Notable as Montgomery Clift’s final performance, The Defector (1966) is another obscure espionage relic from the Warner Archive. Clift plays James Bower, a brilliant physicist recruited by a scheming CIA agent named Adams (Roddy McDowall) to venture into East Germany. His mission: to retrieve a microfilm of valuable intelligence from a scientist behind the Iron Curtain whose work Bower translated. Despite initial reluctance, Bower undertakes the assignment, which immediately goes off the rails thanks to a scheming state security officer named Heinzmann (Hardy Krüger). Soon Bower’s focus shifts from the mission to mere survival, with only the assistance of a nurse — and western asset — named Frieda (Macha Méril). Will Bower escape alive?
The Defector is an understated, dry, and cynical puzzler with a distinctly European filmmaking flavor, happy to linger in fraught silences and grimy, muted settings. Its dreary depiction of life behind the Iron Curtain is convincing, helped in no small way by authentic German location work, and there’s a great atmosphere of Cold War paranoia. It’s missing that certain something, alas — a spark of energy, perhaps — and Clift, while interesting, makes for an inscrutable protagonist. The result is a film that’s difficult to get invested in, holding the viewer at a distance. Two similar, far more picturesque films leap to mind as contemporary competitors: Torn Curtain (with which it shares a certain structural similarity) and The Looking Glass War (which has a similarly dire worldview). It’s easy to see, then, why this one might be overlooked, despite its more realistic trappings, and a pair of memorable sequences: one an unsettling, New Wave-y interrogation sequence, the other a suspenseful Great Escape-like flight for the border. In the end, this is yet another film that spy-film aficionados will probably enjoy more than general audiences; it certainly worked for me, despite its flaws.