The Tin Whistle

counterculture history and conspiracy theory

My 10 favorite spy movies

with 2 comments

The_Manchurian_Candidate_1962_movieThe Manchurian Candidate (1962) introduced the concept of hypnotic mind control assassins walking among us. The film was recently remade, although the more modern version was a disaster and conveys none of the suspense of the original, which was based on an explosive book by Richard Condon, who’d served as the publicist for Walt Disney before launching his career as a novelist. Disney was very close with J. Edgar Hoover and a real Cold Warrior himself. There were some deep secrets revealed by this film, so much so the studio pulled it one year after release because it had some eerie parallels to the assassination of JFK.

Spy_coldIf you were expecting a James Bond film on this list, I’m afraid to disappoint. The Bond films are entertaining but really just silly melodramas that bear little resemblance to the moral complexities real spooks face when they delve into deep politics. John Le Carre’s portrayals of spook world were far more accurate than anything Ian Fleming ever wrote, although they both worked for British intelligence, even though Le Carre’s “Circus” was initially based on the inner sanctum of the SIS, while Bond obviously worked for MI6. Based on Le Carre’s third and most successful novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) introduced George Smiley to most of the world.

Ipcress_File_British_quad_posterThe Ipcress File (1965) followed in the wake of Manchurian Candidate by delving into the use of hypnotism and psychic driving to rearrange the brains of secret agents who knew too much. It would soon become much imitated. Sealed the career of Michael Caine and got him noticed in Hollywood. Based on a novel by fromer RAF pilot Len Deighton. In response to the Bond franchise, Deighton revealed spook world was actually filled with meaningless red tape and interdepartmental rivalries to great comic effect.

p867_p_v7_aaThe Kremlin Letter (1970) was a ground-breaking film that bombed at the box office, but remains one of the great masterpieces of the genre directed by John Huston and based on a book written by Noel Behn, formerly of the United States Army Counterintelligence Corps. This is probably the closest thing to a real CIA operation in Russia you will ever find, and it all revolves around drugs and prostitutes. The protagonist is recruited out of the Navy because of his photographic memory and soon enters the rabbit hole into a wilderness of mirrors. The spooks are ruthless and will use any tactic to fulfill a mission, and you never know which side they’re on because sides change quickly.

Wholl_stop_the_rainYou don’t see this film on many lists, but I love it, and it revealed the dark underbelly to our involvement in Vietnam, including capturing a monopoly on opium from French intelligence. It’s not really classified as a “spy” movie because the main character was loosely based on Neal Cassady. They even recreate a version of the Pranksters hangout in Perry Lane for the big climatic ending, when the bad spooks and Cassady slug it out. Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978) is a rousing adventure story in which the spooks are the bad guys.

220px-SyrianaIn the real world of spooks, the hidden machinations of the oil industry play a crucial role. Oil is a weapon, and when the price goes high, countries that don’t have any, like China, are kept in check. Syriana (2005) remains one of the few peeks into the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has become a haven for spook activities.

Munich_1_PosterMunich (2006) may be my all-time favorite spy film and details how Israel set-up assassination teams to get vengeance against the Black September group that assassinated their Olympic champions at the Munich games in 1972. Based on the life of real-life Mossad agent Juval Aviv, it shows how the moderate Palestinian leadership was replaced by violent fanatics after the assassinations, leaving the Mossad spooks wondering if they weren’t being manipulated to increase violence and tension rather than resolve it.

The_Company_PosterThe Company (2007) is actually what many undercover CIA spooks call their outfit, and this history of the CIA is better than the more expensive The Good Shepherd, which covered similar territory and was released a year earlier, the difference being this was released as a TV miniseries and not a theatrical film. Unfortunately, both projects blinked with it came to covering the JFK assassination, which was a Company project undertaken by many of the same spooks involved in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Other than that major oversight, there’s some real truths revealed in this complex drama.

carlos_xlgSpooks and terrorists go hand-in-hand, and in the wilderness of mirrors it’s often hard to tell the two apart. Carlos (2010) is a masterful glimpse into this world and would have been even better if the original Feelies soundtrack had been left intact. Unfortunately, the band didn’t want to get associated with a notorious terrorist and nixed their music. You won’t find a better miniseries about deep political events and I promise this will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.

TTSS 8x5ft Banner VC.inddThere are two celebrated versions of this famous Le Carre novel, one made for the BBC starring Alec Guinness and the other a British-French theatrical film starring Gary Oldman. Since I haven’t seen the BBC version I can’t say which is better, but I was greatly impressed by Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy (2011). The story is a loose interpretation of the unveiling of super spook Kim Philby, but some elements are ignored to make it more palatable, especially Philby’s friendship with Victor Rothschild.

Just one of many categories in my fun film guide, available exclusively on Amazon.

Written by Steven Hager

February 13, 2014 at 8:18 am

2 Responses

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  1. If you like the movie of Tinker, Tailor, I highly recommend that you pick up the BBC TV series, which I regard as an all time classic.


    February 20, 2014 at 8:52 am

  2. Very pleasantly surprised by The Company. Hadn’t heard of it before. Who would have thought that Michael Keaton would be so good as James Jesus Angleton? I wouldn’t have never thought of casting him myself (shows what I know!), but he really nails it. Alfred Molina is equally perfect as William Harvey.

    Pity they did not have the backing to make a full on Boardwalk Empire style fictionalised history. The characters and the subject matter would have been more than capable of supporting multiple series, if any studio had the balls to put it on screen.

    Thanks for the recommend.


    March 3, 2014 at 4:15 am

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