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Spy vs Spy

We’ve been watching spy films lately. In particular, we’ve been watching the slow, plodding films based on John le Carré novels. This includes both of those British mini-series featuring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, and yesterday we watched The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, with Richard Burton.

There are at least a couple camps. In the James Bond movies, the protagonist is fit, brilliant, a crack shot, athletic and a magnet for super-attractive women. The only similarity in the other camp is that the protagonist is male. Le Carré’s characters are older middle aged men, somewhat frumpy, and certainly not athletic. In the case of George Smiley, everyone asks him how Anne is doing. Anne is his chronically unfaithful wife, and of course everyone in the spy community knows who she is bedding at the moment.

The Bond films seem to me much like super-hero comics, with simplistic plots in which nasty (but wealthy) bad guys live in swanky secret lairs where they plot the destruction of western society. They usually have many employees who shoot machine guns (a lot) and plenty of stuff blows up spectacularly. The good guys always win. Sort of professional wrestling for spies. In the other camp, everything is grey, from the skies to the plots to the morals of the characters. There isn’t a lot of action. The characters mostly drink and smoke a lot. Double-crosses are the rule.

My dad was a fan of the John le Carré novels. I recall as a teen trying to read on and not getting very far. I couldn’t handle the slow pace of the damned things. These days I enjoy them, and the movies too. I’ve never been a big fan of the Bond films on the other hand, although I suppose a few of them are watchable.

Next up we have a curious cross-over between the two camps. The Russia House is based on the Le Carré novel of the same title (which I’ve read), but it stars Sean Connery, who made his career as James Bond. This one is from 1990. Connery’s co-star is Michelle Pfeiffer. It gets mixed reviews, a 75% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes (and a 50% audience score) – it should be right up my alley.

Of course there is a third camp, where all spies are spoofed. Remember those wonderfully terrible Matt Helm films starring Dean Martin? And let’s not forget Our Man Flint, with James Coburn. Wait, maybe we should forget these? Better in the spoof department was the stylish British show, The Avengers.

Where do those Michael Caine “Harry Palmer” films fit in?

What’s your fave spy movie?


  1. Salvelinas Fontinalis

    Easy choice for my favorite spy movie: The Spy Game with Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. Excellent movie.

    • We saw that one when it was at the theatre. I’d give it a 6/10. Slick and stylish, decent performances, but not my cup of tea. Not in the same league as The Ipcress File with Michael Caine, for instance, or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Gary Oldman as George Smiley.

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