Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Was Octopussy's clown chase inspired by Berlin Express (1948)?

The film of Octopussy suffers from something of an identity crisis. Part Cold War thriller, part old-fashioned comedy adventure, it tries to have its cake and eat it too, as it continues the more serious, Fleming-esque style that resumed with For Your Eyes Only, while returning to the Carry On-style antics of The Spy Who Loved Me or Moonraker. For all that, the film is hugely enjoyable, and I have a lot of time for it.

Admittedly James Bond in a gorilla suit does little to burnish the film's reputation, and some might baulk also at the idea of Bond in a clown suit. While the gorilla suit is probably a step too far, the film just about gets away with the clown-disguised spies. Both the clown chase at the beginning of the film and the scene in which Bond, dressed as a clown, attempts to diffuse the bomb hidden in the cannon in the circus big-top, are uncanny and suspenseful and have more than a touch of Hitchcock about them.

What is especially interesting about the clown chase sequence, in which 009, in possession of a Fabergé egg, tries to escape from East Berlin, is that it is not completely a new idea, but is very similar in structure to a sequence in a much earlier espionage drama, Berlin Express, directed by Jacques Tourneur and released in 1948.

In that film, we follow a group of international travellers on a train to Berlin. One of the party is a Dr Bernhardt, who has been instrumental in brokering a settlement concerning the post-war reconstruction of Germany. There are sinister forces against him, though, and on the train his enemies make an attempt on his life. The assassination plot fails, but in Frankfurt, where the train is forced to stop, Dr Bernhardt is kidnapped. Four of his fellow passengers, among them Robert Ryan, who plays an American traveller, help a US army major to search the city for him.

One of the gang's hideouts is a beer-hall. There is a cabaret there, and among the entertainers is a clown called Perrot. He is also one of the gang, but before he leaves the hall to go to an underground warehouse or vault where Dr Bernhardt is hidden, he is knocked out by Hans Schmidt, a German agent who has been assigned by the US War Department to protect Dr Bernhardt. Schmidt takes the place of the clown, costume and all, and gains access to the vault.

At the vault, Schmidt confirms that Dr Bernhardt is there and tries to sneak out to inform the US authorities. At that moment, Perrot enters, and the rest of the gang realise that Schmidt is an imposter. In the sequence that follows, we can draw several parallels with 009's flight in Octopussy.

Schmidt runs up a staircase to the exit, but is shot in the back, just as 009 receives a knife in the back from Grischa.

 
Both Schmidt and 009 get it in the back
As Schmidt makes his way back to the beer-hall, he is pursued by two of the gang members. At one point he conceals himself behind the rubble of the bombed-out city. As he makes another run for it, his cloak gets caught and drops to the floor. Similarly, 009 is pursued through the woods of East Berlin by two men, Mischa and Grischa, and loses his hat when it catches on a branch of a tree.

 
Both Schmidt and 009 lose garments in the chase
Schmidt arrives at the beer-hall, presumably where he knows he can make contact with the US major, and staggers on to the stage. He sees the major, and starts to walk through the crowd of patrons towards him. 009 arrives at the British embassy and staggers towards the ambassador's room.

 
Schmidt and 009 stagger to their goals
Just before reaching the major, Schmidt twists in pain and crashes to the floor, eliciting a scream from one of the patrons. In Octopussy, 009 smashes through the french windows, eliciting a gasp from the ambassador's wife, and crashes to the floor. Schmidt remains alive for long enough to tell the US army major where Dr Bernhardt is being kept. 009 is dead, but in releasing the egg, allowing it to roll to the ambassador, he has imparted vital information.

 
Both Schmidt and 009 crash to the floor but impart the vital information
The similarities between the 009 and Schmidt sequences are striking. It is uncertain whether Octopussy's screenwriters, George MacDonald Fraser, Richard Maibaum and Michael G Wilson, or indeed the director John Glen, whose experience on the set of The Third Man (1949), a film contemporary with Berlin Express and of the same genre, informed scenes in his later film, The Living Daylights (1987), were inspired by the earlier clown sequence. But even if the similarities are coincidental, the 1948 film shows that there is a precedent for the use of clown-disguised spies in Octopussy. The idea is not such a ludicrous one after all.

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