Triple Cross (1966)

Despite everything more fashionable cinema viewers may say, I love The Sound of Music. I love the songs, I love the mushy romance, I love the children. I love Julie Andrews. I love Christopher Plummer.
Which is why it’s always bothered me that Christopher Plummer used to refer to the film as The Sound of Mucus. Why, I wondered.

Well, this might just furnish some sort of answer to that question. Plummer stars in Triple Cross as a war-era safe breaker who offers his services to the Nazis as a spy in Britain. It’s not a frightfully demanding role, but it offers a glimpse of what Plummer was capable of. And I can understand why he might have thought of his role as Georg von Trapp as a little too much of a cakewalk.

Eddie Chapman (Christopher Plummer), when he’s not jumping into bed with any woman who gets his hormones racing, is busy cracking safes and extracting diamonds. The police are desperate to catch him. The newspapers are speculating that the ‘Gelignite Gang’ (the business card Eddie leaves behind at each site of a robbery) use sophisticated explosives to blow up safes. In truth, Eddie uses olive oil and chewing gum as part of his equipment, and an accomplice with a malfunctioning car that goes ‘Boom!’ every few seconds, helps hide the ‘Boom!’ of the exploding safe.

Very simple. And very effective. So effective that Eddie is soon able to afford a holiday—in sunny Jersey. And while he’s enjoying himself with the local female population, the police turn up and finally arrest him. Eddie is imprisoned on Jersey itself, and is there when the Nazis invade Jersey.

Eddie is a canny man. He immediately asks to speak to the German commandant. When the local jailor laughs at him, Eddie sets fire to the furniture in his cell—which gets the German commandant racing to Eddie’s cell. He is sceptical and derisive when Eddie asks to speak to the German authorities; what could Eddie possibly have to say? But Eddie is adamant.

A few days later, two visitors arrive at the prison to meet Eddie Chapman. These are Countess Helga Lindstrom (Romy Schneider) and Colonel Steinhager (Gert Fröbe), and after questioning Eddie for a bit, they realize that he’s offering them a deal: he will become a spy for the Nazis in England. An Englishman, a safe cracker, and traitorous. What more can they want? But—in exchange for money. Good, hard currency.

The countess and the colonel give Eddie no indication of whether they will accept his offer. They leave, and soon after, Eddie finds himself transferred to a prison in France. A brief interlocution with a fellow prisoner convinces Eddie that the Germans are keeping a strict watch on him—the fellow prisoner turns out to be a Nazi masquerading as a Maltese waiter. Eddie is on to him in a jiffy, but beyond letting the German know that Eddie knows—and that the man should stay out of Eddie’s way—Eddie doesn’t do much.

Eddie settles into prison life soon, even finding himself a lady friend called Paulette (Claudine Auger) in the women’s block. With his characteristic raging hormones, Eddie one night picks the lock on his cell door and sneaks out (unaware of the fact that the pseudo Maltese is watching him). Eddie picks locks all along the way until he gets to Paulette and one night of passion.
The next morning, the prison authorities (informed by the ‘Maltese’) barge in, arrest both Paulette and Eddie…

…and sentence Eddie to face the firing squad. (Bit drastic, no? But wait and see).
It turns out to be all a ruse; the countess and Steinhager come to fetch Eddie away in a car, while news of his ‘execution’ is published in the newspapers and Eddie Chapman is officially declared dead. Paulette is released, because the Germans suspect that she’s part of the French Resistance; now that she’s been let go, the Nazis are hoping she’ll go back to the Resistance and will spread the word that Eddie Chapman is dead.

Eddie is now introduced to the man who will be his boss: Baron von Grunen (Yul Brynner). Von Grunen draws up a contract whereby the Nazis will pay Eddie Chapman a hefty sum for his services. Eddie will be trained, will become part of the German army, and will then be sent back into England as a spy. Eddie haggles a bit over the amount he will be paid; proves his competence with a gun…

…and is told that he will from now on be known as Fritz Graumann, Private Second Class in the German army.
Eddie’s training begins. He learns everything—from codes and using the radio, to how to make and set and improvise explosives, to hand-to-hand combat.

When they consider him ready, von Grunen and company send Eddie on a little test mission to check whether he’s really loyal to them, or this is all a trick. Though they find themselves doubting Eddie’s loyalty briefly, they eventually realize that all is well; Eddie reports back, is welcomed back, and is given the thumbs up. They trust him completely.

Time now for the real mission. Time for Eddie to be sent back to his motherland as a spy. Before he’s taken up into the aircraft that will parachute him into England, Eddie sneaks up into the radio room and copies down some codes. Then he’s off, into the plane and flying across the Channel and into England, ready to carry out a mission against his own country—a mission to blow up the Vickers factory.

And the first thing Eddie Chapman does when he lands in England is to look for a phone so that he can talk to the police. Three days later, in Whitehall, he manages to accomplish what he had come here for: for a given sum of money (a hefty sum), Eddie Chapman will go back to the Germans—but as an Allied spy. First, of course, so that the Germans will continue to trust Eddie, an elaborate plan is made to have the Vickers factory ‘blow up’.

