Spy Films

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Spy Films


The spy is the most contradictory hero in cinema. Although money and sex have motivated many spies in real life and fiction, the essential motivating force behind espionage is devotion to a cause, usually a nation, that is best expressed by concealing it. Because successful spies place loyalty to their country—or to their faction, their insurgency, or their political agenda—over all other loyalties, including their ties to family and friends, the lives they lead are lies. They may seem to be ordinary citizens, even citizens of enemy nations, but the mission that drives them can succeed only to the extent that it is hidden from those around them.

The most successful real-life spies may well remain unknown to this day. But since popular entertainment has no room for unknown heroes, spy films feature either unsuccessful spies, characters whose covert attempts to gather secret information about their cause's enemies are doomed to failure when they are unmasked, or spies like James Bond, whose success is somehow compatible with conventional Hollywood heroism, even fame among his fictional peers. These two character types represent the two leading tendencies in spy films.


Spying is nearly as old as recorded history. The biblical Book of Joshua tells how Joshua, son of Nun, sent two spies secretly into Canaan in order to ascertain whether the land was fruitful and readily susceptible to conquest. Three thousand years later, Cardinal Richelieu established an elaborate network of secret agents to protect both Louis XIII of France and his own personal interests, an episode fictionalized in numerous novels by Alexandre Dumas and such film adaptations as The Three Musketeers (1921, 1948, 1973, 1993, etc.) and The Man in the Iron Mask (1939, 1998). Forty years after George Washington, stung by the ease with which the schoolmaster-turned-spy Nathan Hale had been captured, recruited Major Benjamin Tallmadge as head of the so-called Culper Ring to gather information about British troop movements, James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1951) used these adventures as the basis for his novel The Spy (1821, filmed 1914). And the tale of how Billie Boyd, an undercover agent for the Confederacy during the Civil War, shot and killed a Union soldier determined to enter her home by force, inspired a similar scene featuring Scarlett O'Hara, the indomitable heroine of Gone with the Wind (1939). It is not until the twentieth century, however, that spies and spying truly came into their own. Their rise corresponds to the rise of popular fiction, which provided an indispensable supplement to the variously shabby secret agents who had figured in such literary masterpieces as Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Possessed (1871–1872), Henry James's The Princess Casamassima (1886), and Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907), and the rise of movies, a medium coeval with the culture of modern espionage. Graham Greene (b. 1952) applied the term "entertainments" to his own spy fiction from The Confidential Agent (1939, filmed 1945) to The Third Man (1949, filmed 1949) to The Quiet American (1955, filmed 2002). These tales, like Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands (1903, filmed 1979), in which a pair of vacationing yachtsmen discover a German plot to invade England, and E. Phillips Oppenheim's The Great Impersonation (1920, filmed 1921, 1935, and 1942), in which a German spy takes the place of a British aristocrat he resembles, set a tone of civilized adventure that dispelled the darker implications of espionage.

The earliest movie spies divide appropriately into two camps. On one side are tragic figures like the World War I nurse Edith Cavell, who smuggled more than two hundred Allied soldiers out of occupied Belgium before she was executed by the German Army (Dawn, 1928; Nurse Edith Cavell, 1939); the much better known Mata Hari, whose tactic of seducing her targets made her a natural for Greta Garbo (Mata Hari, 1931); and the wholly fictional Marie Kolverer, aka X27, the streetwalker-turned-spy played by the equally glamorous Marlene Dietrich in Dishonored (1931). On the other side are lighthearted stalwarts like Bulldog Drummond, the unflappable British gentleman whose run of two dozen films, mostly second features, began with Bulldog Drummond (1922) and sturdier, more melodramatic heroes like Nayland Smith, the earnest foe of the Yellow Peril represented by the implacable Dr. Fu Manchu in a long series of shorts and features (for example, The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, 1929). In 1928, Fritz Lang (1890–1976), who had already used the figure of the gangster to incarnate Fu Manchu's dream of world domination in the epic crime film Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler, 1922), substituted the looming, larger-than-life figure of the spy to produce the first great spy film, Spione (The Spy, 1928).

