Sunday 15 December 2019

How I learned to stop worrying and love Cold War movies

As Spielberg and Hanks reunite for a spy thriller, we look at films that defined a genre

Peter Sellers as Dr Strangelove
Peter Sellers as Dr Strangelove
Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg
Sean Connery in 'From Russia With Love'
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have revealed they'll be collaborating on a new film about the Cold War. The Oscar-winning pair have worked together successfully on The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can and Saving Private Ryan, and their new project sounds promising.

According to American showbiz weekly Variety, the as-yet-untitled movie will be based on the U-2 crisis of 1960, when an American surveillance plane was shot down over Soviet airspace and was subsequently revealed to have been working on a spying mission.

Tom Hanks will play James Donovan, a lawyer sent to Russia by the CIA to negotiate the release of the U-2's pilot, Gary Powers.

It will be interesting to see just how Spielberg deals with that tense and uncertain period, because over the years it has inspired some wonderfully grim and terrifically gritty films.

The Cold War, which lasted from 1947 until either 1988 or 1991 depending on who you talk to, was a silent, cagey, covert conflict involving spies rather than soldiers, and played out by anonymous heroes, victims and villains.

With the threat of nuclear war hovering in the air, allied and eastern bloc agents jostled for supremacy all over the world, their work and even existences routinely denied by the American, British, East German and Russian governments.

It was a strange time, and tailor-made for thriller writers such as Len Deighton and John Le Carré, as well as filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick and John Frankenheimer.

Unsurprisingly, the Cold War was a golden age for thrillers, but there were some inspired Cold War comedies too.

Here are my top 10, which I may soon have to amend, because if things keep going the way they are in Ukraine, we might all be facing a new Cold War.

The Third Man (1949)

Arguably the first Cold War film of all, Carol Reed's magnificently stylish thriller is set in postwar Vienna, which has been split into zones of influence by the victorious Americans, British, French and Russians.

Joseph Cotton is Holly Martens, a jovial writer of western pulp novels who comes to Austria to track down his old college friend Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles, right).

Instead of a boozy reunion, he gets mixed up in a controversy surrounding Harry's supposed death. Reed's film illustrates the growing tensions between east and west, and is beautifully directed and shot.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

You might wonder what a sci-fi film about an alien invasion has to do with the Cold War, but Robert Wise's classic 1951 adventure is inspired by the paranoia and fear of the time.

Michael Rennie starred as Klaatu, an alien with impeccable manners who arrives on Earth to tell our leaders that the rest of the civilised universe has become very concerned about our gung-ho attitude to nuclear weapons. If we don't make peace with each other soon, Klaatu eventually reveals, our planet will be destroyed. Needless to say, east and west find it hard to agree on a response.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Part satire, part political thriller, John Frankenheimer's drama captured perfectly the paranoia of the early 1960s.

Frank Sinatra plays Bennett Marco, a US soldier who's plagued by nightmares about an old comrade called Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey). Marco becomes convinced that Shaw has been brainwashed and is about to carry out a political assassination, but no one will believe him. English actor Laurence Harvey is very good as the unfortunate Shaw, but Angela Lansbury steals the show, cast against type as the communist villain.

From Russia with Love (1963)

Often cited as the best Bond film of all, From Russia with Love may be daft and cartoonish at times but is also steeped in the culture of the Cold War.Sean Connery's 007 (pictured right) is sent to Istanbul to foil a SPECTRE plot to steal a vital piece of Russian technology, and comes face to face with hatchet-faced ex-SMERSH agent Rosa Klebb.

Lotte Lenya is great fun as Klebb, but the film's finest scene involves a fight to the death in a tiny train carriage between Bond and Robert Shaw's blond assassin.

Dr Strangelove (1964)

In Stanley Kubrick's sublime Cold War satire - subtitled How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb - an unhinged US Air Force general decides to launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, and the US President Merkin Muffley faces conflicting advice from his cabinet as he desperately tries to avert a thermonuclear war.

Peter Sellers played three characters – the President, a Royal Air Force officer and Dr Strangelove, an unforgettable mad German scientist who sometimes forgets who he's working for and offers his president the Nazi salute. This is comedy at its blackest.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

In this, my favourite Cold War film, Dublin's Smithfield and the North Wall stand in for a divided Berlin in a dour drama based on the story by John Le Carré.

Richard Burton delivers perhaps his finest screen performance playing a world-weary, hard-drinking British spy called Alec Leamas who poses as a defector in order to infiltrate an East German intelligence network. Claire Bloom plays Leamas's unfortunate girlfriend, Oskar Werner is excellent as a fastidious East German intelligence officer, and Martin Ritt's direction oozes stylish gloom.

The Ipcress File (1965)

In contrast to the Bond movies, the Harry Palmer films based on Len Deighton's novels offered an altogether less glamorous insight into the world of spying.

Michael Caine's Harry Palmer lives alone in a shabby London flat and is endlessly confronted by bureaucratic red tape as he goes about his business. In this first outing, a top scientist is abducted, and Palmer is called in to get to the bottom of a sinister 'brain drain'. But he soon finds that his superiors have been very economical with the truth.

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Sydney Pollack's classic conspiracy thriller stars Robert Redford as Joe Turner, a clandestine CIA employee who works at a New York office that poses as a historical society.

Turner is a reader, a scanner of intel, but when he goes out for coffee one morning and returns to find that all his colleagues have been shot and killed, he is forced to go on the run. When he calls his superiors a meeting is set up, but at the last minute he realises it's a trap. Max von Sydow plays the baddie.

The Lives of Others (2006)

In Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's insightful drama set in the last days of the German Democratic Republic, we get a rare glimpse of how the Cold War felt on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) has set up a surveillance station in the attic above the East Berlin apartment of a successful playwright and his actress girlfriend who are suspected of nursing pro-western sympathies. But as he watches the couple go about their daily business, he has an attack of conscience.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

Gary Oldman plays wily old spy George Smiley in Tomas Alfredson's ambitious screen adaptation of John le Carré's most famous novel.

The jaded MI6 man is brought out of retirement in the early 1970s to find a mole who's infiltrated British intelligence and is passing vital information back to the Russians. He proves a very competent inquisitor, but faces a wall of silence from shifty colleagues.

Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds co-starred in this absorbing thriller.

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