Film: The Amateur

August 23, 2012

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 a classic 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.

  • Philip Brewer August 24, 2012 at 5:29 am

    This may have been the first real spy film I ever saw, so my experience was quite different. I was utterly stunned by the main twist of the story, completely taken aback. It has always been a favorite of mine.

    • Chris East August 24, 2012 at 9:00 am

      Yes, I watched it (finally) on your recommendation! I don’t usually see plot twists coming, but they foreshadowed this one nicely…and I’ve seen a LOT of spy movies recently. Unjustly overlooked film.