Covert Cinema

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Espionage is real. And somewhere out there, we can only hope that it is just as cool as pop
culture has come to portray it. For decades, men and women have donned tuxedos and wielded weapons and high tech gear during their quest to save the world. The spy genre is still popular today, with James Bond continuing to take the lead when it comes to the face of film, but if you’re a fan of espionage in Hollywood, it’s no secret that you have probably seen a few of these flicks.

James Bond films

Shaken, not stirred. When you think of spy cinema, you think of James Bond. That’s just how it goes. Created by Ian Fleming in 1952, Commander James Bond RN—code number 007—epitomizes the classic spy. With a license to kill, Bond is tasked with seemingly impossible missions that more often than not, involve a rogues’ gallery of enemies, gambling and women. The secret service agent has been played by a star-studded list of actors, including Sean Connery (1962–67; 1971; 1983), David Niven (1967), George Lazenby (1969), Roger Moore (1973–85), Timothy Dalton (1987–89), Pierce Brosnan (1995–2002) and Daniel Craig (2006–present).

The 39 Steps (1935)

Back in 1935, Alfred Hitchcock directed the British thriller The 39 Steps that was very loosely based on the 1915 adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. Average British civilian Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) becomes caught up in preventing an organization of spies called the 39 Steps from stealing British military secrets. When he is accidentally accused of the murder of a counter-espionage agent, Hannay flees to Scotland and becomes involved with a beautiful woman, all while hoping to stop the spy ring and clear his name. Lauded by filmmaker and actor Orson Welles as a “masterpiece,” the film was ranked the fourth best British film of the 20th century by The British Film Institute.

North by Northwest (1959)

Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense thriller became quite the classic film of the case of mistaken identity and has even been listed as one of the greatest films of all time. New York City ad executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is pursued by ruthless spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) after Thornhill is mistaken for a government agent. While being chased by Vandamm’s men, Thornhill ends up on a cross-country journey as a runaway, where he meets the stunning and mysterious Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint).

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Based on the 1959 Richard Condon novel of the same name, The Manchurian Candidate is another Cold War political thriller, but this time, the plot centers on the Korean War veteran Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), the progeny of a prominent political family. A prisoner of war during the conflict in Korea along with platoon commander Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), Shaw is brainwashed by his captors. After his discharge back into civilian life, Shaw becomes an unwitting assassin involved in an international communist conspiracy. Marco finds himself plagued by strange nightmares and, together with fellow soldier Allen Melvin (James Edwards) who also suffers from the same nightmares, races to uncover a terrible plot. The film was remade in 2004 with Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight as the leads.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

Based on another Cold War spy novel of the same name by British author John le Carré (written in 1963), the film tells the story of Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), a British agent who, set to retire, is sent to East Germany as a faux defector to gain disinformation about a powerful East German intelligence officer. It is the height of the Cold War when Leamas gets himself arrested and is caught in a sinister labyrinth of plots and counter-plots unlike anything he has ever encountered in his career.

Three Days Of The Condor (1975)

Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway star in this political thriller that finds Joe Turner (Redford), a quiet CIA codebreaker, alone after he returns from lunch to find his coworkers have been murdered. He flees and tries to tell his supervisors about the tragedy, but learns that CIA higher-ups were involved in the murders. With no one to trust, and a merciless hit man (Max von Sydow) following his every move, Joe must survive long enough to figure out why his own agency wants him dead.

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

It was Tom Clancy’s debut novel of the same name in 1984 that launched this suspenseful movie that tracks Soviet submarine captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) as he abandons his orders and heads for the Eastoast of the United States. Equipped with innovative technology, Ramius’ submarine, “Red October,” is virtually invisible, but when an American sub detects the Russians’ presence, CIA agent Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) sets out to determine Ramius’ motives. The first installment in the Jack Ryan series, The Hunt for Red October also starred Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones and Sam Neill.

Mission: Impossible series

The spy franchise keeps going and going. The series of American action spy films is based on and a follow-on from the television series of the same name created by Bruce Geller. Co-produced by and starring Tom Cruise (who stars as Ethan Hunt, an agent of the Impossible Missions Force). Throughout the past six films, Hunt is continually tasked with thwarting plots, oftentimes without the support of his own intelligence agency. Mission: Impossible seven and eight are slated for 2021 and 2022.

Bourne series

The Bourne series of American action films (Identity, Supremacy, Ultimatum, Legacy and Jason Bourne) are based on the character Jason Bourne, a CIA assassin suffering from dissociative amnesia who must figure out who he is. The three novels were written by author Robert Ludlum, with Matt Damon playing the title role.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Based on John le Carré’s 1974 novel of the same name, it is 1970s England, and the head of MI6 Control (John Hurt) dispatches an agent (Mark Strong) to meet with a Hungarian general who knows the identity of a Soviet spy in the organization’s ranks. Unfortunately, the general dies before he can reveal the information. Undersecretary Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) calls veteran agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) back from his forced retirement to find the double agent and stop the flow of critical British secrets to the Russians. The spy thriller also stars Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Click here to see more from LIW‘s espionage theme issue.

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