Friday Night Seitz

Secret agenda: 20 classic spy movies

As "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" receives a stylish update, we survey our favorite espionage films, then and now

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    10. “Top Secret!” (1984) and “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” (1997)

    We start our list with two of the best espionage movie spoofs, “Top Secret!” and “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.” “Austin Powers” sends up both James Bond and the swingin’ London thrillers and post-Beatnik youth culture flicks that were popular in the late 1960s. Channeling Peter Sellers via his own brilliant if off-putting talents, Mike Myers plays multiple roles, including the titular spy, a geeky fool who’s nonetheless catnip to the ladies, and Dr. Evil, an Ernst Stavro Blofeld-style villain whose purring vocal rhythms are reputedly modeled at least partly on Myers’ old “Saturday Night Live” boss Lorne Michaels. Both have been thawed out from 1967 and are still mentally stuck in that time. This ultimately doesn’t slow Austin down too much, but it creates some awkwardness for Dr. Evil, who hasn’t grasped the concept of inflation and still thinks a million dollars is a lot of money. Evil employs hench-people with Bond-style stupid-clever pun names such as Alotta Fagina and Random Task, dominates his son Scott Evil (Seth Green) and dotes on his cat Mr. Bigglesworth. The movie has held up surprisingly well, thanks mainly to its non sequitur-laden dialogue. “My childhood was typical,” Evil reminisces. “Summers in Rangoon, luge lessons. In the spring we’d make meat helmets. When I was insolent I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds. Pretty standard, really.”

    The latter — a spoof of French underground thrillers, Elvis movies about 37 other things — might be the crowning achievement of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, the filmmaking trio that created “Kentucky Fried Movie” and “Airplane!” It’s especially sharp in its send-up of Cold War spy film clichés, which here get inexplicably and delightfully mixed with World War II film clichés and a lot of ridiculous musical numbers. American singer Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer) falls in love with a beautiful resistance fighter named Hillary Flammond (Lucy Gutteridge) and joins forces with the underground to rescue Hillary’s dad, who has been imprisoned by the East German military and forced to design something called the Polaris naval mine. Omar Sharif shows up as Nick’s trench-coated contact, intoning code words (“Novelties … Souvenirs … Party tricks …”) and enduring surreal humiliations (at one point he’s trapped inside the blocky remains of a compacted automobile). The resistance fighters are named Du Quois, Latrine, Chocolate Mousse and Déjà Vu. “Have we not met before, Monsieur?” Déjà Vu asks Nick. “No,” Nick says blankly. “I don’t think so.” But there’s doubt in his eyes.

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    9. “Ronin” (1998) and “Spartan” (2004)

    What happens when David Mamet does espionage? You get a couple of tough, cryptic, highly original thrillers. “Ronin,” directed by John Frankenheimer, is about a team of former CIA special ops headed by Robert De Niro who wander from mission to mission during the post-Cold War era. The script, rewritten by Mamet from an original screenplay by J.D. Zeik, likens the group to masterless samurai from Japanese history, roaming a hostile world fighting other people’s battles; they’re hired by Irish terrorists to retrieve a mysterious metal case, a classic Hitchcockian MacGuffin that has no real meaning aside from its status as the thing that everybody’s chasing. De Niro’s character is one of the most laughably super-macho heroes in film history — in one scene, he directs a surgeon on how to remove a bullet from his body without anesthesia. And yet neither this conceit nor the film’s many lavish car chases feel out of place because the whole film is conceived as a sort of film noir fable, a sort of modern cousin of “Le Samourai” that allows Frankenheimer to indulge both his love of high-octane cars and his lifelong Francophilia.

    “Spartan,” written and directed by Mamet, updates the Cold War puzzle thriller to the post-9/11 era; like “Ronin,” it seems to be taking place in a testosterone-poisoned alternate universe several degrees removed from our own, but its sense of paranoia and its obsession with honor and duty feel very real and relevant. Val Kilmer plays the Delta Force cadre member entrusted with rescuing the president’s kidnapped daughter from a sex slavery ring (an odd premonition of the plot of 2008′s vastly more successful “Taken”). The mission is far more compromised than it originally appears, devolving into a crazy quilt of fake-outs and double crosses as tangled as the plots of Mamet’s “House of Games” and “The Spanish Prisoner.” Yet Kilmer’s character doggedly follows through all the way to the end, illustrating a concept laid out in the film’s opening scenes: A soldier’s first obligation is to the mission.

