Cast & Crew
The "Central Bureau of Intelligence," a network formed to consolidate activities of several American spy agencies, learns that one of their agents, who was close to infiltrating the Kremlin, has been thrown off a train in Switzerland and killed. At CBI headquarters in Washington, Inspector Jenkins tells agent Frank Sanford that the director wants them now to enlist Boris Mitrov, a well-known Russian-born American musician and Hollywood producer, who has been secretly conspiring with the Soviet Union. For more than eighteen months, the Bureau has been watching Boris, his Russian contact, Col. Vladimir "Vadja" Kubelov, who is the ranking KGB officer in Washington, and an American multi-millionaire banker and his wife, Adrian and Helen Benson, both of whom are Communists. While a squad of agents spy upon Boris' luxurious Beverly Hills home, Boris brings home his elderly father, a dissident who has just been released from Russia. Vadja interrupts the reunion when he brings papers for Boris to sign that will give Adrian control of Boris' film studio. Boris had agreed to this in order to get his father out of Russia, and Vadja now tells him that the fate of his brothers, still in Russia, will depend upon his future work. Sometime later, Boris is visited by Frank and Inspector Jenkins, who bring proof that Boris is working for Russian intelligence. Ashamed, Boris explains that he began a friendship with Vadja ten years earlier, unaware that Vadja was a Soviet spy. Boris denies taking money, but admits to accepting gifts for acting as a liaison between Communist agents and acquaintances in the U.S., and allowing his business to be used as a cover-up for espionage. Boris' father, having overheard the conversation, berates his son for betraying his adopted country, and reveals that Boris' brothers have been killed by the Soviets. After Boris agrees to help the Bureau, they send him to Berlin, ostensibly to make documentary films for the U.S. government. When Boris learns that his close friend and assistant, Robert Avery, will be the special agent assigned to accompany him, Boris, who was unaware that Robert was watching him for the CBI, feels betrayed. Later, though, after Robert conveys his sympathy for Boris' situation, Boris thanks him. When Vadja tells Helen, with whom he is having an affair, that the Russian embassy has recalled him, she implores him to take her with him to Moscow. She returns reluctantly, however, to Adrian, who has discovered that their home and studio are bugged, and they quickly leave for Mexico, hoping to be granted political asylum there. In a Berlin nightclub, Boris meets Rosnova, an attractive female agent, who takes him to testify at a trial in East Berlin, at which Otto Bergman, a concentration camp survivor who works at Boris' studio, is being accused of crimes against East Germany. To protect his own espionage work, Boris reluctantly testifies against Otto. After the Bureau supplies Boris with innocuous information to give to Vadja, he is invited to Moscow. Robert gives him a cigarette lighter containing an electric pistol that shoots tiny cyanide bullets to protect himself, and they decide that the code word "Cinerama" will signal that he is in danger. In Moscow, General Nikolai Chapayev, director of the KGB, tells Boris that he is considering putting him in charge of several new American espionage units. At Moscow University, Boris attends a class for students who plan to infiltrate communities in America and other countries posing as citizens. Meanwhile, the Bensons arrive in Berlin, where Helen tells Robert of her husband's plan to destroy Vadja by denouncing Boris as a counterspy. Robert then sends Boris a telegram that he must return to West Berlin for an important Cinerama conference. The next day, as Boris lands at the East Berlin airport, Chapayev learns of Adrian's suspicions and orders checkpoints to West Berlin closed. After Boris uses the lighter to shoot a police officer who has handcuffed him, he escapes to West Berlin. At his hotel, Robert instructs him to repeat everything he has learned in Moscow, as their conversation is being recorded. Boris recalls the code names and descriptions of the agents who have been sent to various parts of the U.S., just as a sniper fires through Boris' window and two KGB agents kick in the door. After Robert shoots one of the agents, the other, Hans Gruenwald, wounds him. Boris then struggles with Gruenwald, knocking him unconscious with the handcuffs. Boris' information leads to arrests of the new Russian agents at the Los Angeles airport, after which he is awarded a special commendation by Congress for his services.
James M. Crowe
Charles Lawton Jr.
Louis De Rochemont Iii
Louis De Rochemont
Man on a String
Man on a String, the 1960 spy thriller starring Ernest Borgnine, is too eccentric to fit either of those categories. Its dark atmosphere disqualifies it as feel-good entertainment, while its ambivalence about Soviet life-just how menacing is the communist menace?--hurts its credentials as commie-hating propaganda. The movie's ambiguity is what makes it interesting, and this is closely connected with Borgnine's star performance.
