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Spies, Lies, Secrets and Shadows

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Spies
Contraband
The Black Pirate
Recoil
House by the River
Le combat dans l'île
Rappresaglia
The Oath
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Whistleblower, snitch, spy, mole, traitor, hero. These terms and their loaded meanings are on everyone’s mind since the revelation that the U.S. government is electronically eavesdropping on the whole world. Meanwhile, a battle for public opinion is waged over the character of the person who told us. For every informer, fink, or spy, there’s someone else willing to call them hero. For every whistleblower, someone cries traitor. A damaging secret can be stumbled upon or ferreted out, and deciding whether or not to keep it or disclose it often depends upon allegiances or ideals. But what happens when one allegiance finds itself opposed to another? Movies have always found worthy drama in such characters and questions: Mata Hari. James Bond. Terry Malloy. Karen Silkwood. Fredo. While we wait for an ending to Edward Snowden’s story and, inevitably, the Hollywood version of it, these films explore the morality of concealing or revealing and whether it really is best never to go against the family. The verdict depends very much on which movie you are watching.

By Shari Kizirian

Spies

(1928) directed by Fritz Lang, 143 minutes

The stuff of modern spy films—gadgetry, mastery of disguise, treacherous sex, megalomania, and twisted storylines—had its primordial iteration in Fritz Lang’s first project after Metropolis. Scenarist Thea von Harbou, Lang’s wife at the time, based Spies (Spione) on the 1927 raid by Mi5 on the All-Russian Cooperative Society, a front for a Soviet document-stealing operation. The film adds romance in the form of a Russian agent (played by Lang discovery Gerda Maurus) who falls for Britain’s “No. 326” (1930s matinée-idol Willy Fritsch). The mad puppet-master (and banker—Lang knew where the evil really lurked) deploys a second fatal female to ensure his, well, world domination. Popular with audiences on its release, Spione seemed to validate the German director’s working methods—tyranny and extravagance—which had recently brought mega-studio Ufa to its financial knees. But it also proved he could work under tighter constraints and still produce a hit. Lang’s suspenseful pulpiness has been poached for the spy genre ever since, down to the villainous plot being ultimately foiled not by fearless field agents but a behind-the-scenes data nerd.

Contraband

(1940) directed by Michael Powell, 87 minutes

Nothing quite satisfies like a plot that humiliates Nazis, and British director Michael Powell (working for the second time with Hungarian-born scriptwriter Emeric Pressburger) delivers with panache and a stiff-upper-lip economy befitting the lean times of late 1930s English cinema. Called Blackout for its U.S. release, Contraband puts a Danish sea captain, a placidly witty Conrad Veidt, in between a spy and a few hard places during the Blitz, when London’s midnight streets were a darkened maze and nightlife blazed behind tightly drawn curtains. That cast and crew were a mélange of international refugees and “enemy aliens”—including Alfred Junge, the German later responsible for the production design on Black Narcissus—added to the shadowy atmosphere on and off the set. “I decided,” Powell later wrote, “that the sooner we shot the essential scenes the better … before anyone high up mentioned the word ‘security.’”

The Black Pirate

(1926) directed by Albert Parker, 94 minutes

Douglas Fairbanks was meant to make a film on a sailing ship. Mast-hopping, sail-sliding, and generally swashbuckling his way into the inner circle of high-seas looters, the nimble “King of Hollywood” infiltrates a band of pirates to avenge the death of his father in the first big-name feature shot entirely in Technicolor’s red and green Process II. In the smoothly executed stunts, Fairbanks achieves parkour-level grace almost a century before anyone ever heard of Jason Bourne. As the Black Pirate of the title, he proves equally agile at winning over the unsuspecting men he’s vowed to betray. He’s so charming that the stench of snitch never pollutes his character—the tamed buccaneers even offer their ill-gotten gain to him as a wedding present after his identity is revealed. A final dissimulation fools the audience: the actress in the ending’s embrace is not costar Billie Dove but Mary Pickford, who happened to be shooting Sparrows at the studio the power couple shared.

