Instead, it creates an atmosphere of anguish, fear, and rage that intensifies each pause in the action and gesture of the actors, leaving viewers hanging on every word of the sometimes cryptic, sometimes eloquent dialogue.

Alec Leamas (Burton) is a middle-aged, run down spy. His boss called “Control” offers him a desk job, which he refuses leading to a scheme whereby Leamas is to take a boring, low paying clerk job at a library, where he meets the fetching Nan Perry (Claire Bloom, who at one time was romantically linked to Burton). The romance redeems Leamas, but that doesn’t matter to MI-6. They propose that Leamas return to the service posing as a double agent with East Germany.

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He goes along with the plan to be taken by the East Germans and cosy up to Fiedler, an East German Jewish intelligence officer who seeks to convict Mundt, a double agent who’s leaked secrets to the west. The counterpoint of the tender relationship with Nan and the sordid world of espionage add a compelling tension.  The plot twists and turns while engaging in incisive repartee. The unexpected ending chills to the bone.

The Criterion Collection extras include a candid interview with le Carré, who while he didn’t hate the film, didn’t think it was that great and a short documentary on le Carré’s biography focussing on the influence his duplicitous father had on his joining MI-6, illuminate the film.

The 39 Steps

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This week’s old movie was Hitchcock’s 39 Steps (1935), which reminded me a lot of Ministry of Fear and North by Northwest, another Hitchcock film. Still 39 Steps is compelling and moves quickly as it shows a man who mistakenly gets caught up in spy intrigue and is innocent of a murder for which the police suspect him. I’d never seen the leading man, Robert Donat, but liked him in the role of Mr. Hanney. Dona’s charming and attractive, but not an Adonis so he can come off as an everyman.

After a strange, beautiful woman asks to go back with him to his apartment. Once inside she hides in the shadows, fearful of being seen. Men are following her. She claims to be a spy who must protect military secrets. She’s a mercenary and her tale is hard to believe. Hanney really doesn’t put much faith into her story, but he doesn’t kick her out either. When she comes to him in the middle of the night with a map and a knife stuck in her back, Hanney’s convinced. Knowing he’ll be suspected of murder he flees all the while having to elude the men who killed the beautiful spy.

Like many Hitchcock films it’s the tale of an innocent man, wrongly accused. Roger Ebert told a film class I took with him that as a boy, Hitchcock’s father wrongly suspected the young genius of some childish misdemeanor and punished him by sending him to the local police where an officer locked him up saying, “This is what we do with naughty boys.” Hitchcock believed he was 4 or 5 at the time.

The 39 Steps moves briskly in part to keep the audience from pondering unexplained questions like how did the killers get into Hanney’s apartment so quietly and why didn’t they do something to Hanney since they saw the pair enter the building.  The film delights with wit and light comedy sprinkled in with the suspense and danger.

As usual, the Criterion Collection offers a trenchant essay on the film. Well worth reading.

The Exam

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A Hungarian film, that’s won some festival awards, The Exam (A Visgva in Hungarian) is a terrific thriller that’s hard to find. I saw it on my flight home from China. It’s not on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. However, it’s captivating and well worth seeing.

Directed by Péter Bergendy and written by Hungary’s prolific, accomplished Norbert Köbli, The Exam is a spy thriller that shows the secret police spying on themselves, testing agent’s loyalty in 1957.

As Christmas approaches, Jung, an exemplary spy who interviews citizens from all walks of life to ferret out the counter revolutionaries, doesn’t realize that his mentor Marko is spying on him, recording his every move as part of a program to spy on the spies.

The film recreates Communist Hungary and all the distrust and suspicion inherent in that regime. It’s tense and keeps the audience guessing, much like The Lives of Others did. The acting is masterful and the plot keeps viewers riveted.  The juxtaposition of Christmas images, the tree, ornaments, and an angel with spy tools, tape recorders and guns in the opening credits captivates. I wish this “must-see” wasn’t so hard to find.

The State Within

A seven episode thriller from the BBC, The State Within would have been better at five episodes. Jacob Isaacs stars as the British Ambassador in the US.  He’s had a stellar career and is about to move on to bigger and better things, when a British Airways plane crashes and terrorism is suspected. Sharon Gless stars as an Iron Lady type, Secretary of Defense. Meanwhile down in Florida a Brit is about to be executed and for two murders he didn’t commit. Soon we see political intrigue and a possible war with Turkistan.

The ambassador’s surrounded by villains and in the beginning we wonder how this is connected to the Florida attempt to get a stay of execution.

I was hoping for something on par with Luther or MI-6, but The State Within doesn’t attain those heights. It’s decent enough, but the story does drag and the dialog and characters don’t stand out. I actually groaned when I realized the series wasn’t going to wrap up after 5 episodes. I’d had enough. But I did make it through the rest, but television should entertain, delight and/or stimulate. It shouldn’t feel like a chore and this did after a few episodes.  The ending disappointed and I’m not sure why but it seems that the ambassador ends up with two romantic interests and a small child at the end. Huh?

The trouble with a thriller is your hooked. Even if I’m not having a great time, I do want to know who did it and why.

Inception

Cool, mind-bending, esoteric, Inception leads viewers through a plot that’s a maze. Sometimes we’re sure of where we are; a lot of the time we aren’t. The hero Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, infiltrates people’s dreams or their dreams within their dreams. Here he hopes to save the world’s energy sources by infiltrating the sub-conscience of the heir to a major corporation. He and his team risk everything in this esoteric pursuit. Along the way there are plenty of cool effects, chases, explosions and close calls.

In the beginning I found the film engrossing, but as it went on, I hoped it would end and I got tired of how aware the story was of its own complexity and cleverness. The hero’s desire to recapture his old love and return to his family got old. His wife, who haunted him, seemed both wooden and ethereal–so unreal and hence dull. So I didn’t really care whether he addressed that problem. I found the heir to plastic and stereotypical, so that aspect of the story didn’t work for me either.

I did like Ellen Page’s character, Ariadne, an architecture student who’s the Every woman in this film. If only a few more of the characters had seem so real or worth caring about . . . . The last scenes were painfully sentimental and predictable.

I’m glad I saw this intriguing, ambitious film once, but wouldn’t bother seeing it again.

MI-5, Season 6

I finished watching Season 6. Talk about thrilling and frightening. Mi-5 has to be the best drama I’ve ever seen. Certainly, it’s the most thrilling. All the main characters risk so much and are so intelligent and brave. The plots go down alleys, the audience never expects — even after 5 seasons. I sure do hope this is more fictional than possible though.

I’m glad I’m watching on Netflix instantly so I could immediately get to season 7’s opener. The end of 6 was far too nerve-racking to wait for the outcome.

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Since coming home in mid-March, I’ve been able to move ahead with my MI-5 viewing. I’m almost done now with season 8. The further I get into this thrilling series, the more I like it.

I love the characters and suspense. The stories depict hypothetical security issues in an age of international terrorism. The characters are intriguing and the dialog sophisticated. When else does one hear allusions to Milton, Shakespeare and Orwell. The first two years introduced the question of the toll of secrecy needed in this line of work on personal relationships. As the series goes on that’s still a question, but less screen time is spent talking about that and it works. The audience can infer the toll and ponder that issue themselves.

Another remarkable aspect of the show is the writers willingness to kill off characters that typically are “safe.”

Watching MI-5 is like watching 2 or 3 Law and Order, a favorite of mine. Because the spies a.k.a. spooks, are often in the midst of danger in a way that’s more vulnerable than the your average cop on the beat. The stakes are always so much higher because the threat often is to democracy, freedom of religion or energy sources that we hold so dear.