Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Tomas Alfredson’s feature film version of John Le Carre’s classic novel is certainly not your average spy movie. Drab,kind of shabby and overwhelmingly brown in colour, it moves about as fast as an arthritic snail. But the old maxim ‘slow and steady wins the race’ has never been truer.
If you’re looking for crash-bang-wallop car chases, Michael Bay style explosions and Gary Oldman running around with a sniper rifle, this is not the spy movie for you. It’s twisty, talky and utterly absorbing. We’ve never been so gripped by amovie so sedate.
And the acting? Top-class throughout. Gary Oldman is at his best as Smiley, with the tiniest movement of his head revealing a whole lot about what he’s thinking - you can almost see the wheels turning as he puzzles it out. The rest of the cast are on form, too – and as they’re some of the finest British actors working today you know you’re onto a winner.
Even if Tom Hardy’s wig does almost steal the show.
The Ipcress File
It’s very telling that a pivotal scene between Harry Palmer (an iconic portrayal by Michael Caine) and his superior Dalby (Nigel Green) takes place in a supermarket. Similarly to Tinker Tailor, The Ipcress File presents a far more downbeat and unglamorous vision of the world of espionage than the high-flying Bond films. Its scenes of violence and mind control are bolstered by those of admin in dreary offices. It’s got excitement for sure but balanced with arguments about the budget for operations. Essentially it’s the same thing as The Wire.
It’s Caine that really makes the picture. Palmer is shown to be dodgy but basically good and there is a real humanity to him that is absent from the superheroics of Matthew Bourne and James Bond. He does not have unlimited funds or physical strength; he has to rely on his wits. It’s a performance which shows to any doubters that Micahel Caine is far more than a pair of glasses and an accent. The best spy films are really about the people spying and with Harry Palmer, The Ipcress File is a real winner.
Supposedly one of her Majesty’s finest, Johnny English is a bumbling buffoon who gets the job done rather more by accident than any well laid plans. He has a nose for trouble (and for getting into it), but despite copious hijinks and escapades, actually manages to pull off his hair-brained ideas after a fashion, maintaining his status as “Britain’s most confident but unintelligent spy”.
Way before Bond started to drift more towards cheesy catch phrases and over-the-top (but admittedly still cool) gadgets and gizmos, Dr. No was a top quality spy flick. Starring the always alarmingly cool Sean Connery, and featuring ‘that beach scene’ with Ursula Andress, it hit all the right buttons to culminate in a true classic spy flick. Probably the best Bond film ever made, and a must see for anyone eager to witness one of the best spy films ever made.
The 39 Steps
This is a film that belongs in most top 100 lists let alone narrowing it down to spy thrillers. Hitchcock heavily re-wrote John Buchan's novel to create an absolute classic. Protagonist John Hannay's evening at the theatre ends with him on the run, accused of murder and desperate to uncover a plot to steal 'secrets vital to our air defence'. In a chase that takes him from London to Scotland Hannay pulls off train-based peril better than Octopussy, gets hand-cuffed to a girl, is shot in the chest and still manages to save the day, though not the life of an early version of Derren Brown.
Ethan Hunt eat your heart out.
The Bourne Trilogy
Since the first film's release back in 2002, the Bourne Trilogy singlehandedly reinvented the genre for the 21st century, giving us a grittier and altogether more brutal look at the life of a spy. The three films follow Matt Damon's amnesiac assassin, Jason Bourne, as he attempts to rediscover his identity while also trying to find out why so many people seem intent on killing him. Taking on the CIA all on his lonesome, Bourne travels all over the world, barely uttering a word as he takes down the bad guys and exposes the nefarious goings-on of the Treadstone project. Yeah James Bond is cool and always looks good in a tuxedo, but if you needed something taken care of quickly and efficiently, he wouldn't be the spy you'd call. Although nearly impossible to track down (just ask Pamela Landy), Bourne would definitely be the man for any job. He's as tough as nails and you wouldn't catch him making any pithy one liners after killing some unfortunate henchman. He'd be gone already.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
The reason Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy connected with audiences (particularly older members) and critics alike is because it reminded them of films that they just don't make anymore. Here is a prime example of those films. A precursor to last year's acclaimed spy thriller, based on the novel by "Tinker" author John le Carré, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold also takes place in the shadow world of The Circus and features an appearance from George Smiley himself (played here by Rupert Davies).
Set during the early years of the Berlin Wall, where the possibility of a Cold War turning hot was very real and very present, this is a story of covert power plays, defectors and double agents - le Carré's bread and butter. Inspired by his experiences with MI6, the material guarantees a high level of authenticity and as a result the film is gripping in a way few other spy movies can achieve. It is patient, methodical, morally murky and with a tension like a hand creeping over your throat. The realistic attention to detail gives the stakes real weight.
Richard Burton plays Alec Leamas, an administrator for The Circus who is set up to infiltrate East German intelligence. He plays the part with a weariness and distrust that seems endemic of the profession. It's a great role that landed the legendary thesp an Oscar nomination.
Martin Ritt (director of the fantastic Paul Newman film Hud), along with cinematographer Oswald Morris (Stanley Kubrick's Lolita) shoot in a clean, clinical black & white, perfectly capturing the desolate mood of the world that Leamas works in. If you found yourself engaged by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and wish to revisit The Circus and all its shady dealings then you owe it to yourself to see The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.
Ethan Hunt - Mission: Impossible
Ethan Hunt, the brightest and best of the ‘Impossible Mission Force’: cool, handsome and impossibly (see what I did there?) good at what he does, Hunt and his team always save the day with merely a hair of time to spare...and usually with a lot of explosions and shoot-outs.
He’s been disavowed so many times, you’d think he’d have gotten the hint by now, but Hunt is in it for the long haul.
He also has a strong sense of honour, something his superiors and other spy greats don’t always share.
You can take your tinkers and tailors and jackals, even your Mr Bond - the spy genre has always been ripe for a send up. My all-time favourite spy movie is one that rips up the rule book and replaces it with Val Kilmer in tights. In Top Secret Kilmer plays Nick Rivers, the perfect amalgamation of Elvis and Simon Templar and has never looked (or for that matter, acted) better.
Top Secret is Monty Python meets Airplane in Nazi Germany, and it's as funny a spoof now as it always was. The implausible plot has Rivers gigging in Europe before inadvertently becomes part of the Resistance, in a cow suit.
The cast is awesome, with even Peter Cushing and Omar Sharif happy to laugh at themselves repeatedly. Top Secret even brilliantly breaks the fourth wall (but I won't spoil how). I can't help but giggle at men dressed as Friesians and an excellent ballet parody followed by Sharif tongue-in-cheek asking his spy 'contact' 'Do you know any good white basketball players'?
Inappropriate, hilarious and much more fun than Red Fox meets Grey Squirrel.
Sarah Louise Dean
The finest of all the James Bond flicks, Casino Royale finally decided to ditch the traditional, by-the-book approach to how you make a Bond film and instead aspired to just be a terrific piece of action cinema. And my God, does it succeed. The story is top-notch with an excellently unique performance from Daniel Craig giving what was previously a tired franchise a huge boost of adrenaline.