Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Scarlatti Inheritance by Robert Ludlum

The Scarlatti Inheritance describes the actions of Ulster Scarlatti who joins forces with the Nazis on the eve of World War II.  Scarlatti seeks to use his finances to help Hitler's rise to power in Germany.  His schemes are thwarted by agent Mathew Canfield who forms a strange alliance with Ulster's mother, Elizabeth, and wife.

The story begins in Washington during World War II, when word is received that an elite member of the Nazi High Command is willing to defect and divulge information that will shorten the war. But his defection entails the release of the ultra-top-secret file on the Scarlatti Inheritance --- a file whose contents will destroy many of the Western world's greatest and most illustrious reputations if they are made known.  The story flashes back to the turn of the century and tells the story of a corrupt American soldier, his billionaire mother, and an accountant-agent working for the US Government.

The roots of the Scarlatti fortune began with the immigrant Giovanni Scarlatti who used his engineering genius to improve operations at his future father-in-law's manufacturing plant.  Scarlatti married Elizabeth Wyckham and the wedded skills helped them build a fortune in the paper industry.  Unfortunately, Giovanni died and left a widow and three teenage sons.  Elizabeth's financial expertise continued to grow the Scarlatti empire. She also changed the family name to Scarlett to make it more acceptable in American society and business.  From  her headquarters in New York City, she ruled her American organization.

Her sons are a disappointment. They lacked their parent's genius, and Ulster was, in her words, "You possess a great deal of arrogance but you have nothing --- absolutely nothing --- to be arrogant about!"  The youngest son, Roland, died on his first day of World War I.   His brothers planned to revenge him, but Elizabeth did not want both boys to risk being killed.  She ordered Chancellor to remain at home and allowed Ulster to enlist.   During the last days of the war Ulster deviously constructed a situation that earned him a decoration for bravery.  More importantly, he met a German officer named Gregor Strasser. Their chance meeting created a new identity for Ulster who took on the name Heinrich Kroeger.

After the war, Heinrich Kroeger/Ulster Scarlett returns to America. He uses his status as a war hero to do precisely as he wished. He forms alliances and studies the family's business.  His German friend Strasser is active in the new Nazi Party and enlists Kroeger's help in financing its growth.  He marries Janet Saxon, a hard-drinking, pregnant socialite.  He seems serious about his interest in world-scale finance, but the reason for that becomes clear when he disappears, taking with him bonds and stock worth several hundreds of millions of dollars. Elizabeth is confused, and so is an obscure American Government office in the Department of the Interior, Group Twenty, that assigns a forensic account Mathew Canfield to examine the situation.  Canfield links Ulster's disappearance to a phony liquidation of bonds in Stockholm. When Elizabeth travels to Europe to follow her son's trace, Group Twenty assigns Canfield to accompany her.  After an attempt is made on her life, Canfield reveals the real reason for his travel and they agree to form a bond of convenience.  Together they unravel the mystery of Ulster's disappearance and his plans to finance a new Reich.

This book is hardly in the class of Ludlum's Bourne novels.  The worldwide conspiracy theme is familiar to fans.  We have a strange romance between Ulster Scarlatti's wife, who is hardly the noble suffering wife and mother, and Agent Canfield.  Canfield has his own agenda  in the plot and is often at odds with his superiors in the Agency.  The best part of the book is Canfield's relationship with Elizabeth Scarlatti.  Canfield is co-conspirator, protector, agent, and surrogate son.  The book may appeal to fans of the Nazi era conspiracy novel.

The book's conclusion left me unsatisfied. Perhaps I wanted a more complex ending. The "relationship" between Ulster and his son is strange.  Stranger still is the reason behind the meeting of Canfield and Scarlett in 1944.  I admire the way that Ludlum drives his readers through his novels.  It's a style that I try to emulate in my writing.   I pushed through the book, wanting more but finding less. For that reason, I give The Scarlatti Inheritance...

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Holiday Films Offer Political Intrigue

I am really looking forward to this year's batch of holiday films.  For those of us who love action packed adventure, December 2011 offers a stocking full of intrigue and fast-paced drama.

At the top of my list is the latest installment of the Mission Impossible franchise --- Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Click on the link to see the trailer. 

The new version of the John le Carre novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Gary Oldman as George Smiley looks like a great way to begin the month (December 9th release date).  Watch the trailer to see if I'm right.

