The Bond franchise which has been with us so long has become so deeply entrenched in popular culture, that we often forget what it was that first distinguished the Bonds over a half-century ago. Skyfall might be one of the best of the Bonds, and even, arguably, one of the best big-budget big-action flicks to come along in quite a while, but it’s not alone. The annual box office is – and has been, for quite some time – dominated by big, action-packed blockbusters of one sort of another. The Bonds aren’t even the only action-driven spy flicks (Mr. James Bond, I’d like you to meet Mr. Jason Bourne and Mr. Ethan Hunt).
That’s not to take anything away from the superb entertainment Skyfall is, or the sentimentally treasured place the Bonds hold. It’s only to say that where there was once just the one, there are now many.
The dawn of the Bonds is now long enough ago that perhaps that’s been forgotten, at least certainly by many in a younger generation of Bond fans. Everything about the Bonds in those first years was novel, unique, one-of-a-kind: a sophisticated, urbane, gimmick-laden, oversexed yet cold-blooded assassin jet-setting from one exotic spot on the globe to another to foil some evil grand-scale plot by an operatic villain usually in a third-act over-the-top action finale. It may by routine now, but in the early 1960s, nothing like that had ever hit the screen before, and except for some wannabes (a spoofy Derek Flint; a trashy Matt Helm), it would be years before the Bond flicks had much competition in the action-driven blockbuster arena.
Part of what burnished the Bonds singularity was how deeply it cut against the grain of the typical spy movie of the day. James Bond may have been the first movie super-spy, but he was not the movies’ first spy; he was just the movies’ first unbelievable spy.
Movies about intrigues and spy capers go back to the days of the silents. Almost without fail, however, they played in a life-sized arena set in a real-world context. The spies were not particularly super, nor the villains’ perfidy all that grand.
World War I sparked the likes of Treason (1917) and The Claws of the Hun (1918), and any number of movies would be made about one of the most famous spies in spydom, WW I’s Mata Hari, the first naturally enough titled Mata Hari (1920). The early career of suspense maestro Alfred Hitchcock is filled with stories of nasty people skulking around trying to lie, cheat, steal and kill in the national interest in movies like The 39 Steps (1935), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Sabotage and the singularly appropriate Secret Agent (both 1936).
The spy movie naturally enough blossomed during the years of WW II. In the wartime spy movies, behind-the-lines skullduggery was another front in the war against Axis villains, and spy movies maintained the same kind of moral clarity battlefield war movies did: Bad Guy spies extorted, blackmailed, bribed, and assassinated, while Good Guy spies didn’t. Good Guy spies stole a few state secrets which saved lives, foiled some dastardly plots to save lives, and maybe fibbed a bit about their real names to save lives (their own). But, as spies go, they were a pretty honorable lot.
That changed during the postwar Cold War years. If anything, the new communist menace (with the occasional neo-Nazi scheme providing a little variety) was viewed as an even more ruthless and malevolent threat than the old wartime villains. In time, the Cold War spy movies took on a different tone from the spy flicks of the 1940s. As early as the late 40s, the Cold War was jelling as a war without end or triumph. It was move/countermove, foiling one plot knowing there was another somewhere down the road. The moral ambiguity and ambivalence of the postwar film noirs found a natural home in the spy movie, digging in deeper and deeper into its substance year by year as the often covert duel between East and West ground on…and on and on and on, getting ever dirtier in the process.
Whether the postwar spy movie dished up its tales of intrigue with gritty realism (The Street with No Name, 1948) or high style and a priority on providing thrilling McGuffin-driven entertainment (North by Northwest, 1959), the mass audience was well-aware of the nuke-backed real-world players and the global stakes they played for. Even as a dashing Cary Grant unbelievably scrambled around the schnozzes of the presidential greats of Mt. Rushmore in North by Northwest, the movie was still grounded – in the collective mind of movie-goers — in the real-life parry-and-thrust every ticket-buyer knew was going on between one side of the world and the other.
The Bonds, in contrast, were a refreshing breath of topically irrelevant escapism, a spy fantasy rather than a spy story, and that, undoubtedly, was part of their early, airy charm. I love James Bond. Always have, and Daniel Craig has given me reason to speculate I always will. But sometimes I like something with a bit more real-world gravitas. A Munich (2005), say, or an Argo (2012), a Syriana (2005). Or even go back to the kind of flicks that inspired them.
If you’re ever in the mood for the like, let me offer seven personal favorites of the kind of spy movies the early Bonds were rebelling against.
