Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Very Honorable Mentions: More Spy Film Recommendations


By Wesley Britton

After revising "THE INDISPENSIBLES: THE BEST SPY FILMS OF ALL TIME" for this website, I realized many excellent movies hadn't been listed. Admitting many of my choices in that directory reflect my particular tastes in spy movies and acknowledging many other titles are arguably as good as some of the films discussed in that list, it seems appropriate I note other films meriting consideration.

Movies discussed here are mainly productions from both major and independent studios now readily available on DVD. In a separate file, "NEGLECTED NUGGETS AND OBSCURE CLASSICS: COLLECTING RARE SPY MOVIES," look for rarities worthy of consideration that are only available from less common sources.

Without reservation, good spy films to spend your time with include:


The Amateur (1981). One exception to the trend of explosion-fests in the 1980s was director Charles Jarrott's The Amateur based on Robert Littell's novel of the same name. CIA cipher expert Charlie Hiller (John Savage) wanted to be a field agent after his girlfriend was killed by terrorists. To get the information and training he required, Hiller blackmailed the agency as no one seemed interested in avenging the death. While the agency seeks the file Hiller has hidden and puts a killer on his trail, the agent went behind enemy lines in Czechoslovakia where he met up with a CIA contact (Marthe Keller). She was also motivated by the same drive as many spies in the decade, revenge.

While critical and audience response was mixed, The Amateur enjoyed a distinctive European flavor with believable accents and motivations. While slow paced, the film carried over some of Littell's philosophical thinking. For example, Hiller and the captain of the secret police (Christopher Plummer) explored the themes of truth and ciphers. Each member of the cast must determine where the lines go between emotional, personal needs and those of governments whose concerns are questionable and brutal. In the spirit of films like The Marathon Man, the movie is intended for audiences interested in character development, new wrinkles in spy stories, and cinematography that provides realism and atmosphere.

Casablanca (1942). While debates continue over whether or not this classic can be considered a spy film, many have noted that the characters of Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) and Ilsa Lund Laszlo (Ingrid Bergman) come to Humphrey Bogart's "Rick's Café" seeking letters of transit signed by General Weygand. Rick had obtained these from Ugarte (Peter Lorre) before his arrest by the Vichy police. Along with Ilsa came Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreied), a Resistance fighter who's escaped from a concentration camp. No one is a spy per se, but the action of seeking secret papers and plotting an underground escape are typical elements in espionage-oriented scripts, so Casablanca, in this context, deserves a Very Honorable Mention.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985). This Cold War classic earned wide acclaim for its treatment of a true story about two young men, Dalton Lee (Sean Penn) and Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton), who'd sold secrets about U.S. satellites to the Russians in 1977. Boyce was the idealistic son of a former FBI agent disillusioned by the Vietnam war. After further disillusionment when he learns the CIA was meddling with the internal affairs of Australia, he contacted friend Dalton Lee, a drug dealer, who acted as courier for Boyce in Mexico. A very human drama, a study in contrasts between the young men's motivations and resulting corruption.

Hopscotch (1980). A witty chase yarn with Walter Mattheau as a disheveled ex-agent gathering files to write his memoirs as he wants to embarrass the intelligence agencies of the world. Glenda Jackson was his old flame who gets caught up in the action helping him elude the CIA, British, West Germans, as well as the Russians. Based on the Brian Garfield novel, who was an associate producer of the film version, the movie was and is highly regarded.

The Lady Vanishes (1938); Foreign Correspondent (1940); The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). In my "Indispensables" file, I described 3 Hitchcock films likely his very best--The 39 Steps, Notorious, and North by Northwest. But no spy--or movie--buff should stop there. The 3 Hitchcock films noted here are well worth an evening, and each has earned wide critical and audience accolades. There are 6 other Hitchcock spy films and all are worthy of continued interest. The titles in these lists are just the best starting points.

My Favorite Blonde (1942). Now, don't turn your nose up like that! While versatile comic Bob Hope and his "cowardly wolf" persona may be distant memories now, at one time Hope was something special in entertainment. And if you're into spy comedies--well, he did more than anyone else, then and now.

In spy spoof Nothing But the Truth (1941), Hope co-starred with Paulette Goddard before the first of a quasi-trilogy, My Favorite Blonde (1942), My Favorite Brunette (1947), and My Favorite Spy (1951). Of these, Blonde was perhaps the best, co-starring Madeline Carroll as Karen Bently, an English agent who attaches herself to second-rate vaudevillian Larry Haines (Hope) and his partner, Percy the Penguin, at an airport to throw off enemy agents.