Unlike Lang's megalomaniac villain Haghi, Bulldog Drummond and his cohorts were defending the vast colonial British Empire's attempt to bring the blessings of civilization to the colonies by playing "the great game," a phrase coined by Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901, filmed 1950) and later applied to the genteel aristocratic tradition British Intelligence would foster by recruiting agents from the ranks of the nation's leading universities. Since the world of spies is a world in which everyone is in constant danger of being spied upon, spy films borrow and foster a sense of global paranoia increasingly characteristic of the jittery twentieth century. Faceless, often menacing intelligence agencies proliferated in every corner of the globe: Great Britain's Ministries of Information for domestic intelligence (MI5, founded in 1909) and foreign intelligence (MI6, founded in 1911), the various Soviet bureaus that eventually became known as the KGB and SMERSH (both 1917), and such American agencies as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI, 1908), the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, 1942) and its peacetime successor, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA, 1947). Spies working for agencies modeled on them came to encapsulate both the dreams and fears of viewers afraid that individuals had lost the power to control the juggernaut of history and hopeful, or at least wishful, that heroic individuals could indeed make a difference. Unlike World War I, which was fueled by a chauvinistic faith in the racial superiority of the homeland and its easily recognizable citizens, World War II was marked by widespread rumors of a "fifth column" of undercover enemy agents already in place in the homeland in preparation for demoralizing tactics or armed insurrection. In a world in which every stranger could be a spy, the counterspy became the indispensable hero, the only figure who could unmask the enemy and protect the purity of hearth and home.

To this period of all-purpose Nazi villains belong such variously glamorized spies as the little-man hero of Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), the quasi-documentary pitting the FBI against American Nazis; the sportsman who stalks Adolf Hitler in Berchtesgaden to see if he can get a clear shot at him and then spends the rest of Lang's Man Hunt (1941) hounded by the vengeful German spies who honeycomb London; and the newlyweds who spend their European honeymoon tracking down a missing agent in Above Suspicion (1943). The true Everyman, however, was Peter Lorre's resolutely unglamorous Dutch novelist beguiled into sordid international intrigue in The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), based on a tale by Eric Ambler (1909–1998), who had emerged together with Greene as the foremost espionage novelist of the 1930s.


In the meantime, Ambler and Greene's British contemporary Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980) had begun directing the most varied and entertaining series of films ever made about spies. It is no coincidence that The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935), the films that made Hitchcock famous throughout England and around the world respectively, are his first two films about spies. Both involve innocent characters who are thrown into a world of international intrigue under circumstances that prevent their seeking help from the police. Bob and Jill Lawrence become reluctant counterspies in The Man Who Knew Too Much because their daughter has been kidnapped to ensure their silence about a secret that turns out to be a plot to assassinate a foreign diplomat. Richard Hannay joins the cause in The 39 Steps because the police assume he murdered the female spy who escaped the foreign agents on her trail by coming home with him only to be murdered in his flat by her pursuers. Both films tap into the vein of colonialist adventure pioneered by Kipling, Childers, and John Buchan (1875–1940), who had invented Richard Hannay in his 1915 novel, but both also develop their intrigue through a series of episodes in wildly disparate tones. The Man Who Knew Too Much begins as domestic comedy before erupting in murder and kidnapping and moving toward a nonconformist chapel where anything can happen, from hypnosis to a shootout, and the Albert Hall, where Jill Lawrence will have to choose between protecting her daughter and stopping the assassination she sees unfolding before her. Once its plot has been set in motion, The 39 Steps becomes a nonstop series of chases through a passenger train, the Scottish heaths, a luncheon party at a manor house, a parade, a political rally, and a quiet rural inn before ending in a showdown at the London Palladium.

The thrillers with which Hitchcock followed these stylishly witty melodramas were increasingly dark. Secret Agent (1936), based on two stories from Ashenden (1928), W. Somerset Maugham's (1874–1965) acrid fictionalization of his own experiences in World War I espionage, begins with the macabre funeral of writer Edgar Brodie, who, far from being dead, is reborn as Richard Ashenden for a dangerous mission to Switzerland. The film uses even more abrupt alternations between farcical romance and somber melodrama than The Man Who Knew Too Much to tell the story of Brodie's gradual disillusionment with the nastiness of espionage represented by his bloodthirsty colleague the General. In Sabotage (1936), Hitchcock uses Conrad's even darker novel The Secret Agent (1907) as the basis for a grim examination, still punctuated with improbable humor, of the very possibility of agency in a world in which everyone is forced to act in someone else's interests. Only in The Lady Vanishes (1938), in which the apparently impossible disappearance of an elderly teacher from a swiftly moving train unites a pair of bickering lovers in matrimony, did Hitchcock return to the more lighthearted mode of his first two spy films.

The most distinctive feature of these early Hitchcock spy films was to unite the glamour and disillusionment that had heretofore characterized the two separate branches of the genre. Hitchcock's spies are such ordinary and even reluctant participants in the intrigues that envelop them that they do not seem like spies at all. At the same time, Hannay and Ashenden hold out a hope—comically realized in Hannay's case, melodramatically thwarted in Ashenden's—that the most ordinary people, under nightmarish pressures, can become extraordinary heroes. After emigrating to America in 1939, Hitchcock continued to make spy films that were remarkable, given the wartime conditions under which they were made, for giving enemy spies a compelling and articulate voice. Stephen Fisher, unmasked as a German spy in Foreign Correspondent (1940), reminds his propeace daughter that he has fought for his country in the best way he could before he sacrifices his life to save those of other victims of German antiaircraft fire. Charles Tobin, the Fifth Columnist villain of Saboteur (1942), defends his tactics against the "moron millions" in a private room at a society ball. Willy, the U-boat commander who has sunk the ocean liner in Lifeboat (1944), is so much more fit and disciplined than the Allied survivors of the shipwreck that he becomes their leader and, in the process, outraged the film's wartime reviewers. Only in the short films Bon Voyage and Adventure Malgache (both 1944) do the enemy spies retreat into conventional villainy.

