Saturday, June 24, 2017

Funeral in Berlin

How is it I'm only now learning the 60s produced a series of movies starring Michael Caine as a British spy? I guess every time I start to think I know everything, something comes along to demonstrate how little I know.

In Funeral in Berlin (1966), Caine plays Harry Palmer, a bespectacled secret agent who first appeared unnamed in the spy novels of Len Deighton (the name Harry Palmer originated in the adaptation of The Ipcress File, also starring Caine). Palmer exists as a counterpoint to the more flamboyant James Bond, which is ironic because Funeral in Berlin was directed by Guy Hamilton, who directed a number of 007 pictures, and produced by Harry Saltzman, the longtime Bond producer.

Unlike the smooth, romanticized Bond, Palmer is more grounded, more of a working-class stiff. He doesn't use hi-tech gadgets, he doesn't get into very many fights, and he prefers anonymous suits to fancy tuxedos. In some ways, he's a glorified bureaucrat for his majesty's secret service. He deals more in paperwork, forged documents, false names, hidden identities, and clandestine meetings in dark alleyways than the cloak-and-dagger adventures of Ian Fleming's agent.

In Funeral in Berlin, Palmer is dispatched to Berlin to help coordinate the defection of a high-ranking Soviet intelligence officer, Colonel Stok (Oscar Homolka). Berlin is still is a divided a city, and getting Stok across the Wall won't be easy, assuming of course, he's genuine and not up to something else as Palmer suspects.

Other prominent characters in the story include Johnny Vulkan (Paul Hubschmid), an old associate of Harry's and now in charge of British Intelligence operations in Berlin; Samantha Steel (Eva Renzi), a gorgeous model who so willingly spends the night with Palmer that he is immediately suspicious; Hallam (Hugh Burden), the documents man for British Intelligence; and Kreutzman (Gunter Meisner), a West German criminal who will smuggle anyone over the wall for the right price.

Funeral in Berlin is not an action movie, although it opens with a stunt that might not be out of place in a Bond movie as a famous musician escapes to the West using a construction crane. Who can Palmer trust and what's everyone's real agenda are just a couple of questions. Needless to say, no one and nothing are what they seem, and before long, Palmer is in over his head, trying to stay one step ahead of everyone else.

But the movie is not dry and dark. At times, it's rather funny. Stok is quite eccentric and always laughing at the hoops he forces Palmer and British Intelligence to jump through (he initiates their first meeting by pretending to have Palmer arrested and is rather amused by it.). Meanwhile, Palmer's undercover identity is that of a lingerie salesman, and one of his meetings with a contact occurs at a drag queen cabaret.

At the center of all this is Caine's performance as Palmer. It would be wrong to think of him as a square, but he's not especially dashing or emotional, although he frequently clashes with his superiors and is not shy about expressing his opinion, often in a cynical, deadpan manner. He's a cold operative who keeps his feelings in check. He insists he's not a coldblooded killer (he doesn't seem to like guns), and even when he gets angry, he stays in control. He is cerebral more than anything else, but he can fight when he has to.

In a way, he's the straight man of this unfolding drama. Everyone else is running around, double-crossing each other, pulling off elaborate schemes, and trying to kill people, Palmer is in the middle of everything, just trying to do his job.

The film was shot on location in Berlin and makes good use of its authentic locations. Berlin is a city of hip clubs and fancy hotels but also barbed wire, armed guards, barriers, and constant surveillance along with dilapidated warehouses and old ruins. It's a beautiful city with a lot of history, but it's also a place of danger for a British spy.

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