Funeral in Berlin really is a film of two halves. The first is a terrific story with engaging characters, interesting dialogue and twists that are both unexpected and beautifully realised. The second is direction that is limp, stale and utterly uninspiring. It really is difficult to express just how dreary and flat Guy Hamilton’s direction is here. It is to the credit of the rest of the crew that this turgid style does not completely overpower the film and make it unwatchable. In fact, the film is perfectly enjoyable on the whole, and another strong entry into the Harry Palmer series of films; which is why the workmanlike direction is such a shame; like taking an exquisitely crafted meal and then coating it in watery, cheap gravy.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what the problem is because it’s difficult to latch on to anything that Hamilton actually did. The style is painfully obvious – the camera points at someone until they stop talking and maybe it will move slightly from one object to another. It’s the cinematic equivalent of beige, with nothing of any interest in shot at all. At times, it’s even quite patronising. Take the death of Hallam, for instance. The camera shows Palmer finding the body with a knife in it. It then cuts to a close-up of the knife that was so obvious in the previous shot, then a close-up of Hallam’s still, lifeless face. It’s as if Hamilton doesn’t give you enough credit to work out that a man lying incredibly still with a knife in his stomach in a spy film is most likely to be dead (in literature, this technique is known as DBS, or Dan Brown Syndrome). Curiously, this is the man who directed Goldfinger, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun, so we are not dealing with a hack. Perhaps after the bar was set so high with The Ipcress File, for which Sidney J Furie was fired by producer Harry Saltzman, essentially for being too inventive, the inevitable contrast is so much greater, but even so the direction impacts so negatively on the film as to be distracting throughout.
There are still many good points to the film – chief among which is the plot. In many ways it is like Len Deighton asking you to take a seat, before whipping the chair out from underneath you, only to reveal to your fallen and confused form that there never was a chair and he was, in fact, holding a herring all the time. There are motor-racing circuits with fewer twists than Funeral in Berlin. Do you think this is a movie about defection? Why, no, it’s about stopping defectors, only that’s all a cover for the real hunt for Nazi war criminals. Anyone who dozes off halfway through could be forgiven for thinking they were watching a completely different film, yet it all comes together so smoothly it feels logical.
Caine is, of course, outstanding. It’s remarkable to think that the actor is so well known – so often imitated – and despite this, he so much embodies any character he plays. He IS Harry Palmer, even though the character has been scaled down. Gone is his love for cooking, in comes a Bond-esque womanising that, while not missing from the first instalment, here feels clichéd, as if it’s only there because that’s what spies are like. Caine does an excellent job of keeping his character interesting even though he’s made less rounded. This isn’t to say that the character has become generic. There’s something rather pleasing about the fact that a woman chatting him up in a bar leads Palmer to assume she is a spy, rather than he is irresistible.
Funeral in Berlin is ultimately a very rewarding and intriguing film trapped within the body of a lousy American made-for-TV movie of the 60s – a monochrome photocopy of the Mona Lisa. If only the heart of Guy Hamilton were in it, this could be one of the most intriguing films of Caine’s career, if not of British films as a whole. As it stands, we are left with a compromised work but one that is at least a bit more taxing than the average bank holiday matinee movie.