Alex Leamas: “What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?”
[Richard Burton to Claire Bloom in “The Spy who Came in From the Cold” (1965)]
Well, I’m back and it’s time to discuss the subject of espionage in the movies. Of course this was a popular genre for both silent movies and talkies. One way early Hollywood used espionage in films was as romance dramas to highlight their popular female stars. For example, you had “Dishonored” (1931) starring Marlene Dietrich as Agent X-27 (AKA Mata Hari) competing with “Mata Hari” (1931) starring Greta Garbo as…Guess Who! The dueling Matas’ were good box office even though in real life Mata (not even her real name) was really nothing more than an ugly looking hooker who was originally an exotic dancer (AKA “stripper”) before becoming a low level spy. The success of these films was also helped due to the fact that both of these movies were made pre-Code, which was before movies had to follow a Censorship Code. What this basically meant was that maybe you’d get a slight chance to see more of Greta and Marlene than just their eyelashes for the cost of a ticket.
Director Alfred Hitchcock also made his mark in the mid-nineteen thirties with suspense/thriller films involving espionage such as “The 39 Steps” (1935), “Secret Agent” (1936), “Sabotage” (1936), and “The Lady Vanishes” (1938) with this last one paving his way to relocating to America when the offers from Hollywood started coming in. Out of all of the ones that I just mentioned, maybe the best one is “The 39 Steps”. “Steps” starred Robert Donat as Canadian Richard Hannay, on the run when he is falsely accused of killing a British counter-espionage agent which requires him to try and stop a spy ring attempting to steal British military secrets. The movie was loosely based on the action packed John Buchan novel, one of a series of five novels Buchan wrote with Hannay as the main character. Donat is terrific in the role (he could match Cary Grant shot for shot as a charming man of action) and he is equally matched by Madeleine Carroll (a very underrated actress) as his unwelcome ally, Pamela who is tough, smart, feisty, beautiful, and totally disbelieving of Hannay’s innocence until she is handcuffed to him while they are pursued and finally changes her tune. Oh, and of course, she is also Blond!
Hitchcock was a master of films putting innocent people either on the run (“Saboteur”, “North by Northwest”), under extreme pressure (“I Confess”, “Strangers on a Train”) and even not so innocent people in danger when they least expect it (“Psycho”) while also never skimping on the comic aspects of a situation. Once he settled in Hollywood, Hitchcock once again repeated his innocent under pressure theme with his film, “Foreign Correspondent” (1940) with Joel McCrea as a clumsy raw reporter dealing with foreign spies and intrigue while on assignment in Europe. This also leads me into discussing the next part of espionage in the movies: World War II.
Various movies touched on this subject throughout the War. Humphrey Bogart did two rip snorting fun ones: (1) “All Through the Night” (1942) with Bogey playing a good hearted big shot Runyonesque New York City gambler nick-named “Gloves” taking on Nazi spies [Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt (before playing Major Strasser in Casablanca)], and (2) “Across the Pacific” (1942) with Bogey as former court-marshalled ex-Captain Rick Leland on a Japanese freighter heading to the Panama Canal actually working undercover to get close to a Japanese sympathizer (Sidney Greenstreet, smoothly malevolent as always) while romancing fellow passenger Mary Astor (less mysterious but more fun than when she was in “The Maltese Falcon”). Well, other than the fact that that last sentence might be the longest one that I have ever written for a Blog post, both pictures were more humorous than realistic examples of wartime espionage. However, things started to change when another type of espionage movie came out toward the end of the war years. That type consisted of espionage films done in a semi-documentary style. These types of films were more realistic, filmed outdoors and sometime on location, and could be utilized for other types of films like crime or film noir for example. However, pertaining to espionage, two of the best examples that were made back then were two movies made by 20th Century Fox and directed by Henry Hathaway. Those two were “The House on 92nd Street” (1945) and “13 Rue Madeleine” (1946).
