Apr 28, 2010

Movie Review: Our Men in Bagdad aka Il gioco delle spie (1966)

This one’s a rarity: one of the hardest Eurospy movies of all to track down. In fact, the esteemed authors of the indispensable Eurospy Guide concluded at the time of publication (in 2004) that this “sadly elusive” and “key” film “remained stubbornly unavailable.” They predicted that it would appear with time, and fortunately it has, but certainly not in an optimal format. The version under review is taken from a full-screen Italian TV broadcast with no English subtitles. Not speaking a lick of Italian myself, that meant I had to rely on the visuals alone to guide me. Fortunately, a lot of those visuals are pretty cool–and many typical spy setpieces (involving frogmen and helicopters and shootouts and the like) occur without dialogue anyway. I don’t like reviewing a movie whose dialogue I can’t understand, but with no alternatives available, I will endeavor to do so, working from the clues on screen. (Though bear in mind, I could be as off in my interpretation of what’s going on as Woody Allen was when he helpfully “translated” those Japanese films into What’s Up, Tiger Lily?... but I doubt it.)

The movie (which is based on the a novel by Robert Velher called Le Jeu des Espions) starts out with an old white guy talking to a sheik on a yacht. From this, we can safely infer that some Western power has just signed a lucrative oil contract. I’ve seen enough Sixties spy movies to know that’s always what’s going on in these situations. So far, so good. We then cut to Roger Hanin skulking around what appears to be a U.S. airbase. With his thick frame, wide face and post-Folsom Prison Johnny Cash looks, I’ve always found Hanin to be a sort of unlikely Eurospy hero, but he certainly made his fair share of genre entries, including the popular “Tiger” films. (The Eurospy Guide even labels him “the preeminent star of French spy films.”) He’s found out and shot at–but it was all just a training mission! Now we’re in for a real surprise: apparently he and his colleagues (Rory Calhoun and Evi Marandi) are Russian spies!

While the Rosa Klebbish boss lady was a tipoff (brainwashing music plays when she speaks, but I don’t think she was actually brainwashing anyone), I might not have actually picked up on this right away were it not for a helpful (assuming it’s accurate, that is) plot summary on the IMDB. Hanin is Alex, Calhoun is Sadov and blond Eurospy stalwart Marandi (perhaps better known for her role in Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires) is Sonia–all as Russian as you can get. And they’re, apparently, out to stop the Americans from getting this oil contract! It’s an interesting and unique point of view. But how could it have been a popular one at the height of the Cold War? Well... it gets more interesting. By midway through the film, it’s clear that one of our trio is actually a traitor–an American mole. But who? This tricky little narrative twist allows the filmmakers the chance to make their character both hero and antihero at once. A hero to the audiences–most of whom would have been in Western nations–and a traitor to the other characters in the film. This backwards perspective actually works better than the much more famous A Dandy in Aspic, in which we’re asked to sympathize with a traitorous protagonist who is really a Russian agent operating as a mole in British Intelligence. Of course, all the double-crossery also makes viewing a lot more confusing when you’re watching the movie in a language you can’t understand!

I’m not quite sure as to our trio’s overarching plan to sabotage the American oil contract, but the specifics involve breaking and entering, flying–and ejecting from–a fighter jet, taking a helicopter ride, fighting in a train car, skimming across the waves in a speedboat, getting into a gunfight in a parking garage, and engaging in underwater combat while diving. You know, all the good spy stuff. There’s also a terrific sequence wherein Hanin and Calhoun attempt a robbery at what might be the U.S. embassy in a room with a very squeaky floor. Their solution? Lassoing some twine around a doorknob, and pulling themselves across the room on a loose rug! It’s not quite Topkapi, but it’s still a pretty innovative solution! All of this is very well done, and director Paolo Bianchini keeps his camera refreshingly fluid (he loves circular rotations, and they work well here) and has an eye for cool shots and angles to keep things interesting (like shooting part of the traditional briefing-with-the-boss scene through a decorative glass bowl in the office), but to me the real highlight of this film is the Sixties Baghdad scenery. (That’s assuming it was really shot in Baghdad, but I’ve no reason to believe otherwise.) Baghdad is obviously a hotbed of spies today, and the subject of films like Green Zone and The Hurt Locker (neither of which were actually shot there), but it’s an underused location in Sixties spy cinema. If a Eurospy is going to head to the Middle East, it’s usually Beirut. I’m struck in this footage by what a beautiful city Baghdad once was! On the edge of what I presume is the Tigris River, it looks like an exotic oasis resort town, not a capital that will spend its next four decades embroiled in terror and violence. The locations are all very nice.

The film builds to a head as the traitor is found out and personal loyalties are tested. The fractured alliances and deadly physical confrontations carry actual weight because by this point the film has established a believable rapport between the three leads, peppered with moments of organic humor. In the end, the viewer empathizes with the characters on both sides of the Cold War equation. This is a personal story, not a political one. Despite all the spy action, Our Men in Bagdad is actually more of the Le Carré school of “serious spying.”

The conclusion finds our surviving leads involved in that most classic of serious spy scenarios: the prisoner exchange (nicely framed with an aerial long shot). As the outed American agent is traded for a captured counterpart, it doesn’t matter if you don’t speak Italian. There is no dialogue. Everything is said on the actors’ faces, and in the looks they exchange are friendships and possible romances shattered by geopolitics and their profession. The scene is very effectively scored by Roberto Pregadio and Walter Rizzati, and between the acting and the music, the result is undeniably poignant. Our Men in Bagdad is an interesting film and by no means run-of-the-mill. It delivers all the action and fabulous locations one expects of the Eurospy genre, but also the sense of melancholy more readily associated with the work of John Le Carré or Len Deighton. I would love to see it one day with English subtitles, and see if I feel the same way. (Or if I completely misread it!) Hopefully that day will come, eventually. After all, here we are six years on from the publication of The Eurospy Guide, and a at least the movie itself has surfaced, true to the authors’ optimistic prediction.

A big thanks to Rich for the chance to see this rare gem!

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