Saturday, August 27, 2016

Triple-Cross (1966)

Triple-Cross (aka The Fantastic History of Eddie Chapman, Terence Young, 1966) Fresh off the success of his third James Bond movie, Thunderball, director Terence Young took on a personal project he'd been trying to get to the screen for awhile—the story of a former flat-mate who spent the war (so he says) playing both ends against the middle, spying for both the Nazi's and the British.

Eddie Chapman (Christopher Plummer) is a safe-cracker, and a good one, part of a team of plastique experts called The Gelignite Gang who would blow safes and keep low enough to avoid detection. Chapman has a criminal record a mile long and is well-known to authorities with many outstanding warrants. But, by happenstance, when serving time in a prison in Jersey, France, he comes up with the scheme of all schemes. seeing the Nazi's land on the shore of Jersey, he demands to see the Nazi high command. 

Chapman is such a slick operator and facile enough to tell anybody what they want to hear, that by his first meeting (with Gert Frobe and Romy Schneider) he already has the suspicious Nazis thinking that they might have an upper hand in their efforts to undermine British defenses using Chapman as a field operative. He is given the name Franz Graumann and tested in procedures and given a nice snappy Nazi uniform and careful (very careful) supervision. Chapman/Graumann is so slippery that, at first, they can't believe that an Englishman would so casually betray his country until they can't believe anything he says. He becomes both a source of amusement and suspicion for the Germans who realize that, for a buck (or a mark or a pound), he'll betray anybody.
The Nazis put him through their paces, training, testing, and trying to break him, all with the patronage of one Baron von Grunen (Yul Brynner—he could have built a career out of playing Nazis) that, eventually, Chapman is given a bit more free reign. As long as he's closely monitored and closely watched, it doesn't matter how cavalierly he acts, he gets the job done to their satisfaction. Or enough for Chapman to convince them he's on the level.
But, what Chapman wants is to get back to England—it was the initial pitch at his first meeting about his value as an asset for the Axis. He gets his first chance when he's dropped out of an airplane where he's supposed to make radio contact. To his dismay, he finds he's still merely in Germany; the Nazis have taken captured ordinance and are testing Chapman to see what he'll do when he thinks he's back in Old Blighty. He quickly makes the discovery and radios back for pick up where he lets his superiors know that he is not pleased and pushes to be sent to England for real.

Chapman meets with the French Resistance (who, of course, must be Claudine Auger)
That comes with his next mission where he's smuggled into England via steamship and once in London he goes straight to the British Command, who are even more suspicious than the Nazi's. He's vetted, sweated, and when his information pans out, he is given a meeting with British Intelligence MI5 (led by Trevor Howard), who make their own negotiations with Chapman—a slightly larger sum of money and his criminal record expunged if he continues to convince the Nazis he's working for them and passes along misinformation to the benefit of the Allies. His first mission for the Nazis and the British: infiltrate the work-force of the Vickers bomber plant and destroy the facility—or do enough damage to make it look convincing. The British choose a portion of the plant not vital to the manufacture of the bombers and conspire with Chapman to blow it up—spectacularly—and do enough damage to fool Nazi aerial reconnaissance. Things go so well that Chapman receives The Iron Cross for his efforts.
And, at this point, one must say that this follows the dictum of most "Based on a True Story" movies that are produced with an eye towards the dramatic rather than the truth, best expressed in Blake Edwards' Sunset, "It's all true—except for a lie or two." Yes, there was an Eddie Chapman. Yes, he played "Yojimbo" between the Nazis and Britain during the War. The Iron Cross only went to military personnel, which Chapman was not, and it was the de Havilland plant and not Vickers, one of the prominent Nazis is shown being shot and killed for his participation in the plot of kill Hitler (did ya see Valkyrie?"), when he actually survived the war, remained lifelong friends with Chapman and even attended his daughter's wedding. Details, details. They get in the way of a good story.
But if the devil isn't in the details, he certainly was in Eddie Chapman. That much is true. You have to be something of a narcissist, a sociopath and not even casual friends with the truth to pull off the stuff he did on record, and Young and his scenarists have romanticized this story and Chapman to the "nth" degree, no doubt wanting to recreate the "charming rogue" or "gentleman spy" Young got away with in his initial Bond films. 
In that, he has an able and willing accomplice in Plummer, who plays Chapman in so casual a manner that one becomes used to the fact that Chapman doesn't deal with facts. He's always quipping, making snide comments under his breath, and constantly making the case for himself that he is a complete bounder...and just doesn't care what anybody thinks about it. Variety (when the film came out) called Plummer's acting "listless" but that is a mis-characterization of what Plummer is doing. Plummer doesn't display much emotion on his face because Chapman doesn't show much of any genuineness, whether it's for the Nazi's or the British, and if anything comes through his eyes, it's the hint of surprise or wariness of something doesn't go exactly according to surprise, which quickly evaporates while he joshes his way out of it. It's a performance so completely amoral that one almost doesn't want to root for him, so much of an anti-hero the character is. 
Young directs in his usual style of brightly-lit busy master shots punctuated with mid-close-up's and subliminal attention to detail. Young was considered a more able "host" than director with a fine eye and slightly seedy good taste, and his way of directing action is to set up a few cameras and get as much usable coverage out of the confusion as possible (in one scene of a German garrison being strafed by an RAF fighter, it's pretty obvious that Young used a couple angles of the same plane to pad out and inflate what meager means he had to create the scene). If there is a bit too much detail and some unnecessary plotting to create tension, that's a bit of Young's style, too. The film's subject, Eddie Chapman, did not think much of the film (it did take a lot of liberties with the story, but so did Chapman's version of it) and the film did not achieve the cult status of Young's work on Bond, where the film did far better in Europe than it did in the U.S.
"So tell me, Eddie: whose side were you really on?"

Chapman's forged papers to enter Portugal

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