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Celluloid Curtain: screening of little-known spy films comes to London

06-May-2011 • Bond Style

Celluloid Curtain is a season of Cold War spy movies, most of which have rarely been seen outside the countries where they were made, if at all -- reports the BBC.

It offers a rare chance to see how the 1960s enthusiasm for spy yarns played out on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Mention 60s spy movies and for most people, the name that leaps to mind is James Bond.

A little way behind might be Harry Palmer, played by Michael Caine from The Ipcress File onwards.

Fans of the downbeat might name the burnt-out Alec Leamas, memorably played by Richard Burton in 1965's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

In fact more than 500 espionage movies were made in Europe in the 1960s - and a fair proportion of them are awful.

Now the Celluloid Curtain season at the Riverside Studios in west London brings together some of the most interesting, to show how Cold War espionage looked to cinemagoers in Moscow or Bucharest or Prague.

The world has changed a lot since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and even in their home countries many of the movies are no longer familiar.

A Bomb was Stolen (1961) is a dialogue-free Romanian spy movie, possibly one of the smaller categories in the history of cinema.

Although it is partly humorous, it is fascinating to see how the elements of spy films were already ripe for parody.

They include pretty girls who turn out to be killers, absurdly complex assassination attempts, a focus on guns and the tendency of almost any means of transport - trains especially - to turn out fatal.

Haber's Photo Shop (1963) is less jokey - a Hungarian spy-thriller in which a photographic store in Budapest is used as a base for espionage.

But by whom? In many of the movies, the enemy remains unnamed and in the shadows.

High Season for Spies (1966) is an exception in the season, having been made in Portugal. It's perhaps the film most clearly inspired by the Swinging Sixties Bond movies.

But the sets expose the limited budgets available. Its take on what BBC Television Centre might look like if it were in a small street in Lisbon is an undoubted highlight.

It's fascinating to see how film-makers portrayed 1960s London or Berlin. There is Nothing Finer than Bad Weather was made in Bulgaria as the 1970s dawned.

Its director, Metodi Andonov, uses it as an excuse to indulge in some French New Wave-style camera moves to evoke Western society.

'Smacked of propaganda'

Interestingly, the one French film in the season - 1964's The Great Spy Chase - is a farcical romp with a huge but basically comic death toll.

Oliver Baumgarten, the season's co-curator, thinks that in the West the more fashionable directors did not want to go near the spy genre.

"I think they thought it all smacked of propaganda," he tells the BBC. "In fact there are many elements which are common to films made on both sides.

"There are the obvious ones like the shared obsession with gadgetry. But some of the non-Western films do take the disillusioned view which was so striking in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

"There's maybe a central character who thinks espionage is an activity where there is no absolute right or wrong on either side."

"But there also one or two very ideological films in the season - for instance, the Soviet film Skvorets and Lira."

This 1974 title is about two Soviet spies in deep cover in West Germany who monitor the West's intentions towards the USSR.

"In fact it was withdrawn and barely seen even in the USSR," says Baumgarten.

"The Guillaume affair broke in 1975 featuring a Soviet spy close to the centres of power in Germany, and someone in the Kremlin decided it was too close too the truth."

Not all the films in the season are masterpieces. But they give a glimpse of an era when the division between East and West in Europe was the world's most important faultline.

The Celluloid Curtain season runs at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London, from 6 to 9 May. It will then travel to Berlin.

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