Tagged: spy thriller

Wife of a Spy (Supai no tsuma, Japan 2020)

Can Satoko trust her husband Yusaku – or is he a spy?

Wife of a Spy won the Best Director prize for Kurosawa Kiyoshi at Venice in 2020. It’s an unusual film in several ways. Kurosawa, well-known mainly as a horror/crime genre director from the 1990s and early in his career in the 1980s as a director of pinku eiga and roman porno films for Nikkatsu before the studio’s collapse, now offers a different kind of genre film distributed by the revived Nikkatsu. Wife of a Spy is a co-production between independents and NHK, the PSB (public service broadcaster) in Japan. NHK required the production to use 8K digital cameras so that the film would become an experimental/promotional vehicle for the technology. I didn’t know this until after the screening but I did notice that the HD print streaming on MUBI was sometimes very cold and bright, but at other times cinematographer Sasaki Tatsunosuke used shallow focus to blur backgrounds and sometimes low light (?) to produce a grainier image.

The only other Kurosawa film that I’ve seen which shares some of the same elements is Tokyo Sonata (Japan 2008). That film too had appeared at major festivals and was treated as an arthouse film for cinema distribution whereas Kurosawa’s genre films were generally only on DVD in the UK. Like Tokyo Sonata the new film is a melodrama of sorts but it also plays with the spy film, the mystery film, the marriage drama etc. The setting is the city of Kobe (Kurosawa’s home town), Japan’s second-largest port on the Bay of Osaka in 1940-41. Fukuhara Yusaku is a wealthy and still relative young man, running his own textile trading company. The first few scenes introduce the main characters. In a long shot sequence, a British businessman is arrested by the kenpeitai (military police responsible for security). An angry young man, Fukuhara’s nephew Fumio, protests. Then in his office Fukuhara receives a visit from the ‘squad leader’ of the kenpeitai. This turns out to ‘Taiji’, a childhood friend of Fukuhara’s wife Satoko, offering a ‘friendly’ but formal warning about the arrested spy who is a client of Fukahara. Finally we meet Satoko, masked and stealing something from a safe. She is caught by a young man, who turns out to be Fumio. We hear ‘one more time’ and realise that this an amateur film shoot organised by Yusaku.

Taiji is surprised to meet Satoko in the woods, gathering winter yams with her maid . . .

The quartet introduced in this way offer the basis for a family melodrama of some kind Taiji still has feelings for Satoko, though his embrace of the militarism of the 1930s is a problem. The real ‘disruption’ which pushes the narrative forward is Yusaku’s decision to visit Manchuria on business in early 1941, taking Fumio with him. After his return Satoko becomes suspicious when she realises that something happened in Manchuria, which by 1941 was formally a puppet state of Imperial Japan and one which after years of Japanese occupation and repression of the Chinese population was seen as a valuable colonial territory in Japan. At this point it is perhaps helpful to correct some of the initial reviews of the film. Satoko is not an ‘actress’, she is a bored wife of a wealthy man. 1940 is not ‘before the Second World War’, Japan had been active in different ways in China since 1905 and the full-scale Sino-Japanese War began in 1937. Elsewhere in East Asia, events were influenced by the war in Europe, so at one point in the film, Satoko and Yusaku go the cinema and watch a newsreel in which a large Japanese fleet arrives in Saigon in June 1941, ostensibly to help support Vichy France to defend Indochina. The ‘Pacific War’ didn’t start until Pearl Harbour but  much had already happened by then.

Satoko goes to Taiji’s office wearing traditional dress, hoping to persuade him

The critics liked the film at Venice but there have been negative comments since. Some of these refer to the slow pacing of many scenes. The Hitchcock references used in MUBI’s introduction don’t help even if I can see why Hitchcock is invoked. The image of Satoko at the safe reminds me of Marnie (1964) but the obvious reference is to Notorious and the marriage between Ingrid Bergman’s and Claude Rains’ characters. The title ‘Wife of a Spy’ also perhaps suggests a Hitchcock narrative since the famous Hitchcock ‘romance thriller’ often hinges on the trust or lack of it between the two central characters. But in the end the reference isn’t very useful. I think there is a real emotional depth to some of the scenes between Satoko, Yusaku and Taiji. I suppose there is even a ‘MacGuffin’ of sorts in the form of a document Yusaku brings back from Manchuria and also a murder mystery at one point. Even so, Kurosawa seems to be attempting something else. Whatever possessed large numbers of Japanese to embrace militarism in the 1930s comes up here against personal relationship and codes of honour. There is also a strong sense of the dilemma for the Japanese middle-class (i.e. those with some control over their lives because of social position and/or wealth). Should they fight the West or embrace its culture? Taiji warns Satoko and Yusaku that their attachment to Western dress (and drinking Scotch not Japanese whisky) marks them out. The only escape for the couple is to trust each other and try to get to the US. But the Pacific War is on the horizon. Can they get out in time? The ending of the film will no doubt frustrate some audiences but it seems appropriate to me, ending on a beach.

