Defector, The: Montgomery Clift’s Last Film, Cold War Thriller

The brilliant actor Montgomery Clift, who was nominated for four Best Actor Oscars but never won, made his last screen appearance in this French-produced Cold War thriller, completed shortly before his untimely death.

For a movie billed as thriller, The Defector, which is based on the 1965 novel L’espion by Paul Thomas, is neither suspenseful nor tense as the genre requires.

Clift plays American scientist James Bower, who in the first scene is approached by CIA agent Adam (Roddy McDowall) who wants him to perform an official mission while visiting East Germany.

A Russian scientist who has defected to Germany has brought with him top-secret data on microfilm, and Adam wants Bower to retrieve it from Dr. Saltzer (Hannes Messemer).

However, Bower’s secret plan is discovered by Peter Heinzman (Hardy Kruger), a Russian intelligence agent determined to keep the microfilm out of American hands and turn James against his American comrades.

For his part, Bower is determined to complete his assignment, with the help of Saltzer’s nurse, Frieda (Macha Meril).

The movie is heavy on dialogue and exposition, and low in dramatic action or suspenseful atmosphere.

New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, then at the height of his popularity,  makes a rare dramatic turn in a small supporting role.

Pale and slender, Clift seems bewildered and weak, walking through the part without much passion or compassion.  This was the last film of Clift, who was obviously very ill, he died just months after principal shooting was completed.  Reportedly, he only agreed to star in it so he could prepare himself for his next role in the 1967 film Reflections in a Golden Eye, opposite his best friend, Elizabeth Taylor; In the end, the role went to another Method actor, Marlon Brando, under John Huston’s direction.

The movie is sealed with tragedy: In December of 1966, director Lévy, only 44, committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. Though the film was released before Levy’s death, it was a posthumous showing for both its director and lead actor.


Running time: 99 Minutes

Directed by Raoul Levy