Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Moe Berg: Pitcher vs. Catcher, Spy vs. Spy

The mystery of Moe Berg is not one that will be solved anytime soon—if ever. Berg (1902-1972) was a Jewish-American baseball player known less for his athletic prowess than for being the so-called “brainiest guy in baseball.” A gentleman and a scholar, he graduated from Princeton, magna cum laude, with a degree in modern languages. It’s said he’d studied seven languages (including Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit), and spoke several of them fluently. While playing professional ball he also earned a Columbia University law degree.

In Casey Stengel’s words, Berg was “the strangest man ever to play baseball.” But play he did, from 1923 to 1939, ending up as a catcher with the Boston Red Sox. In the off-season he traveled abroad, taking classes at the Sorbonne and developing the habit of reading 10 newspapers daily. He also appeared three times on a popular radio quiz show, Information, Please, dazzling listeners with his extensive knowledge of etymology, while refusing to answer any questions about his personal life.

But the most remarkable period of Moe Berg’s career came during World War II (though the facts weren’t divulged until decades later). In 1943 he joined the OSS, the forerunner of today’s CIA, and was sent on secret missions supporting the Allied cause. As an American and a Jew, he faced huge risks while traveling in Nazified Europe under false papers. His most dangerous moment came in 1944 when he was sent by his OSS superiors to meet the Nobel-Prize-winning German physicist Werner Heisenberg. The goal: to ascertain whether the Nazis, under Heisenberg’s leadership, were in process of building an atom bomb. Before his trip, Berg was given a pistol and orders to shoot Berg if the development of the bomb seemed imminent. He was also handed a cyanide tablet in case he was captured.

The drama of Berg’s meeting with Heisenberg became the centerpiece of a 2018 film, The Catcher Was a Spy, based on Nicholas Davidoff’s book of the same name. I had looked forward to seeing it, because I’ve interviewed its director, Ben Lewin, regarding his best known film, The Sessions. That very small, very poignant drama—a  true story about how a young polio survivor who needs an iron lung happily loses his virginity to a sex surrogate—received much public acclaim as well as an Oscar nomination for Helen Hunt. I was less a fan of Lewin’s next film project, Please Stand By, in which Dakota Fanning plays a runaway girl with autism and a grand passion for Star Trek. (I admit, though, that a scene wholly in Klingon, between Fanning and a sympathetic police officer, works its magic.)

 Lewin has a true affinity for misfits, and I was impressed to see how the scope of his most recent project has broadened. The Catcher Was a Spy, beautifully filmed in the Czech Republic and elsewhere, features such screen luminaries as Tom Wilkinson, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce, and Paul Giamatti. Paul Rudd, normally known for comic and romantic roles, gets to stretch as the enigmatic Berg. The film’s main problem, I believe, is that it builds to a dramatic climax, and then can’t deliver. But I certainly look forward to seeing what Lewin does next.

This film and the book from which it derives both posit that Berg was a closeted gay man. Aviva Kempner’s new documentary, The Spy Behind Home Plate, is skeptical of that approach to the mysterious Berg, given the results of her own research. I haven’t yet seen her film, but a movie-loving colleague of mine attests to its power.

A tip of my imaginary hat to my filmgoing buddy, Susan Henry. 

Friday, July 12, 2019

“That Damned Elusive Pimpernel” Swashbuckles Again

When I was small, one of my favorite movies was the Danny Kaye classic, The Court Jester. Though Kaye’s physical and verbal antics (“The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle”) were hilarious, I never quite understood a major plot point about restoring to the English throne an infant-heir with a peculiar birthmark. Just what was a purple pimpernel, and what was it doing on the baby’s bottom?

As my parents explained, this was a witty nod to the Scarlet Pimpernel, the secret mark denoting the hero of an historical romance set during the French Revolution. The Scarlet Pimpernel (the title refers to a common wild flower) started out as long-running British stage play, by a certain Baroness Orczy. Before long it was turned into a series of novels, starting in 1905. Naturally there were soon cinematic adaptations. The very first, from 1917, starred Dustin Farnum, the silent-movie star who years later became the namesake of a certain Dustin Hoffman. The best known Scarlet Pimpernel film was the first talking version, from 1934. A sumptuous, though sometimes stilted swashbuckler, it stars Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, and Raymond Massey, under the direction of Harold Young.

Here’s the deal: in 1792 France people’s heads are being chopped off with gay abandon, as the crowd (made of up singularly unattractive individuals) cheers the falling blade of Madame Guillotine.. Clearly we’re supposed to be on the side of the “aristos,” who dress and speak much better. In particular we sympathize with the courageous de Tournays, who have just been condemned to death. Someone dressed as a priest shows them a passage in his Bible: surprise! Inside, there’s a message marked with the insignia of a red flower. The mysterious league of the Scarlet Pimpernel is coming to their aid. Soon they’re spirited out of Paris in a cart driven by a feisty old lady—who turns out to be none other than the Pimpernel himself, in one of his clever disguises. 