And then the war goes on, with Germany’s top foreign agent actually working for the British all the while. But how long will it last? Will Eddie be able to hoodwink the Nazis till the war finally ends? Will he get caught?

If you like secret agent films and quick twists of plot, Triple Cross is for you. In fact, if you like James Bond, you should see this one—Eddie Chapman is pretty much a sort of proto-Bond, what with his women and his spying. And I’m not sure it’s coincidental, either; Terence Young, who directed early Bond films like Dr No and From Russia With Love, was also the director of Triple Cross.

And the most interesting bit? Eddie Chapman was a real man, who was known as Zigzag during World War II. He was a one-time criminal who was in jail in Jersey when the Nazis invaded. Like the Christopher Plummer character, he did offer his services as a spy for the Germans, was trained, and landed back in England, where he turned himself over to the police and offered to become a double agent. In fact, he (as ‘Fritz Graumann’) became one of Nazi Germany’s most trusted secret agents; they even bestowed an Iron Cross on him.

The director of Triple Cross, Terence Young, had known Eddie Chapman before the war. Chapman himself didn’t much care for the film—its connection to fact was tenuous—but as a spy film, it’s slick enough to please most enthusiasts of the genre.

What I liked about this film:

Christopher Plummer. All right, this still isn’t as memorable a performance as Plummer’s performance in The Royal Hunt of the Sun or The Fall of the Roman Empire (the latter especially, ever since I’ve seen it, has sent my opinion of Plummer’s acting abilities shooting up) but he’s still good, smart and suave.

The screenplay, by René Hardy and William Marchant. Stylish, fast-paced, with an adrenalin-boosting thread of twists and turns and unexpected happenings. Neat.

What I didn’t like:

More detail in some parts of the film would have been welcome. For instance, when Eddie Chapman carries out his first mission in England: how did they do that? I could see the result, but not how that was done… I would have liked an explanation, even if brief.

But that was minor. I liked this film a lot, even despite that little niggle.

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28 thoughts on “Triple Cross (1966)

  1. Wow! sounds very interesting!
    It also gave a lot of interesting trivia! Didn’t know the story of Eddie Chapman and all.
    Of the cast Romy Schneider is famous in Austria for her portrayal of the Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) of Austria in a film-trilogy. Later on she hated that role and took on every possible unconventional roles, mostly in French films. Her mother was allegedly quite chummy with Hitler.

    By such double agents like Eddie Chapman, I have always wondered, if they themselves remember where their loyalties lie. In the film version it is clear that it has to be England! ;-)

    • “In the film version it is clear that it has to be England! ;-)”

      Not quite! It ends on an interesting note, where you’re left not quite sure of exactly where Eddie’s loyalties lay. ;-)

      I’ve heard of Romy Schneider’s role as Sissi in the trilogy; wanted to see it, since I’ve been to the Sissi Museum too and was fascinated by her life. But I haven’t put in much effort in trying to find the films… will do that. I had no idea Romy Schneider’s mum was chummy with Hitler. Coincidentally, I was watching another war film the other day (Five Graves to Cairo) which featured, among others, German-born Peter van Eyck – who was very strongly ant-Nazi but ended up playing Nazis in a lot of the films he worked in!

        • As an anti-Nazi, I certainly wouldn’t want to play a Nazi in a film. But then, one just might derive some sort of perverse pleasure about enacting an evil Nazi who is gunned down in the film by a good, upright Allied soldier. ;-) Plus, at least there’s the authenticity of accent etc – a German or Austrian actor will play a more believable Nazi. Have you seen Little Women? Rossano Brazzi plays a German in that, and is really quite unconvincing. Oh, and all the Indians and Chinese I’ve seen being played by badly-made up Caucasians…

          • I think a German or Austrian actor can at the most get the accent right. but one has to be a good actor to play a good role.. I am thinking of Christoph Waltz.
            No, I haven’t seen Little Women. Is it based on the novel with the same name, which Amol Paleker made into the serial Kacchi Dhoop?

            • Christoph Waltz did creep me out in Inglourious Basterds – I thought his acting was very good.

              Or, of course, you might be lucky and end up playing a German who isn’t a Nazi. In The Enemy Below, Curt Jurgens plays a German naval officer who is actually anti-Nazi. Good role, good acting.

              Yes, Little Women is the one based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott. I don’t remember Amol Palekar’s Kachchi Dhoop, but this is the one I mean.

      • “It ends on an interesting note, where you’re left not quite sure of exactly where Eddie’s loyalties lay.”

        Oh, that is why it is called Triple cross!