Borgnine plays Boris Mitrov, a character based directly on Boris Morros, a real-life double agent who published a memoir called My Ten Years as a Counterspy a year before the movie premiered. Morros was born in Russia but immigrated to the United States when he was in his early thirties. A dozen years later the Soviets recruited him to spy for them, and a dozen years after that-following a tip-off to J. Edgar Hoover about him--the FBI shipped him to the USSR as an American counterspy. All this was the last thing you would have expected from a Paramount music director and independent film producer with features like The Flying Deuces (1939), starring Laurel and Hardy, among his credits. With all that scooting around the world to dig up secrets for the Soviets, the Americans, or both, it's no wonder his life has been compared to a Laurel and Hardy comedy, if a complicated and sometimes scary one.
Although it's clearly a dramatized account of Morros's exploits, Man on a String has a quasi-documentary look that was probably inspired by producer Louis de Rochement, who specialized in nonfiction films as well as war pictures and, in the middle 1950s, innovative wide-screen extravaganzas. Portions were filmed in four international cities--Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, and Moscow--by four different cinematographers. Why did the communist Soviet Union open its doors for an anticommunist movie? It seems that authorities trusted De Rochement from earlier documentary projects-but after Man on a String his welcome immediately wore out.
Borgnine's performance contributes to the picture's realism too, despite his familiarity as a movie and TV star. Defending his casting of Borgnine, director Andre De Toth described Morros as "a flat and dull nobody" who cleverly used his nondescript manner as a survival tool in the espionage game. Borgnine was the ideal actor to play him, De Toth said, not because he resembled Morros physically-"I didn't care if [he] looked like Boris Morros or Alfred Hitchcock"-but because he "blended in with [the] drapes as if they weren't dry-cleaned," capturing the "quality of a stray dog" that Morros had in real life. Although not everyone agreed with the director, New York Times reviewer Howard Thompson called Borgnine's acting "completely persuasive" all through the film. Borgnine made his career breakthrough as the sadistic sergeant in the 1953 army drama From Here to Eternity, but he earned his Oscar® two years later for the title role in Marty, playing another guy who blended in with the drapes. His portrayal of Mitrov can be seen as a variation on the award-winning Marty theme.
The nonfiction feel of Man on a String also benefits from the clipped narration by Clete Roberts, a war correspondent who later became a groundbreaking reporter on Los Angeles television. And a large share of the credit goes to De Toth, for casting Borgnine and then filming his exploits in a no-nonsense style that rarely allows visual flourishes or narrative irrelevancies to slow down the action's momentum. The story of Morros/Mitrov was completely in tune with the creative personality of a director who, in Andrew Sarris's words, understands "the instability and outright treachery of human relationships" and finds antisocial behaviors "more like the natural order of things than like mere contrivances of melodrama." The central theme of De Toth's cinema is betrayal, and as critic Fred Camper observes, his interest is "not single betrayals by individuals but networks of betrayal that implicate most of his characters." This certainly applies to Man on a String, which surrounds Mitrov with self-seeking manipulators, sunshine patriots, and a tangled web of bad faith and broken promises. Not to mention offers he can't refuse. One is the Soviets' promise that his father and brothers can leave Russia if he'll just risk his life for communism; another is the counteroffer he accepts from the Americans, but only after learning that--contrary to everything the Soviets have told him--his brothers are already dead and gone.
Some critics have faulted Man on a String on two amusingly contradictory grounds--that its anticommunist theme is now irrelevant, and that it's not really anticommunist because it doesn't make the Soviets look miserable. De Toth answered both arguments well. Told by critic Anthony Slide that the movie's politics are dated, the director noted that it still contains a true picture of its era, including "its problems, its modus vivendi and [its] slogans," adding that what's bothering the critic may be "today's incomprehension of a ridiculous period." As for those contented-looking Soviet citizens, De Toth stated that "Russians, generally happy people, were happy with Communism. The West wasn't. According to [this] criticism, the Russians should've been asked to be unhappy because some jackass wanted to spread anti-Communist propaganda." Enough said.
Today's responses to Man on a String will depend on how curious moviegoers are about a recent historical period whose paranoia has much to teach us now, and how convinced they are by Borgnine's portrayal of Morros, the "bizarre character" whose psychology intrigued De Toth more than any other aspect of the project. It's also fascinating to speculate on what filming important parts of this story in cold-war Moscow must have been like. According to De Toth, playing dumb was a key part of the secret. "The lesson is...if you're smart, you keep your big mouth shut."
Producer: Louis de Rochement
Director: Andre De Toth
Screenplay: John Kafka, Virginia Shaler, adapted in part from Ten Years a Counterspy by Boris Morros with Charles Samuels.