Actors love to play dual roles, and in this film Leslie Howard has a doozy. He’s the “damned elusive Pimpernel,” who sneers at danger and lives to serve those in need,  And he’s also Sir Percy Blakeney, British baronet. On his home turf, he covers his tracks by assuming the languid airs of a fop, one who is obsessed with good tailoring and seems most concerned about the amount of starch in his jabot. The big complication is that he has a wife, a gifted French actress named Marguerite St. Just, who doesn’t know about his secret identity. As played by the lovely but not especially talented Merle Oberon (sorry!), she struggles to understand her husband’s mixed feelings for her. Ultimately, of course, all becomes clear—and she finds herself in the usual female position of needing to be heroically rescued before the final fadeout. Howard, though, seems to be having a marvelous time, ricocheting between the persona of the odious English dandy and that of the heroic man of action.

For me a revelation was the performance of Raymond Massey, the Canadian actor best known for his Oscar-nominated 1940 performance as our 16th president in Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Fans of early television also remember his six-year stint as the venerable Dr. Gillespie in Dr. Kildare. Those two roles are the reason I tend to think of Massey in heroic terms. But as the wily Chauvelin, Robespierre’s envoy to England, he exudes a sinister charm, one that nearly ensnares poor Marguerite. As a French snake in an English garden, he’s certainly fun to watch.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

“Wild Rose”: Three Chords and the Truth

Yahooo! Rose-Lynn’s been let out of prison (where she was sent because of a small problem involving a package of heroin). There’s fringe on her leather jacket, a rebel yell on her lips, and an ankle-monitor underneath her cowboy boot,. After a quick stop at the country-music bar where she used to serve drinks and front the local band, she heads for home, but her re-appearance after a year away doesn’t exactly spark joy. Sounds like the makings of a country song.. But this isn’t Nashville. Nope, it’s Glasgow, Scotland.

In the appealing new slice-of-life drama called Wild Rose, Jessie Buckley plays a young woman so vibrant that you can’t help rooting for her even when she’s making a hash of her life, She’s quick to fight, quick to blame others for her own mistakes. (In her mind, her incarceration is entirely the fault of the judge who sentenced her.) Most egregious, she’s all too ready to break the promises she’s made to her two young children (tellingly named Lyle and Wynonna) when these get in the way of her dreams of music stardom in America.  

There are some creaky elements to Rose-Lynn’s story, most of them involving a would-be benefactor played by the charming but unlikely Sophie Okonedo.. Post-prison, Rose-Lynn comes to work for this wealthy lady of leisure as a housekeeper, putting her musical ambitions on hold in a bid to lead a responsible adult life.. But soon, once Okonedo’s Susannah discovers the singing talents of her feisty new “daily woman,” she offers to play fairy godmother for Rose-Lynn’s dream trip to Nashville. Of course the trip eventually happens—but not in the way we would expect, and with a far different outcome. It’s a treat, though, to see the awe on Jessie Buckley’s face as she stands on the stage of the “Mother Church” itself, Nashville’s timeless Ryman Auditorium. One of the film’s many pleasures is a chance to catch a glimpse of Nashville, the world’s Music City, while also introducing us to the more low-key attractions of workaday Glasgow.

Rose-Lynn may blossom in the company of the kindly Susannah, but the real key figure in her life is her down-to-earth mother, Marion, played by the always capable Julie Walters. It’s she to whom Rose-Lynn turns for emergency childcare, and for the hard-earned nuggets of wisdom that she’d really rather not hear. Marion can be tough on her only child, but she’s also her biggest supporter, one who understands that Rose-Lynn will need to grow up in an emotional sense before she can earn the opportunities that may someday be waiting for her. It’s ironic that in the last few days I’ve been learning about Anzia Yezierska, a novelist so determined to devote herself to her craft that she literally wrote her young daughter out of her life for many years, letting the child be raised by an ex-husband and erasing her from her own autobiography. That’s what some artists -- both male and female -- do in order to pursue their careers unhindered by family responsibility. But Marion’s not one to let that happen, and her down-to-earth goals and Rose-Lynn’s soaring ambitions make for a powerful combination.   

Understanding the thick Glasgow accents in this film sometimes makes for a challenge. But the soundtrack is splendid indeed, featuring the voices of some of Nashville’s finest female singers, and also Jessie Buckley’s own  powerful pipes. Her character has tattooed on her arm the classic description of country music as Three Chords and the Truth. Wild Rose has convinced me of the wisdom of that sentiment.