Winter Project: Richard Burton, Spy

richard burton

My choice for this winter’s project to educate myself on the films and story behind an actor whose filmography I know little about is Richard Burton. I am reading Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger’s novel Furious Love and watching a lot of Richard Burton films based on recommendations from my great blogging buddies.

I chose to group them by genre than by chronological order. Here’s the first pair to talk about.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

Directed by Martin Ritt

Starring Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, Cyril Cusack

Won the BAFTA for Best British Film

Synopsis:

At the height of the Cold War, British spy Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is nearly ready to retire, but first, he has to take on one last dangerous assignment. Going deep undercover, he poses as a drunken, disgraced former MI5 agent in East Germany to gain information about colleagues who have been captured. When he is thrown in jail and interrogated, Leamas finds himself caught in a sinister labyrinth of plots and counter-plots unlike anything in his long career.

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The picture starts slowly but gains rapid momentum after the love interest and job assignment is established. When Leamas decides to infiltrate behind enemy lines to retrieve information, the movie became interesting. What did I like best about the film? The plot twists, the trial, the overall setting, and cinematography. I predicted Claire Bloom‘s character Nan Perry would show up at the fortress. When Nan entered the trial room, I felt her bewilderment.  The subtle emotion from Leamas as he realizes her life is in his hands was moving. It’s the ending that got to me. I was surprised at how sad and right his final decision was.  It was the perfect way to end the movie. 4/5

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

Directed by Brian G. Hutton

Screenplay by Alistair MacLean

Starring Clint Eastwood and Mary Ure 

Synopsis:

A crack team of Allied soldiers stages a daring rescue during World War II. A U.S. general is being held captive in an imposing castle fort, high in the Bavarian Alps. The plan calls for Lt. Schaffer (Clint Eastwood), Maj. Smith (Richard Burton) and other operatives to parachute down wearing Nazi disguises. They’ll penetrate the mountain outpost while undercover operatives aid them from within. But their mission changes when they discover that there’s a traitor in their midst.

There’s a lot to like and laugh about with this film. The best part is the commendable cinematography set in the winter landscape in Bavaria. I enjoyed Eastwood and Burton marching around the snow and the filming location in Werfen, Austria was breathtaking. I thought it unlikely that their secret plan was to invade Hohenwerfen Castle, and their special ops team march right into the hornet’s nest as the only soldiers in the entire town wearing white parkas. Can’t say I approved of the decision for all actors to speak English, as well as the other German officers, but then the low ranking soldiers speak German when they were on their smoke breaks and talking among themselves seemed like a mistake to me.

Burton and Eastwood steal a ride on top of a cable car as it ascends the castle. That was clever. No one notices them. This happens throughout the film. I thought Burton was miscast in the film. He looked dazed and puffy standing next to Clint Eastwood. Clint looked out of place with his angry stare. Burton lacked chemistry with his sex kitten partner in crime, Mary (Mary Ure) who lay down every time he barked at her to spread her legs. She had an interesting spot in the film as a female special forces soldier. She parachutes down from the plane. She shoots the gun and saves the dynamic duo with a rope strategically place for them to climb up a vertical wall. But her character lacked any personality. Too bad.

The escape scene was impractical and staged. There’s enough dynamite to blow up the Alps, so for those who like action and machine gun fights, there’s a lot here to like. I enjoyed the plot twist in the great chamber when Burton’s character changes it up and confuses the Gestapo and the German officers before Clint blows them away.  The film has a long running time of almost two and a half hours. I think director Hutton should have cut out a few scenes to keep it the narrative tighter. Despite the holes, I enjoyed the action overall. 3.5/5.

Are you not entertained? Chekhov

Anton Chekhov‘s characters suffer. They lament because life is a waste, or they suffer from the sharp blade of unrequited love. Life is a jail sentence, and each stage is a desperate attempt at happiness that rarely endures. Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite stories by him.

(1860-1904) 205 short stories, fourteen plays, and several novels and novellas.

“The Kiss”

A shy soldier with no experience with women is forced to attend a party when something miraculous happens. Taking a wrong turn in the mansion, he finds himself in a study in complete darkness.

Ryabovitch stood still in hesitation. . . . At that moment, to his surprise, he heard hurried footsteps and the rustling of a dress, a breathless feminine voice whispered “At last!” And two soft, fragrant, unmistakably feminine arms were clasped about his neck; a warm cheek was pressed to his cheek, and simultaneously there was the sound of a kiss. But at once the bestower of the kiss uttered a faint shriek and skipped back from him, as it seemed to Ryabovitch, with aversion. He, too, almost shrieked and rushed towards the gleam of light at the door. . . .

     When he went back into the drawing-room his heart was beating and his hands were trembling so noticeably that he made haste to hide them behind his back. At first, he was tormented by shame and dread that the whole drawing-room knew that he had just been kissed and embraced by a woman. He shrank into himself and looked uneasily about him, but as he became convinced that people were dancing and talking as calmly as ever, he gave himself up entirely to the new sensation which he had never experienced before in his life. Something strange was happening to him. . . . His neck, round which soft, fragrant arms had so lately been clasped, seemed to him to be anointed with oil; on his left cheek near his mustache where the unknown had kissed him there was a faint chilly tingling sensation as from peppermint drops, and the more he rubbed the place the more distinct was the chilly sensation; all over, from head to foot, he was full of a strange new feeling which grew stronger and stronger. . . . He wanted to dance, to talk, to run into the garden, to laugh aloud. . . . He quite forgot that he was round-shouldered and uninteresting, that he had lynx-like whiskers and an “undistinguished appearance” (that was how his appearance had been described by some ladies whose conversation he had accidentally overheard). When Von Rabbek’s wife happened to pass by him, he gave her such a broad and friendly smile that she stood still and looked at him inquiringly.