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr. (Hollywood), Albert Benitz (Berlin), Gayne Rescher (New York), Pierre Poincarde (Moscow)
Film Editing: Al Clark
Art Direction: Carl Anderson
Music: George Duning
Cast: Ernest Borgnine (Boris Mitrov), Kerwin Mathews (Bob Avery), Colleen Dewhurst (Helen Benson), Alexander Scourby (Vadja Kubelov), Glenn Corbett (Frank Sanford), Vladimir Sokoloff (Mitrov's father), Friedrich Joloff (Nikolai Chapayev), Richard Kendrick (Inspector Jenkins), Ed Prentiss (Adrian Benson), Clete Roberts (narrator).
by David Sterritt
Man on a String
TCM Remembers Andre de Toth
Born in Mako, Hungary to the son of a civil engineer, De Toth showed an early artistic bent, having his first exhibit of paintings and sculpture at age 14 and seeing his first play produced at age 18. After obtaining his law degree from the University of Budapest, he began acting, writing and working as a cameraman for cinematographer Istvan Eiben. In 1939, he went to England, where he worked as a second unit director for Alexander Korda on The Thief of Bagdad and other films. De Toth immigrated to Hollywood in the early '40s, and worked with Korda on The Jungle Book (1942) and several other films.
He made his Hollywood directing debut with the 1943 feature, Passport to Suez, a propaganda thriller about the Nazis wanting to bomb the Suez Canal.
Impressed with his ability, Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, put the director under contract for one film and the result, None Shall Escape (1944), launched his Hollywood career. This tense, sensitive drama about a Nazi officer made to examine his actions was fascinating in its structure: Set after the war's end, the film centers around the trial of a Nazi butcher, Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox), in Poland and makes excellent use of flashbacks illustrating the prosecution's testimony to form the bulk of the film. In a way, the film predicted the Nuremberg Trials after the war.
de Toth earned considerable critical acclaim with the taut, intense noir thriller Pitfall (1948) which he co-wrote. Starring Dick Powell, Lizabeth Scott and Raymond Burr, this story of a bored insurance salesman who embarks on an affair because he feels stifled in his picture-perfect home (a devoted wife, son, nice house, successful career, etc.) was striking as one of the first films to examine the American dream gone sour. De Toth followed that with a shared Oscar nomination with William Bowers for Best Original Motion Picture Story for The Gunfighter (1950), a haunting character study of a killer (Gregory Peck) trying to live down his past.
His biggest commercial hit came with House of Wax (1953), the movie that launched Vincent Price's horror film career and is still regarded as the best of all three-dimensional films to be released during that period. Unlike other directors who seemed to be dabbling with a new technique, De Toth emphasized character and plot over the special effects: Price was a sculptor rebuilding his wax figure collection (destroyed by fire) by making statues out of his murder victims. The one-eyed de Toth was an odd choice to helm a 3-D film as he could not experience the stereoscopic process, having lost an eye in his youth, but he persevered and it was the most successful 3-D film of its day.
De Toth followed that hit with some fine films: Crime Wave (1954), a hostage thriller that boasts some fine performances by Sterling Hayden and Gene Nelson and excellent location shooting on the streets of Los Angeles; The Indian Fighter (1955) an exciting Kirk Douglas vehicle about a wagon master leading his train through rough territory that won accolades for depicting the Native Americans with more depth than contemporary directors; and Day of the Outlaw (1959), the stark, stylish, low budget western about an outlaw (Burl Ives) and his gang taking over taking a small town and matching wits with one of its citizens (Robert Ryan). For many, this film best articulated many of the recurring themes in De Toth's work that would be evaluated only decades later by film scholars: survival, betrayal, the capacity for evil and complexities of human relationships.
In the early sixties film work became increasingly scarce for De Toth and he found himself relegated to directing for television: Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip and The Westerner. Tired of the limitations he was finding in Hollywood, De Toth headed to Europe in the '60s, where he found work as an uncredited consultant and location scout on David Lean's extravagant Lawrence of Arabia (1962). He directed a few films abroad, the best of which was the World War II action film Play Dirty (1968), starring Michael Caine, and then he more or less retired from active filmmaking. It was not until recently that De Toth began to receive critical recognition for his entertaining body of work. The last few years have seen several retrospectives and he enjoyed a renewed popularity at film festivals from Scotland to San Francisco. His contributions to film were recognized with the 1995 life achievement prize by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the publication of his autobiography, Fragments: Portraits From the Inside, as well as an interview book, De Toth on De Toth, by Anthony Slide. De Toth was married for a time to Veronica Lake (1944-1952) with whom he had two children. He is survived by his wife, Ann Green.
by Michael T. Toole
TCM Remembers Andre de Toth
The working titles of this film were Ten Years a Counterspy and Spy and Counterspy. The surnames of producers Louis de Rochemont and Louis de Rochement III are misspelled "Rochmont" in the onscreen credits. According to a December 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item, Cliff Robertson was originally cast as the FBI agent, a role played by Glenn Corbett in the film. Hollywood Reporter production charts and news items note that location shooting for the film was done in West Berlin. Although onscreen credits list Pierre Pioncarde as director of photography, Moscow, Russia, the extent of filming in Russia has not been determined. Throughout the film, the offscreen narration of well-known newsman Clete Roberts is heard discussing the responsibility of the CBI and how the agency operates. At the film's close the narrator explains that "the man upon whose experiences this story was largely based now lives quietly in New York."