“House..” starred Lloyd Nolan as lead FBI Agent George Briggs who is running a counter-espionage operation in New York City involving his double-agent (William Eythe) infiltrating a major Nazi spy ring operating in the area. This drama was loosely based on the real life story of the FBI destruction of the Duquesne Spy Ring in 1941 which was the largest espionage spy case conviction in United States history, and which basically ended serious Nazi espionage efforts in America. Despite the propagandistic tone of the film, the over glamorizing of the FBI’s efforts, the drab over-underacting by almost everyone in the movie, and even an annoying introduction by J. Edgar Hoover (maybe it would have been better if he just wore one of his dresses instead of a suit) along with a (false) assertion that the spy ring was after American Atomic Bomb secrets, this movie is still suspenseful and holds your interest (and this might be the 2nd longest sentence that I ever wrote for a Blog post). Nolan gives a dependable performance and actress Signe Hasso (another fine, underrated actress) is outstanding as one of the cold, ruthless, Nazi spies. Fun Fact: Hasso would reprise this type of a character once again (but just as a criminal, not a spy) on a “Streets of San Francisco” TV episode in 1974.
“13 Rue..” starred James Cagney as Bob Sharkey, an OSS spy chief who trains American espionage candidates in the art of enemy infiltration. When he is alerted that one of his students, Bill O’Connell (Richard Conte) is actually a top Nazi agent they decide to run a counter-espionage mission in Europe by giving him false information on the location of the upcoming Allied Invasion of Europe. Unfortunately, the plan fails, Conte escapes back to Occupied France, and now Sharkey has to parachute into France to alert the Resistance before Conte can identify all of his fellow agents. Although the film has some really bad miscasting: (1) Conte as a German Nazi (Bad!) and (2) E.G. Marshall as a Frenchman (Really, Really, Bad), the movie is still great due to a terrific performance by Cagney. In real life, Cagney was a top-notch Judo practitioner and he used his expertise to do some realistic fighting sequences in the film. Cagney could just about do any acting style. He could be hyper, or subdued or even naturalistic which fit perfectly into this type of film. He, along with the tight, suspenseful, storyline ably directed by Hathaway make this movie a must see espionage thriller.
When the nineteen fifties rolled around, espionage films pertaining to World War II were more adult and honest in profiling the moral dilemmas and psychological damage of actions one made if you were involved in espionage. They even highlighted a more jaded view of the profession by profiling individuals willing to commit treason, not for any belief or cause, but just for something as simple as money. Two such films showing these aspects were “Orders to Kill” (1958) and “Five Fingers” (1952). “Orders to Kill”, directed by Anthony Asquith, starred Paul Massie as Gene Summers, a young American bomber pilot selected to go on an espionage mission in Occupied France to kill a suspected French double-agent. He’s picked because he speaks fluent French and even once lived in that particular French area before the war. He thinks it will be easy enough and after being quickly trained in how to act undercover and how to kill someone quietly he is dropped into enemy territory. However, reality soon hits him right between the eyes. He has never killed anyone face to face. He also, by accident, meets in public his target, a friendly and gentle family man who actually saves Gene from possible questioning and capture by German troops. Now Gene has real doubts about his mission and wonders not only whether this man is really a traitor but also that if he is, can he actually still kill him! Anthony Asquith directed all sorts of movies in a long career going back into the silent film era. He did movies from such noted playwrights as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Terrance Rattigan as well as films about ordinary individuals put under unimaginable tension such as in his later film, “Two Living, One Dead” (1961). In “Orders” there are no easy answers, and Massie, an actor who never got the roles he deserved, gives an emotionally shattering performance as Gene.
For “Five Fingers” you focus on an entirely different type of espionage character. James Mason stars as Ulysses Diello, a valet to the British ambassador to Turkey and who was also one of the greatest Axis spies in World War II. This movie, by two time Best Director Oscar winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz, smoothly ratchets up the tension and suspense while painting a portrait of a highly intelligent man motivated by a need for respect and luxury which can only be sated by money and being regarded as an equal by a vain, beautiful, aristocratic Countess (Danielle Darrieux) now destitute, that he enlists in his schemes. Mason was a true master at playing smoothly sinister sophisticated scoundrels (Dare ya to say that ten times in a row!) but who could also convey true fear and potential panic with just his facial expressions alone. It’s a great performance. The screenplay, by Mankiewicz and prior Oscar winning and future blacklisted writer Michael Wilson is superb (both Mankiewicz and Wilson were Oscar nominated once again for this film). Oh, and it also has a great twist ending!
