Thursday 31 March 2011

The Defector (1966)

Montgomery Clift was a fascinating but ultimately tragic individual.  He only made a handful of films but was nominated for an Oscar four times.  He was an impossibly handsome man and a heartthrob to his female fans but was also a conflicted and guilt-wracked homosexual who abhorred celebrity.  In 1957, at almost the height of his fame, he suffered terrible facial wounds in a car crash and despite extensive plastic surgery never truly recovered.  Addiction to painkillers and alcohol made his behaviour erratic and after 1962 he became virtually unemployable.  His close friend Elizabeth Taylor persuaded him to accept a part in her forthcoming film REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967) and by way of preparation after four years away from films he accepted the lead role in a Cold War espionage thriller.  It was called THE DEFECTOR and it turned out to be Montgomery Clift's last film.

Monty, c. 1950
Monty, c. 1966

Watching it now it's impossible to divorce it from its historical context but it comes across as a sombre, moribund film - totally different, for example, from the elegaic tone of John Wayne's last film THE SHOOTIST (1976).  Clift appears gaunt and lined.

He seems uncomfortable with the action scenes although gamely takes on all of the running, jumping and even swimming that is asked of him.

Monty takes a dip
I know he is playing a reluctant hero - Prof James Bower, a physicist coerced by an American spook into helping a scientist defect from East Berlin - but it really does feel like he's just going through the motions.  It's not a bad performance exactly, more a listless one that feels like it is fading away even as you watch it.  It's a bit like watching one of Elvis Presley's last shows: you know he's ill and that his talent is burned out but you still hope for one last flicker, which never comes.  Someone watching THE DEFECTOR who knew nothing about Montgomery Clift would never guess he had been one of his generation's most talented and beautiful stars less than ten years before.  But they probably wouldn't be surprised to learn he was dead before the film had even been released.

This washed out shot is typical of the film's muted atmosphere
There's not much that needs to be said about the film itself, being as it is a collection of various cold war spy cliches.  There is one good sequence where Bower is drugged in his hotel room and hallucinates while the Stasi sweat him down.

Monty has a bad night's sleep
The location photography is good and there is an interesting emphasis on the bureaucracy of totalitarianism but it doesn't really do anything new.  It doesn't have the oblique dialogue of THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM (1966), the excitement of THE IPCRESS FILE (1965) or the grimness of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1965).  The sad but inescapable fact is that, if it remembered at all, it is remembered for being Clift's final screen appearance.  Who knows what path his life and career may have taken had he lived  to play his intended role, as a closeted homosexual, in REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967) - a part eventually played by Marlon Brando.

Roddy MacDowall, a good friend of Clift and also Elizabeth Taylor, plays the US control and Hardy Kruger plays the German agent trying to snare Bower.  Kruger's blond hair, tanned skin and breezy charm makes for a powerful contrast with Clift.  Love interest is provided by Macha Meril who has had a long career in European movies - she's in my favourite Dario Argento movie PROFONDO ROSSO (1975).

The lovely Macha Meril, who went to the same school of elfin charm as Zoe Wanamaker
Films fans won't want to miss the silent cameo by Jean-Luc Godard who briefly appears in a walk on as an acquaintance of Kruger's Russian control, played by David Opatoshu.  I was also delighted to see a brief appearance by Hannes Messemer who plays the Camp Kommandant in John Sturges' THE GREAT ESCAPE [1963], one of my very favourite films.  Soundtrack fans will also want to note that the music was composed by mercurial Frenchman Serge Gainsbourg.

David Opatoshu - note his resemblence to Lenin's picture on the wall
Hannes Messemer (L)
Jean-Luc Godard (R)

The director, Raoul Levy, was mainly a producer - he made several films with Brigitte Bardot and also worked with Henri-Georges Clouzot and Godard in the 50s and 60s.  He took his own life on New Year's Eve in 1966.

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