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Posted on Jun 9, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Films of the Cold War

By Wyatt Kingseed

5.jpgThe Bedford Incident

This film shows that the Cold War did not just play out in the seats of government in Washington, London, and Moscow; but also in isolated, inhospitable locations. Richard Widmark plays Eric Finlander, an over-zealous Navy captain of a guided missile destroyer, the USS Bedford. His harassment of a Soviet submarine that veers into Greenland territorial waters borders on the obsessive. A modern day version of Ahab, he shadows the sub in a dangerous game of cat and mouse in the frigid North Atlantic, hoping to force it to the surface—against orders from NATO.


Finlander’s motives are questionable. A dubious past caused him to have been recently passed over for the rank of Admiral, leading him to take out his frustrations on the enemy and his own crew. The hunt is everything and he drives his crew to exhaustion. Inevitably, the crew gets wound so tight they are prone to mistakes, which here can lead to disaster.   

Director James Harris builds tension throughout and maintains suspense by never showing the inside of the enemy sub’; events unfold only from the perspective of the American vessel. Still, it is clear that the Soviet crew suffers from increasingly foul air from the sub’s diesel engines as its oxygen is depleted. As the sub’ commander naturally grows more desperate and Widmark more determined, three men aboard the American vessel become increasingly nervous that its captain will push the game too far.

Sidney Poitier is one, along for the ride as a noisy photojournalist doing a story on the “provocative” captain. He tries to bait Finlander into saying something he shouldn’t in one of the film’s best scenes as Finlander, showing little tolerance of reporters, struggles to maintain control. Widmark—always an underrated actor—is excellent, rubbing his face nervously and seething with bitterness.

Finlander also ignores reasoned advice from the ship’s doctor, Martin Balsam in another solid character role performance, and from a U.N. observer, a former U-Boat commander who knows something about the mentality and tendencies of submarine commanders under duress.

Filmed in England at Shepperton Studios, director Harris does a nice job with set design and sound. The sonar pings, howling wind and fog, giant icebergs, and most of all the claustrophobic bridge, all converge to heighten the realism. Harris previously worked as Kubrik’s partner on Dr. Strangelove.

Look for Donald Sutherland in an early role.

6.jpgThe Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Directed by Martin Ritt from the John le Carré novel, which Graham Greene called the “best spy story he ever read,” this is Richard Burton’s film. He plays Alec Leamas, a tired, burnt out British agent stationed in Berlin. Looking at his face, its sunken and dark eyes, and his vacant expression, one can’t help but believe this guy has been through the ringer—been “out in the cold”—for too long.

When an assignment ends in his losing an agent, Leamas is called home. Disgraced, he is “retired” and sinks into depression and booze as he tries to assimilate himself back into normal society as a lowly clerk in a used bookstore. It is a ruse; the Home Office says there is a mole in its midst blowing the cover of its agents. Leamas pretends to defect, and that’s where Ritt and le Carré spin a web of intrigue that takes Burton and the viewer on an emotional ride.  

Eventually, Leamas realizes his mission is to sow misinformation and that he is a pawn to save the life of a double agent. He is part of an ugly game, with no winner—one where you can’t trust anyone, least of all your own government. By the end, his disgust with the game, its deceit, and with himself, is palpable.    

You could never mistake Leamas’ world for James Bond or Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. Ideologies are blurred, and there are no gimmicks or outlandish technology here, just gritty human interplay that slowly beats down the players. Revealing the real oppressive world of espionage, at one point Leamas vents: “What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?”

Ritt expertly transforms le Carré’s grey, depressing world from the page to the screen. In a neat bit of symmetry the film begins and ends at the Berlin Wall. The best scene takes place near the end. In an emotional monologue, Leamas reveals the depth of his disillusionment. He releases all the hate, resentment, and cynicism at the system that cares nothing of its agents. It takes place in a cramped car in the rain, and you feel the claustrophobia present in the place, and in his mind. His mission complete, he is about to escape back to the West, but what has he to escape to? In the end he finds his way back to humanity. 

Burton received a Best Actor nomination. He should have won but lost to Lee Marvin for Cat Ballou.

Other notable Cold War films of the period worth viewing include: On the Beach (1959), The Ipcress File (1965), and Ice Station Zebra (1968).

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1 Comment

  1. i want to became an actor i will do anything for that….i am indian