Saturday, October 18, 2008

FILM REVIEW OF ''DEAD RUN" (1967-European)

Scenic European locales enhance the authenticity of writer & director Christian-Jaque's "Dead Run," an international tale of espionage and intrigue based on a Robert Sheckley novel about an elusive French pickpocket that happy-go-luck, neatly coiffed CIA agent Peter Lawford pursues across the continent to recover important documents. Not only is the CIA hot on the pickpocket's heels, but a criminal syndicate also wants him for the same reason because the thief stole those valuable CIA papers from them after they pinched them from the CIA. The harmless hokum provides suitable diversion and its travelogue scenery is easy on the eye. The violence isn't sadistic and nobody gets naked.

"Dead Run" unfolds in Berlin one morning as petty thief Carlos (Georges Géret of "Is Paris Burning?") picks a drunkard's pocket, discovers nothing of value, and then tries to break into a locked car. Two plainclothesmen park in front of the building where Carlos is trying to break into the car. Moments later after these plainclothes guys enter the building, an ambulance wheels in behind their car, and three attendants in white outfits emerge with a stretcher. One tries to scare Carlos off, but Carlos hangs around outside. Across the street, a wealthy, auburn-haired tourist, Suzanne Belmont (Ira von Fürstenberg of "The Vatican Affair"), who has absolutely nothing to do with any of these characters appears. Inside, the ambulance attendants gun down the plainclothesmen and then assault another guy with a black leather briefcase chained to his wrist that the plainclothesmen were shepherding. Cutting the chain, the attendants steal the briefcase. When the attendants appear on the street again, the same one who got tough with Carlos whips out a knife. Carlos and he struggle, and the thief snatches the briefcase and a brief chase ensues, but Carlos escapes from them. Suzanne spots a plainclothesman staggering out of the building. CIA Agent Stephen Dain (Peter Lawford of "Sergeants 3") arrives and learns about the eye witness. Dain halts Suzanne's Frankfurt jet before it takes off. Meanwhile, Carlos takes the briefcase to a fence and haggles over his percentage of the haul. Carlos opens the briefcase with a blow torch, but he finds on paper documents with TOP SECRET stamped on them.

Dain escorts daffy Suzanne to headquarters. She identifies one of the attendants that she saw leaving the building before a wounded CIA man staggered out and collapsed. Dain explains that an international outfit that specializes in stealing secret documents pulled the job. However, the thief who got away with the briefcase was an amateur and the CIA doesn't have a photo of him in their database. "Would you remain at our disposal until this man is found?" Dain fires up a cigarette and points out: "You're the only one who can identify him for us." "It's so nice to be essential," Suzanne observes. She explains to
Dain that she is rich. Dain adds, "It might take some time and it could be dangerous.” Suzanne doesn't mind, "I have plenty of time. And you will protect me, won't you?” Dain reassures her that he will personally stay with her in her room.

The scene shifts to the villainous Bardieff (Werner Peters of "36 Hours") in his office fuming with rage. "Six months of effort! The plan perfect in every detail! A deadline for delivery! And what have you done, gentlemen! Completely messed up the job! Tricked by some poor little thief. Get out!" After he dismisses his henchmen, Bardieff consults his ruthless contract killer Manganne (Horst Frank of "The Grand Duel") and learns that the man who carried the briefcase told Manganne nothing under duress before he died. Of course, Bardieff laments the loss of life. Manganne retorts, "Since when is death not the normal rational outcome of torture?” The 60-year old fence sends Carlos to meet Van Joost (Peter Lorre look-alike Luciano Pigozzi of "Codename: Wild Geese") at a Swiss jewelry store. After Carlos leaves, the fence contacts immigration and spills his guts to Police Inspector Noland (Wolfgang Preiss of "Raid on Rommel") as part of a deal to recover his passport. The fence has a shady past with a prison record, too. As it turns out, Noland works both sides of the street. He informs Bardieff about Carlos' whereabouts. Manganne visits Corsage. Meanwhile, one of Dain's CIA operatives tails Noland. At the jewelry shop, Swiss cops ask Van Joost where they may hide while they await Carlos' arrival. When Carlos arrives, Van Joost scrawls 'police' on his hand and Carlos flees. The trigger happy Manganne, who works for Bardieff, kills Corsage because the elderly fence "knows too much.” When Noland objects to Corsage's murder, the sadistic Manganne shoots him without a qualm.

