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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This month's column looks at "La Cage aux Folles," the French-language film which launched that title on the international level and prepared the world for the Broadway musical that soon followed, and Richard Burton (with Claire Bloom) in Martin Ritt's 1965 Cold War thriller "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold."

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In 1973, Parisian actor Jean Poiret sat down and wrote himself a role to play: Georges, the owner of a nightclub in St. Tropez called La Cage aux Folles. The role of Albin (Zaza), the star of the nightclub, was played by Michel Serrault, with whom Poiret had intermittently been partnered with on stage and screen for twenty years. La Cage aux Folles was a long-running Paris hit, clocking almost 1,800 performances. In those days it was highly unusual to make a film adaptation while the original show was still running, so it wasn't until 1978 that "La Cage aux Folles" [Criterion] made it to the screen. (Because this was an Italian-French coproduction, the producers deemed it necessary to use a more-popular Italian actor, Ugo Tognazzi, in place of Poiret, with Serrault recreating his Zaza.)

The film version of "La Cage" was wildly successful on an international scale, resulting in "La Cage aux Folles 2" in 1980 and "La Cage aux Folles 3: 'Elles' se marient" in 1985. Meanwhile, there was the little matter of a 1983 Broadway musical version as well as a totally separate 1996 English-language film adaptation of the play from Mike Nichols, "The Birdcage." (Nichols had been involved in the original Broadway plans. Transplanted to New Orleans, The Queen of Basin Street was to have a score by Maury Yeston, book by Jay Presson Allen and choreography by Tommy Tune. Nichols and producer Allan Carr had a falling out, the piece was disbanded and Carr turned to Jerry Herman and Harvey Feinstein.)

Edouard Molinaro's film version was the most successful French-language film the United States had ever seen, a widespread commercial hit which earned three Oscar nominations. (How many foreign-language films, I wonder, have been nominated for the best screenplay award? In this case, "La Cage" lost to "Kramer vs. Kramer," which had the advantage of being in English.) Thus, the title, and the plot, were readily familiar to American audiences when the musical came along.

I hadn't seen the film since its original release. When the musical opened, I found myself less than thrilled; my memory kept whispering that the movie was better. This remained a hunch until this week, when I watched the new Criterion Blu-ray edition. We needn't compare the worth of one against the worth of the other, but I now understand why the musical has always let me down. The leading role of the musical, pretty much, has always been Albin; he has the flashiest songs (including Herman's most searing song ever, "I Am What I Am"), and he has the biggest scenes. Georges stands by like a straight man (if you'll pardon the expression) and facilitates Albin's histrionics.

In the film, though, your attention — or at least my attention — is on Georges. The long-suffering Georges is the center of the story, juggling his partner Albin, his son Laurent, the outré housemaid Jacob, Laurent's birth-mother Simone and the morally bombastic in-laws. That, it turns out, is what I've always missed in the musical: Georges in the spotlight.

One understands how and why things were changed for the musical. Start with that word, "musical." This means songs, and given that La Cage aux Folles is centered around the nightclub "La Cage aux Folles," the chorus of the club becomes the chorus of the musical. In the film, there is one dance number in the club, during the opening. In the musical, the so-called Cagelles become featured players with songs and dialogue as well. Once you base the musical numbers in the club — and one presumes Cabaret was very much a model — Albin inevitably becomes the musical comedy star of the proceedings.

The purveyors of the musical did exceptionally well, of course, and need have no regrets. But in my view, "La Cage," be it on screen or stage, is Georges' story: how does he support Laurent's engagement without demeaning his long-time partner Albin, who has served as the boy's de facto mother? Albin is very much indispensable to the plot, as the elephant in the closet (if you will); but this story is about Georges, and in the musical he gets shunted aside by all those wigs and sequins —  which was precisely what the vast majority of the musical comedy audience wanted in 1983, it turns out.

Serrault, who created the role of Albin on stage, is less prominent than Georges in the film — but then, he doesn't have the song about putting on his mascara and that stirring first act anthem of self-worth. Tognazzi, for me, is the one who makes "La Cage" so droll. Major assists come from Serrault, Claire Maurier as Simone, Benny Luke as Jacob and Michel Galabru as the detestable father of the bride.

Among the special features on this new digital restoration is archival footage of the Serrault and Poiret act long before "La Cage" and an interesting interview with director Molinaro. In the latter, he mentions he was so certain that the film was a surefire disaster that he ordered his friends not to see it. He also discusses how difficult a time he had with Tognazzi, who apparently hated the material and refused to speak his lines in French. This did not prevent the pair from reuniting for the 1980 sequel, though.

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Those of us who grew up in the late fifties and early sixties couldn't help but be aware of a something like a shadow on our existence, the unclear but ominous knowledge that a major threat was out there somewhere. Your typical child in those "Leave It to Beaver" days wasn't much interested in far-removed ideological threats. Even so, we couldn't avoid awareness of Sputnik, Khrushchev at the U.N. (with his shoe), The Bay of Pigs, The Berlin Crisis and more. This was all brought back to me as I watched Martin Ritt's 1965 Cold War thriller, "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" [Criterion].

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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.)