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Illuminating the Dark Side of History

'Secret Agent' and 'Mother Night' come from literary roots

Themes of espionage, betrayal, and other forms of international skulduggery often find their way into today's headlines, and occasionally into today's movies as well.

Two new pictures, "The Secret Agent" and "Mother Night," take their stories from well-known novels and their themes from the dark side of modern history. Both have excellent casts and intelligent screenplays, although only "Mother Night" finds a filmmaking style imaginative enough to match its grimly fascinating plot.

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Joseph Conrad described his 1907 novel, "The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale," as a purely creative work with no "social or philosophical intention." When a critic said he "delighted in cruelty," he protested that he took no pleasure in the descriptions of violence called for by his subject. That subject was the self-styled anarchist movement that skulked around London in the late 19th century, and more specifically a real-life occurrence that struck the city in 1894, when an inept terrorist lost his life in a failed attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory.

Conrad described this event as "a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought." But being a full-fledged literary adventurer, he set himself the task of doing exactly that - entering the life and mind of a would-be terrorist and reconstructing the sort of psychological, political, and historical attitudes that could lead to such a stupidly senseless act.

The result was a story of personal and domestic intrigue centering on a nondescript shopkeeper named Verloc, who runs his family-owned business by day and sneaks around to anarchist meetings and agent provocateur conferences during his time off.

His unimaginative wife and mentally slow brother-in-law have little idea of his shady connections. So he must rely on his own cleverness when orders come down to launch a terrorist attack on the time-zone observatory that has become London's proudest symbol of civic progress in the scientific age. Entrusting a bomb to the most dull-witted member of his household, he sets in motion a series of tragic developments that culminate in what Conrad called an "anarchistic end of utter desolation, madness and despair."

This is tragic material, to be sure, and Christopher Hampton's screen adaptation does little to soften or lighten it. But the movie can hardly be called gratuitous or excessive in its approach.There is scarcely a moment in Hampton's version when roguish characters or evil deeds are glamorized, sanitized, or treated with anything but the "scorn" and "pity" that Conrad described as his own attitudes toward them.

Given its thought-provoking qualities, "The Secret Agent" would be a better film if Hampton's writing and directing were more vigorous and varied. His screenplay gets the novel's basic story across but misses the deeply sardonic tone of Conrad's finely honed prose. And while the movie always looks handsome in a gloomy sort of way, there's a sameness to its images that eventually grows monotonous.

Philip Glass's music is monotonous on purpose - he's a celebrated "minimalist" composer - but it works less well than usual when combined with Hampton's unvarying camera work.

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The expertly chosen cast includes Bob Hoskins as the title character, Patricia Arquette as his long-suffering wife, Christian Bale as her slow-thinking brother, Gerard Depardieu as a local anarchist, and Robin Williams as a terrorist.

'MOTHER Night" is based on Kurt Vonnegut's sardonic novel about an American playwright who takes up residence in Germany, gets recruited as a double agent for the United States government, and becomes a Nazi propagandist who spews Jew-hating venom on the radio while conveying secret messages that may or may not be helping the Allies win World War II.

After the war, he returns to New York, becomes an unwilling hero for a new generation of neo-Nazi lunatics, and reconnects with a German woman who loved him years ago. All the while he strives to assure himself that his despicable public acts have never tarnished his "secretly virtuous insides," in Vonnegut's phrase.

On one level, "Mother Night" is an ironic look at the multitudinous forms of deceit, duplicity, and disarray that can arise when instincts of patriotism and self-preservation collide within a personality that tends toward self-deluding romanticism.

On a deeper level, it's a study of human personality itself, suggesting that the dividing line between "inner me" and "outer me" is so thin that ultimately "we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be," as Vonnegut puts it in the novel's introduction.

The movie is intelligent and absorbing on both levels, thanks to Keith Gordon's amazingly inventive directing and the thoughtful contributions of a superb cast: Nick Nolte as the story's tragic hero, Alan Arkin as his lonely New York neighbor, Sheryl Lee as the woman who loves him, and John Goodman as his tenuous link to the secret-agent job that changes his life forever.

A few scenes could have been filmed more effectively - the comedy in the neo-Nazi episodes is more exaggerated than need be, for instance - but most of the way, "Mother Night" stands with the year's best American pictures. Bravo to all.

*'The Secret Agent' has an R rating, reflecting violence and sexuality. 'Mother Night' also has an R rating, reflecting violence , nudity, and depictions of wartime suffering.

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