What is the future for Satako and Yusaku?

Wife of a Spy works for me, primarily I think, because of the strong central performances by Aoi Yu as Satako and Takahashi Issey as Yusaku, who manage to make the marriage believable. The script is by Hamaguchi Ryûsuke and Nohara Tadashi, younger writers who I think have an earlier connection with Kurosawa. The music by Nagaoka Ryosuke has also been criticised but I found it effective. I’m intrigued most I think because of the ‘feel’ of the film as historical drama. I don’t think there are as many Japanese films about this period as there are in American or European cinemas, but I have recently noted other films from South Korea and China/Hong Kong covering the period. The 8K images have something to do with that ‘feel’, but I’m not sure what as yet. There is also the suggestion that the film could be controversial in Japan where issues about the conduct of the war, especially in China, are still sensitive. Finally, I did find some echoes of other Japanese films in Wife of a Spy. One was Grave of the Fireflies, the terrific anime from 1988, also set in Kobe. The other intriguing aspect of Wife of a Spy is the use of 9.5mm film which is central to the plot. It made me think of both the earlier Kurosawa film Cure (Japan 1997) and in some ways back to the Ringu films. I don’t want to explain these references in detail at this point but it is worth remembering that in the 1930s Japanese studios were the biggest producers of films in the world, with a studio system that rivalled Hollywood but not in export terms. Moving images had become an important part of Japanese culture and as well as the newsreel that Satoko and Yusaku watch in the cinema, there is a brief clip from the feature in the programme, a ‘Nikkatsu Talkie’, Priest of Darkness (1936) directed by Yamanaka Sadao. If you get the chance to see Wife of a Spy, I’d recommend it to you.

Cloak and Dagger (US 1946)

from Doctor Macro

I approached this film with some trepidation. I’m generally a Fritz Lang fan, but I know that he struggled in Hollywood with some of his 1940s pictures. I generally find the Hollywood ‘undercover’/’spy’ pictures made during the Second World War (that I’ve seen) to be unconvincing next to their British equivalents. I’m also wary of Gary Cooper as a star, though I know he has many supporters. I like some of the films in which he starred (Ball of Fire, Man of the West) but not the ones he is most famous for like the Capra films and High Noon. Given these three potential strikes I was intrigued to see if Lang could overcome the odds. A brace of Blu-ray releases in the US and the UK suggest that this is a film to be re-appraised.

UK Blu-ray dual format

Cloak and Dagger is both a topical secret agent film, focusing on the race to be first to produce the atomic bomb (and to stop the other side getting there at all), and a celebration of the US involvement through the OSS in occupied Europe. The OSS was a similar initiative to the British SOE, sending agents into Europe to gather intelligence, help the resistance and generally to disrupt the enemy’s war effort. The narrative begins with American agents discovering shipments of materials from Spain to Germany which could be part of a nuclear programme. Unfortunately, however, none of the available agents has enough scientific knowledge to compile really useful intelligence on the ground in Europe. OSS decides to try to recruit a nuclear scientist to travel incognito to neutral Switzerland in an attempt to find out more about German plans. Cooper plays Prof. Alvah Jesper, a nuclear scientist from a Mid-Western university who is eventually despatched to Europe. He is a novice agent and makes mistakes, losing his first contact but is then taken secretly to Italy to meet a scientist who is thought to be someone who could be ‘turned’ from working for the Nazis. Jesper may be a novice agent but he has an international reputation in his field and other scientists will talk to him.

