Ah, this is the stuff! An intelligent, well plotted blend of adventure and intrigue,The Mackintosh Man (1973) is my favorite of the Spy 100 selections so far, and probably would have ranked higher up the list for me.
Paul Newman stars as intelligence agent Joseph Rearden, who — on the orders of his chief, Mackintosh (Harry Andrews) — undertakes a highly classified and dangerous operation to infiltrate a communist network on British soil. After stealing a diamond in London, he’s turned in anonymously by Mackintosh’s secretary Mrs. Smith (Dominique Sanda), arrested, tried, and convicted to twenty years in jail, all in the name of being incarcerated in the same prison where the network operates. The network, which is in the business of busting out wealthy criminals for a percentage of their illicit gains, quickly gets wind of Rearden and folds him into their latest escape plan — which also, uncoincidentally, involves liberating a notorious Russian agent named Slade (Ian Bannen) from the same facility. Rearden’s mission, or so he believes, is to pinpoint the enemy network for elimination, and also to prevent the traitor Slade from falling into enemy hands. But things turn out to be more complicated than that, as Rearden’s journey leads him first to Ireland and then Malta in a precarious adventure that ends up entangling him in the affairs of prominent politician Sir George Wheeler (James Mason).
At a briskly paced hour and forty minutes, The Mackintosh Man unfolds compellingly, from its intriguing early stages to its later action setpieces to its cynical, pointed finale. I was particularly fond of the no-nonsense, untelegraphed way it constructs its mysteries, particularly early on. The film gives the viewer the credit to puzzle everything together without obvious or unnecessary exposition, something I wish modern films would do more often. The heady, subtle Cold War scheming is nicely combined with rousing, realistic action scenes.
Newman is solid in the central role, a shrewd, thinking man’s hero, although he’s oddly cast as a British agent and his accents are hit-or-miss. Much more problematic is the wooden performance of Sanda in what turns out to be a crucial role. But the great Mason is terrific as usual, plus you’ve got spy film vets like Andrews and Bannen (who would go on to memorably play Jim Prideaux in the fantastic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy miniseries, which is rightfully situated very high on the list). For the record, this one’s directed by John Huston and scripted by Walter Hill, so the film-making reputation is high across the boards here. This one lived up to my hopeful expectations and then some; highly recommended.