The film is based on a 1963 Paul Thomas novel "L'Espion" which took advantage of the recent construction of the Berlin Wall (ground-breaking and barbed wire installed August 13, 1961) to expose the porousness of the wall (or its lack) in the early days of the physically divided city (as did the similar "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," published the same year). Crossing over—by any means—became an act of heroism and defiance. It was the very stuff of drama in real life. But, what sort of person would make the attempt?
American physicist James Bower (Clift) is approached by a CIA operative (Roddy McDowell) who proposes Bower take a detour on his vacation to West Germany by making contact with an East German associate named Grushenko, who is willing to smuggle microfilm containing results of Russian missile tests to the West...but only if Bower will be the one who couriers it. The two are distant colleagues—one's in the U.S. and the other behind the Iron Curtain, so Bower is a little reluctant. But, when the CIA threatens to interfere with his grant processes, Bower agrees.
When Bower gets to the East, he is met—"welcomed" is too strong a word— by "Public Relations Counselor" Heinzmann (Hardy Kruger, the movies' second favorite Aryan after Oscar Werner), who has been tasked by party operative Orlovsky (David Opatashu) to take Bower's visa with the assurance that it will be returned once Bower gives him the location of Groshenko—which, at this point, Bower doesn't know. The American protests, but is powerless to do anything about it and so is released, but under surveillance. When he gets to his hotel, he finds that he's been moved, without his authorization, to another room. He calls the management, but they insist he stay in that room.
There's a reason for that, Bower begins to hear voices, the phone rings with no one on the other end of the line, the room begins to spin and pretty soon Bower is completely disoriented as the East tries to brainwash Bower into revealing Grushenko's whereabouts. While Orlovsky pushes for more invasive means of persuasion, Heinzmann tells him that Bower will be his responsibility solely.
After the surreal brain-washing sequence, the movie turns into a true cat-and-mouse game as Bower attempts to make contact with Grushenko and must come up with a plan to cross the border into West Germany without the benefit of papers. Clift, despite being in poor health, does his own stunts, in a long semi-tense sequence where he must negotiate a waterway that is routinely guarded by soldiers who are alerted to looking for an American physicist.
The Defector is a perfunctory spy movie—one cannot use the word "thriller" ("confuser" might be a better term)—that is not without irony (can you make a spy film that doesn't have that?) and at least accomplishes its goal of having a beginning, middle and end...and a final bitter denouement, in which anything pure must be expunged. Nothing, really, can be done without sacrifice.Clift died three months after making this movie.
Raoul Levy committed suicide six moths after the film hit theaters.