Little Drummer Girl, The (1984)

April 20, 2017 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Good

Extras: n/a

Label:  Warner Archives

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  June 22, 2009

Genre:  Suspense / Drama

Synopsis: A middling actress is engaged by the Israeli secret service to perform a role and ultimately identify a ruthless bomber.

Special Features:  Theatrical Trailer.




Hollywood had previously flirted in using Israel as a backdrop for contemporary intrigue – John Flynn’s forgotten The Jerusalem File (1972) was set during the Arab-Israeli Six Day War, and one of William Friedkin’s trapped characters in Sorcerer (1977) was wanted for a bombing in Jerusalem – so with rising tensions between the Israeli secret service and Palestinian terrorists, John Le Carré penned an espionage thriller in 1983 which focused on the training of an unlikely character in an elaborate ruse to reach a vicious bomber known only by his signature inclusion of a specifically wrapped bundle of wire.

Le Carré’s fantastical tale was snapped up and quickly made into a film by George Roy Hill, perhaps an unusual choice for a political thriller, but nevertheless a filmmaker with a modest yet luminous C.V. of classics, most of which resided in comedy or genres with a dry comedic, satirical, absurdist bent. The absurdity of Le Carré’s plot may have been the key attraction for Hill: an American actress working in a London rep theatre is recruited by the Israeli secret service to pretend she’s the lover of the bomber’s brother, acting out the role with her own real background until the bomber’s identified and ultimately neutralized.

Woven into the tale is a deep level of cynicism and distrust among every participant, and perhaps the only figures with the least distrust are the Palestinian terrorists: after an initial meeting with bigwig Tayeh (Michael Cristopher), Charlie (Diane Keaton) is given her one and only opportunity to turn back. When she pretends to embrace the Lebanese-based organization, trains and is inculcated by the group, there are little ‘corrective balances’ that may have been in the novel or added by screenwriter Loring Mandel. Charlie assumes the group hates Israelis and spouts anti-Semitic slurs, but she’s swiftly reprimanded by Tayeh when he says ‘We don’t hate Jews. We’re just not willing to wait 20 years to have our country.’ As an actress playing an American wannabe terrorist, Charlie accepts this direction from Tayeh, and although she may not develop any sophisticated understanding of the conflicts in play, the clarification helps her build up her character as a better insurgent. It’s a process she also finds a little fun, slightly mocking her compatriots by casually counting down the seconds before an explosion, and smiling during the blast as the rest cover their ears from the racket in a dugout.

It’s only when a distant Israeli handler shadowing her in the far hills is captured and executed that she’s slammed back into the reality of the bloody fight, and realizes she’s now deeply enmeshed in a role that will encounter real-life nastiness. Charlie’s affair with her main handler Joseph (Yorgo Voyagis) keeps her unsteady, never knowing his real identity, never comprehending until the end the depth of manipulation by the secret service; and yet she gravitates to Joseph because he is the only trusting, smiling, encouraging figure that offers an exit strategy as the plot to kill the ‘music loving’ bomber (Black Widow’s Sami Frey) thickens.

LDG isn’t wholly successful – the first hour is kind of a mess as improbable Charlie is lured, teased, auditioned, and convinced she can and should play the role of a lover, almost to prove to herself she’s capable of greater work beyond a middling rep theatre troupe (which includes a ridiculously young Bill Nighy) – but once the plot becomes complex and two strands interconnect, the movie clicks into gear. Charlie’s experiences playing a lover is interwoven with the secret service’s chief architect, Martin Kurtz (Klaus Kinski), from which torture, death, shrapnel, and other brutalities spark. He’s a clinical strategist delighted by problem-solving, and part of the film’s assets is just watching Kinski have fun with a real script and sharp dialogue. Trapped in B and Z-grade fodder for most of the 1970s, Kinski never sits still, fiddling with glasses, getting up, leaning forward, pausing, and pointing out facts to other actors – gestures perhaps encouraged by director Hill, who also managed to extract a real performance from Voyagis.

Known for playing generic heavies (The Adventurers), the Greek actor is given greater range to play what may be his most complex role of a man externally stoic, but internally conflicted by the trauma he’s forced to address. He’s a lieutenant in a ruthless campaign, and struggles with genuine affection for naïve, foolish Charlie. The importance of a good script and proper direction is especially evident when one compares the performances of Kinski and Voyagis in LDG with Nosferatu in Venice (1988), a mess of a film in which Voyagis is bored in every scene, and Kinski erratic. (According to lore surrounding the troubled production, Kinski was a bully to film’s revolving directors, making for an erratic and incoherent performance, but under Hill’s baton we can see the magical energy which existed under Kinski’s self-cured madman persona.)

Filmed in the former West Germany, London, Greece, Israel, and war-scarred Lebanon, LDG is also a unique snapshot of the era’s climate, filtered through the Hollywood lens and packaged as a political thriller set against a still-seething backdrop. The fact tensions in the region haven’t lessened 37 years later makes the film rather tragic.

Beautifully shot on several real locations by Wolfgang Treu and sharply cut by veteran William Reynolds (The Frogmen, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, The Godfather), the biggest element that frequently fails is Dave Grusin’s score. The composer may have been snared by the production after his fine pop-jazz fusion for the cynical thriller Three Days of the Condor (1975), but with the exception of a handful of genuinely dramatic cues, his evocation of the locales with synths and drum sequences is awful, especially the peppy main theme that may have been Hill’s attempt to create cynicism by playing atypical or opposing music against a character finding herself in a deep mess.

Warner Archives’ DVD uses what’s likely an old PAL-NTSC converted video master, and although it’s anamorphic, the colours are rather limp, and the down-conversion to NTSC is poor, resulting in ghosting whenever the camera pans laterally and vertical objects almost strobe. A theatrical trailer’s included, but the otherwise bare bones release lacks any contextual extras that address Le Carré’s novel. (The author also has a cameo playing a Commander). In addition to Nighy, there’s small roles for Anna Massey (Bunny Lake is Missing, Frenzy), David Suchet (TV’s Poirot), Dana Wheeler-Nicholson (Tombstone, TV’s Friday Night Lights) as a German terrorist sympathizer, and uncredited Lou Castel (The Cassandra Crossing, Treasure Island). Also of note is Eli Danker as Litvak, an upper lieutenant executing Kurtz’ orders, and Michael Cristopher as one-eyed Palestinian terrorist leader Tayeh.

Loring Mandel’s scriptwriting is primarily in TV, but among his rare film work is Robert Altman’s oddball space drama Countdown (1967). Between 1962 to 1988, George Roy Hill directed just 13 films, of which many are outright classics: Period of Adjustment (1962), Toys in the Attic (1963), The World of Henry Orient (1964), Hawaii (1966), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), The Sting (1973), The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), Slap Shot (1977), A Little Romance (1979), The World According to Garp (1982), The Little Drummer Girl (1984), and Funny Farm (1988).

Feature films based on works by John Le Carré include The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Deadly Affair (1966), The Looking Glass War (1970), The Little Drummer Girl (1984), The Russia House (1990), The Tailor of Panama (2001), The Constant Gardener (2005), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), A Most Wanted Man (2014), and Our Kind of Traitor (2016).



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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