Tag Archives: Spy/Espionage

Marathon Man (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dentist doesn’t use novocain.

            Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a post graduate student at Columbia University and part-time marathon runner who spends a harrowing 48 hours being tortured and terrorized by a sadistic Nazi war criminal. It all starts when his brother Henry ‘Doc’ Levy (Roy Scheider) who works for a secret government organization known as ‘The Division’, secretly tracks Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) a dentist at Auschwitz who has traveled to New York in order to collect a cache of diamonds. When Doc moves in too close Szell stabs him and despite being covered in blood Doc manages to make it all the way to Babe’s apartment before collapsing. Szell fears that Doc might have told Babe something before he died and has his men kidnap Babe where they then tie him to a chair in an abandoned warehouse and Szell tortures him by drilling into his teeth forcing Babe to use his running skills in an effort to escape.

This is an original thriller that stays intriguing and intense throughout. In the first thirty minutes alone the viewer is treated to some interesting and exciting scenarios including watching two elderly men drag racing with each other in their antique cars down a crowded neighborhood street. There is also an exploding baby carriage and an exciting fight sequence where Doc battles an attacker who tries to strangle him from behind with a metal wire. This scene is unique in that it cuts between seeing the action up close as well as viewing it from the point-of-view of an elderly man watching from across the street.

Director John Schlesinger shows visual flair with a variety of camera angles and settings. I particularly liked the part where Doc meets Szell at the red steps statue in the Arco Plaza. Having the climactic showdown between Babe and Szell take place in a pump room at the reservoir in Central Park gives the sequence added energy and distinction. I also enjoyed Babe’s cramped, drab, and cluttered apartment that had a very lived-in look and resembled exactly what a bachelor pad with someone on a low income would look like. The scene taking place at a country house is memorable simply for its extreme remoteness. I was disappointed though that although Schlesinger does a great job in setting up the atmosphere of the scene by doing a long shot looking out at the barren landscape the weather suddenly goes from cloudy to sunny in the minute it takes for the bad guy’s car to pull up the driveway. I realize certain scenes are sometimes shot over several days and this is not the first movie to have sudden weather changes during outdoor shots, but it is distracting nonetheless.

The infamous torture scene didn’t work for me. I appreciated the set-up especially the prolonged way that Szell plugs the drill into a wall outlet while talking to Babe in a calm tone. Constantly asking Babe the question ‘Is it safe?” has become a classic line and the fact that the dental torture gets extended when you think it is over is well done. Still, it didn’t seem violent enough and although pain is implied I didn’t think that the viewer really ‘feels’ it. I wanted more shots from Babe’s point of view especially as Szell sticks his metal instruments into Babe’s mouth. A close-up of Babe’s tooth and seeing the drill touch it would have helped as well. Also, Babe needs to scream in pain a lot more, he does it once briefly, but someone going through that would be doing it constantly.  Apparently the producer’s cut out portions of this scene when it upset the test audiences who saw it, but I would like that footage put back in as I feel it would make the movie stronger and give it an added kick that otherwise is missing.

Olivier is tremendous in the villainous role. His face exudes evil and this is one of his best later career roles. Scheider has his best role here and I found Marthe Keller impressive as Babe’s girlfriend. She wears an attractive hairstyle and I couldn’t get over how diametrically opposite she was compared to her character in Black Sunday that was done the very same year. She is definitely an under-rated actress that deserves more accolades as well as more parts in American productions. However, the way Babe pursues her for a date seemed to border on ‘creepy’  and overly aggressive and act as a turn-off to most women.

The film does seem derivative at certain points especially the way it portrays New York as an urban hellhole, which was quite common during the 70’s. The fact that Babe avoids confrontation and is picked on by a Hispanic gang that lives across the street seemed too reminiscent of Hoffman’s earlier film Straw Dogs. There are several flashback sequences showing Babe as a child that is done with faded color and no dialogue and look too similar to the childhood sequences done in Midnight Cowboy, which was an earlier Schlesinger/Hoffman project. Hoffman, for what it is worth, gives another one of his dedicated performances, but this film really does show in glaring detail how very puny he is and I really could have done without having to see his naked rear.