Recoil

(1953) directed by John Gilling, 76 minutes

What starts out as a police procedural quickly becomes a high-stakes crime drama when the daughter of a heist victim, dissatisfied with progress on the case, coolly goes undercover to get her man. That it’s done sparely strengthens the film’s grip on our attention. Produced by Tempean Films’ Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker, who later seized onto the Hammer horror film trend, Recoil was written and directed by the outfit’s go-to director whose concise British noir productions prepared him for the economic and narrative exigencies of his later films, such as The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile, shot back-to-back on some of the same sets. The choice of Recoil’s female lead to get intimate with her father’s murderer is barely grazed—one prolonged clutch is all Gilling needs to make us squirm in our morals. The struggle over whether or not to inform is left to the brother and mother of the ne’er-do-well, who have their blood ties tested to their tensile limits.

House by the River

(1950) directed by Fritz Lang, 84 minutes

Blood ties make an accomplice of another brother in Lang’s often overlooked bayou-saturated psychological noir about a failed writer with compulsive hands. Shot after Lang had dissolved his short-lived partnership with producer Walter Wanger and HUAC had done its first wave of damage to Hollywood, House by the River was made on a poverty-row budget in an industry running on paranoia. Lang gives the Master of Suspense a run for his title, skillfully crumbling the façade of gentility, revealing alarming depravations around every wallpapered corner. Only the bonds of fraternity keep the giddily sociopathic brother from the gallows. In the hands of another director, the older brother’s silence—which comes at great personal expense—might have been an allegory for not naming names. For the resolutely pessimistic Lang, such loyalty can only be read as another form of madness.

Le combat dans l'île

(1962) directed by Alain Cavalier, 104 minutes

Against the backdrop of colonial wars fought by a country that had been split in two only twenty years prior, a longtime radical leftist rats out his younger compatriot for money. The exposed Jean-Louis Trintignant opts for a life underground, but holding a hardline on lofty principles is always rough on the wife. When the wife is fresh-faced Romy Schneider, the cost of political fealty is indeed high. Released the same year as Jules et Jim and Vivre sa vie (not to mention La jetée), Alain Cavalier’s first fiction feature rarely gets the exposure it deserves. Jump cuts and a loose narrative attest to the film’s French New Wave pedigree and the silky black-and-white cinematography of Pierre Lhomme certify its noir aesthetics. Better known for his later, intimate portraits, such as the 1986 Cannes jury prizewinner Thérèse, Cavalier focuses on Schneider as Anne, making the political very personal while casting shadows of ambiguity on what were once hard, bright ideals.

Rappresaglia

(1973) directed by George Cosmatos, 99 minutes

Among the 335 dead at Fosse Ardeatine, executed in retaliation for a partisan attack in Rome that killed 33 German soldiers, was Father Pietro Pappagallo. Already fictionalized in Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 Open City, the priest, played here by Marcello Mastroianni, becomes Pietro Antonelli, sacred-art restorer and moral compass of George Cosmatos’s widescreen retelling of the events leading up to the surreptitious, swift, and furious reprisal. Borrowed spaghetti-western techniques—including startling close-ups and jarring cuts, both visual and aural—generate absolute dread of the inevitable as the Nazis compile a death list. The wanted partisans hide in Antonelli’s museum while the priest repeatedly urges the SS officer in charge (a dubbed Richard Burton) to show restraint and the Vatican to intervene. Never questioning his obligation to safeguard the identity of the bombers, Antonelli blows the whistle on the secret police operation solely for an audience of one in what might be the most damning moment of war-crime culpability in cinema history.

The Oath

(2010) directed by Laura Poitras, 96 minutes

Filmmaker Laura Poitras’s highly anticipated documentary about Edward Snowden and the extent of NSA wiretaps might have to be smuggled into the United States like a Jafar Panahi film out of Iran. While her exact take on his plight—or, if the government has its way, crime—is unknown, chances are good it will be as nuanced as her 2010 film about two men at one time close to Osama bin Laden struggling with torn allegiances. One languishes at Gitmo for years awaiting a military tribunal on jacked up terrorism charges. The other, with far more damaging stories to tell, lives a free man in Yemen as a cab driver. Poitras explores the conflicts both men face being loyal to their families, their cause and their evolving beliefs. Along the way she uncovers the dangers of adhering to any doctrine, be it spiritual or mundane, while denying your own conscience.