Espionage – The Light of a Friendly Star

star 01

Leo (Carl Schell) attempts to break into the British Embassy. He claims to be a refugee and pleads for political asylum. The ambassador, Arnold Morely (Ronald Howard), listens sympathetically to his tale and agrees he can stay for a while.

But Leo is a spy for “the other side” and after aquiring some secrets he makes his escape. He doesn’t go empty handed though, as he takes a hostage, the ambassador’s ten-year old daughter Kit (Loretta Parry), with him …..

The Light of a Friendly Star has a slightly odd tone. From the first time Kit sets eyes on Leo, she’s very taken with him – telling her father that his (made up) story of persecution is tragic and also that his dark, dark eyes (“darker than Heathcliff, darker than Captain Ahab”) are very compelling. This initial speech demonstrates that Kit is a most precocious child, but her infatuation would have worked better if she had been older, say in her late teens.

Is Stockholm Syndrome at play here? Kit could have escaped from him on several occasions, but didn’t. Instead she uses manipulation (sabotaging his car, mentioning that if she was picked up by the police she’d have to tell them all she knew) to make him realise she’ll be less of a danger if he takes her along.

Her father doesn’t seem terribly surprised to learn that Kit may have been kidnapped and confides to one of his aides, Wilson (Donald Pickering), that Leo may have been forced to take her. He doesn’t elaborate, but we’ve already had numerous examples of how strong-willed the girl is.

Kit later sadly confides to Leo that she’s over educated, the inference being that emotionally she’s a woman trapped in a girl’s body. But she still has childish traits, telling Leo that she knows he won’t hurt her because of his eyes. “I think anyway one’s eyes are really what one is”.

Poor Leo never really stands a chance, as the hapless spy finds Kit running rings around him. And when we later learn that the secrets he obtained were out of date and therefore worthless, it makes his efforts seem all the more futile.  Incidentally, the British Embassy seems to be the sort of place where guests can wander about at night, unchallenged, and go where they wish. Have they never heard of security?

It could be that the story was attempting a Hayley Mills/Tiger Bay vibe, but there’s only one Hayley Mills and Loretta Parry’s performance does begin to grate after a while. This could be intentional though – she’s not supposed to be a victim in Leo’s power, if anything Kit’s the one in control ….

If there’s a point to the story, then it seems to come when the mismatched pair are forced to shelter from the rain in a barn. Kit asks him why he spies and he tells her that it’s an honest profession which appeals to him. He begins to open up a little and mentions that he has no family, they were killed by a bomb years ago. The incidental music swells in sympathy and Kit places her hand on his arm. It’s a nice touch that as soon as he shrugs her off the music stops.

Leo seems to be a totally isolated figure, although Kit senses this is nothing more than a fraud. She tells him that he could love someone if he wanted – even her. Again, this is a strange conversation for a ten-year old girl to be having with a grown man.

Carl Schell gives a self-contained performance as Leo, the man with friendly eyes. The supporting cast is characteristically strong, with Ronald Howard (a former Sherlock Holmes) providing a reassuring presence. The likes of Donald Pickering and George Pravda are always worth watching even if, as here, they only have small roles.

Largely a two-hander, The Light of a Friendly Star does have a few interesting points to make about espionage. Leo sees himself as a professional spy – with no national alligence – which is confirmed when it’s revealed he used to spy for the British, leaving Wilson to dismiss him as someone who’ll work for the highest bidder. Is this a purer, more honourable form of spying than if it’s done in the national interest? Leo seems to think so, but as a professional dissembler can we ever trust anything he says?

star 02

Espionage – To The Very End

to the very end

The scene is a Paris cafe.  Paul (James Fox), Jacques (David Buck) and Nicole (Heather Fleming) are three young people who react with scorn and disfavour at the news that France now has atomic capability.  Their vocal disapproval catches the attention of two soldiers and, after a few choice insults are exchanged, a fight ensues.

The three friends manage to make their escape, aided by a young American called Bob (Michael Anderson Jr).  Bob quickly becomes friendly with them and they decide – spurred on by the intense Paul – to try and reason with France’s top nuclear scientist, Professor P.J. Moreau (Clifford Evans).  But Paul has a hidden agenda of his own ….

