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Film, Spies

Film: The Recruit

March 20, 2017

Flawed but polished, The Recruit (2003) is a confidently executed post-9/11 spy thriller. James Clayton (Colin Farrell) is the ne’er-do-well son of an oil man who died thirteen years earlier under mysterious circumstances. A technical genius without ambition, Clayton’s curiosity is awakened by Walter Burke (Al Pacino), a talent-spotter for the Central Intelligence Agency. Burke charms his way into Clayton’s life, enticing him to apply for the CIA with the unspoken promise of finally learning the truth about his father. But Clayton’s journey through “the Farm,” which involves a flirtatious rivalry with fellow recruit Layla Moore (Bridget Moynihan), winds up being more fraught and challenging than expected. The complex exercises of CIA training soon start to feel all too real, until Clayton can’t tell the difference between the tests and reality.

Thanks to Farrell’s energetic performance, brisk pacing, a meaty script full of thematically loaded dialogue, and an assured, striking tone, The Recruit makes for thoroughly entertaining, highly professional spy fare. While the plot escalates well, there is an inherent structural flaw: once the action starts rolling, it quickly becomes clear there’s only one logical way for the story to play out. Fortunately, some clever late reversals rescue the script’s more problematic early beats. As a past-it spook, Pacino is peculiar casting; his real-life persona looms over the role loudly, somewhat undercutting his persuasiveness as an invisible man behind the scenes. But he’s still great fun, leaning into the affair with his usual conviction, and the dramatic fireworks between him and Farrell help gloss over some of the sketchier technical issues and questionable spy-world details. Viewers less steeped in the genre might find this a decent gateway drug for classic spy tropes, but even an old hand like me found enough to make it worth the watch, despite its issues.

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Film: The Holcroft Covenant

March 6, 2017

I spent most of The Holcroft Covenant (1985) thinking to myself: “Is this really the same John Frankenheimer who gave us The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and Seconds?” The answer is yes, but it’s rather odd to witness how its visual sensibility, which worked so well in the 1960s in black and white, can seem so utterly weird in a synthetic, color 1980s context.

In the dying days of World War II, a trio of repentant Nazis set up a Swiss bank account full of stolen funds from the German war machine. Forty years later, Noel Holcroft (Michael Caine) — a British-born American citizen and a mild-mannered architect living in New York — is lured to Switzerland by a lawyer named Manfredi (Michael Lonsdale). Manfredi’s job is to contact the Nazis’ children, who are to establish and manage a foundation with the stolen money that will make up for their parents’ war crimes. Holcroft wants nothing to do with his father’s legacy, until he learns that the money now amounts to four and half billion dollars, and he imagines all the good he could do with it. But that’s an enormous gift horse to look in the mouth, and sure enough there are strings attached, as Holcroft is drawn into a tangle of intrigue surrounding the money — and his role in the affair turns out to be more precarious than anticipated.

There are certain types of films from around this time that seem stuck between eras, and The Holcroft Covenant is one of them. The film’s stagy, old-fashioned thriller trappings and Nazi fortune storyline seem better suited to the technicolor vibe of the sixties than the artificiality of mid-eighties cinema. Frankenheimer’s inventive, cockeyed camera angles occasionally offer glimpses of the old artistry, but the talky script and painfully synthetic soundtrack frequently step on any potential movie magic. Caine’s talent doesn’t disguise the fact that Noel Holcroft makes for a rather naive hero. The trap he waltzes into is fairly obvious, robbing the story of surprise, while the dramatic tension leans too heavily on an unconvincing, sparkless romance between Holcroft and one of the other Nazi descendants, Helden (Victoria Tennant). A glimmer of spy thriller fun is as far as its gets, alas; by and large, this one is a disappointment.

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Novel: A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming

February 22, 2017

Charles Cumming’s latest is A Divided Spy (2017), which completes the trilogy featuring his outsider-spy protagonist Thomas Kell. While it doesn’t quite match the addictive quality of the previous volumes, it’s a bracing, accessible read that satisfyingly caps off the series.

Kell is again at loose ends as the story begins, when a former colleague, Harold Mowbray, lures him back into the game. By sheer chance, Mowbray has uncovered a deep, dark secret about Kell’s nemesis in Russia’s SVR, Alexander Minasian, that may make him susceptible to blackmail. Kell sees this as the opportunity it is: to turn Minasian back against the Russians as a double agent. But is it too good to be true, or is he being baited into a trap? Before bringing in MI6, Kell decides to run an investigative operation of his own, which leads to escalating treachery and violence in the secret war.

