Sunday, June 12, 2011


This complex Cold War spy thriller begins with Navy officer Patrick O'Neal getting pulled from duty to "volunteer" to finish up an important spy mission in the Soviet Union which is on the verge of failure. He meets his handlers, the renowned Highwayman (Dean Jagger) and his associate (Richard Boone), at the funeral of his predecessor and is sent to gather up a team including a retired spy named The Whore, a gay spy (George Sanders) whom we first see in drag in a gay bar, and a female safecracker (Barbara Parkins). The mission: retrieve a letter stating that the Americans will help the Russians if they decide to go to war with China—the perfect Hitchcockian MacGuffin, as it’s important enough to drive the plot, but is almost completely beside the point. Once in the USSR, the Americans blackmail a Russian spy (by threatening his wife and daughter in the US) to get his apartment to use as a clearinghouse for the information they glean, all of which is collected by and filtered through O'Neal who reports to Boone. Up to about the halfway point, the plot was fairly easy to follow, but at some point, I lost the thread of the comings, goings, and dealings; still, the film remained compelling as characters die, secrets are revealed, and things build to a nice knife-twist of an ending.

This is worth watching if only to see a bunch of actors having fun in a movie that is not fun, that is in fact a dark and cynical take on the more popular James Bond spy story. O'Neal isn't bad but considering he is in most of the scenes, his lack of charisma leaves the film with a bit of hole in its center. Much more fun to watch is Richard Boone, best known for his TV work, especially as Paladin in Have Gun Will Travel, playing a good-guy spy you love to hate as an all-powerful, amoral good-old Texas boy. Part of the blackmail against the Russian spy involves Boone, in his thick drawl, saying that they will convert his daughter into "the most per-verted human being the human mind can imagine": i.e., a lesbian. Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson and Orson Welles are fine as various Russian characters. Sanders does a decent job playing old and gay, though he seems visibly uncomfortable in his short drag scene (see picture above). This is out on a limited edition DVD, but Fox Movie Channel runs it sometimes, and it looks like it's scheduled for airing on TCM in August. [FMC]

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