Espionage outings get their day in the sun in our latest podcast, as we look at the somewhat more realistic side of the spy game, as opposed to Jimmy Bond’s Gunfire & Explosion Expositions. So join us as we step back into the shadows, hunt for moles and eavesdrop with the likes of Le Carré, Deighton and Coppola as they look for the cheat codes in The Great Game.
We start off our discussions with a clutch of John Le Carré adaptations, all of which we’d describe as excellent. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy sees Gary Oldman’s George Smiley attempt to figure out who in the upper echelons of British Intelligence has been working as a mole for the Russians in a beautifully shot, sublimely paced and most importantly, exceptionally acted film that has one of the best ensemble castings that we’ve seen. 1965’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold stars Richard Burton in a blistering performance from as he plays out an elaborate game of double, triple, or possibly quadruple bluffs in a scheme to sow discord in the Russian Intelligence service. Its plots are a delight to see unfold, and is imbued with a real sense of cynicism that sets this apart, as it resolutely eschews any of the glamour of the likes of James Bond. Lastly, we approach the modern era with A Most Wanted Man, as Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Günther Bachmann heads up a covert, off-the-books German spy service tasked with keeping tabs on a recently arrived Chechen Muslim, seeking to claim the contents of his father’s bank account and who the American services reckon is a risk of becoming a terror threat, while Bachmann angles to use this as an opportunity to leverage his existing network into finding more important funding networks. Another great adaptation, and unique in this instance for being as concerned with the tension between international agencies as it is with the actual work out in the field. Perhaps not quite up to the gloriously high standards of the other films spoken about, but only a sliver away from it.
The other British standout in this game is Len Deighton, so we turn to Michael Caine as he takes the role of Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File. Palmer is called on to investigate the disappearance of a number of top scientists, which leads down many an unexpected avenue. A film we never tire of watching, that hits the sweet spot between Le Carré’s rather more cerebral take and Bond’s shoot first, ask questions never approach, and holds up remarkably well today. We’ll be covering the follow-up, Funeral in Berlin as our commentary track for our next podcast.
We might actually hold up The Conversation as Francis Ford Coppola’s best film, which should give you some indication of our regard for it. Gene Hackman plays an incredibly talented, yet insular and paranoid surveillance expert who’s latest contract reminds him so much of a previous case with a tragic end that he goes to great lengths to avoid a repeat, as great risk to himself. Another tense affair that will keep you guessing, with perhaps a career best performance from Hackman.
Bobby De Niro’s in the director’s chair for The Good Shepherd which follows Matt Damon’s Edward Wilson from World War II through past the Bay of Pigs as it shows something of a potted history of the U.S.A.’s intelligence services that winds up with today’s much-loved C.I.A., as Wilson navigates the course from an idealistic youth to someone who’s ordering the dirty work to keep other’s hands clean while protecting U.S. interests. While it certainly has its flaws, we are a little surprised to see the mediocre general opinion it has gathered as it fades into obscurity, as we rather like it. Sure, it’s taking the deliberate pacing that most of the films we’ll talk about this episode a little past breaking point, being perhaps twenty minutes or so too long, but it’s still one of Matt Damon’s finest turns and an interesting journey, so we think it deserves rather more respect.
We could say much the same about Munich, as Eric Bana heads up a group of Israeli agents out to track down and kill those responsible for the atrocities committed at the Munich Olympics. It’s a rather more morally complex tale than many give it credit for, which should be apparent by the number of people holding it up as both an apologia for terrorism and as being a gung-ho pro extrajudicial killing affair. Despite another incredible ensemble cast, Munich doesn’t quite deliver enough drama to hold attention over its 160-odd minute running time. While it’s a very worthy and, on a technical level, a really well crafted film, it’s one that we would hesitate to recommend entirely unreservedly.
We move on to a bit of the ol’ Hitchcock, first with 1935’s 39 Steps, an adaptation of the John Buchan novel. A Canadian tourist, Robert Donat’s Richard Hannay, is caught up in a world of intrigue after he is framed for a young lady’s murder, after she confides in him that a secret has been stolen from the U.K. Government that will place them in existential peril. Hannah’s only hope of clearing his name is to follow the scant clues left behind, which leads him to Scotland. Well, we think it’s Scotland anyway. The accents, as is typical of the time, having been filtered through RADA’s finest winds up closer to Martian than Scotch. That aside, it’s a very engaging chase story aided by some terrific dialogue between Donat and love interest Lucie Mannheim. Arguably this and the other Hitchcock film we cover, Notorious are rather light on the spycraft side of things, using that as backdrops for a chase and romance respectively, but that does’t stop them being great films. The romance in question is between that classic cinematic pairing, Gary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, as Grant’s agent Devlin convinces Bergman’s Alice Huberman to use her father’s less than reputable name to ingratiate herself with a bunch of Nazis down in Brazil. As part of this she starts a relationship with said Nazi, Claude Rains’ Alexander Sebastian, which rather puts a strain on Devlin and Alice’s burgeoning romance, and at any rate must take a back seat to working out what their targets are up to. Another film that hinges on the tremendous chemistry between the two leads, backed up by a director who knew how to build tension better than anyone in the business. Both films are very much worthy of your attention.
Eye of the Needle sees Donald Sutherland play a German agent, Heinrich Faber, also known as The Needle, a reference to the stiletto blade he uses to kill when backed into a corner. He’s charged with figuring out the location of the D-Day landings by scoping out Allied attempts at misinformation, and making contact with a U-Boat off the coast of North East Scotland, which he attempts to do but when the Allies get wind of this, the chase is on. Rather like the last two films the spycraft is something of a backdrop to the film rather than the focus, however it’s still an effective and tense thriller backed by a great turn from Sutherland, whose swings between friendly and avuncular and cold and deadly is a remarkable thing to witness. Director Richard Marquand followed this up with Return of the Jedi, but these days we’d argue that this is a much better film.
We close things off with another Spielberg outing, Bridge of Spies, which also featured in our Best Films of 2015 podcast. An assured directorial turn lets Tom Hank steal the show in this tale of what happens when spy craft goes wrong, as he’s called upon to negotiate spy trades between the East and West. Supported by a fine turn from Mark Rylance, a lot of this film relies on figuring out the meaning behind the words being spoken, rather than their face value. A very great film indeed, with only Lincoln edging it out of being Spielberg’s best film of the past decade.
So, that’s a bunch of the more considered side of spying for you to get your teeth into. We’ll have the Funeral in Berlin commentary for you on the 10th, our Intermission podcast on the 20th with a grab-bag of reviews, and our next main topic for March 1st will be the films of Mr. Stanley Kubrick, my droogs.
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