At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union stopped at nothing to get the drop on the good old US of A! Recruiting their best and brightest to serve as infiltrators, the Reds spared no expense, going so far as to build an exact replica of a small town so perfect in its appearance, it looked like Warner Brothers’ Midwest Street backlot set! Later in the movie, the very same set was used again, this time pretending to be a small town in Arizona, the explanation being that the Russians used that town as the model for their own fake town! Whatever, it looks like you just watched The Music Man too many times!
But while it is decidedly fake in its studied idealization of a small town, it also proved to be very effective. Russian agents in training would live in the town, speaking English, playing house with other agents and pretending to be Americans until they were activated and sent over seas.
The best of the best of these was the man who would become Paul Towers. Intelligent and blessed with the all American good looks and affable presence of the great Doug McClure, Towers is forced to reluctantly leave his fake wife Alice (whom he has grown to care for deeply) and travel to America to carry out his spying. He’s provided money, passport and everything he needs to set up a bogus life in the States! It’s the perfect plan! But there’s one thing Paul didn’t count on! That he would have to spy for Russia!
Somehow, against all odds, once Paul is in America he is shocked that he is now expected to participate in espionage activities! What with joining the KGB, the extensive training, being assigned as a secret agent in a foreign land and just generally devoting your entire adult life to becoming a spook, anyone could have missed the warning signs, right?
In particular, Paul gets cold feet when the job involves someone getting killed. That might be understandable if you’ve never had to pull the trigger and murder someone, but all Paul was doing was passing on some documents that would result in someone’s eventual death! Come on Paul, even a fifth grader could do that and not lose any sleep! Don’t be such a wuss!
But due to the good fortune of him deciding not take a flight that crashed, everyone thinks he’s dead, so he can invent another life, move out to California and defect in peace. He marries a great lady and rapidly becomes quite the success in his small community.
The past though has a way of coming back to try and kill you especially when you settle in California right smack dab in the middle of a town with a big defense contractor and other Russian spies who aren’t as big of wimps as Paul is. While you can wonder why he didn’t pick some anonymous town in Kansas or Kentucky where the spy-to-American ratio is so much lower, at least since he’s in some low profile job like a mechanic or insurance salesman, no one will notice him anyway, right? Except somehow Paul isn’t any of those things. He’s the editor of the town newspaper! And he publishes editorials with his freaking picture next to them!
Unfortunately for Paul his ruthless ex boss Barnes doesn’t get his news from the radio and tries to have Paul killed. This finally causes Paul to come in from the cold and spill his guts to the no nonsense government agent Joe Chalk.Darren McGavin sporting a rather severer flatop, mustache and sneer (Paul even comments on him sneering all the time!) is, like Doug McClure as Paul, the consummate professional and in top form here, repeatedly telling Paul he isn’t his friend, doesn’t like him and that if he doesn’t deliver his boss to him, Chalk will take Paul down instead.
The two hatch a scheme where Paul will give some documents to Barnes, allowing Chalk to swoop in and arrest him. Barnes is a cagey sort though and during the meet up tells Paul that if anything happens to Barnes, Paul’s wife will be killed! Paul immediately ditches the plan he has with Chalk to attempt to save his wife. (Though Paul is presented as a really smart guy, not considering for one minute his wife could be endanger and taking steps to protect her is a really dumb guy move. This is why movies have offscreen sisters who live “back east”.)
The Death of Me Yet packs a lot into its 75 minutes, yet still does a nice job devoting enough to Paul’s character that we are actually rooting for him to somehow get out of the jam he finds himself in. Much of the credit goes to McClure who is such a likable and underrated actor, you overlook the fact that his change of heart that is the whole crux of the movie makes no sense. If he had been over here and was won over by American life or the love of a good woman, I could understand that, but it was his very first mission!
Once you get past that though, the byplay between McClure and McGavin as well as the various machinations of Chalk and Barnes to get what they want out of Paul, while Paul tries to figure out how to navigate both of them to save himself and his wife easily keep your attention.
The ending was a bit unexpected with how little was actually resolved and the way the conversation went with Chalk and Paul, it didn’t seem like the end of a movie at all but the first episode of an ongoing TV series and I later read that it was in fact a pilot for proposed TV show that never materialized. McClure would instead appear shortly thereafter as one of the stars of Search while around the same time McGavin found his most iconic role as Carl Kolchak, the Night Stalker. Still definitely worth a look, though a series with McGavin and McClure playing a mismatched Russian and American pair of agents really makes you think about what might have been.
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