Friday, October 28, 2022

The Secret Ways (1961)

The Secret Ways is a 1961 Cold War spy movie based on Alistair MacLean’s 1959 novel The Last Frontier (which also appeared under the title The Secret Ways). Richard Widmark stars and also produced the picture.

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 first has to find a young woman named Julia. She’s Jansci’s daughter and she will be the bait to persuade Jansci to leave Hungary.

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.

She also eliminates all of the provocative intelligent aspects of the book - the moral ambiguity, the way the protagonists is forced to re-evaluate his whole life, the complicated conflicts of loyalty. In fact her screenplay eliminates all of the motivations of all of the characters.

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.

I can now see why MacLean started writing the screenplays for adaptations of his movies. He was clearly determined not to have any more of his books butchered by third-rate hacks like Jean Hazlewood. This was Hazlewood’s only screenwriting credit and I’m not surprised. Based on this movie I wouldn’t have hired her to write a shopping list. Hazlewood was at the time married to Richard Widmark which obviously explains how she got to write the script.

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.

On the plus side the movie looks terrific. It has the film noir look in spades. Director Phil Karlson knew how to do film noir and he knew how to shoot action. The movie benefits from the fine cinematography of Mutz Greenbaum. They are also obviously trying for some of the feel of Carol Reed’s spy/suspense movies such as 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.

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