Jesper (Gary Cooper) and the first of the German agents he meets in Switzerland played by Ann Dawson

I did find that the film moved up a gear with Jesper’s arrival in Italy, partly because of the introduction of Gina, an Italian partisan played by Lilli Palmer. A German Jewish actor who left Germany in 1933, Palmer had been effective in a range of British films since her arrival in the country via Paris, including a small part in Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1935). In 1943 she had married Rex Harrison and accompanied him to Hollywood in 1945. She signed a contract with Warner Bros. and Cloak and Dagger became her first Hollywood film. Her introduction scene is striking. When Jesper arrives secretly in Italy Gina, played by Lilli Palmer is one of the partisans who meets him in the back of a truck to go through a German checkpoint. Taking off her disguise, Jesper is taken aback to see this beautiful young woman, almost glowing in the gloom because of her simple white chemise.

The introduction of Lilli Palmer as Gina with Robert Alda as an OSS agent alongside Gary Cooper

Jesper dressed as a German scientist attempts to persuade the Italian scientist Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff) to escape to America

Jesper’s aim in Italy is to speak to a scientist named Polda who might be prepared to be ‘evacuated’ to the US. The partisans in Italy will be able to arrange for a night-time air pick-up. I thought the whole Italian adventure was quite well-planned and, of course, it gives Jesper and Gina time to get to know each other since Jesper can’t survive out in the open and Gina is meant to keep him safe. As several reviews point out there are occasional Langian touches. The most striking references come in a fight that Jesper is forced to have with a Fascist agent in a stairwell. It is a gruesome struggle with hands attempting to gouge eyes and some sickening sounds as joints are dislocated. I was intrigued to discover that the term ‘cloak and dagger’ actually describes a form of combat dating as far back as the 15th century in Europe. Lang references this when Jesper’s assailant approaches him with a flick-knife and Jesper tries to use his coat to blind his assailant. Finally, when the German goes limp, a child’s ball comes bouncing down the stairs to land by the man’s feet, reminding us of a similar scene in M (1931). Also referencing M, during the fight a trio of street musicians is playing a tune (which sounded at times like the British music hall song ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’!). I’m also reminded of the viciousness of Lee Marvin’s character who scalds Gloria Grahame’s face in Lang’s The Big Heat (1953). The horror of this encounter undermines those comments about how this film is ‘hokum’ and only ‘generic spy stuff’.

The grim fight between Jesper and the Fascist agent (Marc Lawrence)

There are some interesting responses to the film. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, one of the leading newspaper critics in America at the time, goes down the ‘cloak and dagger spy cliché’ route but he confirms that it is “highly suspenseful in a slick cinematic style”. He finishes his review, advising his readers to go and see Rossellini’s Rome, Open City which has just reached New York. That’s a good call, even if there is a closer connection to Rossellini’s Paisa which had not yet reached America. Cloak and Dagger ends with the arrival of an (unconvincing) RAF plane as planned – something which matches aspects of Paisa with partisans and Americans working together and RAF flyers shot down. Crowther is right, Rossellini offers a corrective to any romantic notions that Cloak and Dagger might arouse.

Jesper and Gina in hiding – a composition and lighting set-up suggesting film noir?

As research for writing this post I used Patrick McGilligan’s book Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (1997, faber & faber). McGilligan gives lots of detail about the production and it is significant that the original property was a fictionalised account of OSS operations acquired by Milton Sperling. A relatively young producer who had already written several scripts for earlier productions, Sperling decided to hire two sets of writers to create a story, one of those was Boris Ingster (the director of the proto-noir Third Floor in 1940). But after Lang came on board the story still seemed thin and Sperling recruited Ring Lardner Jr. (and then Albert Matz was thrust on him by Warners) to write the screenplay. That’s quite a few writers and and with Fritz Lang, notorious for blocking producers and banning them from the set, life for Sperling was not easy. Gary Cooper was paid much more than Lang and Lang treated Lilli Palmer very badly, even though he finally conceded that she gave a very good performance. Sperling was Harry Warner’s son-in-law and when Sperling returned from war service in a photography unit. He set up ‘United States Pictures’ with Warner Bros. to act as an independent production company creating product for the studio. Cloak and Dagger was the first of what would become 14 productions, many with war/military connections, over the next 20 years. For some of those involved who had some OSS connections, the film was a disappointment but for Warner Bros. it was a hit. For Lang it was a job he needed at the time and a chance as McGilligan suggests to hammer “a final nail in the fascist coffin”.

