Friday, June 26, 2015

THE DEFECTOR (1966)

Unlike other spy movies of the '60s, The Defector takes a serious look at the quiet drudgery and danger of international espionage. Physicist John Bower is blackmailed by the CIA to enter East Germany in order to pick up microfilm from a disgruntled Russian scientist. Peter Heinzmann, a physicist working for the Stasi, is assigned to tail Bower -- a man whose work he respects -- in order to get the microfilm first. When the Russian scientist is murdered -- and the microfilm proves worthless -- Heinzamann is ordered to get Bower to defect to East Germany. With the help of a young woman named Frieda, Bower manages to escape to the West -- but the Stasi has one more trick up its sleeve.

The Defector -- a French production shot in Germany -- lingers in the mind, but for mainly the wrong reasons. It's an interesting but slow picture, picking up steam only in the final 30 minutes or so, when Bower tries escaping enemy hands. The story is certainly interesting -- I have a feeling it's a more accurate snapshot of the spy game than the James Bond movies -- but that's not what gives The Defector its cachet.

How do you say "Yikes!" in German?
No, that would be Montgomery Clift's final performance as Bower. Looking less like Tom Cruise as he did in I Confess, the 45 year-old Clift now resembles the drunken, decimated Buster Keaton in the latter's final M-G-M talkies. You can't help but gasp at his first close-up. Once the handsomest actor in movies, he now appears more haunted than the house in The Amityville Horror, the victim of a near-fatal car crash a decade earlier, followed by a constant intake of booze and pills. Food? What's food?

Yet, as if capitalizing on his physical downward spiral, Clift is an ideal choice as the accidental spy. This is no Sean Connery, but an isolated, sickly man who takes the job only to keep his government research grants coming. At no time do you ever think he could fight his way out of a situation. In fact, having him shot at point-blank range would seem a blessing.

Hardy Kruger is caught between a cop
and a hard place.
As Heinzamann, Hardy Kruger gives the Stasi operative a humanity missing from other spy movies of the day. Like Bower, Heinzamann is blackmailed by his handler to complete the job. They're two of a kind, even if the German is in better physical condition. He actually likes Bower and would rather see him return safely home than to get stuck on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall -- even if they could make beautiful research together in East Germany.

Oddly, he looks better on acid.

Judging by the one-sheet atop this page, The Defector's American release downplayed Clift's involvement (it was his first movie in four years), while trying to sell it as something similar to the trippy Roger Corman movies coming into vogue, thanks to one scene where Bower is slipped some acid. As if the drug was necessary; from the moment Bower arrives in Leipzig, his paranoia increases under the constant state-run surveillance, where even a visit to a doctor might mean life or death for all involved.

The Defector is dated in many ways -- the microfilm is said to determine if the USSR will get to the moon before the USA, a problem charmingly naive compared to today's international crises -- but is refreshing for its almost utter lack of "excitement". Today's spy movies replace genuine drama with CGI, impossibly handsome undercover agents, and allegedly-clever one-liners. The Defector's biggest action sequence is a power boat blowing up in the last reel. 

This is an action star?
Yet Bower's climactic escape -- by bike, foot, and boat -- makes for more genuine excitement than any Mission Impossible movie, because you wonder just how the hell Montgomery Clift survived any physical exertion outside of breathing. Disguised as farmer, Clift looks more like a concentration camp survivor.

No, I don't think so.
Perhaps that's why a love scene depicted in one of The Defector's lobby cards is nowhere to be seen in the final cut. The idea of a naked Clift in bed with a cute 26 year-old woman is just too much to take.

Clift's death (from "occlusive coronary artery disease") four months before The Defector's American release probably doomed what little success it might have achieved. The actor's sickly aura hangs over the movie like a human car wreck, keeping your attention even when the pace slackens and you wonder just where the story's going. Like his fellow method actor Marlon Brando in the twilight of his career, Clift just had to show up to make a project interesting.

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