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    8. “Casino Royale” (2006) and The “Bourne” Trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007)

    Should the James Bond and Jason Bourne films even be considered true spy movies? Some would argue no, because although the heroes of these film series engage in deception and information-gathering and get tangled up in international political intrigue, they’re mainly assassins, and their adventures are ultimately more action thrillers than real-world espionage dramas. But if the assassin thriller is actually a splinter of the spy movie genre, the two are related closely enough to be indistinguishable for list-making purposes. And no spy film list would be complete without a citation of these two franchises.

    My pick for the best Bond film is “Casino Royale,” the Daniel Craig-starring reboot that has the cool toughness of an early Sean Connery picture, the romantic charm of the best Roger Moore movies, and the mournful afterglow of the lone George Lazenby entry, 1969′s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” It is also arguably the only Bond film in the series’ nearly 50-year history that actually works as a self-contained, completely adult movie rather than a knowingly campy thrill ride. It even has psychologically plausible characters and one of the only fully convincing love stories in the franchise, between Craig’s young, untested Bond and Eva Green’s Treasury agent, Vesper Lynd.

    The Bourne films are all tough, smart and engrossing (though the wild camerawork and frenzied cutting put off viewers who were used to the more stately Bond style) but it’s hard to choose one over the rest because they’re all of a piece, telling a complete and satisfying story. Based very loosely on Robert Ludlum’s series of novels — which were adapted for TV in the 1980s with Richard Chamberlain as Bourne — they amount to a three-part, six-hour action epic about an amnesiac assassin (Matt Damon). He’s a Frankenstein’s monster of U.S. intelligence — a black ops attack dog seeking explanations for his mistreatment and redress for the sins committed against him. The series owes a lot to the paranoid thriller genre that was so popular in the early ’70s; the Bourne films capture the post-Vietnam and Watergate conviction that institutions were blandly vicious and would steamroll over any honest person who tried to hold them accountable for their actions. That feeling became pervasive again in the era of state-sanctioned torture, promiscuous surveillance and flagrant disregard for international law. Bourne keeps getting closer to the center of the immense machine that created him and tried to destroy him, and inevitably learns — to paraphrase Michael Corleone — that the higher up he goes, the crookeder it gets.

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    7. “Three Days of the Condor” (1975) and “Rubicon” (2010)

    One of the many remarkable things about “Three Days of the Condor” — adapted from James Grady’s novel “Six Days of the Condor” — is its portrait of the very uncinematic workaday world of actual intelligence, which has less to do with seductions and baccarat games and machine gun battles than with sifting through mountains of raw data and looking for patterns that might be messages or clues. But of course that’s just the first few scenes of Sidney Pollack’s film. Once CIA analyst Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) gets back from lunch and finds his whole office murdered, he has to go on the run to save himself and figure out who did the deed and why, and is forced to become a real-world version of James Bond, using his fists as well as his brain. Brains will out: Turner ultimately protects himself — and his on-the-run girlfriend, played by Faye Dunaway — by correctly untangling clues, puzzles and portents, and playing people against each other. The key to the entire story is hidden within — or between the lines of — a text.

    The near-great AMC series “Rubicon” often felt like “Three Days of the Condor: The Series,” except that much of its action stayed rooted in the information-gathering part of the intelligence trade. James Badge Dale — who briefly played Kiefer Sutherland’s partner on “24″ — stars as Will Travers, an analyst at a think tank called the American Policy Institute who notices suspicious patterns in crossword puzzles published in several newspapers on the same day. When he reports this finding to his boss, the boss is killed in a train crash. Things get deeper and darker from there, but what makes “Rubicon” so unusual, and so exceptionally creepy, is that most of violence is mysterious and has what shady public officials would call “plausible deniability.” Will becomes convinced that he’s on to an international global conspiracy that intertwines with, and surely influences, U.S. foreign policy, but the clues are so elusive that it’s hard to assemble a convincing case. He’s helped by his supervisor Kale Ingram (Arliss Howard), but is he really helping Will, or is he secretly doing the conspirators’ bidding and throwing Will off the case, perhaps even setting him up for disgrace or death? This is a quiet, slow and highly intellectual series, much more left-brained than the usual spy thriller, but refreshingly so, and it has the best paranoid thriller atmosphere of any such story made after the 1970s. Every frame seems suffused with mystery and menace.