From the outset it’s plain that Paul is the driving force.  The others, especially the affable Bob, are simply caught in his orbit.  Bob reacts with unease when Paul abducts Moreau from his flat at gunpoint, although Nicole seems quite calm about it.  She tells Bob that whilst she didn’t know Paul had a gun, nothing he does surprises her.  Yet this may not be the strict truth as she later backtracks a little.

Moreau is taken to a deserted house where’s he forced to watch a film documenting the human suffering inflicated by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.  This footage, albiet brief, lingers in the memory, although it doesn’t seem to have the desired effect on Moreau.  Possibly Paul was expecting the Professor to be repulsed, but he calmly tells them that “I spent two months in Hiroshima and believe me these pictures only give a second-hand idea of the effects of gamma radiation on the human body.” He begins to explain about the devastating effects of the blast, but is cut short by Paul, no doubt irritated that he’s no longer in control.

Moreau is summed up by Bob as having a mind like a steel trap.  The American sees no point in hanging onto him since his views (France must have the bomb, since others have it) appears to be inflexible.   But Paul, who was his star pupil, professes to know him better.  “He’s full of specious arguments and he doesn’t believe any of them.”

Whilst the British actors playing Chinese characters in The Dragon Slayer seemed to be careful to speak in their own normal tones, there’s no such rule in place in this episode as ripe French accents are the order of the day.  James Fox, under his real name William Fox, had been a child star in the early 1950’s, and his role here was a fairly early one in his adult career.  Paul is a simmering mass of resentment from the off and – as various revelations are made – he becomes more and more frayed around the edges.   It’s a fairly unsubtle turn, but Fox is still very watchable.

Perhaps wisely, Clifford Evans doesn’t attempt a French accent.  Probably best known for playing the wily Caswell Bligh in The Power Game, Evans is characteristically solid as Moreau (even if he’s a very Welsh sounding Frenchman!)

The, forgive the pun, power game between Paul and Moreau is at the centre of the story.  Paul blames Moreau for the fact that his father (also a scientist) died in disgrace, but Moreau is adamant that Paul’s father was a Nazi colloborator.  Paul reacts angrily to this and presses on with his plan to force Moreau to resign.

Essentially a five-hander, To The Very End is a claustrophobic tale.  There’s space for a debate on the rights and wrongs of atomic weapons, but the suspicion that Paul is simply out for revenge also means there’s a conventional crime-story feel.  It’s fair to say that it does lack a little suspense or tension – as the kidnappers (even Paul) seem misguided rather than fanatical and Moreau, puffing away contentedly on his cigarettes, doesn’t spend a great deal being treated as a prisoner.

But is there a twist in the tale? Their plans come to naught, so Paul decides to kill Moreau.  The final scene between Fox and Evans is played at an intense pitch (cross-cutting between close-ups of the two actors).   The resolution probably won’t come as a surprise, but it feels like the right decision. A fairly low-key entry then, but Fox and Evans do their best to raise the stakes.

Espionage – The Dragon Slayer

dragon

The Dragon Slayer opens in late 19th Century China.  Sun Yat-Sen (Lee  Montague) is committed to the overthrow of the ruling Manchurian dynasty.  Following heavy fighting he’s forced to flee to England, where he seeks to raise both awareness and money.  But  the Chinese government, fearful of his public profile, decides to imprison him in their London consulate. If he renounces his radical views then he’ll be set free, if not …..

Like He Rises on Sunday and We on MondayThe Dragon Slayer is based on real-life events.  Although Sun Yat-Sen probably isn’t too well known in the West, he did later succeed in bringing an end to the Manchu dynasty and served as China’s first president.  But if you do know his background then it rather saps the tension of the story, as it’s obvious that no harm will have befallen him by the end of the episode.