The electronic score is nice and the part where Szell gets recognized by an elderly concentration camp survivor on a busy city sidewalk and who then begins to chase after him is memorable. However, when it is all over I still felt it didn’t completely click. I’m not sure what it is. I know the ending was changed from the one in the book, but I liked this one better and felt Babe’s revenge on Szell was creative. Although controversial and edgy for its time, the torture scene seems too toned down for today’s standards. Either way, if you are looking for a competent and entertaining thriller this should fit the bill, but it is not a classic.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: October 8, 1976

Runtime: 2Hours 5Minutes

Rated R: (Violence, Language, Adult Theme, Brief Nudity)

Director: John Schlesinger

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD,  Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video 

The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Doris is a spy.

            This is an energetic and zany Doris Day vehicle featuring her as Jennifer Nelson a tour guide at the NASA Space Center. She meets Bruce Templeton (Rod Taylor) who at first she can’t stand, but when she finds out that he is one of the top scientists at the lab and makes a lot of money she immediately becomes infatuated. This certainly does nothing to help fight the gold-digger stigma that some women have, but it was made over forty years ago, so I guess it was more acceptable. Through quirky circumstances she comes under suspicion as being a Russian spy and spends the rest of the time trying to prove otherwise while continuing her romance with Bruce.

Day looks gorgeous and is hammy at just the right level without going overboard and becoming cartoonish. Her best segment is when Taylor imagines here as a Mata Hari spy complete with skimpy outfit, which she looks great in, as well as dreaming that she is blindfolded and speaking in a foreign accent while ready to be shot by a firing squad. She sings the film’s title tune, which is bouncy, and even does, later on, a goofy rendition of her signature song ‘Que Sera Sera’.

Taylor is perfect as the love interest and I think he is the best out of all of Day’s male co-stars. His funniest moment, although brief, is when Day crosses her eyes to be goofy and then keeps them that way, which makes him momentarily panic. I got a kick out of his model of the solar system that he had in his office that displayed the planets in a symbolic fashion after the Greek gods they were named after.

The supporting cast is full of familiar comic pros. Alice Pearce and George Tobias appear as Jennifer’s neighbors and a variation of the Kravitz couple that they played on the ‘Bewitched’ TV-series. Pearce is hilarious and it was a shame that she wasn’t in more scenes and died before the movie’s release. Dom Deluise is amusing as the actual spy, who goes undercover as an electrical repairman. Normally his goofy fat-guy persona becomes tiring, but here it worked especially during the climatic sequence. Paul Lynde, who was always hard to cast and in the process usually got meaningless parts, has one of his best roles as the lab’s security guard and even dresses up in drag at the end. Dick Martin, Edward Andrews, and John McGiver help round out the cast. Arthur Godfrey, as Jennifer’s father, is the only one who is boring, but his part was dull, so it might be hard to completely blame him.

Director Frank Tashlin creates sets with bright, vivid colors and each scene is a Technicolor dream. Being a former cartoonist he creates some nicely played-out comic scenarios including Bruce’s hands-free futuristic kitchen that has a little robot that comes out of the wall and cleans-up any messes that are left behind and ends up attacking Jennifer. The out-of-control boat ride is also amusing, but the best part is the wild, fast-paced ending when Jennifer decides to turn the tables on her accusers.

Sure it is silly, but you know that going in and on a non-think level it is perfect entertainment for all-ages.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: June 9, 1966

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated G

Director: Frank Tashlin

Studio: MGM

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Mackintosh Man (1973)


By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Infiltrating a spy ring.

Joseph Reardon (Paul Newman) is a spy that is recruited by the British Intelligence to infiltrate a secret spy ring in order to expose a traitor from inside a high ranking government office. In order to do so he must assume the identity of an Australian criminal and allow himself to be caught and imprisoned. From there he is able to escape using the help of an inside organization that arranges the escapes for high profile prisoners. He is taken to an isolated mansion at an unknown location and trained to be a part of the criminal spy ring, but he unwittingly gives out his true identity, which forces him to make a daring escape and go on the run in the middle of nowhere.

As much as I like Paul Newman I felt he seemed out of place here and really didn’t completely fit the role. For one thing he is an American, but it is never explained why a foreigner is chosen for the operation instead of a British spy. There is also the fact that his alias is that he is from Sydney, Australia, but his Aussie accent does not sound convincing and tends to go in and out.

There is also the issue of him allowing himself to be put into prison. Normally a viewer has to relate to the protagonists circumstances in order to be wrapped up into their plight, but intentionally getting thrown in the slammer seems a bit hard to fathom. This was the maximum security type of jail with extremely small cells and prisoners asking him if he would ‘like to dance’. I realize this was part of the spy operation and spies are expected to take risks, but this seemed too reckless to me. What is going to guarantee that he is ever going to get out? This is after all a top secret organization, so how is he going to be able to hold them accountable if he gets stuck there. To me it is like asking someone to jump off a cliff and telling them there is a safety net to catch them even though they can’t see one.

