We’ve talked about James Bond a lot in the blog this week. While Agent 007 may be cinema’s most famous spy, he’s far from the only (or even necessarily the best) secret agent whose adventures have graced the silver screen. For today’s Roundtable, let’s look at some of our other favorites. WARNING: The following file has been classified TOP SECRET: FOR YOUR EYES ONLY.
M. Enois Duarte
As soon as I read this week’s topic, my first thought was for the ‘Danger Mouse’ cartoon series from the early ’80s. But then I realized that this is for favorite spy movie, not TV show, so I thought about Alfred Hitchcock. In the end, however, I decided to pick a spy movie that spoofs the genre: James Cameron’s ‘True Lies‘.
Filled with the same sort of action-packed, death-defying exploits as any James Bond picture, this story about a mild-mannered family man who hides his secret identity as a spy is a laugh-riot of clichés, silly plot devices and familiar archetypes (like Tom Arnold’s sidekick goofiness, or Arnold Schwarzenegger being capable of almost anything). It’s basically a remake of Claude Zidi’s ‘La Totale!’, but Cameron brings his own brand of larger-than-life spectacle with lots of excitement and hilarity.
Based on John le Carre’s celebrated novel of the same name, ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold‘ has always been a favorite of mine. A classic Cold War-era tale set in Berlin, in many ways it’s the “anti-Bond” spy flick. The film presents a much more cynical and realistic perspective on espionage, and its spies are a far cry from the charming, debonair 007. Instead, they’re “seedy, squalid bastards,” and Richard Burton’s brooding performance as Alex Leamas is one of my favorites, from any actor… ever. The character is a depressed, jaded husk of a man who wears the pain of his past in every weathered line on his face. Burton’s biting, climactic monologue on the unsavory realities of espionage is particularly memorable, and every scornful syllable in his diatribe absolutely stings with self loathing. Oswald Morris’ moody black and white cinematography is also a real highlight, and director Martin Ritt does a great job of maintaining an icy air of intrigue. A methodically paced but emotionally potent examination of dehumanization and spy politics, the film is a true classic of the genre.
Which reminds me, hurry up and release this on Blu-ray, Criterion! Please.
The technology is outdated, and the danger seems extremely pedestrian, but I still love ‘Sneakers‘. Twenty years after its release, lines from this comic thriller pop into my head regularly:
“Too many secrets.”
“I didn’t know you could do that in Mexico City.”
“My voice is my passport. Verify Me.”
“This LTX-71 concealable mic is part of the same system that NASA used when they faked the Apollo Moon landings.”
When Neil Armstrong passed away last month, I couldn’t help but wonder what Dan Aykroyd’s conspiracy theorist “Mother” would have to say about it. The issues, characters, performances (folks like Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, David Strathairn, River Pheonix, Dan Aykrod and Ben Kingsley are more relaxed, off kilter and funny than in anything else any of them did before or since) all hold up beautifully. Even re-reading some of the quotes now, this stuff is as relevant today as it ever was. Could this not describe, oh, I don’t know, Google?
“There’s a war out there, old friend. A world war. And it’s not about who’s got the most bullets. It’s about who controls the information. What we see and hear, how we work, what we think… it’s all about the information!”
This could be a quote from the editorial page in any American paper right now: “Pollution. Crime. Drugs, poverty, disease, hunger, despair – we throw GOBS of money at them and problems only get worse. Why is that? Because money’s most powerful ability is to allow bad people to continue doing bad things at the expense of those who don’t have it.”
‘Sneakers’ is ultimately a spy story with a distinct philosophy and a good sense of humor. I’ll leave you with one more quote as evidence. This one comes from a TV reporter: “In a surprise announcement, the Republican National Committee has revealed it is bankrupt. A spokesman for the party said they had plenty of money in their accounts last week, but today they just don’t know where the money has gone. But not everybody is going begging. Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the United Negro College Fund announced record earnings this week, due mostly to large, anonymous donations.”
I don’t know anyone who shares my sentiment, but I’m a huge fan of Tony Scott’s ‘Spy Game‘. For me, it feels like a couple different movies in one. I like the story of a savvy retiree who outwits his peers. I like watching the fresh new spy in training. I like not knowing why the spy is in prison. I like how the back-story intrinsically ties in with the present story. I like Scott’s direction (this was pre-hyper-editing), his fantastic cast (Brad Pitt and Robert Redford) and the screenplay. Despite being a long film (126 minutes), it flies by no matter how many times I’ve seen it. Most importantly, after 11 years, ‘Spy Game’ has held up perfectly.
I was planning to go with ‘True Lies’, but since that one has already been taken, I guess I’ll go with nostalgia. (My pick may end up doubling as another candidate for last week’s Roundtable, since I haven’t seen it in ages.) I’m talking about 1984’s ‘Cloak & Dagger‘. Now, I’m sure that this movie starring Henry Thomas (shortly after hitting the big time in ‘E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial’) and Dabney Coleman hasn’t aged all that well. However, for a time back in the mid-1980s, it was adored by practically every kid out there.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
“…but what if James Bond was a bad guy?” That’s pretty much the premise of ‘Danger: Diabolik!‘, Mario Bava’s candy-colored adaptation of the wildly successful Italian comic. Diabolik is an impossibly brilliant super-thief who pulls off one daring heist after another to disrupt the world’s financial markets. A terrorist in a painted-on latex ninja suit, Diabolik really isn’t in it for the money. Of course, if it helps pay for his sprawling, futuristic lair, sleek cars and more gadgets than you’ll get in a dozen Bond flicks, all the better. Those bags of cash also make for nice padding when writhing around with Marisa Mell in his mammoth rotating bed. Smart, sexy, subversive, visually dazzling and a delirious amount of fun, here’s hoping that ‘Danger: Diabolik!’ finds its way to Blu-ray sooner rather than later.
Two decades after officially giving up the role of James Bond (and seven years after the misbegotten ‘Never Say Never Again’), Sean Connery returned to the spy game in the 1990 adaptation of John le Carre’s novel ‘The Russia House‘. However, his character Barley Blair is pretty far removed from James Bond. He’s no suave secret agent. Instead, Barley is an over-the-hill book editor who gets wrapped up in an intelligence scheme when a Russian government official passes him a top secret manuscript with a list of Soviet nuclear capabilities, in the hopes that Barley will publish it and help bring democracy to the U.S.S.R. (The film is set a few years earlier, at the tail end of the Cold War.) Recruited by MI6 to travel to Moscow and validate the source’s credentials, Barley finds himself falling in love with a Russian woman (Michelle Pfieffer), whose safety he values above political ideology.
Directed by Fred Schepisi (‘Six Degrees of Separation’) and scripted by Tom Stoppard, the film was actually the first major American production to shoot on location in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Its performances are impeccable, and the movie features one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best scores. It’s a beautiful, very emotional love story with a complex and frequently witty story that just so happens to involve a touch of international espionage intrigue. Unfortunately, because it lacks the action/adventure elements that many viewers expected from a spy movie starring Sean Connery, the film was largely dismissed and forgotten at the time. I’ve always considered it an underrated gem, and I’d love to see it released on Blu-ray some day.
You may note here that we’ve left off some expected picks, such as the ‘Bourne’ or ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchises. Feel free to tell us what else we’ve missed in the Comments.