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Spies Like These: Cold War Espionage Classics

We here at Movie Ink live by the maxim that “Being paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you”, and quite frankly we miss the Cold War. The world made more sense back then (in a surreal, Orwellian sort of way). The 50th anniversary of James Bond’s film career and the upcoming release of Skyfall has put us in the mood for some quality spy fiction, specifically the grim, gritty, cynical sort of spy-fi where agencies struggled with bureaucracy, infighting, and betrayal; where field agents were often out in the cold; and where no one could tell who was a friend or a foe. Here’s some of our favorites, produced during the height of the Cold War and steeped in intrigue:

The Ipcress File (1965). Based on the novel by Len Deighton, starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, the “thinking man’s James Bond”. Palmer dodges bullets and battles bureaucracy while investigating the kidnapping and brainwashing of British scientists. A clever classic, drenched in sardonic wit. Caine played Palmer twice more in the ’60s (Funeral in Berlin, Billion Dollar Brain), and it became one of his signature roles.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965). Also adapted from the James le Carré novel, this classic stars Richard Burton as a burnt-out, disillusioned British agent persuaded to pose as a defector in an attempt to sow disinformation. Heavy on the atmosphere and cynicism, it neatly strips away the Bond-ian romanticism for a sobering look at the spy game. Burton’s performance earned him an Oscar nomination.

The Quiller Memorandum (1966). Based on the novel by Adam Hall, adapted for the screen by none other than Harold Pinter. George Seagal makes an unlikely but compelling turn as a an agent sent to investigate a neo-Nazi organization, becoming little more than a hapless pawn in a shadow game between the two camps. Max von Sydow oozes menace as the villain, “Oktober”, and Sir Alec Guinness exudes prickly charm as his SIS contact.

The Deadly Affair (1966). Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of le Carré’s 1961 debut novel A Call for the Dead, which featured the debut of his archetypal spymaster George Smiley. A curious hybrid of English murder mystery and espionage thriller, starring James Mason as a British agent investigating the apparent suicide of a Foreign Office official. Of course, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Brilliant on many levels, it also stars Maximillian Schell, Simone Signoret, and Lynn Redgrave, and features a score by Quincy Jones.

Ice Station Zebra (1968). Classic action-thriller based on the novel by Alistair MacLean and directed by John Sturges (The Great Escape). A submarine captain (Rock Hudson), a Marine officer (James Brown) and his platoon, a British agent (Patrick McGoohan), and Russian defector (Ernest Borgnine) converge on an Arctic weather station as part of a top-secret assignment loaded with treachery and double-dealing. Sure, it’s a bit dated and far-fetched, but it’s also rollicking good time.

The Looking-Glass War (1969). Another le Carré adaptation, starring Christopher Jones as a young Polish defector sent into East Germany to retrieve evidence of missile installations, and a young Anthony Hopkins (in only his third feature film appearance) as his weary, cynical handler. A fantastic, realistic look at the recruitment, training, and backstabbing of an ill-fated agent.

The Kremlin Letter (1970). Written and directed by John Huston and starring Patrick O’Neal, Dean Jagger, Max von Sydow, Orson Welles, and Richard Boone in a tale about an US Navy intelligence officer recruited to reunite a ring of seedy, older ex-spies on a mission to recover a potentially damaging document. Inventive and unique, it was nevertheless dismissed by critics and audiences upon its initial release; it has since been rediscovered as a cult classic.

Scorpio (1973). Veteran tough guy Burt Lancaster stars as a CIA agent forced on the run when the agency accuses him of treason and assigns his protegé (Alain Delon) to kill him. Though it’s more about the cat-and-mouse game between two assassins than it is espionage, Cold War ideology is nevertheless given a thorough examination, and the paranoia of the ’70s is in full effect.

Of Notable Mention: The Sandbaggers (1978-80). A UK television series about the front lines of the Cold War, and the effects of the espionage game on its players. Roy Marsden stars as the minder of an elite group of agents in a bureau that’s understaffed, underfunded, and assaulted by opponents from within and without the department. Complex, gritty, cynical as hell, and told with a minimalist style, its 20 episodes are some of the best espionage fiction ever filmed.

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About Gary Dowell

Professional film critic, journalist, Byronic hero.

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