Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Ring of Spies (1964)

Ring of Spies (also known as Ring of Treason) is a very low-key but effective little British espionage thriller. It was released at a time when the Bond movies were revolutionising the spy movie genre but this movie is about as far removed from the world of James Bond as one could possibly imagine.

Ring of Spies is based on the true story of the notorious Portland spy ring which was broken by MI5 in 1961. The film sticks surprisingly close to the facts, with one exception. The Portland spy ring was broken when the CIA was tipped off by a mole in the Polish intelligence service. The CIA passed the information on to the British Security Service (MI5) and the members of the ring were arrested by Special Branch officers in January 1961. At the time the film was made the source of the information that led to the arrests would of course have been top secret. In the movie the ring is uncovered by pure chance, which actually works better dramatically.

The movie opens with Harry Houghton (Bernard Lee), a clerk in the British Embassy in Warsaw, making an ass of himself at a garden party. It seems that this is just the latest in a series  of embarrassing misdemeanours and Houghton is shipped back to England in disgrace. He is then given a job in the Records office at the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment at Portland.

Houghton is a chronic drunk and a womaniser. While at the British Embassy in Poland he has also been involved in various unsavoury activities such as black marketeering. His shambolic personal and professional life has attracted the attention of the Soviet espionage agency - he is obviously a promising target for blackmail. In fact Houghton doesn’t really need to be blackmailed into becoming a Soviet spy - he is happy to do it for the money. The problem is that Houghton doesn’t have access to top secret documents. On the other hand Elizabeth Gee (Margaret Tyzack) does have such access. Since Houghton has been trying to romance her anyway (he will romance anything in a skirt) he decides he can use her to get the documents.

The man who recruits Houghton for the Soviets is Gordon Lonsdale (William Sylvester), a smooth-talking Canadian with a taste for high living. The other key members of the ring are a middle-aged very inoffensive looking American couple, the Krogers, who are in fact long-term Soviet spies.

The spy ring is well organised but the big weakness is Houghton. He’s a drunk, he’s greedy and he’s a fool. Once he starts getting big money for his treason he starts spending up big, which of course is just the sort of thing that is going to attract the attraction of the British counterintelligence people. Low-ranking civil servants who work in a top-secret defence establishment and start living well beyond their means do tend to attract suspicion.

The movie’s approach is very low-key indeed, in some ways even veering towards a semi-documentary feel. While there’s none of the action of a Bond movie there is a great deal of focus on what spies like to call tradecraft - the techniques of espionage and counterespionage. The spies have sophisticated secret radio transmitters and coding machines, they have equipment for photographing documents and for producing microdots. The counterintelligence services make use of listening devices and around-the-clock surveillance. There’s an emphasis on the elaborate methods used to set up meetings to pass on stolen documents and on the patient and painstaking process of keeping a watch on suspected spies. This aspect is one of the film’s strengths, giving it the kind of realistic feel associated with the spy novels of John le CarrĂ©.

It’s great to see Bernard Lee get the opportunity to break away from his more usual roles. Houghton is a sad, seedy, sleazy, pathetic little man with a chip on his shoulder. He’s rarely sober, his judgment is abysmal, he pus the moves (very crudely and obviously) on every woman he encounters. He had served in the Royal Navy but was considered to be unsuitable officer material, an injustice he puts down to his not having attended the right schools. It’s more likely he was simply lacking in the necessary intelligence and application. Lee does extremely role in what really is a very unsympathetic role.

Margaret Tyzack is equally good as Elizabeth Gee, the mousy spinster seduced by the money, glamour and excitement of being a spy. American William Sylvester was a regular in British B-movies of this era, always giving solid performances. This film gives him one of his best roles and he makes the most of it.

Director Robert Tronson spent most of his long career in television. That’s possibly an advantage here - this movie’s ultra low key approach makes it seem more like a television than a cinematic production but it also gives it the the right feel of drab ordinariness. 

There is perhaps just a hint of film noir here, with Houghton and Gee being too stupid and too blinded by greed to realise just how dangerous a game they’re playing.

Network’s Region 2 DVD offers an excellent anamorphic transfer. There are virtually no extras but the price is very attractive.

Ring of Spies is a taut effective suspenseful spy thriller in the gritty realist mode (although without the violence often associated with that approach). These are very ordinary very realistic spies and it’s their ordinariness that makes them so dangerous. Highly recommended.

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