According to a December 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item, Cliff Robertson was originally to co-star in the film with Ernest Borgnine. Although various 1958 Hollywood Reporter news items noted that Henry Denker and Allan Sloane were to work on the screenplay, the extent of their contribution to the final film has not been determined. An October 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Columbia, which had hoped to start production in August 1958, decided to shelve the picture until 1959.
The character "Boris Mitrov" was based on Boris Morros, who was identified by the U.S. government as a counterspy in 1957. Articles about Morros published in newspapers and magazines in 1957 and 1958 yield the following information about his life: Morros, a child prodigy musician in czarist Russia, came to the U.S. in 1922. In an autobiographical article, Morros stated that in 1933, while he was supervisor for the stage shows of the Paramount theaters in New York, a Russian trade official offered to help facilitate the sending of food packages to his parents in the Soviet Union, and to arrange for his father to visit, in return for an agreement that he not book Leon Trotsky for the shows. As Morros had no interest in booking Trotsky, he agreed.
In 1936, while Morros was general musical director of Paramount in Hollywood, a Russian official convinced him to sign an affidavit stating that the official was working as a talent scout for the studio so that he could work in Germany surreptitiously against the Nazis. Morros later became a producer for Paramount, and in 1938, resigned to form Boris Morros Productions. During World War II, he produced training films for the Army, and in 1945, organized an independent company with William LeBaron. Morros was the producer of the critically acclaimed Carnegie Hall, and also made Tales of Manhattan and The Flying Deuces (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50). In 1943, the FBI began surveillance of Morros, who had been meeting with West Coast Soviet consular officials and spy boss Vassily Zubilin. That year, Morros was able to get his father, the former conductor of the Imperial Symphony Orchestra, into the U.S. with the help of Soviet officials. Morros soon became part of a Soviet spy ring, but by 1947, he had become a counterspy for the FBI.
Morros' 1957 testimony as a witness at the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was responsible for indictments against three groups of spies. In January 1957, Jack Soble, an appointee of former Soviet spy chief Lavrenty P. Beria, Soble's wife Myra, and Jacob Albam were arrested and later indicted and sentenced for 23 "overt acts" of espionage over a ten-year period, involving the passing of U.S. military and economic secrets to Soviet agents in New York, Paris, Vienna and Zurich. Morros, named as an "unknown individual" involved in fourteen of the acts, was identified publicly at that time after the Sobles' lawyer demanded that his name be revealed. The story of his career as a spy and counterspy was first made public on February 25, 1957. Later in 1957, a thirty-eight-count indictment was issued against George Zlatovski, a Russian-born engineer and former U.S. Army intelligence officer, and his wife Jane Foster Zlatovski, a former O.S.S. employee. The couple, who worked under Soble, were charged with having conspired since December 1940 with Soviet agents in New York, Washington, Paris, Austria and Switzerland to obtain and transmit defense and intelligence information to Russia, along with compromising information on the sexual and drinking habits of Americans assigned to Austria.
By the time of the indictment, the Zlatovskis had been given political asylum in Paris. In August 1957, Morros testified before HUAC that Martha Dodd Stern, daughter of distinguished historian and former ambassador to Germany William E. Dodd, and her husband, Alfred K. Stern, a former New York investment banker and Illinois housing commissioner, were also involved in the ring. The Sterns became the models for the fictional couple the "Bensons" of the film.
Before their indictment, the Sterns had gone to Mexico, and later surfaced in Moscow. Morros related that once, while he was meeting with Beria in Moscow, word arrived from Mrs. Stern that he was a counterspy, but he was able to convince the Soviets that her charge was based solely on jealousy. Morros also testified that Zubilin once drove him to the Sterns' exclusive Ridgefield, Connecticut home, where Stern agreed to provide $130,000 to set up a movie company as a cover for espionage activities. Both of these incidents are dramatized in the film.
Morros had been shunned by the film industry during the early 1950s when he paid $60,000 in cash to the Soviet Union for the rights to the Russian musical Marika, despite the official U.S. policy of discouraging trade with Russia involving dollars. He died in 1963 at age 73 of cancer and was called a "patriot" in his obituaries.
Released in United States Spring May 1960
Released in United States Spring May 1960