As well as World War II espionage movies were made in the fifties, that is how oppositely bad they were in their portrayal of Cold War espionage. These particular films were pretty awful because, just like for TV, McCarthyism, blacklisting, brainwashing along with the overall Red hysteria back then made these espionage representations pretty heavy handed or just outright stupid. Some of these dogs (with their fleas included) were:
- “The Woman on Pier 13″/”I Married a Communist” (1949): With Robert Ryan as a shipping executive blackmailed into doing a Communist cell’s bidding (Maybe because he drinks fluoridated water and was once a Beatnik who played the bongos?)
- “I Was a Communist for the FBI” (1951): With Frank Lovejoy infiltrating the Communist Party for nine years while working in a Pittsburgh steel mill [Must have literally been a “HOT” bed for Communist activity there (I know that one was bad but I just had to say it!)]
- “Big Jim McLain” (1952): With Big Jerk John Wayne as an investigator for those sweet, understanding, and kind members of the House Un-American Activities Committee rooting out Communists in Hawaii (You know, all the people on the beach wearing “red” swim trunks and surfing with “red” surfboards!)
- “My Son John” (1952): My all-time favorite Commie film with Robert Walker as John, a condescending and sneering intellectual who is found to be a Red when his devout Catholic mother (Helen Hayes) and American Legion father (Dean Jagger with a toupee, not bald, like those Commies) discover his secret. I guess, if you’re a condescending and sneering intellectual it’s a tell-tale sign that you’re a Commie (Just like William F. Buckl…. Ah, never mind!). But, But, they’re everywhere! Everywhere! Is there no HOPE? Yeah, there is! This piece of S*&T is only 122 minutes long and you’ll either be sound asleep or dead from laughing yourself to death!
Hollywood kind of portrayed Communists back then as some sort of murderous organized crime ring and all that was missing was one of them saying, “Youse better join the Party, Comrade or we’ll rub ya out!” However, once again, once the nineteen-sixties came around, things began to change. This was brought about due to two major changes in how espionage was portrayed. The first change was something that I’ve called:
The Many Faces of James Bond and all of his Imitators!
The release of the first James Bond film, “Dr. No” (1962) started a string of 24 movies made for the series so far and, currently, it’s the longest continually running film series of all time both for espionage and for anything else. These films cover (in case you have been living in a cave all of your life) the adventures of a British Secret Service MI6 Agent code named 007 (the double zero code giving him a “license to kill” authority over anyone). In the films he was suave, tough, sophisticated, a mega-seducer of women, and continually dealt with all manner of evildoers especially those associated with a terrorist organization with the acronym of SPECTRE. Sean Connery, still the best of the bunch, became a super-star from playing the role and since then, five other actors have played Bond (I’m excluding anyone from the G-d awful 1967 version of Casino Royale). These other Bonds along with their movies ranged from bad to good with the current Bond, Daniel Craig, being the best of the bunch, and Roger Moore, being the absolutely worst. Seeing Moore try to act is sort of like watching someone try to teach a block of ice how to Smile: Neither can ever physically be done!
Most of these films never really explored much in the way of how actual espionage operations worked. Maybe the closest of the Connery “Bond” films to do so was “From Russia With Love” (1963), and for Craig’s “Bond” films it was “Casino Royale” (2006). They also happened to be two of the best films in the entire series. Nevertheless, the success of the Bond films led to numerous imitators with some of the worst ones done in America. One such imitation was the Matt Helm series which was based on a series of novels about a U.S. government counter espionage agent whose main job was to kill or eliminate enemy agents. Unfortunately, the four Helm films that were made were deliberately done as parodies of the Bond films and, other than using the Helm books’ titles, they had no relation to their film adaptions at all. Worse, they had Dean Martin playing Helm. Martin could do a little acting (“Some Came Running” might be his best performance) but here all he does is play Dean Martin. He looks like he just stopped by during a break from the “Dean Martin Show” and all that’s missing was him having a cocktail glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
Another bad imitation was the two picture secret agent film series “Our Man Flint” (1966) and “In Like Flint” (1967) starring James Coburn. This was another parody of the Bond films and it was so over the top and deliberately ridiculous that you either had to just go with it or look for the nearest exit in the movie theater after the first two minutes. However, Coburn was the best thing in the movie. He was a far better actor than Martin ever was and you could tell that he was, at least, actually having fun. Whether anyone else watching this mess was having fun, well, I plead the Fifth (unless Martin drank it first). The British were also not adverse to doing garbage like this too. Their Bond imitation was a stupid three picture series about Secret Agent Charles Vine starring Tom Adams (Who?) with the first in the series called (I’m Not Kidding…) “The 2nd Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World” (1965). These movies had all the quality of the kind of stuff that you’d find in the “discard” bin at your local “Dollar Store” and Adams, along with all of the rest of the cast, looked like they developed their acting skills from working on the “Home Shopping Network.” The really sad thing is that these imitations actually made money which showed how crazy the public was for anything involving James Bond. However, during this time a backlash against these type of films occurred and that was when, finally, some really good films about espionage were finally being made which has continued up to the present day. This second change was something that I have called:
John le Carre and his Disciples!
