Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This second Harry Palmer adventure from producer Harry Saltzman is a wonderful sequel to The Ipcress File. Palmer and his surviving boss Colonel Ross seemingly pick up right where they left off with the insolence and petty scheming. The budget is upped for the plentiful shooting in West Berlin, but Saltzman and Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton are to be thanked for not stacking the cast with unwanted star names or trying to emulate the adventures of 007. Harry Palmer works onscreen because he's neither an imitation nor a spoof nor a takeoff of anything.
As insubordinate as ever, reluctant agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) is dispatched to Berlin by his humorless boss Ross (Guy Doleman) to facilitate the defection of a top soviet General named Stok (Oskar Homolka). Palmer contacts agent Johnny Vulkan (Paul Hubschmid, known as Paul Christian in an earlier Hollywood career), and is picked up by fashion model Samantha Steel (Eva Renzi) before meeting with General Stok in person in East Berlin. It's obvious to Caine that Stok, a loyal Communist, doesn't want to defect, and equally evident that Steel is a secret agent. Added to that is the far too-prosperous Vulkan, who seems to have an agenda of his own. But London wants Harry to go through with the defection plan, and Harry will have to sort out the confusion on his own.
Harry Palmer has all the style he needs without James Bond's help. Michael Caine plays him a little less maladroit this time, making fewer mistakes and maintaining an even looser detachment from the puzzling events going on around him, if such a thing is possible. A lot happens, but Funeral in Berlin refuses to rely on action scenes as filler. This is indeed a thinking man's spy adventure, heavy on character, humor and mystery. The only element that we miss from the first film is John Barry's wonderful music score.
If you haven't seen The Ipcress File you need to know some basic things about Harry Palmer that Funeral in Berlin doesn't bother to establish afresh. He's essentially a soldier drafted into the service after being caught stealing while stationed in Germany. This accounts for his strange attitude - his superiors treat him like a common criminal, while giving him assignments where he's risking his life for his country. He's totally expendable; when he survives a deadly assignment, his only reward is a bored stare and another turndown for a meager raise. Making the ace Secret Agent a workaday stooge for an ungrateful country is a great spin concept.
Harry's status as a reformed crook is also needed to understand the humor in his repeated use of the Berlin police as a 'hiring hall' for old criminal associates. Not much use is made this time around of Harry's culinary habits or his poor vision without glasses. But he still has the same eye for women. The one Bond-like thing that happens is his whirlwind romance with the flashy fashion model, but Palmer's total lack of gullibility about her real motives and his general indifference to her charms is a nice twist.
Eva Renzi's secret identity is more memorable than her acting but Paul Hubschmid makes a nice shifty Berlin contact and Oskar Homolka is both funny and charming as the duplicitous general, a role he was to repeat in the delightful third sequel, Ken Russell's Billion Dollar Brain.
How complicated can a spy movie get before it becomes altogether too foggy? Savant has to admit that he saw Funeral in Berlin new in 1966 and didn't understand a thing that was going on (but still loved it). Later, pan-scanned on VHS it all seemed too simple, too easy to figure out. This time around was perfect. Although I knew the story, all of the plot points still hit me as surprises. My college-age son thought it was excellent because it hadn't a single unconvincing or unbelievable moment.
And of course, there's the practically perfect Michael Caine, whose screen presence is so total that he entertains even when you don't know what's going on.
Paramount Home Video's DVD of Funeral in Berlin is a welcome beauty even though it hasn't any extras beyond a trailer - a trailer full of spoilers, mind you, so avoid it until you've seen the feature. The main blessing is the wide, 16:9 Panavision photography. Hubschimd's absurd 1960 Cadillac just doesn't look right cruising die strasse pan-scanned. Although not as visually mannered as the first film, Funeral uses the same cameraman, Otto Heller. His noirish night lighting here is very similar.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Funeral in Berlin rates:
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: August 30, 2001
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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