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Complex spy thriller set in cold war Berlin
on 14 June 2001
As usual the machiavellian Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) summons Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) at the most inconvenient time. So it is on a Saturday that the unwilling British spy and former thief has to leave a girl and fly to Berlin. A senior Soviet officer wishes to defect. Harry is not fooled, not at first. But events tumble over themselves in an ever more complex plot, involving Harry's seduction, the machinations of Soviet and Israeli intelligence services, the private conspiracies of British agents, German escape agents and a reconstructed Belsen guard. Nothing very good comes of all this in the end. There are winners, but not the obvious ones.
This fine production is from a golden period of British spy fiction and spy films. Harry Palmer represents a character typical of 1960s Britain, not a public school and Oxford hero of the 1950s, no distinguished service as an officer in the War. He is working class, cockney, cynical and rootless, doing it for the money and to keep himself out of gaol. The only character more cynical than Harry is Ross, an officer with a public school and Oxford background. This film does not come from an age of belief. The only character with any real convictions, Eva Renzi's Samantha Steel, is the most terrifyingly ruthless of them all.
So what does happen in Berlin? Is the defection of Colonel Stock (Oskar Homolka) real, a joke, or something more sinister? Who cares? Suddenly the action centres around greed for Jewish gold stolen by a Nazi and stashed in a Swiss bank. Just about everyone, it seems, is involved in some way and most seem to want the loot. Tension grips the audience, as it struggles to keep up with the twists and turns of Len Deighton's plot, as coincidence piles on coincidence, mystery on mystery, until the final resolution. In the end, Harry keeps his job, though little satisfaction it gives him.
Caine, so often underrated, turns in another admirable performance as Harry Palmer, his cynicism just sufficiently moderated with professionalism and tinged with reluctant humanity. Homolka is a wonderfully entertaining, utterly devious, as the old Bolshevik. The other characters are well-played, although Paul Hubschmid is rather colourless as Johnny Vulkan. This is well-made film both entertains and keeps the mind engaged with its involved plot.