Although Sun Yat-Sen is just as driven as Roger McBride from the previous story, The Dragon Slayer has a more layered narrative since others challenge and contradict his point of view.  Shortly after arriving in London, Sun finds himself invited to an exclusive reception.  As he fingers his tuxedo, it’s obvious that he feels like a fish out of water, but he’s driven by his mission to find benefactors who can supply money and arms.  Sir Leslie Parrott (Peter Dyneley) seems such a man – he’s a successful businessman, so he’s certainly rich enough.

But Sir Leslie isn’t going to be swayed by Sun’s picture of a free, democratic China or vague promises of trade monopolies.  The bottom line is profit – if there’s no money to be made then he won’t take the risk.  As Sun feels Sir Leslie lose interest, the camera tracks away to settle on a well-dressed woman dripping with diamonds – a visual beat which helps to suggest that his plea is doomed to failure (in such genteel society, talk of war is made to feel very out of place).

Sun puts the blame for all of China’s problems firmly at the feet of their rulers, to which Sir Leslie responds that you can’t blame governments for everything.  And the Englishman concludes by telling Sun that he might be the menace – not the Manchu – if he leads his people into a massacre.  That not all China’s ills are due to the Manchu is a point also later made by Sun’s uncle – helping to reinforce the point that no war can ever be black and white.

I’ve yet to touch upon the area of The Dragon Slayer which will probably be the most problematic for a modern audience, namely that the main Chinese roles are played by British actors.  This was very common during the 1960’s and 1970’s – the pool of ethnic actors was so small there was really no alternative.  But it’s very strange viewing nonetheless, as a selection of familiar faces try and convince us that they’re Chinese.

Lee Montague (born in Bow, London in 1927 and still going strong today, I’m delighted to say) probably comes off best – Sun might be a fanatic, ready to spill the blood of others for his cause, but Montague manages to capture the contradictory compassion of the man as well.  On the other end of the scale there’s Patrick Cargill as Colonel Tung.  Cargill didn’t attempt to modulate his normal cut-glass tones (which to be honest was probably wise – had any of the cast attempted “me velly solly” accents that would have just made things worse) so at first you do come away with the impression that his character is an Englishman dressed up. But whilst Cargill doesn’t remotely convince as Chinese, he still manages to invest Tung with a restrained menace. Tung, acting as Sun’s jailer and interrogator, doesn’t need to rant and rave – he holds such a clear position of power that he can afford to treat his captive with amused, icy contempt.

Alan Tilvern and Cyril Shaps (both first-rate actors, but not known for their Chinese looks) are also drafted into service – playing P’Eng Pat and Lao Han respectively.  Thorley Walters also appears, but fortunately he’s playing an Englishman, Dr Cantile.

Sam Kydd impesses as Crutchley, an English servant working at the Chinese consulate. Tung tells him to take Sun his meals, but also informs him that he should ignore anything he hears. Sun tries to get Crutchley on his side by telling him that he’s a Christian, but this doesn’t cut any ice with the Englishman. “I may be a butler, but I’m a scientific man myself. You see sir, I’m a Darwinist. I believe that man is descended from monkeys. Oh no offence intended sir, but how could the world ever have been made in six days?” When Sun reveals that his captors plan to kill him, Crutchley calmly replies that as a Christian he’d have assumed that’d be something he’d look forward to! As this isn’t a story with a great deal of levity, Kydd’s scenes help to lighten the mood a little.

So there’s an excellent cast at work here, even if some performances are a little compromised.  Three writers were credited for the script, Raymond Bowers, Albert Ruben and Halsted Welles (who previously contributed the first-class story The Incurable One).  Since Ruben and Welles were American and Bowers was British it suggests that some rewriting took place.  And the committee-like nature of the writing might be one of the reasons why the story never quite seems to work as well as it could.

Espionage – He Rises on Sunday and We on Monday

rises

Ireland, 1916.  Roger McBride (Patrick Troughton) and two friends are scanning the coastline, anxiously waiting for the arrival of a German submarine.  The submarine will be carrying Sir Roger Casement (Andrew Kier) who has spent the last few years in Germany, gathering support for an armed Irish rebellion against the English.