The script, by the prolific Walter Hill, does have a few exciting scenes although it takes a while to get going. The best ones come when he is stuck at the isolated manor. I enjoyed how he singlehandedly overpowers them and is able to escape while setting the place on fire in the process. The shot showing the mansion on fire from a distance with the black cloud of flames rising into the grey sky had an artsy flair to it and the movie’s best moment.

I thought the barren landscape that he runs through, that doesn’t even have any trees, was cool. It reminded me a lot of the classic TV-series ‘The Prisoner’. This part also includes a viscous guard dog running after him, which is reminiscent of another memorable Newman role from the film Cool Hand Luke.  Here though he is able to exact his revenge on the mutt when he submerges it under water and drowns it, which might prove upsetting to animal lovers as looks realistic and the hound appears to struggle.

The car chase is excellent and nicely captured. Most chases seem to take place on city streets in the majority of films, so it was nice to see one done on curving, gravel roads in the countryside with Reardon stuck in nothing more than a rusty, rickety old pick-up. I loved how the camera shows in a longshot the car going over a cliff and falling several feet before landing with a loud thud. No intrusive computer effects here, nor flashy explosions. Everything was authentic with no cuts, which ends up making a much stronger impact.

A shout out must also go to James Mason as the villainous Sir George Wheeler. This guy is so effective at playing bad guys, and he does it with such ease, that it is almost scary. His ability to go from refined and dignified to vindictive is what makes him so good.

What hurts the film is a wretched music score that sounds like Russian dance music that has no place in a thriller. It is loud and blaring and does not build the mood, or tension in any way. It gets so bad that it almost ends up ruining the whole movie. The climatic sequence is a letdown as well. It features no action and it ends abruptly with a whimper.

It was a great idea to pair Newman with legendary director John Huston, but this product is not one of their best efforts for either individual. It is entertaining enough to be passable, but culminates in being just your average spy thriller.

Neman and Mason would team up nine years later to play adversaries again in the film The Verdict, which will be reviewed tomorrorow.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: July 25, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 38Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Huston

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD (The Paul Newman Collection), Amazon Instant Video

Black Sunday (1977)


By Richard Winters

My Rating:  6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Blimp wrecks the Superbowl

            Based on the Thomas Harris novel this film involves a female terrorist named Dahlia (Marthe Keller) working for a group called Black September. She plans on killing thousands of people at the Superbowl with the help of a blimp captain named Michael Lander (Bruce Dern), who is also a disgruntled Vietnam vet. As they are putting their plan into place their compound is attacked by an Israeli anti-terrorist group headed by Major David Kabakov (Robert Shaw). He decides not to kill Dahlia when he has the chance, but they confiscate all of their materials including a tape recording by Dahlia talking about a massive terrorist attack planned on U.S. soil in the near future.  Kabakov gives this information to the F.B.I. and they go on the offensive trying to track down what their operation is, as the details are vague, before they can pull it off.

Overall, as a spy thriller, the film is pretty good. I had to chuckle a little at the fact that the government takes the vague threats seriously and acts so swiftly based simply on an obscure tape recording when in real-life our government was warned long before the 9-11 attacks that a terrorist plot was being planned, but did nothing because they didn’t think it was possible. It would be nice to think that the government could one day act as semi-efficiently as it does in films.

There are indeed some memorable moments. One includes Kabakov shoving his gun down the throat of a suspect (Michael V. Gazzo) and giving him a very terse ultimatum ‘Blink for yes; die for no’. There is also an exciting well-choreographed shoot-out chase that starts out in a hotel lobby, goes through the streets and alley ways of the city, and ends up on the ocean beach. Another twisted moment is when Dahlia and Michael go to an isolated hanger in the Mojave Desert to try out a gadget that can supposedly shoot thousands of bullets in a single shot. The image of seeing all the tiny holes created on the wall of the shed from the bullets is cool enough that I was willing to overlook the fact that the wooden beams that crisscrossed the same wall were untouched. This scene also has a good bit of black humor when one of the employees of the hanger, who thinks the machine is a camera, and stands in front of it smiling only to have hundreds of bullets go slicing through him.

