Agents of espionage
Published: Friday, January 6, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 7:07 p.m.
The John le Carré film “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” weaves its way into local theaters today and also has earned a patchwork quilt of rave reviews, mostly for its addition to the spy-thriller genre as a reminder of the gloom-and-doom side of the nasty business.
Spy films similarly have woven their way into film history and become audience favorites, whether they depict the world of the spook in bombastic, action-based thrillers, more cerebral glazes centering on spycraft or even the occasional satire (remember “Our Man Flint”?).
So here's a look at five films through cloak-and-dagger glasses that have made their mark on the genre even as they have won fans on their own merits with their own distinctions.
‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold'
In 1965, the first le Carré novel to become a resonating film staked a spear in the genre at the heart of James Bond-mania circa era one. Like George Smiley in le Carre's latest film, Richard Burton's character is a washed up British agent whose final foray in the dirty business — talking to the East about his own defection — may send him out with a bang. The emphasis here is not on action, which is virtually nonexistent in this unflinching look at the hardened souls who enter such a business, and on the downward spiral that inevitably ensues regardless of which side you are — or appear to be — on.
‘From Russia With Love'
No matter what realities they do or don't depict, you can't talk about spies' whispered words on film without at least bending the ear of James Bond, Ian Fleming's superspy who's heavy on the drinks, a heavy with the ladies and heavy handed on the bad guys. Out of all the films that have soared at the box office through Walther PPK action and womanizing charm, especially in the original Sean Connery days, this relatively sober adventure has him dealing not with global madmen taking over the world but venturing into Eastern Europe on a mission that's as close to cold-war reality as it gets in Bond land. This time he faces real, live Russkies with nary an Aston Martin in sight, and here, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
‘Three Days of the Condor'
Virtually a whole sub-genre of spy films, including such Hitchcock classics as the “The 39 Steps” and “North By Northwest,” are those in which the hero isn't a spy at all but rises to the occasion after forces beyond his control thrust him into action. Robert Redford's character in Sydney Pollack's still-absorbing 1975 film isn't a true outsider; he's an analyst for an American intelligence agency who comes back from lunch one day to find his fellow workers massacred in their cover office. Max Von Sydow is especially memorable as an assassin of first rank whose chilling scene with Redford in an elevator is a spy-cat-and-mouse classic.
Director John Frankenheimer's return to action-thriller prominence in 1998 following early career heights (“The Manchurian Candidate” in 1962, “Black Sunday” in 1977) is as filled with spycraft nuance as it is with heart-racing action. With a cast led by Robert De Niro and the marvelously underplaying French actor Jean Reno, the story is about a group of ex-spies gathered a la “The Usual Suspects” seemingly to recover an undescribed package in Europe. Along with several “that's how they do it” moments of spycraft, “Ronin” also delivers a white-knuckle car chase from a director who knew his way around them.
Bourne fans debate which of the three Matt Damon films are the best: “The Bourne Identity” in 2002, “The Bourne Supremacy” in 2004 or “The Bourne Ultimatum” in 2007. Each, centering on Damon's character, whose memory is as gone as his CIA credentials, has its own merits in recounting his blank return to an unforgiving world. Of the three, which all but single-handedly returned the spy film to its 1960s box-office prominence — making them cool again and influencing such later toughened approaches as Daniel Craig's turns as James Bond — “The Bourne Supremacy” is notable for its own pulse-pounding chase in Moscow, and interactions with the FSB, the latter-day equivalent of the KGB.
Contact Bill Dean at 374-5039 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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