A shipload of guns is due to arrive shortly.  Without it, the planned uprising on Easter Monday is doomed to failure.  But whilst Sir Roger arrives, the guns don’t.  Despite the entreaties of his wife Doreen (Billie Whitelaw), McBride seems content to lead his men into battle anyway, where they’ll face certain slaughter.  But then he seems to have a change of heart ….

Whilst He Rises on Sunday and We on Monday features some fine actors (including Andrew Kier and T.P. McKenna) the bulk of the story revolves around Patrick Troughton and Billie Whitelaw.  Although Troughton’s Irish accent does come and go a little, this is a small price to pay for his intense, fanatical performance.  Make no mistake, McBride is a fanatic – something which is made clear very early on.  When Doreen asks what they’ll do if the guns don’t arrive, McBride retorts that “we’ll make our rebellion with bricks and clubs and hobnail boots and the fearless Irish hearts that are beating inside of us.”

If Troughton is his usual excellent self, then he’s matched every step of the way by Billie Whitelaw.  Whitelaw, who has the only female speaking role, essays a stunning performance as Doreen.  She loves her husband, but he only has thoughts for a free Ireland.  Angrily she tells him that “you’re a man of brave courage, John McBride. Oh, if only you had the courage to take the wife who loves you in your two arms and share your fear with her.”  This is a scene that crackles with intensity, helped by the conflicting emotions that play across Troughton’s face.

Robert Monteith (Maurice Good) was one of the men who has travelled to Ireland with Sir Roger Casement.  With Casement now captured by the British and no guns, he can forsee a massacre if the rising goes ahead.  McBride could stop it – but only he knows the codeword that will stand everybody down.  Despite physical force, Monteith is unable to make him talk.  But Doreen is able to win him round and in a tender scene – again it’s another excellent two-hander for Troughton and Whitelaw – he agrees to pass on the code.

After Monteith delivers the message he discovers that McBride has tricked him.  The codeword he passed on was “go” not “stop”.  Later, McBride explains to Doreen and his friends.  “When this rising’s over they’ll be thousands of us dead in the streets and they’ll be arrests and trials and hangings and we’ll have failed. This time we’ll have failed. But if we make a start this time, one day we’ll succeed. And our children and grandchildren will live in a free Ireland. But by all that’s good and all that’s holy, unless we make that start this time we’ll never succeed.”

Armed with only a pitchfork he walks forward into a hail of bullets from a police machine-gun.  His speech seemed to have inspired the other men, as they too are also cut down – leaving a distraught Doreen alone, surrounded by dead bodies.  It’s a stirring ending, but it does leave a few questions unanswered, most especially why did the police open fire?  Rather than make martyrs of the men, they simply could have arrested them.

He Rises on Sunday and We on Monday doesn’t make any attempt to present both sides of the story.  Whilst it’s laudable in one way that the English aren’t depicted as inhuman monsters, this is because they hardly feature at all.  Alvin Sapinsley’s script (especially McBride’s final speech) makes it quite clear which side he supports.  For most of the story McBride seems to be a man alone – the others follow him, but they don’t seem to share his burning desire.  It’s only when they see him shot down in a futile gesture that they too become totally committed and also perish.  Even with the shocked reaction of Doreen, Sapinsley strongly implies that it’s a glorious thing to die for a cause you believe in.

It may be on the polemical side, but the performances of Troughton and Whitelaw make this an episode worth watching.

Espionage – The Gentle Spies

gentle 01

Gerry Painter (Barry Foster) is assigned to infiltrate a group of peace protestors who have somehow gained access to sensitive government secrets.  The government, in the shape of the Minister (Michael Horden), wants the mole identified and punished.  Gerry begins by attaching himself to Sheila O’Hare (Angela Douglas), a highly idealistic member of the group.  But his increasing feelings for her make it hard for him to concentrate on the matter in hand …..

The Gentle Spies is a fascinating time capsule of the mid sixties and also, after three very intense episodes, is quite a change of pace.  Although the topic it covers (unilateral disarmament) is weighty, it’s done in a fairly light-hearted manner.  This is best seen at the start when Gerry attempts to catch Sheila’s eye.  Foster, later to star in Van Der Valk, shows a deft comic touch whilst attempting to woo a very disinterested Douglas.

