‘Funeral in Berlin’: a gem from Michael Caine’s early days

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funeralLen Deighton’s Cold War spy thrillers were hugely popular in the 1960s but as time passed the books were overshadowed by the enduring fascination with Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and the critically embraced espionage tales of John Le Carre.

Deighton inspired three popular spy movies starring Michael Caine that have also faded from most movie buffs’ radar.

Caine was launched as a star with the first Deighton adaptation, “The Ipcress File,” in 1965 and his popularity was solidifed by “Funeral in Berlin” the following year.

Michael Caine was a more down to earth star than Sean Connery so his hard-working agent Harry Palmer had an Everyman quality that was missing from the Bond pictures.funeral1

Harry’s London flat was messy, he wore glasses and rather rumpled clothes, and his assignments were in the down-and-dirty real world of the Cold War — rather than Bond’s ongoing battle with the international gangsters who formed SPECTRE.

Warner Archive has just added “Funeral in Berlin” to its made-to-order DVD line and it holds up very well despite all of the changes in the international political scene since 1966. The tale of a tricky Soviet defection from East Berlin is bolstered by the extensive location filming in Germany which gives the movie a terrific time capsule quality.

Those who are too young to remember the days of the Berlin Wall won’t be able to appreciate the topicality of the film 47 years ago — the wall had just gone up five years earlier and the filmmakers show in detail how it left a major European city devastated by an arbitrary but rigid physical division.

The Harry Palmer pictures were produced by Harry Saltzman who used many of the people who worked on the 007 spectacles he co-produced with Albert Broccoli.

“Funeral in Berlin” is directed by Guy Hamilton who made “Goldfinger” (and three other Bonds) and the production designer is the great Ken Adam who gave the early Bond films their larger than life glamour. They work just as well in this lower key as they did in their more elaborate spy filmmaking assignments.

It’s fun to see a young Michael Caine at the start of one of the great movie careers. He and his fellow young Brits owned the middle 1960s because they brought a fresh and real quality to movie acting. They also helped to change the Hollywood notion of what constituted a movie star. Caine and such peers as Tom Courtenay opened the door that Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson would walk through a few years later.

Joe Meyers

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