Disc Jockey: A Michael Caine Bond knock off comes back to disc

Eva Renzi and Michael Caine share a rare warm moment in "Funeral in Berlin." Credit: Warner Archive
Eva Renzi and Michael Caine share a rare warm moment in “Funeral in Berlin.”
Credit: Warner Archive

‘Funeral in Berlin’
$18.95
Warner Archive Collection

James Bond wrought untold copycats in the ‘60s. One Italian ripoff — alternately known as “Operation Kid Brother,” “Operation 007″ and “O.K. Connery” — actually starred Sean Connery’s non-actor brother Neil, plus series supporting stars Bernard Lee (M) and Lois Maxwell (Moneypenny), a former Bond villain (Adolfo Celi, “Thunderball”) and a former Bond girl (Daniela Bianchi, “From Russia With Love”). (Both Lee and Maxwell claimed the producers paid them better than their regular gig.)

Among the least shameless (and, luckily, good) of this wave were the Harry Palmer films. Where “Dr. No” made a household name of Connery, these spy thrillers turned one Michael Caine from a rising star into a cemented fixture of the screen. Three Palmer films were made in the mid-‘60s, then two more for TV in the ‘90s. The second, 1966′s “Funeral in Berlin, newly reissued on DVD by the on-demand group Warner Archive, was actually directed by a Bond director, Guy Hamilton, who had just helmed that series’ high watermark, “Goldfinger.”

Thing was, the novels they turned to — by Len Deighton — aren’t globe-trotting, sex-drenched, sometimes sadistic imperialist romps. In other words Deighton was no Ian Fleming. Even with a Bond director at the helm, “Berlin” is relatively calm and relatively mature. In this installment, Palmer is sent to Germany to meet a Soviet Colonel (Oskar Homolka) threatening to defect to the West. This brings him in contact with numerous Cold War adversaries, including an untrustworthy German national (Paul Hubschmid) and a slinky Israeli agent (Eva Renzi).

But there are no outlandish set pieces. Palmer’s travels only take him to London and both sides of the Berlin Wall. The offices aren’t sleek but drab. (Rather than a flirtatious Moneypenny, Palmer gets an older lady with a cigarette dangling from her mouth.) The few killings have weight to them, and the overall mood is one of weary pessmism. As in the other two films — 1965′s “The Ipcress File” and 1967′s “Billion Dollar Brain” — Palmer is a cynical working class type coerced into government work. He rocks black rim glasses and, in Caine’s interpretation, a thick Cockney accent. He never smiles and in fact wears a permanent expression of bored irritation. Caine’s performance is borderline robotic; he’s arguably more intimidating here than he is in “Get Carter,” where he took no visible joy from bloody revenge or getting off his mistress (Elke Sommer) over the phone.

Unlike Carter (or Bond), our hero takes no joy from killing. (When a superior in “Berlin” demands he murder someone in cold blood, he balks.) The body count in the Palmer movies is low — although the final theatrical film, 1967’s”Billion Dollar Brain,” features a rather spectacular massacre, in which Palmer takes no part.) This is in keeping with the series’ knack for (again, relative) realism.

Both “Ipcress” and “Brain are sillier, even surreal. “Brain,” in fact, marked the feature debut of Ken Russell, the incorrigibly purple filmmaker of “Women in Love,” “Tommy” and “Lisztomania.” His insanity — including a barking mad performance from Ed Begley as a Texas oilman trying to use his riches to stomp Communism — killed the franchise while it was young. (Sadly, “Brain” is out of print, though “Ipcress” is on Blu-ray.) The needle in “Berlin” never comes close to the red, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s closer in spirit to something like “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” the sedate 1966 film of John le Carre’s novel that served as an anti-Bond refresher at the time of carefree spy romps. In that it’s a more accurate presentation of a time when mainstream cinema tried to act like the Cold War was over, when in actuality it was far from it.

‘Byzantium’
$29.98

Vampires, as we’re constantly reminded, are way in these days. But for every “Twilight,” there’s about 10 movies or TV shows that no one pays attention to. One that fell through the cracks was the latest from Neil Jordan, who two decades ago hit pay dirt with his film of “Interview With the Vampire.” Going much, much more offbeat, he tells of a mother and daughter (Gemma Arterton and the ubiquitous Saoirse Ronan) who’ve survived centuries into the modern day, constantly on the move from a cabal of sexist male vampires. Gory beheadings sit with wit and a fine, alert turn from Arterton, whose character opens a brothel in a seaside manse to make ends meet.

Also out:

‘Monsters University’
Pixar announced this summer that, following much criticism (although infinitely more box office), they would be calming down when it came to sequels. But that wasn’t enforced before this, nor the announcement of “Finding Dory.”

‘R.I.P.D.’
Sometimes movies that tank financially and critically get reclaimed long after the dust has settled. That may happen to this Jeff Bridges-helmed post-mortem action film — or, you know, it might just be objectively horrible.

‘Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’
Long a mainstay of worst-ever lists, this favorite — which wrought one of the better episodes of “MST3K” — comes to high def for some reason.


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