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A Savant favorite is back in print, and it's well worth a revisit. I had hoped that this classy, suspenseful 1960s thriller would be released in a Blu-ray edition, perhaps licensed to Olive Films. Instead, Paramount has sidetracked its older OOP titles to Warner Home Video, where they're appearing as DVD-R discs. I suppose that means that the DVD in my library has suddenly decreased in value. It's probably healthier to observe that the title can now be 'discovered' by a new generation of fans.
The 'spy suspenser' Funeral in Berlin is the second feature adaptation from the "Harry Palmer" books of Len Deighton. Producer Harry Saltzman's first show The Ipcress File was a terrific starring vehicle for Michael Caine, whose interpretation of Palmer was considered both wittier and more adult than the then-dominant 007 James Bond. Delinquent secret agent Palmer and his surviving boss Colonel Ross seemingly pick up their mutual insolence and petty scheming right where they left off. The budget is upped for plentiful location 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 an original, neither a spoof nor a takeoff of anything. He's a slightly sarcastic cockney joker, a "working class hero is something to be" kind of guy.
In the Len Deighton spy universe, espionage is a dull competition between NATO and Warsaw Pact bureaucracies. As insubordinate as ever, reluctant agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) travels to Berlin. He's under orders from 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. He also decides that Steel is a secret agent, but he's not sure for whom. An added wrinkle is that the far too-prosperous Vulkan seems to have an agenda of his own. But London wants Harry to go through with the defection plan anyway. It will be accomplished by the sinister expert Kreutzman (Günter Meisner), who has just engineered a daring escape of a famous musician. Harry will have to sort out the confusion on his own.
Harry Palmer has all the style he needs without James Bond's help. This time Michael Caine plays him as a little less maladroit, making fewer mistakes and maintaining a 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. Konrad Elfers' music is very well done, but far less eccentric and original.
If you haven't seen The Ipcress File you'll need to know some basic things about Harry Palmer that Funeral in Berlin doesn't bother to establish afresh. He was drafted into the spy service after being caught stealing in the Army. This accounts for Harry's strange attitude -- his superiors treat him like a common criminal, while giving him assignments where he's risking his life for his country. He knows that he's totally expendable. When Harry survives a deadly assignment, his typical 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 that doesn't date. Yes, it's a dirty business, but Harry maintains his equilibrium with an amused appreciation of the ironic.
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 Samantha Steel, but Palmer is too cynical to fall for her, at least not completely. His 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 fine shifty Berlin contact, driving around in an older but gloriously ostentatious Cadillac. Oskar Homolka is both funny and charming as the duplicitous general, a role he was to repeat in the delightful second 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 as a teenager in 1966 and didn't understand a thing that was going on. I still loved it. One must stretch a bit to follow the action, but all becomes clear in a very satisfying way. The show hasn'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.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Funeral in Berlin is a re-issue of Paramount's 2001 DVD. I checked to see the slight purplish hue from the disc surface to confirm that the format is DVD-R. The image, content and menus are identical, and the original disc's subtitles and trailer have been retained. The picture quality is still very good. Otto Heller's cinematography is more slick than his work in The Ipcress File, which was filmed in the cost-cutting half-frame Techniscope process.
Don't look at the trailer first because it contains most of the film's action highlights.
At the moment, the original DVD sells on Amazon for $55 dollars, so fans frustrated at the disc's unavailability should be pleased. To others complaining that the Made On Demand business model doesn't translate into low discount prices on the web, there's not much to say. Older movies have become collector's items. They are indeed being marketed to maximize revenue, but now they are at least available, and often in excellent quality as with this disc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Funeral in Berlin rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.