While not exactly a political thriller Sherlock Holmes - A Game of Shadows is another film that I'm looking forward to.  Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as the world's most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, and Jude Law returns as his formidable colleague, Dr. Watson as they chase Dr. Moriarty across Europe.  But the cunning Moriarty is always one step ahead as he spins a web of death and destruction --- all part of a greater plan that, if he succeeds, will change the course of history.   With that order of magnitude, maybe the second edition of Holmes is more than a mystery.  Its coming out on December 16th.

Invite your movie buddy, get your tickets, buy some popcorn and get ready for an action-packed holiday!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Carlos - The Jackal

It may come as a surprise to some of you, but their really is a Carlos. The mythetical figure of many spy pictures is alive and in captivity.

According to news reports from Paris, Carlos the Jackal, one of the most dreaded terror masterminds of the Cold War, is on trial again accussed of four deadly attacks in France nearly three decades ago.

The defiant and smiling 62-year-old Venezuelan, whose real name is Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, appeared before a special Paris court on terrorism-linked charges Monday. He is already serving a life sentence handed down for a triple murder in 1975.

Ramirez, who sowed fear across Western European and Middle Eastern capitals during the Cold War, is charged with instigating four attacks in 1982 and 1983 that killed 11 people and injured more than 140 others in France.

Ramírez Sánchez joined the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in 1970, when recruiting officer Bassam Abu Sharif gave him the code name Carlos due to his South American roots.

After several bungled bombings, Ramírez Sánchez achieved notoriety for a 1975 raid on the OPEC headquarters in Vienna, which killed three people. This was followed by a string of attacks against Western targets. For many years he was among the most wanted international fugitives. Carlos was dubbed "The Jackal" by The Guardian after one of its correspondents reportedly spied Frederick Forsyth's novel The Day of the Jackal near some of the fugitive's belongings.

Arrested in Sudan in 1994 and flown to France, Ramírez Sánchez is now serving a life sentence in the Clairvaux Prison for the murder of two French agents of the DST (counter-intelligence) and an alleged informant.

He is the subject of numerous films as reported by Wikipedia. The most recent film is the French mini-series produced in 2010. Carlos won the 2010 Golden Globe award for the 'Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television.

Intrigued by the background information, I decided to download the 5-hour miniseries from Netflix.

The story presents Carlos as “terrorist rock star.” A charming ladies man, who dialogues with his captives trying to explain his motives while assuring them that they will be killed. Carlos embraces political ideologies more as a matter of expediency than of well-thought out examination. His activities seem more an attempt to advance his career as an assassin than martyrdom in the cause of a Palestinian homeland.

The fictionalized account blends news footage with dramatic recreations and invented conversations to present a vivid account of Carlos’ twenty-year reign of terror. Twentieth-century history geeks, like me, will find the mini-series fascinating. We see the multinational connection of the terrorist community with Japanese, German, Iraqi, Libyan, Sudanese, and Syrian working together to advance their own schemes. Carlos is protected by these same nations who give him carte blanche to carry out his missions as long as they are not in their country. Sheltered by these countries, international authorities appear impotent in their efforts to arrest him.

The story reveals how European nations cave in to pressures by Socialists and Communists. The appeasement like behavior foretells the sad state of European economies especially Greece and Italy.

Unfortunately, the details, while appealing to history geeks, make for a confusing and slow moving drama. Adding to this problem is a series of semi-pornographic scenes involving Carlos and a series of earnest female terrorist groupies that add little to the story. This leaves us with a central character that is neither tragic, heroic, nor committed. The mini-series reveals Carlos as a vain, morally bankrupt killer dedicated to his own image rather than a noble or evil cause.

We rate the series as two out of four stars.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Hanna Heller (Saoirse Ronan) is a 16-year-old girl who lives with her father, Erik Heller (Eric Bana) in the wilderness of Finland.  Her father has trained her in survival skills to prepare her to leave hiding and seek revenge for her mother's murder.  Erik trained Hanna in several languages and military skills.  Their isolated and primitive live in Finland has prevented Hanna from experiencing friends her age and modern technology.   

