Friday, October 28, 2022
The Secret Ways (1961)
It has to be said that the novel and the movie have little in common. All the elements that made the novel such an interesting and surprising spy novel for its time have been removed. All the elements that made the hero such an interesting protagonist have been removed as well. What we’re left with is a grindingly conventional Cold War spy thriller.
It is however visually very impressive. It’s done in pure film noir style. The film noir style and the spy movie are of course perfectly compatible so this was by no means a bad idea.
A two bit American hoodlum and total loser named Michael Reynolds (Richard Widmark) is employed to get a man called Jansci out of Hungary. In the novel Reynolds is British and a professional spy and that dramatic change is an immediate signal to the viewer that this movie is going to bear no resemblance to the novel.
Reynolds travels to Hungary with Julia. He finds Jansci, he and Jansci are captured by the secret police and tortured. They all have various narrow escapes and we get a very conventional ending. There’s no need to say any more about the very dull plot.
Jean Hazlewood wrote the screenplay. She takes MacLean’s clever intelligent plot with its unexpected psychological twists and turns it into a totally predictable stock-standard spy plot. She eliminates one of the key characters (the scientist Jennings) but unfortunately without that character the plot not only becomes a lot less interesting, it becomes entirely pointless. There’s simply no reason for any of the characters to do any of the things they do.
We never find out who it is who wants to get Jansci out of Hungary or why.
Hazlewood really was a genius of sorts, because she also manages to eliminate most of the suspense. The suspense in the novel stems from our uncertainty as to exactly how the various characters will react. Their reactions depend on conflicted motivations and are therefore not perfectly predictable.
Richard Widmark could be effective in the right part but he was entirely incapable of subtlety. In this case it doesn’t matter because this is a movie totally lacking in subtlety.
The acting overall is rather flat and lifeless but that could be because the screenplay makes the characters so extraordinarily uninteresting.
The Third Man and The Man Between, and visually they do succeed to a considerable extent. They’re definitely going for a very European vibe.
Kino Lorber have released this movie on DVD and Blu-Ray. The transfer is excellent and there’s an audio commentary.
The Secret Ways looks good and it’s a beautifully crafted movie. The problem is that the story isn’t at all interesting and the characters are not at all interesting. The relationships between the characters are uninteresting. It had potential but the lacklustre script sinks it. It isn’t terrible but it’s just a very routine spy movie. Maybe worth seeing for the visuals.
I’ve reviewed the superb Alistair MacLean novel on which the film is based, The Last Frontier, on Vintage Pop Fictions.