A Divided Spy boasts most of Cumming’s strengths: nuanced characterization, cleanly executed plot, and a trademark focus on the emotional cost of the business, particularly as it relates to Kell, for whom spying has become a form of self-destructive addiction. But he also provides Kell with a compelling foil in Minasian, a hated opponent who at first motivates him to revenge, but later comes to feel very much like a sympathetic opposite number. Their rivalry and relationship is the heart of the book, providing its most interesting insights and interactions.

Where A Divided Spy falls short, I think, is in its stakes. This failing may be a byproduct of the novel’s release amidst the upped-ante, conspiracy-theory nature of the current political climate, which I suspect has raised the bar on convoluted spy novel plotting for decades to come. Of course, Kell’s personal motives are clearly more central to the story than any wider political situation; the human element has always been more Cumming’s focus. But it feels a touch pro forma that, to inject some thriller trappings, a crucial side plot involves a fairly stereotypical jihadist martyr plotting a terrorist attack on British soil. Radical Islamic terrorism may never go out of style in this genre, granted, and inserting this thread contributes a much-needed ticking clock and climactic action setpiece. But it’s a less-than-imaginative thread, somewhat marring an otherwise solid and engaging tale of espionage from one of the field’s best scribes.

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Film: The Cape Town Affair

February 21, 2017

The lure of remaking Samuel Fuller’s noir thriller Pickup on South Street is certainly understandable, but The Cape Town Affair (1967) is an unfortunate result. It’s a shoddy, unimaginative reshoot that relocates the action from Manhattan to South Africa but barely tweaks the script, and executes it flatly.

Candy (Jacqueline Bisset), a courier for communist spies in Cape Town, is being tracked by intelligence officers on her way to an important rendezvous when her purse is looted by pickpocket Skip McCoy (James Brolin). McCoy’s simple act of greed hoses up everyone’s plans, complicating the lives of the communist agents looking to retrieve the microfilm, the South African spies trying to identify and stop them, and a scheming stool pigeon named Sam (Claire Trevor) who gets caught between them all.

With its noir trappings and catchy lingo, Pickup on South Street had a style and ambience that worked for the dark, twisty story. The Cape Town Affair dusts off the script and attempts to give it a glamorous, technicolor veneer in a new locale, with more conventionally attractive leads. But the rough edges of Fuller’s script, which gel nicely with stark black-and-white visuals and Richard Widmark’s snarl, don’t play well with Brolin’s handsome smirks and Cape Town’s sunny climate. A monotonous soundtrack and punchless pacing don’t help matters.  (Nor does the fact that the grubby print I watched looks like it plucked out of a lint trap.) Aside from providing background noise while I folded my laundry, this one really didn’t do anything for me.

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Film: The Human Factor

February 16, 2017

The Human Factor (1979) has cachet to burn in its creative lineup: Otto Preminger’s last directorial effort is based on a Graham Greene novel, features a Tom Stoppard script, and even boasts a credit sequence from Saul Bass. So, how’s the film? Well, spy fiction afficionados will enjoy it; I certainly did. For others viewers, I suspect mileage will vary wildly.

MI-6 has a leak, and its new security man, Colonel John Daintry (Richard Attenborough), has been assigned to plug it. Based on information passed back from a Moscow agent, it’s suspected that someone on the Africa desk is responsible, but is it mild-mannered bureaucrat Maurice Castle (Nicol Williamson), or his hard-drinking bachelor colleague Arthur Davis (Derek Jacobi)? MI-6’s higher-ups hatch a low-key scheme to catch the traitor out so they can quietly deal with the scandal, but a tangle of circumstances escalates the situation from a quiet matter to a shattering tragedy.

Structurally, The Human Factor is a satisfying espionage puzzle with a complex, devious plot that entangles callous intelligence officers and innocent bystanders alike. The focus is less on action and suspense than on the mundane needs and desires of desk-bound servants whose personal and professional lives get hopelessly tangled. It’s less Bond than Smiley, then; indeed, in terms of style and ambience, le Carré’s  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People adaptations starring Alec Guinness are obvious touchstones. It’s also of a piece with The Sandbaggers, which has a similar focus on the grubby corridors of intelligence world bureacracy. (The appearance of Richard Vernon here, in a role not dissimilar to his Sandbaggers one, further cements this comparison.) Fans of these properties will find plenty to like in The Human Factor.

On the other hand, there’s a certain flatness of affect to the drama. Attenborough, Jacobi, and a gleefully sinister Robert Morley all have their usual spark, but the story relies heavily on a sparkless romance between Castle and his South African wife Sarah (Iman). Williamson is well cast as a good-natured civil servant, but there’s little chemistry. Other key roles are filled by actors who deliver in distancing monotone, and occasional scenes are awkwardly staged, framing actors in conversation who weirdly aren’t looking at each other. Viewers not entranced by the plot will probably find themselves bored.

Nonetheless I enjoyed the movie, which despite its flaws is much better than many of Spy 100 list’s entries. If for no other reasons, its elegant plot and unusual geographic focus render it a memorable, worthy entry in the spy film canon.

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Novel: Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

February 10, 2017

Cloud and Wallfish by Anne NesbetInfusing middle-grade fiction with the dark and twisty tropes of the spy novel might sound like a counterintuitive notion at first, but Anne Nesbet’s wonderful Cloud and Wallfish (2016) delivers the best of both of those worlds. Briskly paced, with smooth, accessible prose and likable young characters, it’s a great, informative read for kids that also satisfies as a historical espionage puzzler, immersively depicting the end of the communist era in East Germany.

Noah Keller is smart young kid with an astonishing stutter and a photographic memory, and he’s about to go on an remarkable journey. In 1989, his parents take him out of school, change his identity, and bring them with him to East Berlin. Evidently his mother is behind the Iron Curtain to work on a dissertation, while his father’s along for the ride writing a novel. But as Noah acclimates to his new life behind the Iron Curtain as “Jonah,” he senses that his peculiar parents aren’t entirely what they seem…and neither is anything else in this bleak, paranoid country. Even more mystery is afoot when he meets the clever girl from the downstairs apartment, Claudia, with whom he becomes fast friends — much to the consternation of a very suspicious East German government.

Persuasively conjuring its era, Cloud and Wallfish is a bracing, entertaining read that seamlessly integrates classic spy tropes into a fun, educational middle-grade read. The common denominator, of course, is pretending: a confident voice manages to walk the line between the wide-eyed, make-believe fantasy of childhood play and the serious, high-stakes play-acting of secret agents in a hostile environment. The resulting tale is successful for readers of all ages, I should think, thanks to its likable protagonist, masterful historical world-building, and the endearing, loyal friendship at the story’s core. This book is a joy.

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History, Spies, Television, World War II

TV: The Heavy Water War

January 15, 2017

With resistance to tyranny much in the news lately, The Heavy Water War (2015) is highly relevant viewing. But this historical drama is just as much about complicity with tyranny, an angle which lends a tragic aftertaste to its annals of remarkable heroism and horrifying moral conundrums.

Set during World War II, The Heavy Water War follows the story of Germany’s efforts to develop the atomic bomb. According to brilliant German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Christoph Bach), the key to their research is deuterium oxide (“heavy water”), which is being produced at Norsk Hydro in Norway. After the German invasion, the Nazis install Erik Henriksen (Dennis Storhøi) as Norsk’s director in order to increase production. But the British, when they learn of this initiative, quickly move to stop it, with the strategic assistance of escaped Norwegian officer Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Høiner). Together with British officers of the Special Operations Executive, Tronstad plans a number of daring commando raids on the plant to foil Germany’s nuclear ambitions.

The Heavy Water War dramatizes its corner of history quite effectively, an educational and rather suspenseful look back at a lesser-known struggle of the Second World War. Evidently some of its characters are fictitious, added for dramatic effect; Anna Friel’s intelligence officer Julie Smith, for example, is inserted in an expected but well executed romance-under-fire subplot. But overall the series’ mission is to depict the exploits of the men who risked their lives to keep the atomic bomb out of German hands, as well as the impossible moral decisions of the officers in charge of the sabotage. Like many great war epics and spy films, the thorny politics of cost-benefit analysis come into play. But the series also has insightful subtexts about the insidious lure of complicity, as shown in the shady, opportunistic paths followed by Heisenberg and Henriksen, who sacrifice all decency in the name of ruthless personal ambition. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Even if the details of its history don’t deliver the justice of its message, The Heavy Water War comes down on the right side of this moral argument.

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Fiction, Spies

Novel: Breaking Cover by Stella Rimington

December 23, 2016

Stella Rimington’s Liz Carlyle series is like an unexceptional but comfortable and friendly pub. The food isn’t spectacular, but the drinks go down smoothly, the faces are familiar, and the atmosphere is just right.