My own response is that after a poor opening, the film picked up the pace and I’m now more inclined to go back to Lang’s earlier attempts to make anti-fascist films in Hollywood. I’m also interested in comparing Lang and Hitchcock’s films about the wartime period. My views on Gary Cooper haven’t really changed. He is serious and sombre throughout with only the occasional lighter moment. Lilli Palmer was a revelation and for me the best thing about the film. The production featured Sol Polito as cinematographer, generally good and a Max Steiner score that at times I found irritating. Overall, however, I think it is a film worth reappraising and although I only saw a print on Talking Pictures TV, the stills on DVD Beaver from the Eureka Blu-ray look very good.

(The) Next of Kin (UK 1942)

A grim-faced Nova Pilbeam as a Dutch refugee with her boyfriend from the brigade

This is a film that I’ve known about for years but never before managed to see. Now, thanks to Talking Pictures TV and their season of films compiled by the Imperial War Museum, I have – and it is certainly worth seeing. This is propaganda with real bite and I’m sure many audiences might have been quite shocked in 1942. Who knows how many lives it might have saved?

Originally intended as a military training film emphasising the danger of  service personnel speaking carelessly about any aspects of their work, the commission was eventually developed by Ealing Studios (which increased the budget substantially) and an array of well known faces. Ealing’s work paid off and the film was a great success, both as propaganda and as a rather alarming form of entertainment. (But Ealing only covered its costs – the War Office took the profits.) It was a clear step forward from earlier propaganda efforts and morale-building war combat films, both in its production qualities and its approach to finding ways to achieve its objectives.

The startling title card which challenged the audience to think about their actions

The plot involves an attack on a German U-boat base in a small French port which intelligence from a French military agent has discovered is only lightly guarded. An infantry brigade with appropriate training is identified and sent to a training area to practice the skills necessary for a night-time landing and the subsequent demolition of port facilities. A security officer is assigned to the brigade, but German intelligence soon begins to pick up clues that an attack is in preparation. A set of parallel narratives develops in which German spies attempt to discover the target and British intelligence attempts to stop them. In the final section of what is a comparatively long film for the time (102 minutes), the raid goes ahead but the Germans discover enough information through ‘careless talk’ and the ingenuity of German agents to identify ‘Norville’ as the target and to reinforce the local garrison. The final action sequence is very impressive. A well-planned and executed raid succeeds in its prime objective but loses many, many men killed, injured and presumably captured. The film’s title (it seems to exist with and without the ‘The’) is referred to in a voiceover that tells us “Next of kin will be informed”. The final scene sees the comedy pairing of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne in their familiar roles as bumbling middle-class English ‘chaps’ on a train talking ‘carelessly’ and being overheard by the film’s chief villain played by an unlikely Ealing favourite. As Charles Barr in his Ealing book suggests, instead of defusing the horror of the loss of life in the raid, this properly brings home how dangerous frivolous talk can be.

Familiar Ealing faces, Mervyn Johns and Thora Hird – but should they be talking to each other?

Next of Kin was written by familiar Ealing figures Angus MacPhail and John Dighton alongside contributions from director Thorold Dickinson and Basil Bartlett as military advisor. The key figure here is Dickinson, at the time heading the Army Kinematograph Service Film Unit, who really deserves an entire post to himself. If you want to know more about him I recommend Geoff Brown’s entry on Screenonline. Dickinson is another of the left-wing Oxbridge intellectuals who became interested in film in the late 1920s. Unlike Humphrey Jennings and others he didn’t focus on documentary but engaged in commercial cinema. I was struck by one scene in particular in the early part of the film when the soldiers in question all visit a local theatre to watch an extraordinary ‘classical striptease’ in which a dancer (Phyllis Stanley) gracefully descends a gothic staircase discarding layers of a diaphanous dress. Dickinson, DoP Ernest Palmer and art designer Tom Morahan use shadow and an enormous (and suggestive) silhouette of a static female figure to create a highly expressionist presentation. This looks as if it might have come from a later Michael Powell film with the set much too big to be accommodated on the stage of the theatre. The dancer is just one of the German agents, all depicted as shrewd and skilled, who wheedle information out of the soldiers. At the head of this post is an image of Nova Pilbeam, the fearless young woman from Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (UK 1937) who is playing a Dutch refugee, forced to spy because the Nazis hold her parents. The dancer is a cocaine addict who is easily manipulated but others are ‘good Nazis’. None are the stiff Prussian types or buffoons of the earlier propaganda films. Although some of these spies are caught, others are successful.

