Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Meet RSO Frank Dunniger, U.S. Embassy Beirut

While I'm still thinking about the curious lack of Hollywood interest in the Diplomatic Security Service, I must note the earliest movie portrayal of a U.S. Embassy Regional Security Officer (RSO), which was in the 1972 Cold War flick Embassy. I'm sure that movie never made it to DVD, but I'm hoping to catch it again on television some night.

The movie was set in an unnamed "developing country in the Middle East" but was actually filmed in Beirut, using the very impressive American Life Insurance Building, which I think is still standing, as a substitute for the real U.S. Embassy. The real embassy, which was small and plain like most of our overseas diplomatic facilities, would never have lived up to the Hollywood image of an embassy.

Embassy had a little something for everybody. Richard Roundtree - Shaft himself - was a CIA officer, Ray Milland was the distinguished Ambassador, Max von Sydow was a Russian defector taking refuge at the embassy, and Chuck Connors was a KGB assassin posing as a U.S. Air Force officer. Broderick Crawford played the embassy security officer, Frank Dunniger, who had to capture and hide the KGB man while the CIA smuggled the defector out of town.

I just loved Broderick Crawford as the RSO. Gravel-voiced, and looking just like he did in Highway Patrol, I could easily believe him as a 1950s-era American cop turned RSO. After all, Crawford pretty much defined the look of the 1950s-era American cop. I've known quite a few Old School cops, some of them in my family, and they ALL looked like Broderick Crawford. Over the years, I've often participated in training sessions for older retired RSOs, who remain available for short-term assignments overseas as re-hired annuitants, and I'm pretty sure Broderick Crawford could go unnoticed in any of those groups.

By the 1980s, DS agents, like cops in general, started getting better dressed and more corporate-looking, which I suppose was an improvement for their professional image. But I think something was lost when you could no longer tell the RSOs from the diplomats. Incidentally, did you know that the actual RSO at U.S. Embassy Prague played a cameo role as a diplomat in the 1996 movie Mission Impossible? No one, but no one, would have mistaken Broderick Crawford for a diplomat.

Should you ever visit the DS Training Center in Dunn Loring, Virginia, you can find old photos of SY (as DS was named then) agents going back to at least the 1960s, and I want to tell you that more of them than not looked like they could be Broderick Crawford's identical twin brothers. Personally, I prefer the Old School Cop look to the business suit look that replaced it, or to the paramilitary cargo-pants-and-Oakleys look that defines young DS agents today.

Embassy wasn't the finest of cinematic efforts, but if Hollywood ever does get around to depicting RSOs, they will follow in the footsteps of RSO Frank Dunniger.

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