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The Defector

The Defector(1966)

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teaser The Defector (1966)

Like a forgotten, weed-covered headstone, Raoul Levy's The Defector (1966) stands as the last testament to one of the 20th century's greatest acting careers - the one belonging to Montgomery Clift. It's a strange, arid, amateurish film, made in the fullest blossoming of John le Carre-style Cold War espionage thrillers, but the sense of it as a kind of eulogy for Clift, who would die of a heart attack soon after shooting ended, is inescapable. His career is a sad one, all told - lasting only 18 years, and almost cut evenly in half by a 1956 car wreck that scarred Clift visibly, ramped up his already destructive consumption of booze and pills, and would help define his last decade of life as what was famously called "the longest suicide in Hollywood history." Clift's health was always precarious - reportedly, a bout of dysentery weakened him, and his chronic colitis never went away - but watching the last eight films, from 1958's Lonelyhearts to The Defector, is like watching that car accident happen again in slow-motion, as Clift's never-fading intelligence and humanity struggled to emerge from behind a shredded veil of confusion, weariness, pain and self-loathing inebriation.

Clift had a gift, and it was visible immediately in 1948's Red River and The Search - American filmgoers had never before experienced the hyper-real acting style Clift brought to his characters (the emergence of Marlon Brando and James Dean was a few years away), nor the earnest gentleness, nor the physical beauty that mixed seamlessly, and never obscured, his quick mind. He was a new kind of movie animal, a postwar sensitive American who revealed more the closer the camera got, and because he took his craft and presence so seriously, forcing us to as well, he changed our idea of "acting" and stardom both.

The Defector is a funeral song for these achievements, and it could break your heart. The story is dry split-Germany skullduggery, as Clift's innocent physicist is roped into meeting with a Russian defector on his trip to Dresden. Upon arrival, Hardy Kruger's disingenuous scientist-spymaster immediately pegs the awkward-yet-high-profile American as a spy, but Clift's bashful intellectual attempts to evade the ubiquitous Stasi forces and withstand a particularly strange brainwashing episode in a toxic hotel room, until he discovers that the Russian is dead, and the purpose for his mission was far different than he'd thought. Along the way, he latches onto Macha Meril's sexy, sweet nurse (who reads Peyo's original Smurf comics!), but eventually he must make a run for the border, undercover, underwater and under barbed wire. (Supposedly, Clift did all of his own stunts.)

The film never musters much suspense, and in fact the temperature of the film is so mild it's as if the Politburo had de-dramatized it, removing its exciting parts. In any case, Clift is not your typical spy-movie protagonist - his fish-out-of-water scientist is a mess of weaknesses, guilelessness and befuddlement, sleight and also strangely amused by the totalitarian infrastructure constantly in his face, sometimes acting as though the secret police had interrupted him on a tourist holiday in San Francisco, not East Germany. It's difficult to watch The Defector and not stumble over Clift's odd, startled presence, which is manifestly absorbed in suffering, ordeals and intoxicants that do not relate to the narrative.

Still, this can compel you to see the film's genre, its Cold War intrigue and Iron Curtain oppression, as a metaphor, as a bad dream that the sick and addicted Clift couldn't wake from - namely, his own addled life. Or vice-versa, Clift's sickened dissolution standing in, vividly, for the unmoored, anxious, despairing life lived within a totalitarian state. This comes pungently to life in the aforementioned brainwashing scene, in which Clift, apparently drugged, loses control of reality, hallucinates a number of irrational episodes, and is found the next day hiding under his hotel bed, in a frazzled state and frame of mind that Clift himself may well have experienced more than once in his extra-cinematic life. Here, if you need it, is where the paranoid prison of 20th-century Communist society equals the prison of private chemical self-destruction. William S. Burroughs couldn't have limned it better.

The Defector has another side to it, low-bore potboiler that it is, and that's the Belgian-born Levy, whose third film this is, but who made his biggest mark as a producer, for movies directed by Roger Vadim, Peter Brook, Francois Truffaut (uncredited on Jules and Jim, 1962), Henri-Georges Clouzot and, eventually, Jean-Luc Godard. That is Godard walking through the movie as Soviet hardass David Opatoshu's "friend," and Meril did star in Godard's A Married Woman (1964) two years earlier, and Levy's cinematographer was Godard's stalwart DP Raoul Coutard. Clearly, Levy and Godard were friends, and the former's nascent and unpromising directorial career was receiving a boost or at least encouragement from the world-famous New Waver. Levy would go on to produce Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), but months before it was released Levy killed himself with a gunshot to the chest.

The Defector is a ghost of a movie, no question, haunted by fated people on both sides of the camera, and detailing in strangely low-key fashion the experience of being lost in a state where you don't belong, on a mission you don't understand, far from home and subject to control by powers you cannot access. In Clift's case, this experience wasn't quite a fiction, and lingers spookily as an accidental dirge for a tragic life.

Producer: Raoul Lvy
Director: Raoul Lvy
Screenplay: Raoul Lvy (adaptation); Paul Thomas (novel); Peter Francke; Robert Guenette; Montgomery Clift (uncredited)
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Art Direction: Pierre Guffroy, Hans Jrgen Kiebach, Ernst Schomer
Music: Serge Gainsbourg
Film Editing: Roger Dwyre, Albert Jurgenson
Cast: Montgomery Clift (Prof. James Bower), Hardy Krger (Counselor Peter Heinzmann), Roddy McDowall (Agent Adam), Macha Mril (Frieda Hoffmann), David Opatoshu (Orlovsky), Christine Delaroche (Ingrid), Hannes Messemer (Dr. Saltzer), Karl Lieffen (The Major), Uta Levka (Mdchen unter der Dusche).

by Michael Atkinson

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