Since I’m watching the Spy 100 list in reverse order, it turns out I’m watching the Harry Palmer movies in reverse order as well. Funeral in Berlin (1966), the middle chapter of the trilogy based on Len Deighton’s novels, is a solid spy flick, and far superior to its sequel Billion Dollar Brain (reviewed here). And yet, I found it a bit of a slog: deviously clever and effectively atmospheric, but somewhat slow and distancing.
Michael Caine stars as Palmer, a sardonic rogue blackmailed into working for British intelligence to avoid jail time. Reluctantly Palmer heads off to Berlin to investigate the veracity of a claim that Colonel Stok (Oskar Homolka), the Soviet officer in charge of Berlin Wall security, wants to defect to the west. A simple enough situation at face value, but the defection turns out to be considerably more complicated when Mossad agents, a corrupt British forger, and an underground Nazi war criminal figure into the scenario. Palmer, equipped only with his trademark black spectacles and relentless cynicism, navigates the maze with shrewd detachment, struggling to puzzle out the players’ various schemes and keep himself alive.
The Palmer movies are best viewed as a direct reaction to the James Bond phenomenon, and Palmer makes for a refreshing anti-Bond: modest, sarcastic, and suspicious, keeping himself at an arm’s length from actually caring about the proceedings, even as his fate is almost constantly out of his own hands. Caine is easily the best reason to watch this series. But Funeral in Berlin also has a satisfyingly complex plot, an authentic look, and a nice mix of seriousness and light touch. Unfortunately, Palmer’s detachment is a bit too infectious, and it’s hard to get overly invested in the hugger-mugger, particularly when the pacing lags. Overall a solid, worthy pick for the list, with some reservations.