The Cape Town Affair

Director Samuel Fuller’s 1953 film of Pickup on South Street is often considered one of the finest of latter-stage film noirs. Its almost fevered depiction of anti-Communist patriotism, however, quickly became a problematic reference point for its analysts. Perhaps it was this quality that led to the film being remade under most unusual circumstances. Robert Webb was a veteran cameraman who had ventured into sporadic directing jobs since the late 1940s but after 1961 had been sidelined to second unit work. Five years later, when he got the chance to direct a feature again, it was for a remake of Fuller’s classic but one set in South Africa and under the apparent auspices of the Apartheid regime. Therein lays the peculiar dilemma posed by The Cape Town Affair, a film which transplants Fuller’s plot, characters and patriotic discourse to then contemporary Cape Town, in the process incorporating the American anti-Communist paranoia into the nationalistically justified desire to protect the Apartheid state from similar intervention. As The Cape Town Affair proved neither a critical nor popular success, whatever minimal reputation it now has resides on the disturbing novelty surrounding its production, evidence of the commandeering of a masterpiece in American filmmaking purely for dubious propaganda. This unfortunate context has doomed the film, and neither, it seems, is a reappraisal warranted on aesthetic grounds.

Jacqueline Bisset is on a bus, observed by a variety of men. One of them is a pickpocket (James Brolin) who steals material from her handbag. When she returns to her boyfriend, he is distraught, but not fully explaining his reasons to Bisset. The other men on her trail are policeman. They believe that she is delivering a secret microfilm to dangerous Communist infiltrators. The material on this microfilm is a potentially grave threat to national security, and now is in Brolin’s hands. The police realize the material has been stolen and so try to identify a likely thief. To do so, they go to an old contact (genuine noir icon Claire Trevor) to narrow the range of suspects, bringing police attention to Brolin, who is brought in for questioning. The arrogant Brolin refuses to co-operate with appeals to his patriotic duty. They have to let him go. Brolin goes to a criminal contact, where he views the microfilm’s contents. However, Bisset has done her own investigating and soon also contacts Brolin, hoping to convince him to return what he stole. In turn, the police pressure Bisset, who gradually does respond to her dormant patriotic sense although in confusion goes to visit Trevor. Bisset’s tense boyfriend confronts Trevor, whom he considers beneath contempt and finally disposable. When Brolin finds out about Trevor’s fate at such hands, he wants vengeance but still feels he should have money for the microfilm.

Although the subject is certainly patriotism, the intent is to construct such in terms of generational responsibility. Thus, the police detectives are naturally authoritative patriarchs entrusted with the preservation of the nation (that it happens to be Apartheid suggests the adaptability of propaganda). In turn, those that threaten it – Bisset and her boyfriend – are a generation younger. In this respect, the film sees the challenge to statehood emerging from within, the combination of covert Communist pressures and burgeoning youthful radicalism and discontent, hence the early suggestion that Bisset is doing this less out of any genuine political conviction than because it makes her feel important and even purposeful in another’s life. Bisset’s journey through the film is depicted in terms of the embrace of a responsibility greater than her self-interest: her responsibility to the South African nation itself. Bisset’s discovery of a higher purpose – idealism – is held in contrast to Brolin, whose indifference to such matters is only penetrated when his friend Trevor is affected. Yet for the filmmakers, Brolin holds the most important position in this generational allegory – the future patriarch of the nation. Thus, his aloof smugness is seen as an irresponsible and dangerous failure to understand the true pressures which face the nation. If South Africa is to be saved, Brolin must be brought on board. Director Webb cannot question this agenda.

The imperative from individual self-interest to national preservation underlies this film’s assessment of responsibility. The Communist boyfriend is thus shown as fallen, vile and cowardly in his treatment of Trevor, the only character allowed any semblance of underlying pathos in this film. With youthful characters presented so unrelentingly in terms of their underlying, even treasonous, indifference to political reality, The Cape Town Affair emerges as a threatened Patriarchy’s reactionary response to the pressures of social upheaval in the 1960s. In so doing, the film ultimately limits any kind of individual human purpose to terms only related to the obligation to state. Although it moves towards generational reconciliation, it sees such only in terms of the subjugation to this patriarchal authority. Only the hints of ambiguity about Brolin’s reasons at the end, despite his role in the termination of the youthful threat to nationhood, prevents this film from being completely propagandistic (even fascistic) in intention. Director Webb seems aware of this context, but his conscious efforts to re-shape and perhaps even sublimate this agenda into a self-consciously transplanted film noir do not gel. Ultimately, its sense of ideological imperative renders everything else merely functional. Even Trevor’s role finally serves to re-enforce this, as this fallen matriarch gains respect only in her patriotic defiance of her communist interrogator.