  2. Okay, I know I should probably avoid doing this, but here’s David Thomson on The Sound of Music:

    “…There is that opening shot, with the camera hurtling in toward the outspread arms of Julie Andrews. But instead of a messy collision, her young plum voice breaks out in “The hills are alive.” It goes on for 174 minutes…Christopher Plummer is caught between heavy boredom and the apparently serious urge to start kicking some of the children. He is having a terrible time, but somehow or other he must have signed a contract…”

    • Yes, going through the rest of Plummer’s filmography, I am always struck by how very different The Sound of Music is from everything else. If there had been some romantic comedies there, or some more musicals – à la Cary Grant – I’d have not been so surprised. But this was just so odd. Oedipus, Cyrano, Wellesley, Rommel, Commodus, Kipling – and the head of the von Trapp Family Singers!

      And though I am so fond of The Sound of Music, I can well imagine why someone would find it too sugary and sappy. Not one of Plummer’s favourite things, certainly.

    • that sounds good! i don’t know this thomson guy, but he hit thee nail on the head!
      all the same i like the sound of music, though very few people in austria know it at all.

      • Actually, I think one of the main reasons I like The Sound of Music is that it has (unlike nearly all Hollywood musicals), a good coherent story in between the songs. When compared to films like An American in Paris, High Society, Oklahoma! and a lot of others, flicks like The Sound of Music or Fiddler on the Roof win as far as I’m concerned simply because there’s more than just the music. It’s heart-warming, too, of course.

        • dustedoff: disagree on both counts. I don’t think The Sound of Music has such a good story (btw, I’m not a hater of the film by any means, though I last saw it maybe 15 years ago). But more importantly, I don’t think a musical needs to have a good story in order to be a great film. An American in Paris definitely doesn’t suffer from lack of story as far as I’m concerned – think it’s a stunning achievement.

          I’m tempted now to quote something from Pauline Kael’s savage review of West Side Story, but I don’t want you blocking me from your blog! :D Maybe after the 22nd…

          • Now I do want to hear what Pauline Kael said! Go ahead – even before the 22nd.

            An American in Paris was one film I liked a lot when I was a kid. I rewatched it a year back, and though I still thought Gene Kelly’s dancing was fantastic, and the film had a sweetness to it, I just couldn’t bring myself to really like it that much.

            For me, I guess story is a very important part of a film. Technique, no matter how evolved, fails to impress me to any great extent unless it’s coupled with a good story.

            Oh, and another bad musical? South Pacific.

            I am probably going to get murdered one of these days…

  3. For nostalgic reasons I watched the first episode of Kacchi Dhoop on you tube. When it was aired, I used to look forward to it and not it just sounds very lame and amateurish.
    Certain things are just not supposed to be revisited!

        • I suppose it’s because we watched all these serials way back when there was really nothing else to watch – so whatever there was, seemed so very good. And in my case at least I know that I was a lot more forgiving when I was younger… perhaps because I didn’t know any better? But I too have rewatched a lot of old filmi favourites (not so much TV serials), and found them to be nowhere close to the rosy memories I had of them… :-(

          • …also because, no matter how bad, 80s and early 90s TV serials were waaaay better than the Hindi films of those days!

            Some serials do stand the test of time, though. I watched Tenali Rama recently and though I could see that the sets were not as grand as I remembered, I still found it pretty entertaining. And there was Chanakya which I found just as boring as I did when I was a kid!

  4. Wasn’t Plummer famous for his Shakespearean roles on stage? I seem to remember him being referred to as a “Shakespearean actor”. It must be galling for him to know that after all the dramatic and challenging roles he did, he’d be remembered best for playing second fiddle to Julie Andrews in a musical romance! This one I have to get my hands on – Plummer and Brynner – it sounds wonderfu.

    • And in a film where he doesn’t have much to do except scowl and smirk and occasionally look romantic! – yes, so unfortunate for an actor who was capable of (and did do) some landmark roles. I’d heard too that he was known as a Shakespearean actor, though the only Shakespeare film I recall hearing about with him in the lead was Hamlet.

      By the way, he’s also exceptionally good in The Fall of the Roman Empire. As Commodus, initially happy-go-lucky and friendly, later downright evil and corrupt and nasty. Superb portrayal.

  5. The good news is this was just on Turner Classic Movies last week. The bad news is the version shown is the 128 minute U.S. version. I’d love to see the un-cut 140 minute edit.

    Spoiler:

    As to the question “Which side was Eddie on?”, the final scene of the movie answers that. Someone asks the question, Chapman smirks and replies, “You really don’t know?” He then slowly turns to face the mirror above the bar, offers his reflection a toast…. and winks. Eddie was on HIS side. The war, Britain vs. Germany, was immaterial to him. He wanted freedom, money, and women… and was able to get all those things through perhaps the greatest con job in history….

  6. Thanks for the comment, William. The uncut 140 minute version (which is the one I’ve seen) is fantastic. I haven’t seen the US version, so can’t say what they’ve cut, but I hope it’s nothing terribly important to the plot.

    Yes, I did know whose side Eddie was – after all, I’ve seen the film, you know! I didn’t want to put that into this review, because it would’ve been a spoiler. That’s why I’ve had to edit your comment, too.

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