“Please observe security procedure.”
“On a Saturday morning? Are you mad?”
British author Len Deighton began his writing career with “The Ipcress File” — a spy story that introduced us to the Cockney ex-army corporal, Harry Palmer. Palmer had been pressed into service as a spy in lieu of spending a long stint behind bars. The book detailing Palmer’s first exploits proved to be very popular, and several other novels followed, including “Funeral in Berlin” and “The Billion Dollar Brain.” All three books were made into films in the 1960s under the auspices of producer Harry Saltzman who was also responsible for the Bond films of the same era. The Ipcress File was previously released on DVD by Anchor Bay. Now Paramount has made Funeral in Berlin available.
Harry Palmer, recently promoted as a result of his last exploit as a spy for Her Majesty’s government, is sent to Berlin. There he is to investigate the desire of a Russian general in charge of Berlin Wall security to defect to the West. Harry is at first skeptical of the general’s desire to defect, but eventually is persuaded and arranges a fake funeral to facilitate the defection. The funeral does not work out as planned and the wrong body gets transported out of East Germany. Further complications develop involving another agent named Vulcan who may or may not be on the side he seems to be, an Israeli intelligence squad, and the turning of a member of British intelligence. Harry has to be on his toes to sort the whole thing out and escape unscathed himself.
I remember reading Deighton’s novels when they first appeared, but it seems to me the enjoyment diminished with each succeeding book. That’s the case with the first two films also. The Ipcress File was a very stylish and complex spy film, as well as being an effective contrast to the Bond films. That edge is lost with Funeral in Berlin.
We find ourselves in the old-standby of Cold War films — divided Berlin, with lots of shots of the Wall and the various checkpoints. The city looks tired, on both sides of the wall, and that’s soon the way we begin to feel as the film goes through its familiar paces. This is the old story of individuals not turning out to be what they at first seem; the good guys become the bad guys and vice versa. The charms of our hero, Harry Palmer, also are wearing off. What was fresh and droll in The Ipcress File now begins to lose its luster and Harry becomes more annoying than anything else. His ability to somehow bumble through while maintaining an air of nonchalance in a world where he’s an amateur just seems unrealistic now. I guess a lot of that could have been forgiven had the script managed to inject some pizzazz into the whole proceedings, but events just seem to happen, in a rather convoluted and ponderous fashion. The best sequence of the film (albeit brief) is the escape from East Berlin that occurs right after the opening credits. During the rest of the film, there’s no sense of tension ever built up and we’re soon looking at our watches hoping that the end is near.
Michael Caine does his usual good job with what he’s been given, but as mentioned, his character’s welcome is beginning to wear thin. All the wisecracking in the world and general disregard for authority that Caine is so good at projecting isn’t enough to compensate. As for the rest of the cast, Oscar Homolka as the Russian general is about the only one of them that provides any spark of life. The others are just a bland lot of ciphers — so much so that you begin to be unsure what character you’re watching at times. Initially, I looked forward to seeing director Guy Hamilton in action in a different brand of spy film from his usual work on the Bond films. But his handling of the actors seems to have been ineffective and one wonders why the film was shot in Panavision when the director seems to have made no real use of the wide canvas. Maybe Hamilton though this film just provided an opportunity for a rest.
If the film itself isn’t anything to write home about, Paramount’s transfer is. The image is a 2.35:1 widescreen anamorphic presentation that looks remarkably good for a mid-’60s film. It’s virtually free of nicks and scratches, and generally is crisp and clear with excellent colour fidelity. Shadow detail is good and edge enhancement is minimal. Paramount deserves a pat on the back for its efforts. The audio is Dolby Digital mono (available in both English and French). It’s a workmanlike soundtrack, delivering the dialogue clearly without any hiss or distortion, but without much presence either. The musical score of Konrad Elfers is pretty forgettable, so we don’t suffer from the lack of a more aggressive sound mix.
We get the usual Paramount bare-bones disc with the only supplement being a theatrical trailer. For this trailer, though, Paramount has only managed a somewhat battered-looking full screen version. With the disc priced at the normal $29.99 price point, the result is that there’s not much of a bargain here.
Funeral in Berlin isn’t a terrible film. It does suffer in comparison with its predecessor, however, due to an uninspiring script and uninspired cast. Even the freshness that Michael Caine first brought to the Harry Palmer character has worn off somewhat. I was reminded a little of a TV movie-of-the-week that tries to emulate a theatrical film, but can only afford one star and must depend on a less-than-original plot line. Paramount has done a fine job with its DVD transfer, but dropped the ball on the supplements (although that’s not a big loss for this film).
This one would be sentenced to break rock on the Berlin Wall were any of it still in existence.