Hitchcock's most original contribution to the spy film, however, still lay ahead, in his unsparing analysis of the connection between spying and voyeurism as rejections of emotional commitment. Although many earlier films had used spies as metaphors for the widespread suspicion and alienation spawned by the twentieth century, Notorious (1946), in which an American agent sends his lover into the arms of a postwar German industrialist she ultimately marries and continues to betray, is the first of a new series of Hitchcock films—not only spy films like North by Northwest (1959), Torn Curtain (1966), and Topaz (1969), but apolitical thrillers from Stage Fright (1950) to Rear Window (1954) to Psycho (1960)—to treat the act of spying as a metaphor for other kinds of watching that value duty and detachment over vulnerability, openness, and intimacy. Whether or not they involve espionage, spying is a radical metaphor in all of Hitchcock's later films.


Just as the synthesis of glamour and disillusionment in Hitchcock's British espionage films increasingly tended toward a critique of the whole project of spying, the two poles were split for other filmmakers whose view of spying was formed by the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. Following a modest Red-baiting cycle that included I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), Big Jim McLain (1952), and Pickup on South Street (1953), the glamour of spying returned full force in James Bond, the British superspy created by Ian Fleming in Casino Royale (1953) and brought to the screen in Dr. No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), and their increasingly souped-up sequels. The formula Fleming had honed—political paranoia overcome by personal toughness, personal style, and a license to kill on behalf of Her Majesty's secret service—was retooled in the film franchise, the most financially successful in history, which made Bond considerably more suave and less brutal, though the combination varied greatly depending on whether Agent 007 was played by Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, or Daniel Craig. A series of self-parodying imitations starring equally imperishable, but far more forgettable, agents like Derek Flint (Our Man Flint, 1966; In Like Flint, 1967), Matt Helm (The Silencers, 1966, and its sequels), and television's The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964–1968) helped make the spy the most ubiquitous culture hero of the 1960s.

Even as legendary counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton was relentlessly combing the ranks of the CIA for the double agents he called "moles," The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) won John le Carré (b. 1931) a wide following for his far more jaundiced view of espionage, however idealistically motivated, as an endless series of double- and triple-crosses, often by one's own service. The 1965 film version was only the first and bleakest of a series of le Carré adaptations that included The Little Drummer Girl (1984), The Russia House (1990), and The Tailor of Panama (2001), as well as the television miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and Smiley's People (1982), which features le Carré's most enduring creation, resolutely colorless agent George Smiley, who had made his film debut with his name changed to Charles Dobbs in The Deadly Affair (1966). The more insistently 007 and his disciples asserted their heroic identities, the more Smiley and his inoffensive colleagues like Harry Palmer (The Ipcress File, 1965; Funeral in Berlin, 1966; The Billion Dollar Brain, 1967) and television's John Drake (Secret Agent, 1964–1966) and Number Six (The Prisoner, 1967) shrank into the woodwork, convinced that the key to their survival lay in their ability to pass unnoticed.

Although the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989 took the edge off a genre that had already lost its urgency, cloak and dagger films survive in as many contemporary guises as the secret agent's own. James Bond stand-ins like Harry Tasker (True Lies, 1994), though settling down to family life, refuse to retire, and outsized films of adventure, intrigue, or counter-terrorism emphasizing Bond-like action (Die Hard, 1988, and its sequels), technology (The Hunt for Red October, 1990), or special effects (Mission: Impossible, 1996; Mission: Impossible II, 2000; Mission: Impossible III, 2006) continue to gross millions. The genre's appetite for historical nostalgia, already hinted at in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), has produced entries as varied as The Day of the Jackal (1973), Eye of the Needle (1981), The English Patient (1996), and the television miniseries Reilly: The Ace of Spies (1983). Films from The Crying Game (1992) to Ronin (1998) to The Truman Show (1998) have followed Hitchcock's lead in linking spying, or being spied on, to fears of a more general loss of identity, and The Matrix trilogy (1999–2003) has made counterterrorism a metaphor for a fashionably radical epistemological skepticism served up with state-of-the-art digital effects. It remains to be seen what the legacy of September 11, 2001 will be for this durable, protean genre.

SEE ALSO Cold War;Crime Films;Genre;Thrillers


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Thomas Leitch