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    6. “Army of Shadows” (1969) and “The Lives of Others” (2006)

    Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 film “Army of Shadows” and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others” are set in different countries and different time periods and have very different styles, but they’re linked in my mind because they show intelligence operations (and their moral compromises and outrages) taking place within the context of a larger society, rather than presenting them as something that stands apart from the rest of life. Nothing that happens in these movies is hermetically sealed off from the world, as is so often the case in spy, assassin and other espionage films. Every frame communicates a powerful sense that whether the characters are persecuting political enemies or seeking payback for grievous wrongs, they’re still ultimately channeling their culture and upbringing, and that any pretense of detached rationality is just a cover for their personal issues, their pathologies.

    Set in 1942 German-occupied France, “Army of Shadows” presents one of the toughest, at times nastiest views of the anti-Nazi underground ever captured on film. Lino Ventura stars as Philippe Gerbier, a civil engineer and secret resistance agent arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo after a colleague gives him up; he escapes police custody and seeks revenge; from there the movie turns into a twisty-turny action thriller that lays out multiple lines of action, with risky acts of impersonation and deception and several thrilling action sequences. “Army” delivers many of the expected spy thriller pleasures — and gives Simone Signoret one of her meatiest roles as Mathilde, one of Gerbier’s most important operatives — but it’s ultimately a serious and politically minded drama about the personal cost of resistance to state authority. It also contains some harrowing images of psychological and physical torture, which is surely one of the reasons it became an international sensation when it was rereleased internationally in 2006. The ending is bleak as can be.

    “The Lives of Others” is set in the totalitarian German Democratic Republic circa 1984, and stars Ulrich Mühe as secret police officer Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler who’s assigned by his supervisor to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who’s on the country’s “Most Favored Artists” lists. It turns out that the the party’s minister of culture, Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), covets the playwright’s girlfriend and wants to destroy the man she loves. The plot of “The Lives of Others” is steeped in moral compromise, surveillance, manipulation and cruelty; in some ways it feels like a less violent, inverted answer to “Army of Shadows,” but told mainly from the point of view of the secret police who are tormenting a country’s citizens. Inspired by the filmmaker’s visit to the former East Germany with his parents, who grew up there in a permanent state of fear, this is an unsettling and at times wrenching film, but not entirely without hope for humankind. Weisler, Dreyman and even Grubitz — who’s pushed into a betrayal — take huge risks to appease their consciences. In the end there’s an existential sense that their actions were worth doing for their own sake, not because they necessarily contributed to the fall of the government that made most of their lives so hellish. A coda set after the fall of the Berlin Wall reminds us of the immense personal costs that the surviving characters endured, but it also acknowledges that in the end they’re all just faceless players on history’s stage.

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    5. “Notorious” (1946) and “Black Book” (2006)

    In movies about espionage, deception and surveillance, seduction is usually a prurient thrill, but sometimes it’s more complicated than that; there are emotions and principles at stake, and complex, even fragile psyches to think about. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book” pay unusual attention to these things. The former is a twisted love triangle in which an American intelligence agent (Cary Grant) drafts the troubled young daughter (Ingrid Bergman) of a disgraced Nazi spy to make a mommy-dominated former Nazi (Claude Rains) who’s now heading a cartel in Brazil fall in love with her and marry her. Things don’t quite go as planned, of course; the movie is notable not just for its memorable performances and ahead-of-its-time plotline (revolving around uranium samples hidden inside wine bottles) but for its doomy romantic atmosphere and undercurrents of sick manipulation. (Grant may never have been more handsome than he is in this movie, but he’s one cold, controlling bastard.)