Shaw is excellent in the lead although it took me awhile to adjust to him in that type of role simply because he has played so many dark characters so well that it was hard to see him as a good guy. I liked that the character is human and admits to his mistakes, namely to the fact that he doesn’t kill Dahlia when he first has the chance. He also professes doubts about himself and his career, which adds to his multi-dimension. He tends to lean towards rogue tactics when forced, which helped reflect the brutal nature of the business that he was in. Certain lines that the character says are made memorable by Shaw’s dialect and tone that probably no other actor in the part could have done quite as well. I was also amazed at the incredible run he does during the game when he races down several flights of stairs and across the entire football field, which almost becomes a highlight in itself. I know the actor suffered from a weak heart and ended up dying from a heart attack just a year after this film came out, but I was almost surprised that he didn’t fall over from one right there.

Keller is great as the female adversary. Her American acting career never really took off, but that still doesn’t mean that she isn’t a strong actress. Her expression when she is caught in the shower with a gun pointing at her is priceless. I liked how initially she is portrayed as the ‘sane’ one in relation to the Dern character, but by the end it becomes quite clear that she is probably more evil and crazier than he could ever be. Her fight with Michael inside his house when they fear that their intricate plot may be falling apart is definitely her finest stuff.

Dern of course is an exceptional actor whose unique style and odd intensity make him a joy to watch even if the script is poor.  He is certainly well cast here, but I wished he was given more screen time and latitude as I don’t think his talents where given quite enough justice. His best moment maybe the long rant he has during one of his counseling sessions at the V.A. Medical center.

The film’s weakest point is what should’ve been its strongest, which is the segment involving the blimp barreling into the stadium. The set-up is perfect and consists of the some dazzling aerial photography and good up close footage of the football game. However, the actual blimp attack is highly compromised.  For one thing the edits are quick making it hard to follow. A much smaller blimp was used in the long shots and in the scenes where the spectators are running scared onto the field director Frankenheimer put the front end of the blimp onto a crane, which looks tacky and obvious. The blimp’s explosion is fake and when it was all over I felt disappointed. The film’s promotional items, including the film poster as seen above, promised this spectacular event, but then doesn’t come through. It almost makes one feel cheated and ruins the movie’s other good points.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: March 11, 1977

Runtime: 2Hours 23Minutes

Rated R

Director: John Frankenheimer

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Eiger Sanction (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Clint goes mountain climbing.

Dr.  Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood) is a retired assassin and mountain climber now working as a college art and history professor. However, due to his penchant of collecting rare paintings he is sucked in to doing hits from time to time by an obscure government bureau in order to help pay for his expensive collection of artwork. His assignment this time is to track down the Russian assassin who killed his old army buddy that at one time had saved his life while back in the war. The identity of this killer is not known, the only thing that is known is that the man walks with a limp and is a part of a team of mountain climbers set to scale the foreboding Eiger Mountain in the Swiss Alps.

Eastwood’s foray into the spy genre while entertaining enough to be considered passable still ends up being a misfire. Sure it is fun to see him go a bit against type especially with the accepted image of the spy. Here he wears glasses and actually turns down the advances of beautiful women at least when approached by an attractive student who states she is willing to do ‘anything’ in order to get better grades. It is even fun hearing him speak like a flaming homosexual when he disguises himself as a gay delivering man. However, the overall hokey premise does not suit Eastwood’s rugged persona and mentality. He seems stiff, out-of-place and unemotional most of the way and never believable. I also couldn’t buy into the idea that this paid assassin was actually a deep and philosophical man who abhorred the violence.  A person who becomes as good of a killer as this character is purported to being would have to have some deep dark passion for it in order to spend as much time doing it as he does.

The supporting cast does not fare much better. Dragon (Thayer David) who is head of the secret government bureau that recruits Roger is over-the-top and cartoonish as an albino man who must live in almost complete darkness in an underground temperature controlled room. George Kennedy gets another bland, thankless role this time as Ben Bowman the man who helps train Roger to climb the mountain. It seems like once he won the Academy Award for Best supporting actor in 1967 for Cool Hand Luke his career when straight downward. I also didn’t like the names given to the characters, which were supposedly done as an ‘inside joke’. The last name of Hemlock for the main character is too obvious and naming the black prostitute Jemima seemed even worse.

The only actor and character that comes off well here is Jack Cassidy as the gay man named Miles Mellough who walks around with a pet poodle named Faggot while playing a crafty game of cat and mouse with Jonathan. The character is both threatening and amusing and it was a real shame that he gets killed off in the middle as he could have made the tension more interesting had he stayed on until the end.

