RR Films: Spying

As if eavesdropping on Donny’s conversations would be of any use to anyone! Whatever he says one day changes the next, he uses words for effect instead of meaning and he wouldn’t recognise the truth even if it kissed him on the nose…..But it’s all part of the double-think game he’s suckered folks into playing for quite some time now. Let’s just hope everyone gets tired of it soon and starts completely ignoring him.

Anyway, films about spying. An industry in its own right, perhaps, but good ones aren’t all that common. Coppola’s The Conversation is a good one, however; the paranoia seeps into every scene as well as Gene Hackman’s head.

What spy films – even Bond films – would you recommend?

63 thoughts on “RR Films: Spying

  1. You can’t go wrong with the fairly obvious choice of Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy (either the recent movie, or the original TV version).

    however, these blogs should try to move outside the obvious choices and point people in the direction of something they may not have seen before which may be worthy of a few hours of their time. I’ve been wracking my brains to come up with something different and there’s remarkably few decent spy movies i can think of off the top of my head. Once you discount Bond, Bourne, anything with a secret service element they’re fairly thin on the ground. Does Marathon Man count? Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer movies captured a time and a place fairly vividly in an anti-Bond way.

    I have to admit, i’m struggling with this one a little.

    • “….these blogs should try to move outside the obvious choices and point people in the direction of something they may not have seen before which may be worthy of a few hours of their time.”

      Although I wouldn’t say ‘should’, that was my initial idea for doing this, Ivor. What I’m finding a little odd though, as the weeks go by, is the relatively narrow range of suggestions (with some notable exceptions). Why, I’ve just seen that today’s g2 has a piece about spy films (prompted by the same news story as above), leading with The Conversation….

      Here’s a couple of films of a spyish nature that maybe not too many have seen:
      A Scanner Darkly – Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped take on Phillip K Dick’s novel, and
      Lust, Caution – Ang Lee’s tale of sexy intrigue.

  2. Dond of course for Tinker Tailor, and I’m having the same difficulty that Ivor is, Bond is too easy. So is this one, but since I’m still in a Hitchcock kind of mood, I’ll go with Notorious till I come up with something better.

  3. Further to my last comment i can’t believe i didn’t think of The Third Man.

    Also, No Way Out with Costner and Hackman. A great 80s thriller for which you will get NO spoilers from me in case you haven’t yet seen it – it’s worth the effort.

  4. … and finally, last year’s Spielberg movie The Bridge of Spies with Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. A good way to spend a few hours – always love a bit of cold-war era Berlin shenanigans.

  5. There are so many truly great spy films, and I don’t mean James Bond or Jason Bourne here.

    The very best spy films, for me, are ones that are about the people involved, their weaknesses, foibles, strengths and relationships. therefore, for me the technological side of spying is kind of irrelevant.

    My nomination is therefore twofold, and both are adaptations of novels by the master of the British espionage genre, John Le Carré.

    The first is adapted from an early novel and stars Richard Burton in one of his greatest roles, and it is The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. The second is, of course Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Gary Oldman as a very different George Smiley to the Alec Guinness TV version. The thing I love about the novel, and this is brought out brilliantly in the film is how The Circus is like a family, with relationships that go back decades. This means that the betrayals, double-crosses and duplicities are painful and wounding on a personal level as well as a professional one. The novel is inevitably compressed to fit into a film, but the way that this is handled, for me at least, works brilliantly. The real point is, I think, that the old warhorses of The Circus know that their great days are over and the American Cousins hold most of the cards. As Connie Sachs says in the novel “Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. Englishmen could be proud then. They could, George. All gone, taken away. Bye-bye world. If it’s bad, George, don’t come back. Promise? I want to remember you, just as you were. My lovely, lovely boys..” The unspoken thing that both Connie and George implicitly know is that it was taken away by the Cousins because The Circus was washed up after the War and worked in reduced circumstances during the Cold War, with a series of failures, culminating in the discovery of the mole, Gerald, someone who Connie had long suspected existed.

    • I love John Le Carre. The narrative in the books is dense and descriptive built on real knowledge. I think they translate surprisingly quite well to film. All the ones you mention are great.

      • Yes, I am a huge fan of John Le Carré’s books. I think that he transcends the espionage genre and brings insight about human motivations to his writing, much as Graham Greene did in his work. In many ways, Le Carré is writing about the state of Britain in his novels, too. He tells us about the cynicism, the self-serving and the hypocrisy at the heart of post-Suez Britian, a nation that trades on past glories but which is in thrall to the USA and increasingly to corporate interests and unsavoury regimes.

  6. Ok, bit more of a stretch, and not as obvious as Notorious, I’ll try Mona Lisa.
    Michael Caine has Bob Hoskins spy on one of Catholic Tyson’s clients for blackmail purposes

  7. Three occur to me

    1) The Lives of Others – which is effectively The Conversation set in East Germany with Ulrich Muhe playing the Hackman role but as a Stasi spy

    2) Stalag 17 – a Billy Wilder film set in a German prisoner or war camp in WW2 in which a German spy (Richard Strauss) is placed in one of the huts to ensure when any escapes are planned the Germans know about it ! William Holden is brilliant as the wheeler dealer who exposes the spy.