Ernest Kinoy’s script is firmly on the side of the protesters.  He takes great pains to depict them as totally non-violent – indeed, the only fracas occurs when Gerry (attempting to impress Sheila) throws a punch at a policeman.  He seems to boyishly assume this will get him into her good books, but it only serves to irritate her.  As for the information they release via leaflets (the location of the government’s secret bomb shelter, an accident involving a plane carrying a nuclear warhead) Kinoy seems to be suggesting that although they’re official secrets it’s in the public’s interest that they be released.  WikiLeaks is an obvious modern parallel.

Horden’s Minister is less forgiving though. “In a way it’s a lot worse than if the information had been leaked to a bona-fide Russian spyring. At least they’re professionals, you expect to lose a certain number of wickets to them.”  The Minister goes on to complain that he’s under pressure from Washington, so it seems that political expediency is driving his desire to find the mole.

The protestors are led by Lord Kemble (Alan Webb).  Kemble is a public figure (a former Nobel prize winner) and therefore a major thorn in the Minister’s side.  Kemble is a staunch believer in unilateral disarmament, although the rights and wrongs of this are only lightly touched upon.  Towards the end, the Minister tells him that this course of action would be suicide – if one side has the bomb, then the other must have it too.

At one point, Gerry runs into Willi Hausknecht (Eric Polhmann). Willi, an East German agent, has also attached himself to the protestors. For a moment it looks as if he’s the one supplying them with the information but it turns out that he’s aiming to find the source of the leak so he can obtain further intelligence for his masters. Nothing comes of this, as Gerry has him arrested, but it shows how idealists can be manipulated by the unscrupulous (Callan has several good examples of this).

Since the political and moral arguments of The Gentle Spies remain rather undeveloped, it’s the performances of Barry Foster and Angela Douglas that keep the story moving along.  If Foster is a strong leading man (albeit with a sense of humour) then Douglas essays a typically winsome performance.  Sheila is so whole-heartedly honest and open that it’s no real surprise that Gerry falls for her in a big way.

The reveal of the mole is practically an afterthought – it was the Minister’s wife, Sara (Joan Hickson).  Hickson, later to gain small-screen immortality as the definitive Miss Marple, holds the viewer’s attention for the last few minutes.  The Minister finds he can do nothing – which once again appears to be a demonstration of political expediency (if his wife was revealed as the mole then his career would be finished) and so the status quo remains in place.

As previously touched upon, The Gentle Spies is chiefly of interest due to the way it captures a snapshot of the mid sixties peace movement.  Sensible jumpers, placards and endless chorusus of “we shall overcome” are the order of the day.  It’s not the most complex episode of Espionage but neither is it without interest or merit.

gentle 02

Espionage – The Weakling

weakling

The Weakling opens in North Africa during WW2.  Ferno (Dennis Hopper) is a highly insubordinate American soldier (in his opening scene he shows his disregard for authority by getting tangled up in a barroom brawl) which makes him pretty much the last person you’d entrust with a mission vital to the war effort.

But Colonel Ballin (John Gregson), a British intelligence officer, believes that Ferno is exactly the right man for the job he has in mind.  Ferno is told the time, date and place where the Allied invasion of Europe is due to begin and is parachuted into France to deliver this information to the leader of the Free French underground.

After Ferno is captured by the Germans, he’s subjected to extreme torture in order to make him talk.  But Ferno proves hard to crack.  This should be good news, but it turns out to be exactly the opposite ……

There’s a wonderful clash of styles in the first act of The Weakling.  Not only between Ferno and Ballin but also between Dennis Hopper and John Gregson.  They could hardly have been more different as actors.  Hopper (1936 – 2010) was a devotee of the method school of acting and his off-screen life seemed to mirror Ferno’s.  It’s often been observed that Hopper tended to play himself so the anti-authoritarian, twitchy Ferno shouldn’t have been too much of a stretch for him.