    “Black Book” is about Rachel Rosenthal (Carice van Houten), a Dutch Jewish singer who gets involved in the anti-Nazi resistance and assumes a pseudonym, Ellis de Vries. In the film’s troubling but voluptuously beautiful middle section, she’s drawn into a scheme that requires her to bleach her hair blond and seduce Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), the local SD commander, whom she falls in love with. This leads to a chain of compromises, misunderstandings and rock-and-a-hard-place situations, and then to a series of situations in which the heroine must prove (and in some cases fake) innocence. Verhoeven, who went through a period of big-budget Hollywood shlock art (“Robocop,” “Basic Insinct”), returns to his roots in confrontational European art cinema here. The movie is a true epic, stuffed with characters and incidents, and somehow managed to balance moral horror and perversion.

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    4. “The Russia House” (1990) with “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” (1965)

    Two films adapted from the work of John le Carré, a novelist who worked for MI5 and MI6 in the 1950s. Martin Ritt’s “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” stars Richard Burton as Alec Leamas, an administrator in “The Circus” who is relocated from West Berlin to London after the death of one of his operatives and is marked as a potential candidate to become a double agent. But his handlers’ real agenda is to incriminate an East German intelligence agent who’s already in bed with the Brits. As is often the case in Le Carré, everything that happens in the story is something that could actually happen (or that was drawn from real events), and there’s nothing glamorous about any of it. The story climaxes not with a gunfight or car chase, but with a frightening tribunal in an ugly room.

    Adapted by Tom Stoppard and directed by Fred Schepisi (“Six Degrees of Separation”), “The Russia House” is another le Carré story of defection, with Sean Connery starring as Bartholomew “Barley” Scott Blair, an Engllish publisher. Barley was targeted as a possible publisher of a book about the Soviet Union’s true nuclear capabilities, written by a Soviet scientist (Klaus Maria Brandauer), but when the scientist’s emissary Katya (Michelle Pfieffer) can’t find Barley at a book fair, she delivers the manuscript to another publisher instead, who turns it over to British authorities. Thus does the book become the linchpin of an international espionage mission. Barley engages in a complicated game of deception, representing himself as someone who’s interested only in the book, but actually representing the interests of the American and English military, who are looking for insight into the true strength of the Soviet military. He also falls in love with Katya, further complicating an already politically fraught story. Although it was a box office bomb on first release, and was probably already dated when it came out due to its Cold War-era stakes, this is an underrated movie, serious and engaged but relaxed and often charming.

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    3. “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) and “The Parallax View” (1974)

    Two great paranoid movies about the recruitment and manipulation of assassins. John Frankenheimer’s original, un-improvable “The Manchurian Candidate” adapts a great satirical thriller by Richard Condon, who specialized in political thrillers with a splash of twisted speculation; Lawrence Harvey is unlikable yet oddly heartbreaking as Sgt. Raymond Shaw, the war hero Marine. Raymond was secretly brainwashed into being a presidential assassin by his captors in Korea, a U.N. of 1950s geopolitical villains (there are Chinese, Russians and Cubans in the room, though he and the other soldiers think they’re at a ladies’ luncheon). He’s supposed to kill a presidential candidate so that the man’s vice-presidential candidate — the Joe McCarthy-type demagogue who married his mother and chief American controller (Angela Lansbury) — can take control of the country. It’s a grimly funny movie, often shockingly so for 1962, and exceptionally bloody as well, and the paranoia is multilayered, with conspiracies behind conspiracies. Alan J. Pakula’s “The Parallax View” is even bleaker, a post-1960s hangover movie set in a country shell-shocked by official malfeasance and a nonstop string of politically motivated shootings that were always attributed to nuts who acted alone. Warren Beatty plays the hot-tempered alcoholic reporter who personally witnessed such a shooting in the restaurant at the top of the space needle and has become convinced that all the American assassinations were carried out by agents of the Parallax Corporation, a private company to which the government (and possibly other parties, we can’t be sure) subcontracts black ops work. This movie is so dark that it makes “The Manchurian Candidate” look like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” The ending is such a downer that it’s weirdly elating — a worst-case scenario that’s psychologically and dramatically perfect for this story.

