The Looking Glass War (1970)

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I’ve never been a spy before. It will be a new experience for me.  Polish defector Leiser (Christopher Jones) is lured into the world of espionage by a shadowy adjunct to MI6 run by Leclerc (Ralph Richardson) and Haldane (Paul Rogers) with the promise of British residency so that he can see his pregnant girlfriend (Susan George). Trouble is she’s aborted the baby and he drowns his sorrows with his training operative John Avery (Anthony Hopkins) before entering East Germany to clarify if blurred photographs from Hamburg are proof of a missile site. He pairs up with Anna (Pia Degermark) who wants out from the Iron Curtain and together they embark on a treacherous undertaking with high risks and mixed results … Never lean on your opponent.  Never lose your temper.  And why fight over a knife when there’s a gun under your arm? This adaptation of John le Carré’s novel by writer/director Frank Pierson starts with an intriguing encounter at an airport which winds up with a roadside death. Accident? This downbeat deconstruction of the spy’s life continues in the vein of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and its satirical intent is conveyed in that first sequence – the spy can’t get taxi expenses and loses the film he’s paid a pilot to smuggle, killed by a camper van sliding along the snowy road. The author claimed it’s the most accurate depiction of his own experiences in espionage – including a misplaced longing for the glory days of WW2, utter incompetence and the futility of much intelligence activity. However the tone of anti-nostalgia in this story of The Department’s ineptitude is sacrificed for a more straightforward (and duller) exposition. The classic character of George Smiley is dropped from the source novel. There are plenty of incidental pleasures however, not least the cinematography by Austin Dempster; Jones’ gear (like a forerunner of Robert Redford’s getup in Three Days of the Condor), all peacoat and steel-rimmed mirror shades; a rare performance by Elvira Madigan herself, Degermark; and a score that is both modish and interesting from Wally Stott (responsible for arranging Scott Walker’s first three solo albums) who changed sex two years later and became Angela Morley. Morals are a bitch on heat

From Russia With Love (1963)

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Blood is the best security in this business.  Russians Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and Kronsteen (Vladek Shybal) who are deployed by SMERSH (a crime syndicate to whom key Russian agents have transferred their allegiance) are out to snatch a decoding device known as the Lektor, using the ravishing Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) from the Soviet embassy in Istanbul to lure James Bond into helping them. Bond willingly travels to meet Tatiana in Istanbul, where he must rely on his wits to escape with his life in a series of deadly encounters with the enemy including his stalker Red Grant (Robert Shaw) masquerading as an English gentleman agent called Nash; while his presence in Turkey inflames Anglo-Russian tensions even as he takes his lead from Karim Bey (Pedro Armendariz) She should have kept her mouth shut. The first great Bond film and the second in the series, with a story by Irish screenwriter Johanna Harwood from Ian Fleming’s novel then increasingly loosely adapted by Richard Maibaum (and an uncredited Berkely Mather aka John Ewan Weston-Davies) although it should have been written by Len Deighton but he worked too slowly.  (Harwood worked for producer Harry Saltzman and also wrote on Dr No and would make uncredited contributions to the screenplay adaptation of Deighton’s The Ipcress File). This moves like the clappers taking inspiration from North by Northwest and The Red Beret and has everything you want in a spy thriller: wit, ingenuity, Cold War problems (SMERSH is replaced by SPECTRE so as not to antagonise the Russkies a year after Cuba, but we know that), a revenge plot devised by a chess grand master, a dangerous journey on the Orient Express, a psychotic peroxide assassin (a brilliant Shaw) and a sadistic Lesbian Colonel with killer heels (the unforgettable Lenya). She had her kicks! In many ways it’s the truest to Fleming of all the films. You may know the right wines, but you’re the one on your knees. How does it feel old man? Smart, well-staged and action packed, from the fantastic pre-titles sequence (the first in the series) to the nailbiting climax, this is directed by Terence Young whose own wartime exploits and personal style were intrinsic to coaching Connery in how to present himself. And what about the Lionel Bart title song performed by Matt Monro! This was the first Bond proper with all the distinctive elements intact: the theme song, the gadget, that titles bit, Blofeld (played here by Anthony Dawson) as the ultimate rogue with his lovely white furry pussycat, Desmond Llewelyn appears as Boothroyd from Q branch, and the promise of a return bout (in this case, Goldfinger). The central relationship between Bond and Tatiana has a real humanity that is missing from other Bond girl romances – Bianchi is quite charming in the role. Edited by Peter Hunt, who would direct O.H.M.S.S. Tragically Armendariz was suffering from cancer during production and took his own life afterwards. Don’t leave me. Never leave me