1: Night People (1954)
Over a long, tense night, Army intelligence officer Gregory Peck wheels, deals, and connives to get back a young G.I. serving on the East/West Berlin border abducted by the Soviets, all the while having also to deal with a possible mole in his own network of agents and the G.I.’s abrasive VIP businessman dad (Broderick Crawford).
Night People is a transitional step between the patriotic spy tales of WW II and the bleak cynicism that would pervade the genre by the 1960s. This East/West business is a dirty one, and Peck realizes the only rule is to win, but there’s still a Good Guy echo of reluctance and bad aftertaste to his efforts. Reluctant or not, Peck doesn’t hesitate to nearly poison himself, drug his double-dealing girlfriend, or fob her off on the Russians, all to get back that poor, hapless pawn of a G.I.
It’s a smart, ever-accelerating spy drama that shows a growing, unhappy awareness that this new kind of under-the-table war wasn’t going to be like any other.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
2: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
Ian Fleming had worked for British Naval Intelligence during World War II and out of that somehow came up with the high-flying, ultra-debonair James Bond. John le Carre came up with a much different take on the spy game, one firmly grounded in his experiences working for the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6 in the late 1950s and early 1960s. More than any other author, le Carre changed the flavor of the spy novel for a generation, and, in turn, the spy movie.
Richard Burton plays a burned-out, supposedly disillusioned British agent who defects to East Germany and ingratiates himself with his East German interrogator (Oskar Werner) but it turns out to be a ploy to expose suspected double agent Peter van Eyck. But Burton, too, is a pawn in an even more byzantine plot actually designed to protect van Eyck and disgrace Werner. Adding another unpalatable flavor to the mix is that van Eyck is something of a slime-bucket; a cruel, anti-Semitic mercenary, while Werner is actually a decent sort.
Spy is the first novel to catch that unsettling scent of postwar disillusionment; that the spy war between East and West wasn’t between freedom-loving democracies and oppressive communist regimes, but a basic, primal, anything-but-altruistic Us vs. Them fight for survival. The reticence of Night People is long dead and gone; moral quandary has no place in this arena. At one point, after his idealistic young girlfriend castigates him for setting Werner up for execution, Burton snarls back: “What do you think spies are?… They’re a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me, little drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.”
The Deadly Affair
3: The Deadly Affair (1966)
Undoubtedly trying to capitalize on the success of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Deadly Affair went back to le Carre’s first, more mystery-driven novel, with James Mason playing le Carre’s signature creation, George Smiley (here renamed Dobbs). Mason is tasked with investigating the suicide of a government official, but finds the suicide was no suicide.
In le Carre’s spy world, intelligence agencies are no more immune to all the pettiness, turf wars, jealousies and ego pissing matches of any other human organization. The personal and the professional often intersect, usually with tragic consequences, and The Deadly Affair is no exception. Dobbs thinks he’s investigating a break in national security, while trying to keep his foundering marriage afloat, but the two have an unhappy intersection with the old German friend (Maximilian Schell) Dobbs had recruited into working for British intelligence years before.
It is that blend of the personal and the professional that, in some ways, makes Affair an even bleaker occasion than Spy, but like its predecessor, it’s smart, adult drama all the way.
The Ipcress File
4: The Ipcress File (1965)
Len Deighton’s antihero Harry Palmer was the anti-James Bond (ironically, Harry Saltzman, one of the Bond series’ co-producers, was one of the producers of the Harry Palmer movies). Featured in four novels, three of which were adapted to the screen (Ipcress was the first), Palmer (played in all three by then rising star Michael Caine) is a Brit soldier convicted of black marketing and arm-twisted into working for the intelligence services to work off his sentence. He’s underpaid, lives a decidedly unglamorous, working-class life, has a lousy relationship with his boss, and looks like a dweeb in his much-needed glasses.
In this debut outing – the best of the lot — Palmer is caught in a turf war between two of his bosses (a deliciously effete Guy Doleman, and hard-charging Nigel Greene) as they investigate the kidnapping and brain-erasing of a number of top Brit scientists. It’s an open question as to who is going to victimize Palmer first and most: his bosses, the bureaucracy on which they’re all choking, or the enemy spies draining the brains of Britain’s scientific elite.
By the mid-60s, the kind of cynicism and amorality le Carre had popularized had become de rigueur for the spy story, and Deighton and his adapters exercise it as well as anybody. It all comes home in a discussion between Palmer’s two bosses. When Palmer is framed for the killing of a CIA agent, his chiefs suspect the agency will look to exact revenge. Their opinion: that’s Palmer’s tough luck.