Although his career had began promisingly in the 1950’s (appearing in several films with James Dean, a man he idolised) by the time he recorded this episode of Espionage he’d hit something of a brick wall.  His problems, like Ferno’s, were mostly self-inflicted as he proved to be an uncontrollable loose-cannon (more than one director told him he’d never work in Hollywood again).  But thanks to the intervention of John Wayne, Hopper slowly began to work his way back into favour, culminating in the sleeper hit Easy Rider (1969).

John Gregson (1919 – 1975) could hardly have been more different.  He’d forged a successful career playing supporting roles in many popular British films (Scott of the Antarctic, Whisky Galore!, The Lavender Hill Mob, Genevieve, Above Us The Waves, The Battle of the River plate, etc).  When the British film industry began to contract in the 1960’s he moved seamlessly in television, guest-starring in numerous series as well as starring as the avuncular George Gideon in Gideon’s Way.  Gregson always appeared to be the very model of stolid reliability, a trait which seems to be shared by Ballin.

Indeed, as Ferno rants and raves at Ballin, it’s instructive to watch the two actors at work.  Hopper has the showier material and he certainly goes for it – wringing everything he can from the script.  Gregson is still, silent and barely moves – but he still catches the eye, a clear demonstration that less is more.

When Ferno reaches France he makes contact with Jeanne (Patricia Neal), a doctor who agrees to set up his meeting with the resistance.  The year after The Weakling was broadcast Neal would win an Oscar for her role in Hud, so she was something of a catch for the series.  The scenes between Jeanne and Ferno are played at an intense emotional pitch – Jeanne tells him that she supplies the Nazis with narcotics and is unrepentant about it.  She appears to be just another victim of the war – a woman forced to sacrifice her principles – but the truth is much darker.  She’s an addict herself and is also revealed to be a collaborator, betraying him to the Nazis.  Ferno manages to make his escape and frantically radios to Ballin for help.  Ballin hears the message but doesn’t reply.  This is another quiet triumph for Gregson as Ballin says nothing – he simply buries his head in his hands.

The truth is revealed shortly afterwards by Ballin.  The information Ferno carries is false and the intention all along was that he would be captured, interrogated and finally be forced to give it up.  But since Ferno is the sort of man who can withstand a great deal of pain he won’t break easily, which means that the Germans should be convinced that what he tells them is genuine.

Jeanne is charged with getting him to speak, but despite all the drugs at her disposal it’s no easy task.  So Handler (Steve Plytas) decides to use more old-fashioned types of persuasion.  When we cut back to the room there’s a blow-torch in the background, which tells us all we need to know.

There’s an unspoken irony about The Weakling.  The very title seems to suggest that Ferno was chosen because he was supposed to crack under pressure reasonably quickly – but this is contradicted during the scene where Ferno, and three others, were put through rigorous tests to see which of them would fare best under interrogation.  Ferno seemed to be least affected, which surely wasn’t what was needed?

Although Ballin knew he was sending Ferno to suffer, he’s not portrayed as a cold-blooded monster.  As Ferno continues to struggle against his interrogators, Ballin (sitting alone in his office) seems to hear his screams and silently urges the man to talk.  Eventually, pushed beyond the limits of human endurance, Ferno does.  But the cost is great – the American ends up as a shell of the man he used to be.

The closing scene, as Ballin visits him and begs for his forgiveness, is another memorable one.  And for one last time we see their two styles at play – Hopper emotes freely, whilst Gregson, leaving the room with a tear trickling down his eye, is much more restrained.

If The Weakling has a flaw then it’s probably some of Dennis Hopper’s dialogue.  At times Ferno talks with 1960’s idioms, which sit uneasily with the wartime setting.  It’s possible that Hopper himself dropped these into the script and, given all we know about his personality, refused to compromise.  His full-throttle approach may not appeal to all, but it’s the difference between him and Gregson (as well as the moral complexities of the story) that make this such a fascinating watch.

Espionage – Covenant with Death

covenant

Covenant with Death opens in 1942, with two young men – Magnus Anderssen (Bradford Dillman) and Ivar Kolstrom (Don Borisenko) – leading an elderly couple through the woods.  Joseph and Sarah Blumfield (Arnold Marle and Lily Freud-Marle) show signs of flagging and stop for a rest.  Magnus and Ivar then both pick up rocks and it’s clear that they intend to kill the Blumfields.