Before he became a full time novelist, John le Carre worked full time for British MI5 and MI6 for a number of years. His career officially ended in 1964 with the betrayal of a number of British spies’ cover by the traitor, Kim Philby. However, the year before, le Carre’s novel, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” was published which hit the literary world like a bomb shell and which really changed the way espionage was ever viewed again. The film version was made a year later in 1965 with Richard Burton starring as Alex Leamas, a middle-aged, burnt out, alcoholic British espionage official recruited, one last time, to go on a mission to eliminate an East German espionage official that escaped capture by the British once before. This was to be accomplished by Leamas pretending to have left the Agency in disgrace, and to ultimately defect to East Germany to provide false information to incriminate the official. Director Martin Ritt (“Hud,” “Norma Rae”) accurately captures the drab, cold, world of espionage. This is a world populated by ordinary, flawed, and unheroic individuals who live a life of moral ambiguity where lies and deceit are a way of life. Ritt’s film is helped by the fine black and white cinematography of Oswald Morris and an exceptional screenplay by former Oscar winner Paul Dehn who also did the the screenplay for the aforementioned “Orders to Kill” along with “The Deadly Affair” (1967) with another outstanding performance by James Mason. However, in Leamas, Richard Burton gives one of the finest performances of his career. He doesn’t seem to act the role as much as live it. He truly conveys someone past his prime, a tragic and cynical figure that can be used and discarded by others without even a second thought. le Carre regarded James Bond as nothing more than a international gangster rather than a spy. After viewing “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”, you can believe that this is how espionage really works.
After the success of this film other le Carre films were done very well like the aforementioned “The Deadly Affair” (1967), “The Little Drummer Girl” (1984), “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011), and “A Most Wanted Man” (2014). Also, other fine espionage films were made from other good writers of espionage like Len Deighton’s “The Ipcress File (1965) with Michael Caine as a former British sergeant with a criminal past now with British security who’s involved in espionage and intrigue in London. Two novels by espionage/thriller writer Frederick Forsyth were turned into solid movies too: (1) “The Fourth Protocol” (1987) with Michael Caine starring, once again, as an MI5 Agent hunting Russian KGB spies who are planning to build and explode a nuclear bomb in England, and (2) “Day of the Jackal” (1973) starring Edward Fox as “The Jackal” a British assassin hired by the militant French underground terrorist organization OAS to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle. David Ignatius, a fine reporter and espionage novelist also had one of his novels made into the excellent thriller, “Body of Lies” (2008) starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a veteran CIA case officer hunting a Middle East terrorist while at odds with his boss and the head of Jordanian Intelligence. All of these examples from le Carre’s disciples, demonstrate that modern espionage films of today are a step above from those made in the far distant past.
Espionage films latest thing now is to incorporate technology as a major element in their storylines. It was an important factor in “Body of Lies” and has shown up in other more recent films like “Spy Game” (2001), “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) and “Eye in the Sky” (2015). However, sometimes there is still room for a good larger than life espionage action thriller even if it’s a little light on the espionage. Two of the more recent ones (and I’m not talking James Bond here either) are “True Lies” (1994) and “The Bourne Identity” (2002). “Lies” is an almost perfect mix of action and comedy with just enough seriousness to not be dismissed as a parody. With Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead and the great action director James Cameron at the helm, how can you go wrong. As for “Bourne”, although I disliked the rest of the Bourne films after the first one, this first effort directed by Doug Liman hits the top of the action/thriller meter with Matt Damon never better as an amnesiac who is just trying to find out who he is while trying to stay alive. Anyway, this concludes my discussion of espionage in the movies. I think I’ve listed enough good choices for you to choose for your viewing pleasure. And, if by chance you just want to see something that spoofs spy movies, well…
There’s always “Austin Powers!” (He ducks!!!)