The Quiller Memorandum
5: The Quiller Memorandum (1966)
Quiller was a rather murky character Trevor featured in over a dozen spy thrillers. Played in this adaptation by George Segal, he’s sent by an equally murky government agency to try to uncover a neo-Nazi ring in West Berlin.
Memorandum has all the earmarks of the typical 60s non-Bond spy movie: a grim, hardboiled tenor, the supposed Good Guys operating in a moral twilight zone that leaves one wondering just how good the Good Guys really are. But, what makes this a particular favorite of mine is Pinter’s odd-rhythmed screenplay.
Pinter is to English what Mamet is to American; an orchestrator who works pauses and repetition to hypnotic effect. It all creates a sense of unease, of a bent world filled with crooked characters none of whom ever mean what they say, or say what they mean.
Except in one scene; the beating black heart of the movie. Alec Guinness is Pol, Quiller’s handler. Sitting in a café, Pol explains Quiller’s eminently disposable role. He sets two muffins down on the table representing two armies separated by a fog. Quiller, Pol explains, setting a raisin down between the muffins, is like a scout trying to spot the enemy without giving away the position of his own people. “That’s where you are,” Pol says flatly, “In the gap,” and pops the raisin into his mouth.
The Odessa File
6: The Odessa File (1974)
A one-time globe-trotting journalist who provides novels like The Dogs of War and The Day of the Jackal with an in-depth, fact-based plausibility, Forsyth’s Odessa File was one of the author’s first hits.
Set in the early 1960s, Jon Voight plays a young German journalist trying to run down the hidden lair of a wanted war criminal (Maximilian Schell). Helped by Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, Voight penetrates ODESSA – an organization which helps ex-SS men on the run from the authorities. In a neat twist, Voight is not the usual Holocaust avenger, but has a more personal reason for his obsessive quest: Schell had killed Voight’s father, a German army officer.
Without diminishing the horrific slaughter of the Jews by the Nazis, Forsyth’s bang-along thriller reminds one that the Nazi murder rolls didn’t end with them, and, in turn, paints a portrait of an evil so ravenous it even turned on its own.
Curio: Schell’s character – in typical Forsyth fashion – was based on the real “Butcher of Riga,” Eduard Roschmann. The release of the movie brought attention to the real Roschmann hiding out in Argentina. Roschmann managed to escape the country and died three years later in Paraguay.
The Doomsday Gun
7: The Doomsday Gun (1994)
Produced for HBO, this true story concerns arms designer Gerald Bull’s (Frank Langella) building of a super cannon for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s; a weapon that would not only make him a major power in the Middle East, but which directly threatens Israel.
It’s a morally infuriating story as the British and the U.S. turn a blind eye toward the project; the Brits because it’s good for some U.K. manufacturing concerns, the Americans because they see Hussein as a check on militant Iran. And Bull is equally disturbing; a genius so focused on building the world’s biggest cannon that he’s willfully blinded himself to the malevolent purpose for which the gun will be used.
Backing up Langella is a particularly strong cast: Kevin Spacey as a caustic, seen-it-all CIA operative who is roused from his usual so-what cynicism by the insanity of the U.S. policy; Tony Goldwyn as Spacey’s naifish, overbearing boss who confuses moronic shortsightedness with Machiavellian shrewdness; James Fox as a British intelligence chief brimming with a le Carre-brand of pragmatic amorality; and Alan Arkin as a Mossad agent who sounds like the one sane voice amidst a gallery of realpolitik dilettantes utterly convinced they’re much smarter than they really are.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Special Mention: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979)
The 2011 big-screen version of Tinker, Tailor was a delight, but it just couldn’t do what the more expansive 1979 miniseries did air on PBS in the U.S. in seven episodes. The miniseries format allowed viewers to become steeped in le Carre-created intelligence arcana, to feel enveloped by the same insular, alien world of his grand gallery of characters.
Alec Guinness beautifully underplays the plodding George Smiley as he tries to uncover a mole in The Circus (MI6), but this TTSS is as much about mood and atmosphere as it is about the plot. Living in their hermetic world of deceit and subterfuge, it’s easy to see where the twisted, moral vacuum that was the trademark of the work of le Carre (and those who followed his lead) derives from.
Smiley’s People is a direct sequel to TTSS as Smiley continues to press home the hunt for the Russian master spy “Karla,” mastermind behind the plot in Tinker. Like its forerunner, Smiley’s People is a deliberately-paced, gloomy excursion through an espionage netherworld, and plays seamlessly back to back with its partner. Want the feeling in a nutshell?
Says one character to Smiley, “I’m still on the side of the angels.”
Says Smiley, “I didn’t know we had any angels.”