The Amateur (1981) is one of those movies that isn’t on the Spy 100 list but definitely should be. Based on a Robert Littell novel, this twisty adventure stars John Savage as Charles Heller, a CIA analyst and computer expert specializing in codes and ciphers. When Heller’s photojournalist girlfriend is executed by terrorists during a hostage crisis in Munich, he wants the Company to retaliate, but he’s stonewalled by unsympathetic higher-ups. Fueled by grief and a need for revenge, he decides to use his access to take matters into his own hands.
This is good, solid cloak-and-dagger stuff with an old school feel – intelligent, patient, and slow-building, with a confident, well executed plot. As a spy film buff, I found its twists and turns unsurprising but satisfyingly engineered. It benefits greatly from snowy exterior locations for its U.S., German, and Czechoslovakian settings, which the cinematography shows off to good effect. Savage is effective as the hero who’s in over his head: a desk man in the field, pushing his luck. The best support comes from Marthe Keller as a Cold War widow who becomes his accomplice, and Christopher Plummer as the Czech intelligence officer on Heller’s trail. With the exception of a few dated aspects – in particular, the computers and the soundtrack – it holds up quite well.
Ultimately, it’s a strong spy flick that should please fans of the genre. I can only guess it was left off the Spy 100 list for being too similar to other films – The Odessa File comes to mind – that have a higher profile.