This adaptation of the Alistair MacLean novel, The Last Frontier, represents one of only three movies produced by long time leading man, Richard Widmark. The other two being 1957’s Time Limit, a film he also directed yet did not appear in and the third one being the 1964 thought provoking, The Bedford Incident.
Producing and starring in the lead role of The Secret Ways, Widmark, turned over the directorial duties to a very capable Phil Karlson who gives this black and white espionage thriller a very Noir look which should come as no surprise considering Karlson directed classic Noir efforts like 1952’s The Big Combo and 1953’s 99 River Street among many others.
Filmed on location in a variety of authentic locales including Switzerland and Vienna, Widmark plays a soldier of fortune in the classic mold of an American overseas picking up jobs when he needs one. In this case in order to wipe out some gambling debts he hires on to cross into Communist held Budapest and bring back an aging freedom fighter played by Walter Rilla before his underground operation is wiped out.
To do so Widmark seeks out Rilla’s daughter played by German actress, Sonja Ziemann. From the moment Widmark begins his effort to track her down for details on her father’s whereabouts he’s under the lurking eye of Charles Regnier. A villain or a red herring? Time will tell. It’s at this point that Widmark’s hunt brings him into contact with the gorgeous Senta Berger appearing in her first English speaking role aside from an uncredited appearance in 1959’s The Journey.
Berger’s sex appeal is apparent to both Widmark and yours truly. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was ever up for a role in a Bond film during the 1960’s. Seems to me she’d have fit quite nicely in the Connery/Bond universe of cold war spy thrillers. Berger’s role may be small but surely opened the door for her as she would go on to appear in some major studio productions of the mid sixties including Major Dundee and Cast a Giant Shadow not to mention one of the Matt Helm spy films, The Ambushers, with Dean Martin. Fun yes but no Bond.
You look like “An American gangster.”
So says Miss Ziemann when Widmark corners her looking for details on Rilla. Sounds like Widmark’s reputation from movies like Kiss of Death and Pickup On South Street have preceded him to Vienna.
The film is plot heavy and at a running time of 112 minutes you’ll need to avoid stepping into the kitchen for a sandwich unless you’re pressing pause on the blu ray edition released by Kino Lorber which is how I finally caught up with this Widmark film that had eluded me since I first came to realize at a young age that I numbered myself among his many fans. Earliest memory? My guess is the 1954 western Garden of Evil.
Best scene in the film is probably when Widmark and Ziemann return to their hotel after hours in Communist held Budapest while the men assigned to keep watch on him are awaiting his return in the hotel lobby. Widmark had ditched them earlier in the evening while looking for a lead on how to get to Rilla. They’re clearly not impressed with this meddling American who claims to be a big city reporter. When Widmark walks into the lobby he feigns drunkenness displaying a great joy and friendliness to all the comrades around him. Something we don’t get to see the many stoic and or stern characters that Widmark often played actually do.
Down the stretch there are plenty of action sequences once Widmark joins in with the freedom fighters and their attempts at escaping the clutches of a bloodthirsty commander played by Jess Franco favorite Howard Vernon. I must also add that I liked the Charles Regnier character more as the film moved along unveiling just who and what he was fighting for.
Along with Widmark producing and Karlson directing from a MacLean novel, there are a trio of other names that jumped at me during the credit sequence serving the production behind the rolling cameras.
An Associate Producer credit went to Euan Lloyd. A name I always identify with one of my favorite action films of the 1970’s, The Wild Geese which he produced. He mainly stuck to male dominated action films as a producer including Shalako (1968), Catlow (1971), The Sea Wolves (1980) and The Final Option (1982). The latter film had Widmark appearing.
It’s also hard not to notice that the assistant director was Erich von Stroheim Jr. While I’ve no idea what he may have looked like I’m sure most film buffs have heard of his father actor/director Erich Sr. from silent films like Greed (1924) on through film history and of course as Max in Sunset Boulevard. It turns out that Jr. who passed away in 1968 had a long career as an assistant on movies including Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) with Widmak starring, Suddenly (1954) and The Gazebo (1958) before moving into television on shows like Peter Gunn, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Combat.
The third name that caught my eye was that of John (Johnny) Williams for his musical score. The Secret Ways came at the dawn of this legendary composer’s career. Countless movies over the course of the next 60 years followed including five Oscars for Scores you may recall in Fiddler On the Roof, Jaws, Star Wars, E.T. and Schindler’s List not to mention he didn’t win for Raiders of the Lost Ark. How can that be?
Secret Ways is a worthwhile film that for Widmark fans gets lost in the shuffle of big screen releases that he appeared in during the early 60’s. He was coming off 1960’s The Alamo with Duke and appeared in John Ford’s Two Rode Together with Jimmy Stewart and the Stanley Kramer star studded classic Judgement At Nuremberg. Both of those came out in 1961 and have been far easier to see in the ensuing years.
Lastly I’ll point out that sometimes things are just meant to be. Not only do I finally see this Widmark film thanks to the blu ray release but I scored an original one sheet poster this year as well.