Two by Martin Ritt. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is one of the classiest of the genre. It features Richard Burton’s best performance and an awesome turn by Claire Bloom (not so awesome in The Outrage).
Based on the John le Carre novel, The Spy is a tricky thriller shot in gorgeous black and white by Oswald Morris, who shot Lolita for Kubrick three years earlier and Sleuth for Mankiewicz in 1972. Sol Kaplan’s score is also fantastic. Burton is Alec Leamas, British spy who agrees to go undercover as a turned agent in order to bring down an East German rival, Mundt (played excellently by Peter van Eyck).
The Spy is shot really differently from The Ipcress File, which I wrote about on here recently. Both are spy films from 1965 featuring male-lead heavyweights (though Caine, from the latter film, was far from his heights at the time; Burton already had two Best Actor nominations to his name). But while Sidney J. Furie’s film is all angles, jazz, and birds, Ritt’s is elegant, slow-burning, and moody.
One of my favorite scenes is a simple exchange between Leamas and his new lover, Nan Perry (Bloom). On one hand, Ritt demonstrates the style he prefers throughout much of the film: a long-ish dolly, set up at eye level:
I also love this scene because of the performances. Bloom is really at her best. She’s timid and cute and shy, and Burton gives her plenty work with via his gruff act that masks a kind interior. He’s been recently released from prison and when she switches tone and asks, “Was it awful,” your heart breaks for her a little bit. She’s just so innocent.
Here’s a look at one of the early shots from the film. Leamas prowls near a border crossing, waiting for his liaison. Again, Ritt frames in an eye-level medium shot, and dollies left to right:
Here, as opposed to the above example, Leamas’ movement motivates the camera to move (that first move feels more exploratory, this one has direction and purpose), but it’s still representative of the simple, unshowy approach that Ritt favors throughout the entire film.
A last thought. Is it me, or does this rear projection look like it’s too high?
It feels like these guys are driving in an airplane.
Ritt’s 1964 film is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s famous Rashomon from 1950. That’s immediately interesting and relevant. Given the uproar today over all of the remakes, reboots, sequels, etc, can you imagine the furor over remaking an out-and-out classic only 14 years after the original landed? I just read that an American remake of A Prophet has been in the works. It might be a stretch to consider Audiard’s film a classic so soon, but it was undoubtedly a masterpiece and it was made only in 2009. Still, the remake of Rashomon would be akin to someone taking on an updated version of Pulp Fiction today.
Alongside Hud, which I’ve mentioned on here recently, and Hombre, which I blogged about, The Outrage makes up a kind of Paul Newman-Martin Ritt trilogy, and it’s the worst of the three.
Newman, for his part, is at once magnetic and ridiculous. Perhaps he channels Toshiro Mifune too much, making him a bit of a caricature. It would’ve been nice to see Ritt and Newman take his Mexican bandit Carrasco in a different direction. Some of Newman’s accents are a little wince-inducing, but he’s unrecognizable – another testament to his ability. Even in some close-ups it’s hard to tell if it’s actually Paul Newman.
But other than he and Edward G. Robinson as the con man, the rest of the cast really falters. Claire Bloom, so good in The Spy, seems outmatched here. Her southern accent is terrible, and her damsel-in-distress act – though clearly part of the myriad different stories being told – doesn’t work. William Shatner plays the preacher, and his affectations are also flat. Worst of all is Howard Da Silva as the prospector. His line deliveries are uninspired and unconvincing.
It would have been if, as in Hombre, Ritt and screenwriter Michael Kanin had played up the racial angle a bit more (Mexican man possibly raping white woman), but that gets lost in trying to be too philosophical and faithful to Rashomon. And it is too faithful.
One really interesting thing in comparing the original to the remake – Kurosawa shot Rashomon in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, while The Outrage is 2.35:1.
You can see a lot of the visual things that Rashomon is famous for here. Triangular compositions:
And the direct address to an unseen judge/jury:
I don’t have the best images from The Outrage as comparison, but using these, you can still see that Ritt takes some pains to match the triangle throughout, here with the three people from the story-
-and here with the mirroring three from the frame story:
It’s not that it’s poorly used. In fact, I’m quite a fan of Ritt’s composition. It’s just odd that now the triangle uses less verticals (I think immediately of the gate from Rashomon)-
-and is more spread out. Some of the claustrophobia is lost, so instead of having a tightly-packed story of (im)morality and (dis)honesty, you’ve got a spread out story of isolation.