The series’ ninth episode, Breaking Cover, finds Liz working light duty in MI-5’s counter-espionage section, recovering from personal tragedy. But the workload’s about to intensify: she and her erstwhile sidekick Peggy Kinsolving soon begin tracking signs of a potential Russian subversion operation, that may be reorienting toward damaging the intelligence services. With the assistance of her long-time colleagues in MI-6, GCHQ, and the CIA, Liz works tirelessly to identify the treacherous agents responsible and protect the service.

Breaking Cover doesn’t shake up the formula at all, and its mysteries aren’t particularly complex; indeed, veteran spy novel readers will sniff out most of this one’s gentle twists pretty easily. It doesn’t help that the Russian plot on display, while timely, seems relatively quaint in light of recent events. But the simple, elegant prose and welcoming style makes this another cozy, speedy read, for me the literary equivalent of comfort food. Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a good burger.


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Film: The Sell-Out

December 18, 2016

Searching for obscure spy movie gems is one of my favorite hobbies; sometimes I’ll unearth an overlooked classic, more often a mediocre dud. The Sell-Out (1976) is a rare find: an acutely awful film. It almost, but not quite, makes it into the So Bad It’s Good Category (Spy Movie Division).

Set during the height of the Cold War, The Sell-Out imagines an amicable assassination exchange program between cynical U.S. and Russian intelligence officers. The latest target of their horse trading is Gabriel Lee (Oliver Reed), a traitorous CIA operative who defected to the Soviets. Lee is such a loose cannon he’s gotten on everyone’s bad side, including his former mentor, Sam Lucas (Richard Widmark), now retired and running an antique shop in Jerusalem. When Lee narrowly eludes a bomb plot while vacationing in Israel, he seeks out Lucas to help save him from the assassins. Lucas is reluctant but can’t turn away his old protege in a time of need, much to the dismay of his lover Deborah (Gayle Hunnicutt) — who also happens to be Lee’s old flame. This fraught love triangle is soon tangling with the CIA, the KGB, and Mossad, leading to collateral damage and tragic revelations.

It doesn’t sound too horrible. And really it’s not without assets. Widmark makes a credible old-hand-coming-out-of-retirement type, and extensive location work in Israel lends geographic credibility to the affair. The core set-up has dramatic promise. But in the end The Sell-Out is an ugly, incoherent mess. Oh, the plot is a muddle, the dialogue meh, and the acting wildly uneven; while Widmark is solid, the rest of the cast can’t match his presence, although Hunnicutt has some nice moments. Reed, meanwhile, feels weirdly cast as a roguish American bad boy. The cinematography is grubby and the editing is quirky and random, suggesting unwarranted artistic pretensions, kind of a third-rate French New Wave feel, but without the necessary mystique. Similarly, the story action reaches for dark thematic resonance in the mode of le Carré, but the glaring lack of artistry severely undercuts that ambition.

What makes The Sell-Out fun — well, sort of — is a tone that is spectacularly wrong. A number of factors contribute to that weird ambience: stilted performances in key supporting roles, muddy sound, the clash of lofty artistic ambitions with clunky craft. But chiefly responsible is some awful, awful music: the soundtrack exemplifies the worst of the seventies, from insipid, flowery jazz to incongruous, string-filled disco-funk during the action sequences. Indeed, the music is just so totally, fatally wrong that I think it actually calls attention to flaws that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.

So there’s very little to like about this one, unless you happen to be in the mood for something a little trashy and sloppy. I must have been in that kind of mood, because for some reason I sort of enjoyed it. But would I recommend it? Uh, no.

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Film: Avalanche Express

October 31, 2016

avexPart twisty spy thriller, part ludicrous disaster film, Avalanche Express (1979) is a fun, disposable lark that feels like a movie from three different decades: a smidge of the technicolor 1960s, a pinch of the shaggy, edgy 1970s, and a portion of bonkers 1980s spectacle. And it’s got “Joe Namath as Leroy.” How could I resist?

The adventure begins when a high-ranking, traitorous KGB officer named Marenkov (Robert Shaw) reaches out to the west for exfiltration: after years of providing the U.S. with valuable intelligence, his luck has run out and it’s time to defect. A crack team of agents lead by Colonel Harry Wargrave (Lee Marvin) swoops into Europe to spirit him out of Switzerland, but their successful lift operation is just the beginning. Marenkov has a scheme in mind to simultaneously expose a network of Soviet deep-cover agents in western Europe and lure a rival KGB spymaster named Bunin (Maximillian Schell) to his doom, thereby hobbling a major Soviet plot to unleash biological warfare against the west. The plan: reveal to the enemy his “secret” escape route on the Atlantic Express, a train that will carry him from the Alps to Holland, to bait Bunin and his assets into an attack.

