I often find myself watching movies consecutively that share some sort of connection, even if it wasn’t my plan to begin with. So it was last evening when I screened the latest Coen comedy, Burn After Reading, and then simply flipped over to TCM, to find the Carol Reed film The Man Between. They, oddly enough, make natural companions.
(I only guessed it was a Reed film, because of its similarities to Reed’s The Third Man, especially the prominence of bombed-out Berlin as a backdrop. I was pleased to find myself correct.)
Burn After Reading took a lot of heat, so to speak, from critics who deemed it an unworthy followup to No Country For Old Men. And there’s no doubt the latter movie is superior–although frankly, I would be fine if I never saw it again. But the Coens’ high standards are frequently held against them. What struck me the most about the film was how comfortably it fit in the moment. While the Coens may populate their movies with exaggerated characters, they are undeniably inhabit the world around them. The Coens see the world as absurd and exaggerated. Their characters only follow suit.
So when a homicidal John Malkovich confronts a sheepish Richard Jenkins slinking around this basement and recognizes him from the local gym, all Jenkins can say is “I don’t represent Hardbodies,” even as he is still wearing his manager’s shirt from the place. Or witness Frances McDormand’s Linda Litzke trying to negotiate the voice-responsive customer service line for her insurance provider. George Clooney speaks the nonsense of federal law enforcement, all while building an elaborate sexual device in his basement, while his wife writes children’s books set in the least enchanted kingdom on Earth, Capitol Hill.
It’s a farce, a send-up of somber, deadly serious movies about spying and government in the manner of The Hudsucker Proxy‘s take on corporate America and consumer culture. (I also must add here that while I’m not a fan of Hudsucker, I’m partial to Intolerable Cruelty, the Coens’ attempt at screwball comedy, which most people found intolerable.)
Why bookend it with The Man Between? Because that 1953 film epitomizes the deadly earnestness with which the intelligence game is typically captured on screen. Intrigue. Code words. Tight moments. Will they be discovered? Who is working for whom? The Cold War produced few light moments, which was perhaps appropriate when nuclear death was foremost on the public mind.
In the film, eternally suave James Mason plays an East German who falls in love with a Westerner, an English woman played by the lovely-if-guileless Claire Bloom. Bloom becomes trapped across the border, which, in the early 1950s consisted of a line of checkpoints. The wall itself had yet to be built.
That’s one reason alone to see the movie, to see Berlin in its early, divided years, with the ruins of the war still everywhere. The shattered city gives weight to a film that could be considered romantic puffery without it.
Mason, of course, must escort Bloom safely to the other side–and repudiate his Communist sympathies (although they are never explicity articulated).
Why do these movies work well together? Because, as I noted, the spy movie runs so close to self-parody that it takes a craftsman to make one from lapsing into somber predictability. The other problem, one hilariously pointed out in Burn, is that without the Cold War, the genre lacks juice. The new enemies are not easily defined. The old ones are second-rate. And the trade no longer carries the panache it once did.
Or maybe that is simply because actors like James Mason are no longer with us. Talk about style to burn.