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    2. “The Ipcress File” (1965) and “The Quiet American” (2002)

    A double shot of Michael Caine in spy mode. Voted one of the 100 greatest British films of the 20th century by the British Film Institute, “The Ipcress File” adapts Len Deighton’s novel about intelligence agent Harry Palmer (Caine), who’s transferred into a new, top-secret outfit investigating a mysterious string of kidnappings. Top British scientists are being mysteriously abducted — the most recent victim was snatched from a train — and returned with their brains emptied of the knowledge that once made them so sought after. Palmer is a classic example of the rebel-within-the-establishment — an insubordinate fellow with criminal tendencies who would have ended up behind bars if he hadn’t agreed to enter the spy game. He’s told that if he can’t get the most recent abductee back, he’ll be sent to prison. The title of the story comes from a piece of supposed non-evidence netted during a raid staged by Palmer: an audiotape that, when played, results in nothing but indecipherable sounds. Suffice to say that, as is often the case in tales like this, there’s a lot more to the mission than it seems; and complications ensue, eventually isolating Palmer and testing the limits of his endurance and resourcefulness. Caine is at his sharp-witted best here; almost nobody listens as well as he does, or lets you in on what his character is feeling without revealing exactly what he’s thinking.

    Caine had a late-career triumph in Philip Noyce’s “The Quiet American,” based on Graham Greene’s novel set in 1950s Saigon. Caine plays British journalist Thomas Fowler, who’s in Vietnam as an observer but has a Vietnamese girlfriend named Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). He gets involved with an American OSS agent named Pyle (Brendan Fraser, a superb dramatic actor who for some reason rarely plays dramatic roles). Pyle is working to implement the ideals of an American political theorist who believed that a “Third Force” — in this case, the United States — could get involved in the fight between the government and the rebels. But Pyle’s actions — including creating a splinter group headed by a corrupt former general and arming them with American weapons — have destructive results, and on top of all that, Pyle is involved with Phuong as well. Caine is at his tough-old-hound-dog best here; the ending wraps up his personal story while admitting that the damage inflicted by Pyle (America’s stand-in) has already altered the region’s politics for good, and not necessarily for the better.

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    1. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and “Smiley’s People” (1982) and “The Good Shepherd” (2006)

    This is probably an unrealistic triple bill for anybody who actually has a life; the British TV adaptations of John Le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and its sequel, “Smiley’s People,” run a total of 12 hours, and Robert De Niro’s CIA epic “The Good Shepherd” runs three hours and change. But they’re extremely compatible productions because they’re both very subdued, analytical, process-driven looks at intelligence work, and both take a very long, or broad, view of things. None of the missions are happening in sealed-off fictional universes, and almost everything that happens in the stories has some real-world equivalent. And their heroes — George Smiley (Alec Guinness) in the Le Carré miniseries, Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) in “The Good Shepherd” — are plausible examples of the sorts of people who would thrive in the real-world intelligence business. “The Good Shepherd” is, I think, egregiously underrated, situating the creation of the CIA within a WASPy boarding school mentality that dovetails nicely with the milquetoast corporate style of American imperialism. Its epic scope and coldly analytical depiction of violence and terror suggest what the third “Godfather” movie might have been if, to paraphrase film critic David Thomson, the film’s director had realized that all that Vatican business was a mistake, and that the Corleone family’s most dogged and powerful adversaries were in Washington.

    “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is about the attempt to uncover a Soviet mole within British intelligence, while “Smiley’s People” — based on the third Le Carré Smiley novel, the second being “The Honourable Schoolboy” — calls Smiley out of retirement to get to the bottom of a Soviet general who used to be one of his agents. Smiley has a nemesis in both tales, a Soviet spy master named Karla (Patrick Stewart), but theirs isn’t a James Bond/Blofeld sort of rivalry, but one of chess masters playing each other through human proxies. (Karla has just one scene in each miniseries, and speaks not a word of dialogue.) More than anything else, though, these miniseries are great studies of a great character, George Smiley, whom Guinness plays as a dutiful public servant whose fanatical dedication to his job distracts him from his failure to advance higher in “The Circus” and his disastrous personal life (his wife cheats on him). Smiley is a quiet hedgehog type, a man who remains intensely loyal to Britain and his agency even after he’s shunted off to the margins, while Damon’s character — based on pioneering counterintelligence masterminds James Jesus Angleton and Richard M. Bissell Jr. — is much more successful in the office politics end of things. But you could picture talking to either of them at parties, coming away thinking they were incredibly smart but a shade bland, and having no inkling that they could order men killed with a phone call.