Winter Project: Richard Burton, Spy

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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.

Winter Project: Richard Burton

During the winter months of January and February, I like to assign myself a male actor whose filmography I know little about. In the past, that has been Paul Newman, William Holden, Steve McQueen, and Gene Hackman. I’ll read a biography and try to understand the man within the context of his time. This year’s choice is another heavy hitter. One at the top of his game when I was a little girl, so I hardly remember the roles. I’d like to revisit his best films with fresh, older eyes. It’s time to fill in my blind spots and enjoy what made him famous in the first place. Welcome, Richard Burton.

I have seen Richard Burton on stage. In 1980 he was playing in a reprisal of Camelot in Chicago. I was president of our high school thespian troupe, and I will brag I organized the field trip to see him. I knew we were watching a world-renowned celebrity with that melodious voice even if he just stood there and didn’t do much but sing/talk his songs. I wish I could have seen him in the 1960s.

Which movie would you recommend I watch first?

Film Spotlight: The Night of the Iguana

Who do you rank higher? Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams as the best American playwright of the 20th century? I think Tennessee is more influential because several of his stage classics became film classics and provided the meaty roles that propelled the careers of stars I hold in the highest regard.

Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Vivien Leigh, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor all benefited from the plays of Tennessee Williams.

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I watched the 1964 John Huston classic, The Night of the Iguana, followed by a documentary on the making of the film. There’s plenty to like about this dark comedy. It’s a provocative story about morality and lust and redemption and the relationships between men and women. 

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The Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) falls from disgrace from his pulpit and ends up as a tour guide, escorting women on his bus to Mexico.

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Temptation comes in the curvaceous form of young Charlotte Goodall, (Sue Lyons), a “Lolita” (Sue Lyons was the sexy seducer in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film version of the fantastic book and screenplay by Vladimir Nabokov.) bent on seducing Shannon. The god-fearing women on the bus point recriminating fingers at Shannon, especially the possessive guardian, Miss Judith Fellowes, played to perfection by Grayson Hall. Remember her in the T.V. show, Dark Shadows?

Deborah Kerr’s character was Hannah Jelkes, an artist and philosopher who counseled Shannon during the long night. Ava Gardner’s character, Maxine Faulk, was the hotel keeper where Shannon brought his group of visitors. She was practical, smart and fell in love with Shannon.  I liked the bit part of Hannah Jelkes’s  grandfather who created a poem, stanza at a time that mirrored the plot of the story.

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Director John Huston built the entire set at Puerto Vallarta making the Mexican harbor a popular vacation destination thereafter. Engaged to Burton then, Elizabeth Taylor stayed as a guest on the set and offered moral support. Which woman did Elizabeth Taylor need to worry about? Kerr, Lyons, or Gardner?

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Check out the trailer:

The acting and gorgeous setting make this dark comedy worth watching. There’s enough layers of witty intellect and sultry fun, 1960s style, for anyone. I highly recommend it.

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