Carlos eludes Dain and the Swiss authorities. Carlos jumps aboard a train departing for Paris. When the conductor sells him a ticket, Carlos comes up short on cash, but a girl sharing the compartment, Anna (Maria Grazia Buccella of "After The Fox"), lends him enough money. It seems Anna once worked as a knife thrower's target in a circus. She teams up with Carlos in Paris after he fails to sell the papers to Julien (Bernard Tiphaine of "The Queen of Spades"), an ignorant, low-level American embassy official. Julien jokes that too many people are trying to sell secrets to American embassy officials. Instead, Julien recommends that Carlos contact the Soviets in Vienna. Since Anna is thoroughly acquainted with Vienna, Carlos takes her with him to Vienna. While Carlos is on the train, Dain stops his car in the middle of nowhere in the country and smooches with Suzanne. Arriving in Paris, Dain and Suzanne part company temporarily while Dain meets up with an American General (Roger Tréville of "How to Steal a Million") and Julien. The character of the General appears in only two scenes and we’re never told about his relevance to the story, except that he knows Dain and is evidently a member of the American embassy. When the General inquires about Dain's business, Julien realizes the enormity of his error in dismissing Carlos' offer.

An hour elapses before Dain tangles with Bardieff’s henchmen in a Paris garage and Julien takes a dive down the stairs when a thug slugs him. Dain deals with the thug that punched out Julien but misses his train to Vienna with Suzanne. Suzanne climbs aboard the train and winds up in the same compartment with Carlos and Anna. Meantime, Carlos mixes it up with another of Bardieff's numerous henchmen on the train and Carlos throws him off it. While Suzanne is napping, Carlos and Anna slip off the train and walk into Vienna. Meanwhile, Dain takes a jet and hooks up with a woman in Vienna who works for a mysterious criminal named Klaas. Klaas qualifies as a stereotypical criminal kingpin (Siegfried Wischnewski of “Three Penny Opera”) who traffics in illegal narcotics. The police keep Klaas under constant police surveillance and Klaas doesn’t let anybody but women visit him. Either you follow Klaas’ orders to the letter or you suffer the consequences. Klaas allows only women to call on him so that the police believe he is only indulging his passion for female companionship. Anna arranges a rendezvous through an old acquaintance in Vienna who knows Klaas and has suffered Klaas’ wrath for not following the criminal’s protocol. Klaas’ henchmen threw acid in Anna’s friend’s face and he is blind. He tells her that he can see things better. Little do they know that Klaas’ right-hand lady is working with Dain!

“Dead Run” qualifies as lightweight but interesting espionage. No, we never learn the contents of the state secrets that Carlos stole from the opposition and the Soviets never enter the fray. Clocking in at 92 minutes or thereabouts, “Dead Run” maintains its headlong momentum without turning gruesome despite its violence. "Dirty Game" lenser Pierre Petit captures the immediacy of the moment for Jaque with lots of Dutch tilt angles. Indeed, "Dead Run" appears to have been lensed on the run, and Petit's agile cinematography heightens the excitement. Of course, when they reach Vienna, we get to hear a musician playing a zither in an obvious homage to British director Carol Reed’s The Third Man” (1949) with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton. The final quarter hour in Austria bristles with knuckle-sandwich fistfights, bloodless shoot-outs and a surprise ending. Nimble-fingered Carlos has the last word in this above-average but minor melodrama. Peter Lawford walks through the role of CIA Agent Stephen Dain without a care in the world except for the cigarettes that he chain smokes with abandon. Horst Frank makes a splendid villain and has some great comeback lines. Only moviegoers that enjoy European spy thrillers will appreciate this lightweight nonsense.

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