THE DVD SHELF: The Original French Laugh Hit "La Cage aux Folles" and Richard Burton as "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold"

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22 Sep 2013

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The extended opening sequence is set at Checkpoint Charlie, the main crossing between East and West Berlin. A British spy (Richard Burton) awaits the crossing of an undercover agent, who gets through the East checkpoint but is gunned down in the no man's land between the two sides. Here is the Berlin Wall, which symbolized the Iron Curtain from 1961 until it was demolished in 1990. Even to those of us a world away from Berlin, the Wall was a potent symbol of cement and barbed wire. (Five graffiti-strewn panels can be found today, by the way, on E. 53rd Street, next to a hamburger joint.)

"The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" is a spy story, from the best-selling 1963 novel by John le Carré. It is a dark, gripping piece, as Burton goes undercover to defect to the East. There are enough twists in the story — including a grand one, late on — to keep things intriguing. The most interesting aspect from today's vantage point, other than the way it captures the Cold War milieu, is the performance of Burton. Here he was at what might have been the height of his career, following the 1963 "Cleopatra" and his record-breaking Hamlet on Broadway in 1964. The film was followed, directly, by "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Burton, aged 40 in "The Spy," is totally in control, still; soon the ravages of time, alcohol and his relationship with Liz Taylor would change matters.

Burton is joined by Claire Bloom as the mild British librarian who is a loyal Party member and who gets wrapped up the espionage. (Bloom has written about her affair with Burton when they appeared in Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning in the West End in 1949 and on Broadway in 1950.) They are joined by Austrian actor Oskar Werner, who gives a canny performance as a Communist spy who spars with Burton.

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Another suspense thriller — an altogether forgotten one, at that — has been rescued and resplendently transferred to Blu-ray by the Cohen Film Collection. René Clement's 1947 "The Damned" puts six fleeing Nazis on a submarine bound for South America. An onboard injury forces them to make a brief stop in Royan, on the Atlantic coast of France, to kidnap a country doctor (Henri Vidal). Things grow tenser and tenser as the doctor plays the miscreants against each other; this being a French film shot shortly after the war, the Nazis are miscreants of varying stripes. Doom sets in after they learn that their Fuhrer has killed himself and Germany has surrendered. "The Damned" is an enjoyable psychological thriller of the film noir variety, with Clement making the most of that cramped submarine.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes", “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

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