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The Cold War's greatest hits

The fears of that era left their imprint on a treasure trove of films. Here are a few favorites.

November 09, 2009|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

Did you ever think you might actually miss the Cold War? Feel a twinge of nostalgia for a time when we knew exactly who our enemies were? Yearn for those glory days when we didn't question whether we were the good guys, even if we should have?

I never expected to and yet as we mark the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall, I've been hit by a wistful wave, especially for the heroes and villains of cinema past who roamed the Eastern Bloc with wits sharp and weapons at the ready.

My particular malaise is no doubt due, in part, to our own general confusion about the current state of world affairs. And if we the people are confused, Hollywood is in a complete quandary: unsure of the good guys, trying not to offend the bad guys, and with no clear idea of how best to channel all that confusion into films.

That wasn't so much the case when our conflict with the Evil Empire felt concrete, as did our reactions to it: the nightmares of global annihilation, the bomb shelter mentality and the rising paranoia at the spies lurking everywhere with their intricate plots to outsmart us -- perhaps the greatest offense, if not peril, of them all.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, November 11, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
"Fail-Safe": An article on Cold War films in Monday's Calendar section said that in the movie "Fail-Safe" missiles were headed for Moscow. In the film, bombs were headed for Moscow.

Those fears so ignited the imaginations of filmmakers that we now have a treasure trove of films with the imprint of those roiling emotions on all manner of stories. The Cold War represents, if not quite the birth of certain film genres, the first deep exploration of them. These movies helped put fears and foibles alike into perspective -- sometimes terrifyingly so, other times with a whimsy that was liberating.

We all have our favorites, but here, in completely capricious categories, are mine. And if you'll send us a few of yours, we'll let you know later this week if there's a consensus on the Cold War's greatest hits.

Alien invasion

Hollywood began to process the nation's sense of Cold War paranoia with a rash of sci-fi films that filled theaters in the '50s, their subtexts rich in what the "aliens" might be capable of. Although the 1956 version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and 1951's "The Thing From Another World" are among the kitschy best, I love Robert Wise's "The Day the Earth Stood Still" best with its silvery alien preaching the power of peace, a story echoed many times in many ways through the years, although I'm particularly fond of John Sayles' 1984 ghetto vision in "Brother From Another Planet."

Who can you trust?

I miss the elegantly taut tales of betrayal by those who knew our secrets and were ready to spill all. Cold War dirty tricks really began back in 1949 with Orson Welles' conveniently deceased character, Harry Lime, with his black market dealings and back-street lover, as the English, Russians, Americans and French struggled for control of a divided Vienna in "The Third Man." But, ultimately, my vote is split between Hitchcock's "Torn Curtain" in 1966 with Paul Newman at his enigmatic best as an American scientist in East Germany, and the more contemporary cut at the theme in 1985's "The Falcon and the Snowman" with Sean Penn's addled druggie-Soviet operative and his devastating cruelty in excellent form.

Stress relief

At some point, cinema went from merely trying to kill the enemy to a concerted effort to make fun of our hostilities. For a taste of that satire and black humor, there's Norman Jewison's farcical "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming," or the adaptation of the Woody Allen play "Don't Drink the Water" in 1969 -- oh, to watch Jackie Gleason at the mercy of the Vulgarians. . . . But my favorite has to be Peter Sellers' both-sides-of-the-coin insanity in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove." Now that was the bomb.

The fallout

There were intense character studies that emerged examining the psychological toll of those times. Two in particular stay with me: Martin Ritt's 1965 adaptation of the John le Carre novel "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," which, if nothing else, reminds me of how much the brooding Richard Burton, here playing a conflicted spy not quite comfortable with retirement, is missed; and 2006's "The Lives of Others" with its quiet look at the psychic wear on those who observe and report, which won the German film an Oscar for its textured insight.

The showdowns

Whether based in reality, like the blow-by-blow of the Cuban missile crisis in "Thirteen Days" or the Tom Clancy hypothetical of 1990's "The Hunt for Red October," there is nothing quite like being tossed into that torture chamber of suspense as the minutes tick slowly by. But I have to go with Sidney Lumet's 1964 "Fail-Safe," with our missiles headed toward Moscow and Henry Fonda in the Oval Office with a Sophie's choice on his hands.

Lethal weapons

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