     “I like your house immensely!” he said, setting his spectacles straight.

Here’s a link to read the story in its entirety found on East of the Web.com

A single incident transforms Ryabovitch. From his dutiful existence, conditioned and dull, he intercepts the force of surprise and experiences the warmth of attraction. A soul unaware of how starved it is for romance and attention. One moment unmindful. The next, the flicker bursts to flame. I like stories written around turning point moments in life.

The Lady with the Dog (1960) 

Yalta. Who wouldn’t fall in love? Anna Sergeyevna (Iya Savvina) is a young wife and alone. She parades around the boardwalk with her fluffy white dog looking beautiful. She attracts the handsome, older banker Dmitriy Dmitrich Gurov (Aleksey Batalov), who is also married and alone. The two experience a passionate affair. When responsibilities separate them, Gurov returns home to his privileged life no longer satisfied. I don’t think Chekhov is saying we should dishonor our reputations and responsibilities. I think he means that we choose our lives and then find we are eventually stuck in them. His story may feel dated to viewers today, but his truths about love and relationships are universal.     

Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)

Louis Malle directed this twist on Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. Theater director Andre Gregory and his actors, including Wallace Shawn as Vanya and Julianne Moore as Yelena, arrive at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York’s Times Square, making casual conversation among themselves. While still wearing their street clothes, the actors perform the play on a nearly blank stage. Julianne Moore is young and gorgeous as her presence tempts the frustrated Vanya. His life has been wasted behind the shadow of others. The film has a slow start which gains momentum and eventually becomes exciting. Chekhov’s language is mesmerizing. The questions raised by Vanya stay with you long after the film is over. Not sure I buy Wallace Shawn as Vanya, but Julianne Moore was marvelous. 3.8/5

The Seagull (2018) 

Do you like love triangles? Then you’d enjoy The Seagull. Age and unrequited love are major themes in this Chekhov play adaptation. Saoirse Ronan gives a satisfying performance as the ingenue Irena who falls for older Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll) who is the lover of Russian diva Irina (Annette Bening). The cast delivered but none better than Elisabeth Moss who makes the most of her tragic character, Masha. I thought the execution of time by director Mayer disjointed. But I enjoyed the subtle interplay between the characters even though the large personalities were melodramatic to the point of distraction–but that just might be the camera editing which at times seemed choppy. Overall, the setting, the cast, the plot by Chekhov is an entertaining dark comedy. 4.5

What are your favorite adaptations, short stories or plays by Chekhov? 

Are you not entertained? Films & TV

In this series, I share my choices for better-than-average entertainment. Maybe you liked these, too? 

FILMS

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Green Book (2018) Easily the most enjoyable film of the year for me so far, the chemistry between Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) is believable. Both actors shine brightly in this inspiring true story about the black concert pianist in the 1960s who lives above Carnegie Hall alone in his ivory tower. Highly educated and affluent, respected with friends in the highest places, Shirley travels to the deep south to be a presence among whites who only see blacks as sharecroppers. He takes with him a Bronx bouncer, a loveable Italian called Tony Lip. Their road trip doesn’t change the world, and the straightforward story doesn’t preach. If you liked Driving Miss Daisy, this story was just as good, if not better. I cared for both men and their ironic friendship. High praise to the acting of Mortensen. My ex-husband was from the Bronx and lemme tell ya, Viggo nailed it. Highly recommended. 4.5/5 

Trespassing Bergman (2013)  I find it is interesting to begin at the end of a story and learn backward. For example, if you are like me and know little about filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, instead of first watching his films blindly, a documentary provides me with the end result, his legacy. I want to know about the person first. Who better to explain his impact than the leading filmmakers as they recall their memories and the influence Ingmar Bergman had on them? Tip-toeing around Bergman’s estate on the faraway Swedish island of Faro, top directors pay homage. Jane Magnusson and Hynek Pallas direct this documentary oozing with ethos. Interviewees include Woody Allen, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Ang Lee, Lars Von Trier, Yimou Zhang, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Wes Anderson to name a few. For the sophisticate who possesses a solid foundation about Ingmar Bergman, I do not know how much will be gleaned. But for me, I enjoyed getting to know the man in his natural habitat and learning why his films had a powerful impact on filmmakers today. Now I will explore a few of his films. Where should I begin? Summer with Monika3.5/5 

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TELEVISION

SEASON THREE  – THE LAST KINGDOM 

Oh, King Alfred! I knew you would die in season three. I knew it was coming, but seeing you dead on your royal bed truly saddened me. What a sophisticated, complicated character! Better than the Game of Thrones and The Vikings, and far better than Outlaw King (2018) starring Chris Pine, what makes this BBC Netflix series entertaining is the balance achieved between the battles and the struggles, the accomplishments, and the forgiveness between Alfred (David Dawson) and Lord Uhtred (Alexander Doetsch). Series three was all about closure. Swedish director Erik Leijonborg did a fine job encouraging the actors to feel and provided them time to cultivate their personalities. If you have not seen the series, this is outstanding entertainment. 4.8/5.

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