Most critics have described the pacing as ‘sluggish’ although I thought it was alright and it gets sprinkled so much with Eastwood’s amusing one-liners that it is always entertaining. The only real issue I had in this area is the first part, which seems unnecessary. It has Jonathan flying out to Switzerland to kill one of the killers only to come back and then fly out again to get the other one. This all becomes redundant and the scene involving the assassination of the first killer is poorly choreographed and edited.

The film’s main redeeming quality is the mountain climbing sequences, which is impressive. I loved the bird’s-eye view camera shots that captured the majestic landscape both in the scenes at Monument Valley as well as in Europe. The fact that Eastwood did almost all of his own climbing and stunts is equally impressive. There looks to be a lot of research put into the making of this film and the climbing segments are well shot and authentic looking. The climax atop of the Eiger becomes a bit drawn out and if anything I found the climb that Eastwood and Kennedy did on the ‘Tootem Pole’ in Utah in the middle of the movie to be more exciting and breath taking.

(Spoiler Alert)

The biggest, most glaring problem that I had with this movie comes at the very end with the ‘surprise’ identity of the killer, which turns out to be the Kennedy character who is finally seen walking with a limp. This though makes no sense because if the man had a limp how was he able to disguise it for so long during the many weeks that he spent with Jonathan during their training and how was he able to climb up the mountain with Jonathan in Utah. The fact that none of this gets answered and almost seems over-looked really makes this thing seem pointless and poorly thought out.

(End of Spoiler Alert)

Rod Whitacker who wrote the novel of which this movie is based labeled this film as being ‘vapid’ and I would have to agree. The story seems to borrow a lot of the same ingredients from other spy films without adding anything new or original of its own.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: May 21, 1975

Runtime: 2Hours 3Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Clint Eastwood

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Fathom (1967)


By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dental assistant becomes spy.

The spy genre became a big craze in the late 60’s with the success of the James Bond films.  Studios were busily either coming out with imitations of the genre, like the Matt Helm films with Dean Martin, or spoofs of the genre.  This film, starring the voluptuous Raquel Welch, is a combination of both.

The premise is slightly unique as the Welch character, whose name is the same as the film’s title, is not actually a spy. She is a dental assistant and part-time parachutist. This attracts the attention of the British secret service who want to use her parachuting skills to have her ‘drop-in’ to the island mansion of bad guy Tony Franciosa and plant a bug on his premises. They need this done so that they can monitor his conversations and find the whereabouts of a priceless Chinese dragon statue that they are after.

Initially I was intrigued with the idea of the Welch character being just a regular person who gets trained to be a spy from the ground up. However, this concept almost immediately falls flat and ends up pretty much ruining the whole film.  One of the problems is that the Welch character goes through no training to speak of and agrees to this potentially dangerous mission that comes out of nowhere without any conversation regarding her compensation.  She also ends up thinking way too quickly on her feet and behaving like a seasoned spy without any of the expected awkwardness. The character is also poorly fleshed out having no personal life, relationships, history, or even a few odd little quirks.  There are constant references to her beauty, but this quickly become tiresome.  Raquel’s typically one-dimensional performance doesn’t help.

The storyline becomes too convoluted and suffers from having too many plot twists. Reportedly even the cast members found the story confusing.  The good guys become the bad guys and then become good guys again with boring regularity.  A decent spy film needs one true bad guy who is evil and nefarious and seemingly unstoppable because that is what builds the tension.  This film has no tension whatsoever and the musical score sounds like Herb Alpert or Sergio Mendes, which would be better suited for a romance.

The one thing that did impress me was the stunt work.  There are a few that look genuinely dangerous and are shot and edited very well.  One involves Raquel trapped in a bull ring while wearing a red dress.  There is no question that it is a real bull and several shots have her stumbling to the ground while the bull stands right over her. The editing is so well done that I could not tell when the stuntwoman was put in, as usually I can spot this.  Even if a stunt person was used it still looked quite dangerous and very real.  Another good one features Raquel swimming away from a bad guy who continues to shot at her with a spear gun. Both the underwater and aerial photography in this segment are outstanding.

Alas, none of this is good enough to save the film as a whole.  The tongue-in-cheek humor and pacing is poor, and the film ends up being boring and contrived.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 13, 1967

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Rated NR (Not Rated)

Director: Leslie H. Martinson

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD