Remember the old-time cowboy movies and how easy it was to tell the good guys from the bad? The good guys wore white hats; the bad guys wore black hats, never shaved and seldom smiled.
The almost complete opposite is true with spy movies, or at least the ones I’ve seen in recent years. In these films, it’s hard to tell (beyond the first five minutes) who is on the side of truth and justice, and who is probably a dirty, two-faced rat working for a terrorist group. Viewers should just relax and not worry about who to root for or against.
Matter of fact, it’s probably wise if we don’t even try to understand the plot itself, especially if most of the action takes place in the Mideast. Once you get east of Ankara very little makes sense to viewers, unless they have a Muslim nephew to explain the difference between the Sunni and Shi’a branches of Islam.
In one spy movie I recall, a novice spy asks a veteran, “In this crazy business, who can I finally trust?”
The old hand replies, “No one.”
That piece of advice further releases you and me, the viewers, from asking, “What gives? Who’s on first?” Eight minutes later, it may not even matter.
Cigarettes may reveal whether the movie plot is set in the USA or somewhere overseas. In our country, few spies smoke. But in Europe and the Mideast, whenever the action slows for more than an instant, the lead actor will light up (possibly to allow the movie director to ask, “What next?”).
A common theme in some spy movies is the rivalry between the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and MI5, the counter-intelligence agency of the United Kingdom. The U.S. and U.K. governments like to pretend they are allies to the end, but this alliance halts when both spy groups are chasing the same enemy.
Two of the most memorable spy films have been outright spoofs. One was “The Pink Panther,” starring Peter Sellers. He portrayed French detective Jacques Clouseau, whose cloddish misadventures pushed his superior, Dreyfus, to the brink of insanity.
An equally unreal sex-and-espionage series told of a dashing British spy, James Bond (agent 007) whose odd mission, strange as it seems, was to make his presence as evident as possible to his enemies. Their attempts to thwart him were, in turn, defeated by his athletic skills, his bedroom charms, and a dozen or so defensive/escape-gadget techniques designed by brilliant weapons experts.
Most spy movies are not so lighthearted. Hanging over the lives of spies — at any mission level — is their awareness that their enemies may detect their identities at any moment. Following a few days or weeks of interrogation and torture, the captured spy simply disappears from the face of the earth. And his/her employer at headquarters is powerless to act.
Or maybe not. The twists and turns of spy movies are filled with spy swaps, double agents and treasonous escapes to the other side. After watching a few dozen spy films, a movie-goer could be excused for suspecting that most professional intelligence operatives are a scurvy, self-serving lot. The opposite is probably the truth. These men and women must be willing to risk death, for a country or a cause.
If there’s a generally recognized dean of spy novel writing (from which several excellent films have been made), it’s the UK’s John le Carre.
He polished his craft by serving in British intelligence for several years. A side note: when pronouncing his last name, make sure you say “Carray” instead of Car. That’s important when you have a girlfriend (as I do) who knows her French. She finally convinced me to say “Carray as in hurray!” Simple, n’est-ce pas?
Do you enjoy spy flicks? If so, please take a moment and send me a list of your favorites. I’m always open to new adventures. Thank you.