The action then moves to a courtroom shortly after the end of WW2.  Magnus and Ivar are in the dock, accused of the Blumfields’ murder.  But why would two war heroes (they had been members of the Norwegian resistance) kill a defenceless couple?  The prosecutor (Allan Cuthbertson) is convinced of their guilt, whilst their defense attorney (David Kossoff) struggles to find a way to prove their innocence.  As might be expected, there’s more to this story that meets the eye …..

After the opening credits, a caption helpfully tells us the exact setting and time – Tonstrand, Norway, October 9th 1947.  You might wonder why so many Norwegian nationals (like Cuthbertson) speak perfect English, but that’s par for the course with a series shot in the UK.  It may be a little incongruous but it’s preferable to everybody attempting dodgy Norwegian accents.  And as touched on previously, the fact this was an American co-production necessitated that the two Norwegians in the dock, Magnus and Ivar, were played by an American and a Canadian respectively.

Allan Cuthbertson is his usual immaculate self as the prosecutor.  He seems to have a very solid case – both Magnus and Ivar confessed their guilt to the police and when Ivar was arrested he had Joseph’s gold pocket watch in his possession (he also admitted to the police that he took the watch from Joseph’s dead body).

A recess provides an opportunity for Ivar and Magnus’ attorney to speak to them.  He urges them to change their plea to guilty, but Magnus refuses – they may have killed the couple, but he tells him it wasn’t murder.  This intriguing statement drives the rest of the narrative as slowly the events of five years earlier are uncovered.

Several lengthy flashbacks help to stop the story from being a static courtroom tale.  The first flashback also helps to bring the character of Joseph Blumfield into sharp focus – his Jewish heritage meant that he was under increasing pressure from the Nazis, one of the reasons why he and his wife decided to flee.

Kossoff, like Cutherbertson, impresses, as he slowly teases out the story from the defendants.  Ivar tells the court what happened immediately after the deaths of Joseph and Sarah.  “After we did it, it was suddenly very quiet. Like we’d killed everything in the forest except ourselves. The old man bled a lot, for some reason the woman didn’t seem to, but we knew they were both dead.”  Don Borisenko is perfect as the twitchy Ivar, a man who lacks the certainty of his friend Magnus that they did the right thing.

Although Joseph and Sarah have been presented as harmless and helpless victims, Peter Stone’s screenplay constantly teases us that there must be more to the story than a simple tale of opportunistic murder and robbery.   It’s strongly hinted on several occasions that during wartime people have to do things which would be unthinkable during a time of peace.  If Magnus and Ivar felt that the security of their organisation was threatened by the old couple it would explain why they had to die.

Apart from Cuthbertson and Kossoff, other familiar faces pop up, most notably Alfred Burke and Aubrey Morris.  In the present day, Burke (as Ivar’s brother, Gustave), sports a natty eye patch, which is absent when the action flashes back to 1942.   Burke’s contribution is small but he was such a good actor that he could make even a handful of lines come alive.  His jousting with Cuthbertson is a special treat – Gustave angrily wonders why the court is attempting to prosecute two war heroes, which incenses the prosecutor.  “Many of the men in this room, and the women too, risked their lives in the struggle against the Nazi occupation. Some of us suffered just as much as you. Torture, imprisonment under death sentence, but we didn’t sink so low as to murder those we had pledged to protect, to save our own skins.”  It’s an electrifying scene.

Covenant with Death shows how moral absolutes are a luxury often denied during a time of war.  The scene of Joseph and Sarah in the moments before their deaths is very powerful – both know they will shortly die, both are afraid, but they’re also reconciled that it’s the only way.  But was it?  It’s is a question that remains right until the end and no doubt each viewer will have their own opinion as to whether Magnus and Ivar were guilty or innocent.

Although espionage doesn’t form any part of the story, this is a deeply thought-provoking tale that, even when the verdict is delivered, doesn’t seem to bring closure for the men in the dock.