Trademark Hope wisecracks are also in They Got Me Covered (1943), in which Hope played reporter Robert Kittredge who's been fired after missing the story of the Nazi invasion of Russia. Iron Petticoats (1946) was a disaster on all levels pairing Hope with Katherine Hepburn, a Russian lady pilot who landed a plane in the American zone in post-war Germany. In Call Me Bwanna (1963), the only non-Bond project made to date by EON Productions, Hope was a phony explorer hired by the government to find a lost space probe in African jungles. Finally, in 1968, Hope paired with his "Road" picture buddy Bing Crosby for one last time in The Road to Hong Kong. All these light efforts are uneven, but most have more laughs per minute than many comedies to follow.

Pascali's Island. (1988). James Dearden wrote and directed this Australian film based on the Barry Unsworth novel. Set in 1908, the story centered on Basil Pascali (Ben Kingsley), an agent for the Turkish government left on an unimportant island about which he's been sending unanswered reports to the Sultan for 20 years. At film's opening, he's pondering the lack of meaning in his work. He meets an English archeologist, Anthony Bowles (Charles Dance), who salts a ancient site with fake artifacts to get access to a valuable Greek statue. At the same time, Pascali slowly learns his Ottoman Empire is crumbling and European influence is on the rise. In addition, an American ship is giving Greek rebels arms who will end up retaking the island which had been once theirs.

In the poignant tale, Pascali learns he hasn't been much of a spy--he didn't see the coming problems, and discovers the Sultan was working on buying up property containing bauxite without his agent aware of the activity. To make one last gesture of solidarity
with his people, Pascali arranges for the authorities to capture Bowles to save the statue only to see friends killed for his betrayal. Too late, he realizes the Greeks will come for him and recover a statue that didn't belong to the Turkish culture to begin with.

While this story took place before World War I, it's easy to see it as a metaphor for the final days of the Cold war which would become clearer in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unintentionally prophetic, the film dealt with questions that circulated in the 1990s--why hadn't anyone seen the collapse of the Soviet Union coming? Pascali's Island was also an obvious extension of books and films from the 1960s and 1970s when writers like John Le Carre' mulled over the meaning of it all. What were we fighting for and were the good guys really good? And the tragedy of Pascali revisited the themes of so many spy dramas--what was the role of one agent who doesn't know the big picture, what his superiors were about, and what was the cost of acting without this knowledge in the lives of innocent people?

I admit, when I first viewed this one, I was astonished I'd not heard of it before. It's a wonderful movie, spy elements or no. Highly recommended.

The Quiet American. (2002). For a detailed discussion on this Michael Caine effort, see "From Harry Palmer to Austin Powers: A Spy-ography of Michael Caine" posted at this website.

The Quiller Memorandum (1965). This exceptional contribution to the spy genre was distinguished by author Harold Pinter's script adapting Adam Hall's Berlin Memorandum starring George Segal as agent Quiller sent out to investigate a neo-Nazi group in Berlin. Other well-cast actors included Senta Berger, Alec Guiness, George Saunders, and Max Von Sydow. The film earned high critical praise for the script, acting, and director Michael Anderson's use of locations to make West Berlin seem at once substantial and fantastic.

The Spy in Black (AKA U Boat 29 (1939). During World War II, movie makers also went to war and ground out endless films as much poorly scripted propaganda as entertainment. One exception was director Michael Powell's clever, intelligent, and very human story starring the reliable Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson in the film about a German submarine commander assigned to spy on the British in the Orkney Islands. Based on the J. Storer Clouston novel, an above-average musical score distinguished the movie which was a precursor to many films based on O.S.S. operations, only from the other side of the war.

The Tamarind Seed (1973). Based on the 1971 novel by Evelyn Anthony, director Blake Edwards cast his wife Julie Andrews as a British civil servant swept off her feet by a dashing Russian (Omar Sharif). Under Caribbean skies, he fails to recruit her, decides to stay with her, but both have to battle an English double-agent. Novelist Anthony was known for books featuring unmarried women engaged in spycraft, and fans praise the film's keeping to the storyline and spirit of the book. Character driven with above-average dialogue, this one isn't A-list but worthy of continued viewing.

Topkapi (1964). Based on an Eric Ambler novel, this comedy had jewel thieves hiring Arthur Simpson (Peter Ustinov) as a courier. But Turkish security apprehended him and forced him to spy on his employers. Turns out, it's not jewels being smuggled but rather arms to disrupt an official occasion. One complication is that Simpson believes one informant who mistakenly thinks the gang are Russian spies. He's not especially reliable--the informant thinks the word "official" has something to do with bad fish. The elaborate scheme to steal a special daggar was a clear model for Mission: Impossible and all future such projects. Entertaining on several levels.

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