Dickinson went on to make one of the most distinctive British films of the post-war period, Men of Two Worlds (1946), a Technicolor drama shot in East Africa for Two Cities focusing on the dilemmas faced by an educated African caught between the village culture of his people and the world of the coloniser. Like Dickinson’s later film for Ealing, Secret People (1952) about refugees in London in the 1930s and a plot to kill a dictator, Men of Two Worlds fell awkwardly between the ideals of Dickinson and his co-writer Joyce Cary (on both films) and the commercial imperatives of the time. I remember finding both films to be worth seeing. Dickinson finally became the UK’s first Professor of Film at the Slade School in 1967.

But in 1942, Next of Kin worked and it paved the way for an even more hard-fitting propaganda film by another unusual figure at Ealing – Went the Day Well?, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti and released in December 1942. During 1942 there was a raid on the French coast when 5,000 Canadian and 1,000 British troops landed at Dieppe. I don’t know of any claims that this was ‘leaked’ but the Germans were aware, possibly via French agents, that some kind of attack was planned. The raid was in many ways a complete disaster and many of the men, especially the Canadians, were killed, injured or captured. A great deal then seemed to be learned before D-Day in 1944 about how to prepare for a landing – and how to keep the target secret.

Jack Strong (Poland 2014)

jack_strong

At this dire time of the year with foreign language films still as scarce as hen’s teeth around here, it’s a relief to turn to the occasional Polish release via distributor Project London and the multiplex chain Cineworld. Jack Strong is currently on release in 17 multiplexes across the UK and Ireland just a week after its Warsaw opening and it offers great entertainment plus a new perspective on the Cold War spy thriller for UK audiences.

The film deals with the real-life story of a Polish army officer who was so concerned that Poland would be destroyed in any war between NATO and the Soviet Union that he decided to provide the Americans with secret Soviet planning papers. Code-named ‘Jack Strong’ he operated under cover for several years before his situation became ‘critical’.

This isn’t a ‘biopic’ as such since the story begins when Colonel Ryszard Kulkiński is already one of the brightest military planners in the Polish Army. He first becomes concerned after the success of the Soviet planning of the ‘clear-up’ after the Prague Spring in 1968 in which he played a key role in Poland’s contribution. But the decisive moment is when he talks with colleagues who were on the ground in Gdansk in 1970 when Polish troops fired on shipyard workers. He becomes increasingly convinced that he is threatening the future of Poland through his work with the Soviets. He isn’t a traitor, he’s a patriot saving Poland from the hell that the Soviet military will lead it towards.

Unlike the heroes of many spy stories Kulkiński lived with his family who were unaware of his activities. Inevitably this created tensions with his long hours and occasional disappearances. These scenes of family life and the procedural aspects of his job in the Polish military headquarters form a major part of the film’s central sequence alongside the usual tropes of the spy film such as the passing of messages etc. These realist touches work very effectively in building up to the thrills of the closing scenes. The film is also bookend with scenes in which an older Kulkiński tells his story. I won’t spoil the narrative any further. We know from the beginning that he survived the initial crisis but we don’t know how the story ends or who is actually asking him questions.

The film is very well made and presented in CinemaScope. It looks good and the performances are excellent. I can’t fault it in terms of entertainment and I learned a lot. Kulkiński worked with the Russians in Vietnam (as a military attaché in the early 1960s?) and the extra earnings from this helped him to acquire a car and the means to go sailing.

I imagine that this must be a big budget film for Poland. The director Władysław Pasikowski is a veteran of action cinema and the star in the title role, Marcin Dorociński, is one of the most critically and popularly celebrated of Polish actors.

I imagine that the film will stay in cinemas a second week so check out the Polish Film Institute website to see where it is playing. Weirdly the film was part-financed by Vue Distribution in Poland but its UK partner company in the UK isn’t taking the film. Bravo to Cineworld – but they don’t seem to have advertised the film – presumably relying on Polish media. This is a shame because I know UK audiences who would go to see this as a spy thriller. (For anyone outside the UK baffled by all of this, the 2011 UK census revealed that Polish is now the first language of over 500,000 people in England and Wales.)

Official website

Cineworld trailer: