Despite the narration factor that I have often been a critic of, there is one major factor that makes Man on a String from director Andre De Toth worth checking out and that’s the screen presence and performance of Ernest Borgnine. Ernie is totally believable as a Russian born American citizen who finds himself caught up in the world of espionage as a double agent.
Ernie is a Hollywood producer who has been slowly indoctrinated into the Soviet spy machine through blackmail. The Kremlin’s number one U.S. man, Alexander Scourby, has made promises to Ernie about getting his father and brothers safely to America in exchange for his studio so that Moscow can use the studio for propaganda purposes. Scourby will make good on his first promise by delivering Ernie’s father played by screen veteran Vladimir Sokoloff to his Beverly Hills home. The reunion may be a happy one but it’s short lived.
CBI Agent Glenn Corbett corners Ernie revealing to him that he has been under surveillance for some time. CBI stands for Central Bureau of Intelligence. I’ll assume the CIA had issues with the script so Columbia Studios had to change things up? Ernie is shocked to learn that even his right hand man at the studio played by Kerwin Mathews is an agent for the U.S. spy firm. At first he feels betrayed but will soon come to realize that Kerwin is indeed a friend.
Pressure is put upon Ernie to turn play turncoat and spy on his Russian contacts, Scourby, Colleen Dewhurst and Ed Prentiss. Scourby believes Ernie could be his star pawn in the chess game of espionage and when Ernie is sent to West Germany on film business, it’s arranged for him to travel to the Soviet controlled West side where he will meet a KGB General and put through a string of tests to see if he is a loyal member of the Communist party.
There’s plenty of stock footage inserted into De Toth’s film from Germany and Moscow though I’m not entirely sure Ernie ever sets foot in either country or is this another backlot venture for the film’s star during the studio era. One things for certain, no one smiles in communist countries and Ernie’s big wide grin puts him at risk. More so when Dewhurst and Prentiss are on to his double agent agenda and intend to make their way back to Moscow and notify the authorities.
Film fan that I claim to be, I couldn’t help but recall the Siegel/Bronson film Telefon when Ernie is exposed to a class full of young Russian college students being trained to become fully integrated into the American way of life with background stories to aid in their cover as secret agents trained to carry out deadly bombings when called upon. Classic TV fans will be quick to point out Ted Knight serving as the instructor who explains to Ernie the reason for the class studies. Known mainly for his television work and Caddyshack, this was Knight’s first appearance on the big screen.
With some sound advice from Kerwin, Ernie’s Moscow mission may cost him his life but the two have worked out a security word just in case. If passed to Ernie it will mean his cover has been exposed and he’ll need to get back to safety on his own. The word? Cinerama. Fitting for Ernie’s Hollywood figure in the film. Of course it will come to that and then it’s a matter of whether or not the one time Marty can make it to East Germany and bring with him the names and covers of the many agents about to be sent to key locations throughout North America.
Borgnine had come a long way since working with the director, De Toth, in the early 50’s on a pair of Randolph Scott westerns The Stranger Wore a Gun and The Bounty Hunter. An Oscar can do that for an actor. Still a character actor at heart, this was one of Ernie’s leading parts following his Oscar winning role in Marty. For the remainder of his long career he’d freely move back and forth from leading roles to character parts and I for one enjoyed the ride as a long time fan. He always seemed to be having fun and I think that shines through in interviews and his autobiography, Ernie.
Kerwin Mathews is probably best known to fantasy film fans as the title character in Ray Harryhausen’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Montreal born Colleen Dewhurst is another familiar face to fans scoring numerous Emmy nominations and awards for her TV work and I often recall her for her amusing cameo opposite Roscoe Lee Browne and the boys in 1972’s The Cowboys as the Madam transporting a wagon load of young gals.
Man on a String is far from the best spy film of a more serious note and would be eclipsed by future efforts like The Spy Who Came In From the Cold but with a certain agent in Her Majesty’s Secret Service about to be unleashed upon movie goers in 1962, this Ernie effort would quickly be forgotten. Thankfully and I think rather surprisingly it’s turned up in a four pack of titles on the Mill Creek Budget Label meaning it’s found a home here on the shelf in my movie room.