Thursday, November 02, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #6: Funeral in Berlin

Off to Edinburgh for the first day of a BBC Radio drama lab, hosted by the Scottish Book Trust, so no time for my usual ramblings. Instead, here's another extract from my tome Starring Michael Caine, coming off the subs bench to save the day.

Cast: Michael Caine (Harry Palmer), Paul Hubschmid (Johnnie Vulkan), Oscar Homolka (Stok), Eva Renzi (Samantha Steel), Guy Doleman (Ross), Hugh Burden (Hallam), Heinz Schubert (Levine), Wolfgang Volz (Werner), Thomas Holtzmann (Reinhardt), Gunter Meisner (Kreutzman).
Crew: Guy Hamilton (director), Charles Kasher (producer), Evan Jones (writer), Konrad Elfers (music), Otto Heller (cinematography), John Bloom (editor), Ken Adam (production designer).

Synopsis: British agent Harry Palmer is sent to Berlin. A local operative, Johnnie Vulkan, claims Colonel Stok of the KGB wants to defect. Palmer meets Stok, who is in charge of the Berlin Wall. The colonel says he will defect but wants the operation run by Kreutzman, who has supervised some of the most daring escapes across the wall. Harry is picked up by Samantha Steel, an Israeli secret agent. Vulkan arranges for Harry to meet with Kreutzman, who agrees to run the defection. The price is sixty thousand American dollars and a set of genuine British identity papers. The defection proves to be a trap for Kreutzman, but the identity papers are another matter. The Israelis want them to retrieve two million dollars of Jewish money looted by a Nazi called Paul Louis Broum during the war. Palmer learns his old friend Vulkan used to be Broum, a German guard at a concentration camp. Harry tricks Vulkan into the open, where the former Nazi is gunned down by the Israelis…

The film of The Ipcress File (1965) proved a success in Britain and the US. By the time it reached cinemas, author Len Deighton had already written two further novels featuring his nameless British spy – christened Harry Palmer for the big screen. Producer Harry Saltzman wasted no time exercising his option on another of the Deighton novels, selecting the third book of the series, Funeral in Berlin. Saltzman hoped the Palmer films might grow to rival the James Bond films, which he co-produced with Cubby Broccoli.

Evan Jones was chosen to adapt the complex plot of the novel into a screenplay. Guy Hamilton came on board as director, replacing the more mercurial Sidney J. Furie. Hamilton had excelled on the third 007 extravaganza Goldfinger (1966) for Saltzman and Broccoli. Many of the team that had worked on The Ipcress File returned for the new Palmer movie, including production designer Ken Adam, cinematographer Otto Heller and producer Charles Kasher. Saltzman had Caine under contract so his participation was assured, but his asking price had jumped to £100,000 for this picture. Joining him in front of the cameras again was Guy Doleman as Harry’s superior Colonel Ross.

The bulk of location work was filmed in West Berlin, with the crew constructing a replica of Checkpoint Charlie, the famous crossing point between east and west. Studio work took place at Pinewood back in Britain. Shooting near the Berlin Wall was problematic, with border guards on the eastern side deliberately disrupting filming by shining a mirror at the camera lenses. Caine told Esquire magazine that the city was different from any place he’d been. ‘Here there’s no such thing as anybody being pleased to see you … I don’t want to be unfair to anybody, so let’s just say we’re dancing to different tunes. It’s not my scene.’ Caine filled some of his time off set practising a Southern American accent for his next film, Hurry Sundown (1867). Director Otto Preminger had sent the Londoner tapes to help him master the distinctive speech patterns.

Funeral in Berlin received mediocre reviews in Britain when it opened in late 1966, rated A. Despite this, the new film made enough money for Saltzman to green-light a third Harry Palmer picture. Funeral in Berlin reached the US in 1967 where reviews were more favourable. The film was released on video in the UK during 1988, reclassified as PG. It was reissued as a budget price tape in 2001. In the US the picture is also available on DVD.

Reviews: ‘Funeral in Berlin piles it on thick and fast with a plot which has so many twists that even Sherlock Holmes might have been baffled.’ – MFB
‘It is difficult to imagine the first film without Mr Caine ... In the case of the second it is impossible: the actor makes the film.’ – The Sunday Times

Verdict: Funeral in Berlin is a drab, downbeat film with a complex plot that requires consideration concentration without offering much in return. Almost all the characters are unsympathetic, either utterly amoral or murderous zealots, making it hard to care what happens to them. In the midst of this, Caine repeats the assurance of his previous performance as Harry Palmer, but adds few new shadings to the part. He only comes alive on screen playing opposite his old nemesis Ross or his new enemy Stok. Homolka shines as the KGB colonel, stealing all his scenes with ease. Director Guy Hamilton replaces the eye-catching techniques of Sidney J. Furie with more mundane imagery, reducing this film to a conventional espionage tale. That’s adequate on its own terms, but a disappointment after The Ipcress File (1965).


Good Dog said...

Darn you Mr Bishop, you’ve given me a hunger for Funeral in Berlin!

With everything going on I’ve already had to find time to rush out to sate my appetite for The Ipcress File.

But I’m ready for you, laddie, when it comes to The Man Who Would Be King. Indeed I am, sir.

Doomsayer said...

Well, that gave me a sudden craving for a bit of Palmer action and the first three movies are ordered and awaiting delivery.

God, reading this blog is getting expensive ...