Tuesday 6 December 2016

The spy movies that came in from the cold

Published 17/09/2011 | 05:00

Readers of a certain vintage might remember the award-winning 1979 BBC TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Based on a novel by John le Carré, the addictive and -- for its time -- surprisingly grim and hard-hitting drama starred Alec Guinness as George Smiley, a wise old MI6 agent who is called out of retirement to investigate claims that a Russian agent has infiltrated British intelligence.

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Yesterday, an eagerly awaited film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was released here, with Gary Oldman taking on the Smiley role, backed by an impressive supporting cast that includes Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt and Mark Strong. It's a fine film, featuring a superbly assured performance from Oldman, and may well figure at next year's Oscars.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is set in the 1970s, when Cold War paranoia still gripped the world and spy stories were all the rage. But the glory days of the spy film were the 1950s and 1960s, and Le Carré's name features prominently on lists of the best of them.

Le Carré, whose real name is David Cornwell, certainly knew what he was talking about: during the 1950s and 1960s he worked for MI5 and MI6 in London and Germany, running agents until his cover was blown by the British double agent and Kremlin stooge, Kim Philby. By then Cornwell had garnered enough information for the 22 spy novels he has since published, many of which have been made into films.

Inevitably, the genre suffered a body blow when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but spying is probably the world's second-oldest profession, and of late the spy movie has rallied.

The ailing Bond franchise was given a major overhaul in 2006 and is now going strong, while Jason Bourne has emerged as a more complex hero for a complex time.

But for me the most enjoyable spy capers remain the ones involving poisoned umbrella tips, guns with silencers, chilly middle-European locations and suspicious foreigners in fur hats.

There were spy films before the Cold War. Greta Garbo had her biggest commercial success ever playing real-life World War One spy Mata Hari in a 1932 film of the same name, and as a young filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock became heavily involved in the genre.

In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), a bourgeois British couple on a Swiss skiing holiday are forced to go on the run after a dying French spy tells them an explosive state secret. Hitchcock remade the film with James Stewart and Doris Day in 1956.

Robert Donat played a Canadian man about town who flees to Scotland in similar circumstances in the acclaimed and very influential 1935 thriller The 39 Steps.

And poor old Ingrid Bergman had to endure all sorts of abuse playing a German-American who uses her feminine wiles to infiltrate a Nazi cell in Rio de Janeiro in Hitchcock's 1946 classic Notorious.

But it was only when what Winston Churchill described as "an iron curtain" descended across Europe in the aftermath of World War Two that the spy movie really began to take off.

The paranoia and growing terror of nuclear conflict that gripped America and western Europe after 1946 found expression in dark and ominous stories and films that grew ever more complex and morally ambiguous as the suspicion between east and west deepened.

Cary Grant personified the American way of life under threat in Hitchcock's iconic 1959 thriller North by Northwest. Urbane New York advertising executive Roger Thornhill is going about his business when a case of mistaken identity draws him into a race across America and a battle against ruthless Soviet agents. The west triumphs and he gets the girl.

James Bond got a lot of girls and represented a more lighthearted and flippant take on the very serious business of the Cold War.

Starting in 1962 with Dr No, the Bond films presented a cartoonish and reassuringly simple take on postwar geopolitics in which the bad guys might as well have had the hammer and sickle tattooed on their foreheads and always got what was coming to them. And perhaps 1960s audiences were also reassured by the fact that the most vicious, cold-blooded and amoral spy was on our side.

The Bond films offered mindless escapism, pure and simple, and depicted secret agents as lucky blokes who could kill and maim with impunity and sleep with as many women as they liked.

The reality was altogether more mundane and in the early 1960s a grittier and more believable type of spy film began to appear, primarily in Britain.

Harry Palmer was a kind of no-nonsense, cockney alternative to 007. Created by Len Deighton in a series of 1960s novels, Palmer was memorably portrayed by Michael Caine in three hit films, beginning in 1965 with The Ipcress File.

Harry didn't stay in posh hotels and socialise in casinos: he led a rather grubby existence in a pokey London flat and his contempt for authority was always landing him in trouble. He was a tough nut and in The Ipcress File he stabbed himself in the hand with a rusty nail to avoid succumbing to brainwashing.

Harry Palmer was clever, but he never really had a handle on what was going on in the unending chess match between east and west. He was closer to the reality of life for the lonely souls who were carrying on a dirty, covert war without rules and beyond the reach of national laws or conventions. But in 1965 an outstanding spy drama based on a Le Carré novel got even closer.

Mainly filmed in Bray Studios and around Dublin, Martin Ritt's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold conveyed more powerfully than any film before or since the isolation and alienation that characterised the lives of most covert operatives.

Richard Burton played Alec Leamas, a world-weary British spy who travels to East Germany and pretends to defect in order to protect the cover of a double agent on the Communist side. In some of the movie's best scenes, filmed in the Wicklow hills, Leamas and his German handler Fiedler (Oskar Werner) discuss the nature of their work and find they've more in common than they realise.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was the first and best of eight feature films inspired Le Carré's work.

Sidney Lumet's The Deadly Affair (1966) was if anything even grimmer, with James Mason investigating the suicide of a trusted colleague who turns out to have been an East German agent. But Le Carré's vision was a bit too grittily realistic for cinemagoers, who tended to prefer the fluffiness of Bond.

There were enjoyably camp undertones to the hit 1966 British spy film The Quiller Memorandum, which starred George Seagal as a dashing agent sent to Berlin to avenge the murders of two British operatives. It was daft, but fun.

The same could not be said of John Huston's The Kremlin Letter (1970), a stylish and complex thriller about a network of ageing spies who embark on a mission inside Russia to recover an incriminating CIA letter that could spark an open war. It had a sparkling cast and a devilishly clever plot -- and yet it bombed at the box office.

Max von Sydow was among The Kremlin Letter's cast and he also played a key role in one of the best spy films of the 1970s, Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor (1975).

Robert Redford starred as a 'reader', or intelligence operative in a New York CIA office, who returns from lunch to find that all his colleagues have been murdered. He escapes, pursued by von Sydow's amiable assassin, and eventually discovers the hit on his office was ordered by one of his CIA superiors.

By the time the thaw in East-West relations gathered pace in the mid-1980s, the vogue for spy films had all but died out. The Jack Ryan films, based on the pulp novels of Tom Clancy, were not so much spy movies as out-and-out action films without nuance or subtext.

And after the collapse of the Soviet Union, spy films had to rely mainly on history for their plots.

Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005) brilliantly dramatised Israel's covert response to the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, when a team of Mossad agents set out to find and kill the Palestinians suspected of organising it.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy also harks back to the 1970s for its plot, themes and sombre mood. It's a fine example of a neglected genre that may yet come back into fashion.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was released nationwide yesterday.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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