Finally, Hanna tells Erik that she is ready to leave, and he gives her a box containing an old transmitter that will alert the outside world to their presence.  Hanna flips the switch, sending a signal from their location to Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), a CIA officer.  Marissa sends a assassination  team to their hideout, where Hanna is captured and taken to a CIA safe house in Morocco.  Marissa is anxious to capture and kill Erik to hide a secret project.  Hanna easily escapes her captivity and flees into Moroccan desert.  

The search is on for both Hanna and Erik. Erik makes his way to Germany to meet with Hanna.  Hanna meets an English family vacationing  in Morocco and becomes friends with their teenage daughter Sophie.  Hanna hitches with them to Spain and Germany. Meanwhile, Wiegler hires a night club owner called Isaacs (Tom Hollander) to capture Hanna while she goes after Erik.

The pursuit continues until Isaacs and his men corner Hanna and the family, but she manages to escape.  Isaacs learns that Hanna is heading for Berlin to meet her father.

Hanna learns that Erik is not her father.  Erik met Hanna's mother during his assignment as a recruiter for a program in which pregnant women were conscripted from abortion clinics so that the CIA could alter their children's DNA, enhancing their strength, stamina, and reflexes while suppressing emotions like fear and empathy in order to create a batch of super-soldiers. The project was deemed a failure and all the women and their genetically-modified children were eliminated.  Erik tried to escape with Hanna and her mother, but Wiegler murdered Johanna before Erik could escape with her and Hanna to the wilderness of Finland.

I have seen this movie twice and liked it both times.  Hanna is a fast-paced movie with lots of violence.  At times it seems like a coming of age story with Hanna double-dating with her friend Sophie as she experiences a terrifying journey to Germany and the truth about herself.  There are some quirky characters like Sophie's parents, Isaacs, and her father's clown friend , and Wiegler.  Cate Blanchett seems to enjoy playing the villain,  perhaps finding an outlet for her arrogant and haughty side that emerges in interviews.  Although at times predictable, the fast pace distracts and pulls you to the ultimate conclusion.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Top Political Thrillers

Here's a list of "political thriller" movies  as ranked by various groups.

Movietone: (1) All the President's Men, (2) Frost/Nixon, (3) Dr. Strangelove, (4) Fail-Safe, (5) The Manchurian Candidate, (6) All the King's Men, (7) Wag the Dog, (8) The Parallax View, (9) Z , (10) The Day of the Jackal, (11) The Dead Zone, (12) Three Days of the Condor,  and (13)Syriana

Flickchart: (1) Notorious, (2) The Lives of Others, (3) The Manchurian Candidate, (4) The Ghost Writer, (5) Munich, (6) The Hunt for Red October, (7) The Man Who Knew Too Much, (8) Blow Out, (9) JFK, (10) Three Days of the Condor, (11) In the Line of Fire, (12) Mississippi Burning, (13) State of Play, (14) The Day of the Jackal, (15) Enemy of the State, (16) The Constant Gardener, (17) Z, (18)The Crying Game, (19) Patriot Games and (20) Thirteen Days.

Amazon: (1) Frost/Nixon, (2) All the President's Men, (3) The Contender, (4) Syriana, (5) The Battle of Algiers, (6) Taxi to the Dark Side, (7) Wag the Dog,  (8) K Street, (9) Putney Swope, (10) Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Screen Junkies: (1) All the King's Men, (2) The Manchurian Candidate, (3) Fail-Safe, (4) Taxi-Driver,   (5) All the President's Men, (6) Conspiracy Theory, (7) Enemy of the State, (8) The Interpreter, (9) Syriana, and (10) JFK.

I wouldn't include Frost/Nixon, All the President's Men, Wag the Dog, The Contender, Mississippi Burning or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on the list.  These are all political dramas.  I would include the newly released Ides of March in the political drama category as well.  I'm not sure how Taxi Driver made the list.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Terrorism as Grist for Writers

The very word elicits strong emotions --- fear, hate, anger.  In its simplest form terrorism is the use of terror to coerce or force people.  There are over 1,000 definitions of terrorism.  Terror is defined as intense fear and a person or thing that inspires this fear.  Terror is used to accomplish some purpose that may be as simple as scaring someone in revenge for a past wrong (see slasher movies) or as complex as achieving a political, religious, or social agenda.  Tactics used by secret police such as the Gestapo during World War II, the Catholic Church during the Inquisition, and measures taken by extremist special interest terrorist groups including right to life, animal rights, and environmental groups.  The ideals of the group may be lofty, in their own minds, such as anti-nuclear, designed to subjugate a group such as the Klu Klux Klan and African-Americans, or organized crime as experienced in the United States and especially Mexico.

