An Affair to Dismember

There are two ways of looking at The Innocent (no relation to the 1976 Luchino Visconti powerhouse or the 1985 British production, both of which have the same title). You can write it off as a horribly acted, pretentiously directed, inconsistently paced, drearily written exercise in Cold War espionage with an improbable love triangle kicker. Or you can treat it like a clever parody of the same. You'll enjoy it a lot more if you opt for the latter tack.

It's the late Fifties. The Cold War is at its frostiest. A lonely young British telephone engineer named Leonard Marnham (Campbell Scott) reports for a new job in Berlin. Leonard is politically naive and sexually inexperienced. At first he doesn't even seem to realize why he's come to Berlin -- to work on a top-secret project jointly run by British and American intelligence. (Operation Gold was the code name for a true-life massive tunnel under the city's Russian-controlled sector, which enabled us to better eavesdrop on communist communications.) An American officer, Bob Glass (Anthony Hopkins gesturing broadly, behaving brashly, and speaking in a nasal accent so ridiculous it has to be a joke), introduces the innocent Marnham to the world of espionage, paranoia, and cross-cultural confusion. Maria (Isabella Rossellini), a ravishing Berliner, takes Leonard's education a step further, picking up the earnest young man in a cabaret and tutoring him between the sheets. Soon Leonard is just one more oversexed spy roaming the streets of Berlin, about to plunge into a vortex of deceit and murder.

Clues abound as to screenwriter Ian McEwan's and director John Schlesinger's intentions to make this film a Cold War put-on. First there's the perverse casting: Quintessential repressed Englishman Hopkins assays the role of obnoxious American Glass (and makes an even less believable Yank than he did in Legends of the Fall); Campbell Scott, an American, keeps a stiff upper lip as Leonard Marnham, a Brit; Italian Isabella Rossellini vamps as a German divorcee.

While Scott plays his character straight, Hopkins and Rossellini go the opposite route, hamming it up with impunity. Hopkins's Glass is a god-awful mishmash of Ugly American stereotypes A a loud, cigar-chomping, catsup-on-steak eating kind of guy. Just to get the younger man's goat, he calls Marnham "Len" long after he's been asked not to. And then there's the accent, which sounds vaguely reminiscent of Richard Pryor imitating a white man, only less believable. It's a tough act to follow, but Rossellini makes a game effort by broadly imitating the beloved performance of her mother (Ingrid Bergman) in Casablanca. When Rossellini's gaze meets Scott's for the first time, her irises jiggle as if she were taking in all the young man's features with the speed of an optical scanner.

Not to be outdone by his actors, Schlesinger ups the silliness factor by openly aping Hitchcock to close the second act, then applying the comic coup de grÉce with a mock-Casablanca "you're getting on that plane" scene, complete with propeller sputtering to life at exactly the right moment. For his part, screenwriter McEwan contributes an absurdly funny love scene. Maria interrogates Leonard about the true nature of his job (he's told her only that he works on telephones) while they make love. Sample dialogue:

Maria (breathing heavily while Leonard slurps and nibbles a succession of her erogenous zones): "Telephones -- I don't understand. Berlin has plenty of telephones."

Leonard, his suspicions nowhere nearly so aroused as his lust, mumbles some lame obfuscation and returns to his ministrations.

Maria (moaning sensually): "Ohhh, that's good. So what is it you really do?"
Woody Allen couldn't have written it better. The Cold War may be over, but Schlesinger and McEwan have mined it for a masterful parody of the whole The Spy Who Came in From the Cold genre. Either that or they've made one of the lousiest movies in years. Take your pick.

 
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