    3) Rear Window – a different kind of spying, (some may say an English speciality !) spying on your neighbours ! James Stewart gets more than he bargains for when he is laid up in his flat with a broken leg and begins taking an unhealthy interest in his neighbours, one of whom he discovers has murdered his wife !

  8. Spying and how it goes nuts – Anderson Tapes. Loved the book too.
    Huge donds for Tinker, Tailor and did Honourable Schoolboy get made even as a TV series? Le Carre at his best.
    And special mention to Ipcress File. The Game, Set and Match is another trilogy that will challenge any film maker.

    • I don’t think they made Schoolboy because they couldn’t afford the location. So they went straight to Smiley’s People.

    • The Honourable Schoolboy was never made for the BBC, far too expensive. I think I’ve read rumours that it might be made as a film, though.

  9. Probably my all-time favourite is a novel that [afaik] has never been made into a film:

    Kolymsky Heights

    I cannot recommend Lionel Davidson’s epic tale highly enough.

  10. Some great films nominated so far.
    I’d like to suggest French film Caché. This film is a bit creepy without being scary as such. Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil play a husband and wife who start receiving videotapes in the post of CCTV footage of their house and their comings and goings. They also receive childish drawings. They receive nothing else, no instructions and no threats, yet it feels threatening and menacing. The film progresses to become slightly menacing, but starts with this unknown observer – brilliant.

    • Oh it took me a moment to remember that Cache was the original French title of the film I know as “Hidden”.
      It was quite stunning. Very subtle increases in tension. One unexpected moment of pure shock and an ending that rewards close attention.

      • For me, that is The White Ribbon. Similarly oblique and domestic, yet even more chilling.

        (I was convinced, on first viewing in 2005, when it was released, that Hidden was a metaphor for France’s – or maybe the West’s – attitude to the war in Iraq. The interference of us western liberal types in a situation we didn’t really understand has disturbing repercussions we don’t understand either.)

  11. If we’re meant to pick our favorite Bond films here, I’ll go You Only Live Twice and
    Live and Let Die. Worst – Octopussy.

    • For the sheer brass neck of them all keeping a straight face over the “invisible” car, Die Another Day gets my award for worst Bond film. A shame, because it otherwise had some of the franchise’s better vignettes.

  12. Not a film, but have to give a shout out to TV series The Americans – the premise of long term under cover Russian agents setting up home in the USA and carrying out their subversion while running a travel company is a great one. Brilliant intrigue and themes of loyalty, culture and patriotism. Set in the 80s so the music is brilliant.
    Deutschland ’84 was also a hit with me last year – German East/West spy series.
    Sorry to undermine the post by not sticking to the rules.

  13. I know I’m shallow when it comes to film, but I liked Ronin a lot. RdN as the CIA spy. Love his takedown of Sean Bean’s gobshite wannabe.

  14. Eye Of The Needle. Donald Sutherland as German spy stuck on a remote British island with D-day secrets.

    A Most Wanted Man a recent Le Carre & Philip Seymour-Hoffman’s last film.

    Best of the Bonds: From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Casino Royal? Can’t decide. OHMS would win if Sean Connery had been in it instead of that other bloke.

  15. Many great shouts here, as usual. Good to see.
    I can’t add to the Bond opinions, having never really bothered with them. I do remember being taken to see Goldfinger when I was 11: the gold lady stuck in my mind a lot more than the spy shenanigans.

    From the director of the abysmal Showgirls came the rather good Black Book, about espionage in Nazi-occupied Netherlands. Satisfyingly twisty and suspenseful, and still sexy on occasion (unlike Showgirls).

    • You actually saw Showgirls? He also did Basic Instinct. Which was trash, but it was fun trash.

      A done for Shoey’s Eye of the Needle, which I actually thought of, but couldn’t remember the name of. That was a scary one.

  16. The Conversation is just brilliant. Can’t think of anything else to add. The Falcon and the Snowman might be useful addition.

    I can also remember Faye Dunaway in Three Days of the Condor but don’t remember much of the plot, except for Robert Redford wondering what the hell was going on. I do like my early to mid-1970s US films though.

    • The Imitation Game (2014) was a Turing biopic and Enigma (2001) was a fictionalised take on events.

      (No, I confess I haven’t seen Showgirls all the way through, amy. Not sure it’s necessary. And I blinked and missed ‘that scene’ in Basic Instinct.)

  17. I’m tempted to say “Carry On Spying” but I just looked at the trailer on Youtube and, either they used the least funny scenes or (more likely) it just hasn’t aged awfully well.

  18. I enjoyed The Night Manager recently. And I don;t think anyone has mentioned The Odessa File from the 1970s, based on a Frederick Forsythe novel. Other Cold War movies include The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Ipcress File.

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