Terrorism is the inspiration for a variety media. The heightened emotions, randomness, unpredictability, violence, and bizarreness makes novels and movies with terrorist themes highly popular.  In the arena of the political thriller, the stakes are higher than with  the other themes.  Mass destruction is often the consequence of these stories.  Nuclear war, epidemics, chemical attacks usually impact more than a few scantily clad co-eds with bad decision-making skills. 

The poor choices by Victoria's Secret models suggests another aspect of the genre that's appealing.  Political thrillers feature a game a wits with a determined, perhaps smart, protagonist hindered by bureaucratic incompetence against a an even smarter, more ruthless antagonist.  Interestingly enough, the smartest guy or girl doesn't always win.  The newest twist is the villain who seems to be pursuing political motives when he reality he is just a crook trying to steal a few million or, with inflation, several billions.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Blind Horizon

The film begins in the outskirts of rural New Mexico where an unconscious Frank Kavanaugh (played by Val Kilmer) is discovered by two young boys.  He is rushed to a nearby hospital with a gunshot wound in his head.  a small town called.  Kavanaugh is placed in an intensive care unit in the hospital in Black Point under the care of a trauma nurse named Liz (Amy Smart).  After regaining consciousness, Kavanaugh is interviewed by Sheriff Kolb (Shepard).  Unfortunately, Frank has temporary amnesia from his head injury and can't explain what happened to him. Kavanaugh is ordered to stay in the hospital for closer observation.

Sheriff Kolb and his deputies are unable to determine what happened what happened.  When Kolb returns to where Frank was found he discovers a key.  Kolb returns to the hospital to find that Kavanaugh, in a violent and confused state, is claiming to have knowledge of a possible assassination attempt on the president of the United States.   Dr. Conway (Gil Bellows) tries to calm Kavanaugh and gets punched in the nose for his efforts.  Conway explains to Kolb that Frank may be experiencing delusional side effects from the amnesia.  Kavanaugh has periodic flashbacks that could be fantasy or real memories. He has a recurring image of talking with a mysterious woman named Ms. K (Faye Dunaway).   

Kavanaugh's fiancée, Chloe (Neve Campbell),  arrives at the hospital and makes arrangements for his immediate release.  Chloe tells Sheriff Kolb that she and Kavanaugh are from Chicago and that Kavanaugh works for the IRS.  She explains that they were in New Mexico on vacation. She also produces several photos of her with Kavanaugh to support her claims of an existing relationship.   The President is making a campaign tour through the Southwest, but there are no plans to visit Black Point. Kavanaugh still believes that attempt will be made on the President's life in Black Point within the next few days.  Distraught over his situation, Chloe convinces Kavanaugh to leave the hospital with her, and she drives him back to the motel they had checked into a few days earlier.

Kavanaugh is contacted by a young man who seems to know him but later attacks him.  Kavanaugh is also nearly run over.  As the time approaches for the "Rhombus" mission to take place, Kavanaugh's grasp of the situation becomes clearer, but he remains confused whether he is part of the mission or an agent trying to prevent it.

The movie is suspenseful to a point, but the story has been done so many times that the plot doesn't really grab you.  The performances are okay, but hardly Oscar-worthy.  The absence of due-diligence by the Sheriff on Chloe and Frank is amazing.  Then we have the sub-plot of the deputy running against the Sheriff in the upcoming election.  What really bothered me was how this sleepy little town seemed to grow buildings and population turning it into a larger community.  A lot of red herrings and local characters try to confuse the plot, but do little  to add to the plot.  The same can be said of Kavanaugh who spends more time at the local bar(s) than with his fiancée trying to figure out who he is.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Debt

The Debt is a 2011 drama-thriller film directed by John Madden based on a screenplay written by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan. The film is a remake of the 2007 Israeli film of the same name by Assaf Bernstein. It stars Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Wilkinson and Marton Csokas.

In 1966, agent Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain) arrives in East Berlin to meet with fellow agents David Peretz (Sam Worthington) and Stefan Gold (Marton Csokas). Their mission is to capture Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), infamously known as "The Surgeon of Birkenau" for his horrific medical experiments on Jews during World War II, and bring him to Israel for trial.