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

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You go rogue, he’s been authorized to hunt you down and kill you.  Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and the IMF team (Ving Rhames is back as Luther, Simon Pegg returns as Benji) join forces with CIA assassin August Walker (Henry Cavill) to prevent a disaster of epic proportions. Arms dealer John Lark and a group of terrorists known as the Apostles plan to use three plutonium cores for a simultaneous nuclear attack on the Vatican, Jerusalem and Mecca, Saudi Arabia. When the weapons go missing, Ethan and his crew find themselves in a desperate race against time to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands but Ethan finds himself up against his number one enemy weaselly Solomon Kane (Sean Harris) the man who haunts his dreams and threatens everyone in his orbit, with Ethan’s ex-wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) the target.  He is saved (again!) by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who has her own mission, while the CIA believe he has forged the identity of John Lark to go rogue himself and he is literally believed to be his own worst enemy. Meanwhile, the future of half the planet is at stake …  All is well with the world, we are back under Cruise control. Nobody is who they say they are, but these days, that’s normal. Double negatives, two faces, whatever. There’s not one but four brilliant women – Rebecca Ferguson is back as the cooler than thou MI6 agent who gets to save the Cruiser again and join the team, ad hoc; Michelle Monaghan shows up, most unexpectedly, in a plot that has emotional heft but wears it effortlessly;  Angela Bassett is Erica Sloan, head of the CIA. And Vanessa Kirby is a shiny-eyed thrill seeking go-between who looks delighted with herself.  There’s an addition to the team and a heroic sacrifice.  There are two hand-to-hand combat scenes that are up there with the best of them. There are not two but three street chases – two through Paris, some of the most realistic I’ve seen since The French Connection and then – and then! – there’s a helicopter chase in the Himalayas! What’s the opposite of climbing? Falling? There’s some of that too.  Ethan Hunt is a man tormented and moral and the guy who holds it together. The arrangement of Lalo Schifrin’s iconic theme by Lorne Balfe is stunning.  I don’t like some of the photography by Rob Hardy but the use of locations including London and Paris is breathtaking. And there’s the cities that are blown up … or not. It’s all written with tongue firmly in cheek until things get down and dirty and serious. Confused? Feverish? Sweaty palms? Well if you want to stay that way and then some you have got to see this. Simply sensational. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

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You can’t unfuck what’s been fucked. Women are always getting in the way. Aren’t they? Berlin 1988. The Cold War. Protesters are gathering to break down the Wall. Super spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is being debriefed in an MI6 bunker back in London about an impossible mission that’s gone horribly wrong. She relates the sorry saga to her boss Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and a CIA honcho Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) as their uber chief observes behind the usual glass wall. She was deployed to retrieve a dossier of double agents following the murder of their man Gascoigne.  Her meeting in Berlin with station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) is put in jeopardy by the KGB in the first sequence which has the most innovative use of stilettos since Rosa Kleb. The comparison is not for nothing. This is a rollicking non-stop who’s-working-for-what-agency action thriller with an astonishing array of gruesome encounters.  The list everyone wants ends up becoming a Hitchcockian McGuffin because the fun is in the execution (quite viscerally).  It wouldn’t be a Cold War thriller without a double cross-cross-cross complete with a twist ending.  You want it? You got it! This is a postmodern delight with tongue firmly embedded in cheek: from the amazing soundtrack (that’s an audacious thing, using Bowie’s Cat People theme over the titles!), Stalker is playing at the cinema on Alexanderplatz, to a KGB villain called Bakhtin (if you’re into cultural theory) and a neat inversion of the Basic Instinct interrogation scenario with the men defused (literally) by Lorraine’s recollection of Lesbian sex with neophyte French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella). There’s a double agent called Merkel (ha!) and there’s even someone called Bela Balazs on the credits (film theorists will appreciate this…). The songs in some scenes are laugh out loud appropriate and the clothes … the clothes! Talk about on the money!  The action is horribly violent but balletic and believable and Theron is super-likeable in what might well be an audition for Jane Blonde. I want to be her when I grow up. Great fun. Adapted by Kurt Johnstad from the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart and directed by David (John Wick) Leitch, who knows a good action sequence and how to use it.

Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

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I was mystified by the title sequence to this film – slomo images of ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. Then a Russian family get murdered in the snowy forests. It wrong-footed me as I suspect it was meant to do. Because this is really a very long howl of protest by the great John Le Carre about the horrendous nature of corruption at the heart of the British establishment and the City of London, that sacred cow of Labourite and Tory alike, whose exponential development has led to the nicest residential areas turned into bulletproofed enclaves for Russian mobsters. Perry (Ewan McGregor) is a lecturer in poetics, in Morocco with his lawyer wife Gail (Naomie Harris) on a holiday we realise is intended to repair their marriage following his relationship with a student. He meets loud and noisy Dima (Stellan Skarsgard) at a party, becomes embroiled with his family and secretly agrees to bring a memory stick to London for the attention of MI6 who send Hector (Damian Lewis) to examine its contents. Dima launders money for the  Russian Mafia. Hector’s aim to get Dima and his family away from the Mafia’s clutches in exchange for information  is quickly disavowed when it becomes apparent he doesn’t yet have enough to get ‘the Prince’, head of the Russians, who wants to go legit with the help of a politician (Jeremy Northam) by laundering money properly through setting up a bank in the City. So Perry and his wife are asked to help a rogue mission for MI6. Danger, Will Robinson … This is a very specific kind of spy thriller and one that quietly sneaks into your brain, rather like a political worm unsettling your conscience, as Dima contaminates Perry’s. Hossein Amini’s adaptation does a fair job structuring what is hardly a classic spy tale but its morality lingers, as does the  realisation that Dima’s ultimate situation has been triggered by the classic act of familial  entrapment, witnessed, funnily enough, by Gail. Susanna White had the pleasure of directing Le Carre as a doorman to the Einstein Museum in a production of which he had an Executive role: those famous images of the scientist sticking his tongue out replay when it hits you what a confidence trick this film has pulled off. It makes you THINK.

Funeral in Berlin (1966)

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Girls always make passes at spies who wear glasses. Horn rims. Cockney wit. Iron fists. That’s how this was trailed and why not? Harry Palmer is a legend and not just of film. Len Deighton is one of the best writers in the English language, Michael Caine is one of my favourite actors so this combo with its lo-fi take on the antics of MI6 and their ilk was always high on my radar of go-to movies. The first in the series, The Ipcress File, was a masterpiece. A year or so later this appeared under the direction of Guy Hamilton who had a little form in the area – he made the great James Bond film Goldfinger (1964). He would go on to do Diamonds are Forever, The Man With the Golden Gun and Live and Let Die. He would also film one of Deighton’s pet subjects, The Battle of Britain.  Deighton’s writing is effortless (to read) – sleight of hand manoeuvering of plot mechanics with a vocabulary that seems to glide from chapter to chapter: he may be the most stylish of modern writers with an enviable grasp of history and a Renaissance man’s culture. Evan Jones’ screenplay brilliantly captures its essence and we are transported to a rebuilt Berlin with its tower blocks and modernist hotels and interiors, production designed by Ken Adam. It’s spy versus spy and the beautiful woman is played by Eva Renzi. Bliss.