Extensive location shooting makes the opening scenes of Avalanche Express an attractive, broad-canvas international thriller with a focus on slick, dialogue-free action and visual storytelling. At first it looks like classic spy-fi “competence porn,” with Marvin and Shaw heading up a team of supremely confident agents that includes Mike Connors (perfectly cast as a high-level espiocrat) and Linda Evans (merely along for the ride, alas, as an age-inappropriate love interest). But as the film advances, their impossible mission soon reveals itself as little more than an excuse to deploy extensive model work in a lengthy avalanche setpiece — a sequence that springs from the same school of disaster blockbuster film that brought us The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. The slick, cerebral spy thriller it might have been is therefore abandoned, replaced by a brainless, if occasionally diverting and impressive, action spectacle. As such it falls into that weird category of films that age both poorly and well at the same time — silly and quaint from one angle, but classy and charming from another, depending on your tolerance for the film-making proclivities of the era. I got a kick out of it, but I wouldn’t exactly recommend it.

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Film: The Defector

October 25, 2016

the-defector-movie-poster-1966-1020209546Notable as Montgomery Clift’s final performance, The Defector (1966) is another obscure espionage relic from the Warner Archive. Clift plays James Bower, a brilliant physicist recruited by a scheming CIA agent named Adams (Roddy McDowall) to venture into East Germany. His mission: to retrieve a microfilm of valuable intelligence from a scientist behind the Iron Curtain whose work Bower translated. Despite initial reluctance, Bower undertakes the assignment, which immediately goes off the rails thanks to a scheming state security officer named Heinzmann (Hardy Krüger). Soon Bower’s focus shifts from the mission to mere survival, with only the assistance of a nurse — and western asset — named Frieda (Macha Méril). Will Bower escape alive?

The Defector is an understated, dry, and cynical puzzler with a distinctly European filmmaking flavor, happy to linger in fraught silences and grimy, muted settings. Its dreary depiction of life behind the Iron Curtain is convincing, helped in no small way by authentic German location work, and there’s a great atmosphere of Cold War paranoia. It’s missing that certain something, alas — a spark of energy, perhaps — and Clift, while interesting, makes for an inscrutable protagonist. The result is a film that’s difficult to get invested in, holding the viewer at a distance. Two similar, far more picturesque films leap to mind as contemporary competitors: Torn Curtain (with which it shares a certain structural similarity) and The Looking Glass War (which has a similarly dire worldview). It’s easy to see, then, why this one might be overlooked, despite its more realistic trappings, and a pair of memorable sequences: one an unsettling, New Wave-y interrogation sequence, the other a suspenseful Great Escape-like flight for the border. In the end, this is yet another film that spy-film aficionados will probably enjoy more than general audiences; it certainly worked for me, despite its flaws.

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Film: The Double Man

October 23, 2016

double-manAs unexceptional spy films go, The Double Man (1967) is a fun oldie, with gorgeous location scenery and a certain B-movie charm. There are reasons you haven’t heard of it, but you could do worse for a harmless weekend matinee.

When his son dies in a skiing accident, CIA Assistant Director Dan Slater (Yul Brynner) journeys to the Austrian Alps to attend the funeral and claim the body. Once he’s handled this tragic business, he’s supposed to return to Washington straight away — but when he discovers evidence of foul play in his son’s murder, he decides to extend his stay. Clearly an enemy operation is in motion, and he’s the target, but who’s baiting the trap, and why? Perhaps his retired old friend from MI5, Frank Wheatly (Clive Revill), is involved, or it could be innocent-seeming witness Gina (Britt Ekland), who may be part of a Russian honey trap. Suspicious of everyone, Slater defies the orders of his superiors, determined to get to the bottom of the enemy operation, and smash it.

With the look and feel of an old Mission: Impossible episode, The Double Man is an occasionally ponderous affair, thanks largely to the stone-faced Brynner’s rather taciturn performance as a difficult-to-like character. The mystery builds slowly, and the major plot reveal is highly telegraphed. But Slater’s unsympathetic nature does help paint a classic picture of the intelligence business as a place where trust and optimism go to die, serving the film’s reasonably well handled themes. Occasionally cheesy rear-screen projection notwithstanding, the location work is stunningly photographed. So is Ekland, who straddles the line between ingenue and femme fatale effectively, contributing to the intrigue. On points it’s a mediocre film, with a plot that fails to surprise and a less-than-convincing Hollywood ending that misses an opportunity to say something more powerful. But fortunately it’s my kind of mediocre film, a harmless diversion with comfortable genre trappings.

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