Rachel becomes a patient at Vogel's OB/GYN clinic. At her third appointment, Rachel injects Vogel with a sedative during an examination and induces the nurse (Vogel's wife) to believe Vogel suffered a heart attack. Stefan and David arrive dressed as paramedics and make off with the unconscious Vogel in an ambulance, barely ahead of the real ambulance team. Under cover of night, the trio attempt their escape at Wallankstraße Station, on a rail line along the sector boundary between East and West Berlin. However, as they prepare to load Vogel onto the train, Vogel suddenly awakens and sounds the ambulance's horn, alerting East German guards to their presence.

The escape from East Germany is postponed and the agents have to wait ten days for a new extraction.  The agents take turns monitoring Vogel, who attempts to psychologically humiliate and intimidate them. During Rachel's watch, Vogel manages to loosen his binds and ambushes Rachel with a shard from a broken plate, permanently disfiguring her face. He escapes into the night as the agents are left to assess their failure. Panicked and hoping to save face for both himself and for Israel, Stefan convinces Rachel and David to go along with the fiction that Vogel was killed. They agree to lie and use the cover story that Rachel shot and killed Vogel as he tried to flee.

The agents become national heroes for their roles in the mission. After many years, information is obtained by David that Vogel may be alive and that a journalist plans to interview him.  This creates a moral dilemma for the agents.  The only solution appears to be to find Vogel and kill him before the journalist reveals the truth.

This is a well acted thriller with gut wrenching decisions facing the former agents. The lie has had profound impacts on all of them. Stefan has risen in the ranks of the Israeli government, Rachel's daughter has published a book on the capture, and David has spent the last 30 years searching for Vogel.

I like Helen Mirren and she delivers in this drama, but the real stars are the actors playing the young Mossad Agents.  Jessica Chastain is excellent as Rachel.  This movie will definitely keep you in your seat.  Get the popcorn ready.


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Max Manus - Man of War

Max Manus - Man of War is a Norwegian film based on the life of resiostance fighter Max Manus.  This historical drama follows Manus (played by Askel Hennie) from the Winter War against the Soviet Union in Finland through the outbreak of World war II and the German occupation of Norway until peace in 1945.

After fighting the Soviets as a volunteer during the Winter War in Finland, Max Manus returns to Norway, which has quickly surrendered to the Nazis. Max joins with the Norwegian resistance movement and engages in sabotage until he is arrested. He tries to escape the local authorities by jumping out of a window, but ends up under guards in the hospital. He manages to escape to Scotland where he receives British Commando training. He returns to Norway to carry out sabotage missions against the occupying forces. Returning to Norway with his friend Gregers Gram (Nicolai Cleve Broch), his first mission is an attack on German supply ships. He is spectacularly successful, and soon he becomes a special target for the local Gestapo chief Siegfried Fehmer (Ken Duken). Manus, however, avoids capture, and with Gram and Gunnar Sønsteby he forms the so-called "Oslo Gang".

Stockholm in the neutral Sweden becomes a meeting point for Norwegians in allied military service. Here Gram introduces Manus to Ida Nikoline "Tikken" Lindebrække (played by Agnes Kittelsen, who works as a Norwegian contact for the British consulate. Tikken and Max develop a special bond of friendship. As the Gestapo tightens the noose around the resistance fighters, the missions become more dangerous, and members of the "Oslo Gang" are killed and capyured. Max starts to blame himself for being the one who survives. After the war he meets with Siegfried Fehmer and begins to deal with the loss of his friends.

The movie received seven Amanda Awards (The Norwegian Oscar). It is an good film that presents espionage in a realistic fashion.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

What's a Political Thriller

According to Wikipedia, a political thriller is "a thriller that is set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. They usually involve various extra-legal plots, designed to give political power to someone, while his opponents try to stop him. They can involve national or international political scenarios. Political corruption, terrorism, and warfare are common scenarios.  Erik Lundegaard, in reviewing the film The Interpreter, said that the basic plot of a political thriller "is an ordinary man pulling an innocent thread which leads to a mess of corruption. The corruption should be political or governmental in nature."

This blog is dedicated to the genre of political thrillers.  In future blogs, I will review books and movies dedicated to the subject.  I would be happy to review any new thrillers especially from new authors like myself.  I welcome your input and suggestions.