Man on a String
Man on a String, the 1960 spy thriller starring Ernest Borgnine, is too eccentric to fit either of those categories. Its dark atmosphere disqualifies it as feel-good entertainment, while its ambivalence about Soviet life-just how menacing is the communist menace?--hurts its credentials as commie-hating propaganda. The movie's ambiguity is what makes it interesting, and this is closely connected with Borgnine's star performance.
Borgnine plays Boris Mitrov, a character based directly on Boris Morros, a real-life double agent who published a memoir called My Ten Years as a Counterspy a year before the movie premiered. Morros was born in Russia but immigrated to the United States when he was in his early thirties. A dozen years later the Soviets recruited him to spy for them, and a dozen years after that-following a tip-off to J. Edgar Hoover about him--the FBI shipped him to the USSR as an American counterspy. All this was the last thing you would have expected from a Paramount music director and independent film producer with features like The Flying Deuces (1939), starring Laurel and Hardy, among his credits. With all that scooting around the world to dig up secrets for the Soviets, the Americans, or both, it's no wonder his life has been compared to a Laurel and Hardy comedy, if a complicated and sometimes scary one.
Although it's clearly a dramatized account of Morros's exploits, Man on a String has a quasi-documentary look that was probably inspired by producer Louis de Rochement, who specialized in nonfiction films as well as war pictures and, in the middle 1950s, innovative wide-screen extravaganzas. Portions were filmed in four international cities--Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, and Moscow--by four different cinematographers. Why did the communist Soviet Union open its doors for an anticommunist movie? It seems that authorities trusted De Rochement from earlier documentary projects-but after Man on a String his welcome immediately wore out.
Borgnine's performance contributes to the picture's realism too, despite his familiarity as a movie and TV star. Defending his casting of Borgnine, director Andre De Toth described Morros as "a flat and dull nobody" who cleverly used his nondescript manner as a survival tool in the espionage game. Borgnine was the ideal actor to play him, De Toth said, not because he resembled Morros physically-"I didn't care if [he] looked like Boris Morros or Alfred Hitchcock"-but because he "blended in with [the] drapes as if they weren't dry-cleaned," capturing the "quality of a stray dog" that Morros had in real life. Although not everyone agreed with the director, New York Times reviewer Howard Thompson called Borgnine's acting "completely persuasive" all through the film. Borgnine made his career breakthrough as the sadistic sergeant in the 1953 army drama From Here to Eternity, but he earned his Oscar® two years later for the title role in Marty, playing another guy who blended in with the drapes. His portrayal of Mitrov can be seen as a variation on the award-winning Marty theme.
The nonfiction feel of Man on a String also benefits from the clipped narration by Clete Roberts, a war correspondent who later became a groundbreaking reporter on Los Angeles television. And a large share of the credit goes to De Toth, for casting Borgnine and then filming his exploits in a no-nonsense style that rarely allows visual flourishes or narrative irrelevancies to slow down the action's momentum. The story of Morros/Mitrov was completely in tune with the creative personality of a director who, in Andrew Sarris's words, understands "the instability and outright treachery of human relationships" and finds antisocial behaviors "more like the natural order of things than like mere contrivances of melodrama." The central theme of De Toth's cinema is betrayal, and as critic Fred Camper observes, his interest is "not single betrayals by individuals but networks of betrayal that implicate most of his characters." This certainly applies to Man on a String, which surrounds Mitrov with self-seeking manipulators, sunshine patriots, and a tangled web of bad faith and broken promises. Not to mention offers he can't refuse. One is the Soviets' promise that his father and brothers can leave Russia if he'll just risk his life for communism; another is the counteroffer he accepts from the Americans, but only after learning that--contrary to everything the Soviets have told him--his brothers are already dead and gone.
Some critics have faulted Man on a String on two amusingly contradictory grounds--that its anticommunist theme is now irrelevant, and that it's not really anticommunist because it doesn't make the Soviets look miserable. De Toth answered both arguments well. Told by critic Anthony Slide that the movie's politics are dated, the director noted that it still contains a true picture of its era, including "its problems, its modus vivendi and [its] slogans," adding that what's bothering the critic may be "today's incomprehension of a ridiculous period." As for those contented-looking Soviet citizens, De Toth stated that "Russians, generally happy people, were happy with Communism. The West wasn't. According to [this] criticism, the Russians should've been asked to be unhappy because some jackass wanted to spread anti-Communist propaganda." Enough said.
Today's responses to Man on a String will depend on how curious moviegoers are about a recent historical period whose paranoia has much to teach us now, and how convinced they are by Borgnine's portrayal of Morros, the "bizarre character" whose psychology intrigued De Toth more than any other aspect of the project. It's also fascinating to speculate on what filming important parts of this story in cold-war Moscow must have been like. According to De Toth, playing dumb was a key part of the secret. "The lesson is...if you're smart, you keep your big mouth shut."
Producer: Louis de Rochement
Director: Andre De Toth
Screenplay: John Kafka, Virginia Shaler, adapted in part from Ten Years a Counterspy by Boris Morros with Charles Samuels.
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr. (Hollywood), Albert Benitz (Berlin), Gayne Rescher (New York), Pierre Poincarde (Moscow)
Film Editing: Al Clark
Art Direction: Carl Anderson
Music: George Duning
Cast: Ernest Borgnine (Boris Mitrov), Kerwin Mathews (Bob Avery), Colleen Dewhurst (Helen Benson), Alexander Scourby (Vadja Kubelov), Glenn Corbett (Frank Sanford), Vladimir Sokoloff (Mitrov's father), Friedrich Joloff (Nikolai Chapayev), Richard Kendrick (Inspector Jenkins), Ed Prentiss (Adrian Benson), Clete Roberts (narrator).
by David Sterritt