'The Innocent' is an oddly cast spy film without the slightest bit of intelligence

September 06, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

What an odd, chilly cup of tea is John Schlesinger's "The Innocent." It slipped into the Greenspring with a great cast -- Anthony Hopkins, Campbell Scott and Isabella Rossellini -- but without benefit of a screening, a commercial decision that seemed foolish at the time but now seems the quintessence of marketing wisdom.

The movie turns out to be a spy thriller set in the Berlin of the '50s. But just about every note is brightly, noisily false. In fact, the movie is so wrong from start to finish it's some kind of monument to human folly.

Consider a film in which a great English actor is cast as an American and an interesting American actor is cast as an Englishman and they play countless scenes together, with the Englishman's American accent slipping into Englishism and the American's English accent slipping into Americanism. What place is this? Where are we now?

Consider again that each of these men seems a replacement. This movie was clearly written for Gene Hackman and Jeremy Irons -- a blowhard, wily, charismatic American and a tortured, ironic Englishman. Both Hopkins as the American and Scott as the Englishman do a passable imitation of their analogues, but after a bit it comes to seem completely desperate.

Scott is a young telephone genius named Leonard Marsden brought to Berlin under the auspices of the British Secret Service, where he is quickly enough (and strangely enough) turned over to the Americans. There, under the guidance of a hearty CIA type named Bob Glass (Hopkins), he works in a 200-yard tunnel that has been dug under the barbed wire, to facilitate an intercept on a Soviet phone line. Leonard's job is to tap into the lines for American intelligence usage.

The fact that just such an operation actually had some success in the time frame doesn't make director Schlesinger's version of it any more convincing. It seems less a secret operation than the bridge and hull of a Oklahoma-class nuclear sub -- a huge, noisy installation teeming with crew, Coke machines, a juke box (to get in some de rigueur '50s rock), even a kitchen capable of turning out steak and french fries! The Russians would have to have been idiots not to notice this veritable PX ablooming in a parking lot across the road.

But espionage is only the background; in the foreground is romance. In a Berlin nightclub that shows that someone has seen Bob Fosse's "Cabaret," young Leonard spies and is spied upon by a beautiful but much older woman, Maria (Rossellini). He is soon in her thrall, having lost his sexual innocence to her and begun to experience some of the more incendiary pleasures of the flesh.

But this being Berlin, deceit is everywhere and nobody is quite what they seem. Glass, for example, clearly has his sights set on Maria as well, though he disguises it in a showy blast of cigar-smoking, cursing, eating and ketchup-slopping -- all stock English impressions of American character; all uninteresting. Meanwhile, Maria herself has begun to quietly grill dumb Leonard for info, and seems dogged by a strange, brutal little man who may be her control from the east.

Actually, he's her ex-husband from the bottle. A drunk, he beats her; one night Leonard struggles to save her, gets himself beaten up until she ends the fight by sinking an antique into her husband's skull. Next problem: What to do with the body?

Well, if the movie is called "The Innocent," and the theme is innocence defiled, you'd be safe to guess it's something pretty radical. And it is, and it leads to "The Innocent's" best sequence. Poor Scott stalks grimly about Berlin with two large suitcases full of ex-husband hanging at the end of his long arms, continually inviting comical attraction from MPs, dogs, old ladies, the police and the like.

The most brilliant moment comes when a bagpiper chooses the moment to audition for a party and crowds into the lift with poor Leonard and his messy, heavy cargo, wailing away on the pipes.

But at that point, "The Innocent" goes absolutely nuts. It becomes a lame, bad parody of "Casablanca," complete with airport, twin-engine prop plane, raincoats and Ingrid Bergman, or at least a facsimile thereof in the shape of her daughter, Rossellini.

Why Rossellini would agree to such a tasteless twist on her mother in such an otherwise undistinguished film is one of the great astonishments of our time; why the great director of "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" and "Darling" would consider it himself is another.

'The Innocent'

Starring Anthony Hopkins and Isabella Rossellini

Directed by John Schlesinger

Released by Miramax

Rated R

*

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