The spy who never loved me

With its cobwebs of double agents, diabolical conspiracy and shadowy creatures, spy cinema will never go out of fashion
Sonali Ghosh Sen Kolkata

Whether it's the shadowy trench-coat clad spies of the Cold War or the suave and stylish 007, spy and espionage movies have long mirrored our turbulent political times. The world of the reel spy always hangs in fine balance between peace and war. It's a world that is amoral, mysterious and deceitful, and that's why it thrives best in conflicted times.

The word 'spy' also connotes in the viewers mind a world of intrigue, glamour and romance. And this is the image that Hollywood moguls cashed in on in the 1930s, when reigning screen divas like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich acted as seductive double agents who wouldn't think twice of dancing in a pearl-draped dress to entice French officers to divulge their secrets. 

However, the director who made the spy genre popular in Hollywood was none other than the great British import, Alfred Hitchcock. He made espionage thrillers a staple in Hollywood with movies like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Notorious (1946) and North by North West (1959). The Hitchcock espionage movies had all his classic flourishes - the 'mistaken identity', icy blondes, assassination plots, and the cliff hanger climax. 

His masterful editing and detailing of the plot further lured the audience into the spy's realm of mystery. He played the audience like a good secret agent, concealing and then revealing plot twists, giving them clues to unravel the story and giving enough 'MacGuffins' (a term for a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot, but doesn't itself affect anything) to deceive the viewer. To make it even more difficult, he sometimes set the story in a single setting like a lifeboat (in the film of the same name Lifeboat (1944), where survivors of a ship sunk by a U-boat are adrift on the ocean in a lifeboat with the Nazi U-boat captain in their midst! 

However, it was in the 1950s and '60s that the reel spy really came into his own. And the spy to start it all was Bond... James Bond. 

To start with, Bond was not even conceived for the silver screen but was created by author Ian Fleming as a suave British agent (who worked for MI6, the British intelligence agency) for his bestselling novels. However, when Hollywood embraced Bond, the character became a 'true American hero'. As Jeremy Black, the author of The Politics of Bond, succinctly puts it: "The Bond series drew on contemporary fears in order to reduce the implausibility of the villains and their villainy, while also presenting potent images of national character, exploring the relationship between a declining Britain and an ascendant United States; charting the course of the Cold War." 

In the films, Bond, dramatically - and frequently - saved America. As the seconds ticked away towards the end, he stopped Dr No (in the first of the films) from 'toppling' a crucial American missile test (1962), prevented Goldfinger (in the third film) from rendering the Fort Knox gold reserves radioactive (1964), and thwarted Largo's attempt to blow up Miami in the fourth film. He foiled the plans of other megalomaniacs, some of whom, such as Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Hugo Drax in Moonraker (1979), would have destroyed America as part of a global cataclysm.

The cinematic James Bond imbued the essence of western capitalism. The character was an individualist who believed in conspicuous consumption (cars, holidays, women), and fought on the side of freedom and western values. As Tony Bennett and Janet Woolacott argue in Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero (1987), "...the Bond character has successfully served as a condensed expression for Anglo-American society's concerns about the relations between capitalist and communist systems as well as the relations between sexual, national, and racial identities. As such, he quickly became a somewhat indeterminate, a metaphorical figure - that glued together overlapping and conflicting ideologies as each film responded to the particular social anxieties of its historical moment." 

This could be a reason for the franchise's success, as half a century later, James Bond has adroitly charted his way from the anxieties of Cold War to the concerns of global terrorism.

However, not everyone was a fan of James Bond, as is evident from novelist John le Carré's remark: "I'm not sure that Bond is a spy. It seems to me he's more some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a license to kill... He's a man entirely out of the political context. It's of no interest to Bond, who, for instance, is president of the United States or of the Union of Soviet Republics. You felt he would have gone through the same antics for any country really, if the girls had been so pretty and the Martinis so dry."  

John le Carré should know. After all, his bestselling novel was adapted on screen as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and was almost a counterpoint to the flamboyance of Bond. The film was a grim, gritty saga of a world populated by shadowy operatives and double agents, and the world-weary and cynical Adam Leamas (Richard Burton in an Oscar -dominated role). 

Shot in black and white and set against the bleak backdrop of East Berlin, The Spy had neither the exotic locales nor the melodrama of a Bond movie, which lent an air of authenticity to the film and won over an audience fed on a diet of hi-tech gadgets and high octane chases of the 'Man with the Golden Gun: 007'. In fact, in another of John Le Carre's big screen adaptations, The Tailor of Panama (2001), Pierce Brosnan (an erstwhile Bond) was depicted, as Roger Egbert says, as "a nasty real-world James Bond with no gadgets and no scruples".

Not just the Bond novels, but other bestselling spy novels also fared quite well in their journey to the silver screen, be it Graham Greene's The Third Man (1949) with Oscar Welles doing a brilliant turn as Harry Lime in a war-torn Vienna, or Michael Caine as the Quiet American (2002) in Graham Greene's classic story of love, betrayal and murder in 1950s Saigon. Writers like Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth also found favour with movie-going audiences, especially Ludlum's amnesiac spy, Jason Bourne, in the Bourne trilogy.

By the time the Bourne Identity arrived on the scene in 2002, the Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the space war between Russia and the US was as much of a dinosaur as Moonraker. Hollywood was looking for a new terror, a new war for the spy to be relevant. 9/11 did provide a new villain in the form of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, but globalisation had given even villainy a whole new worldview. 

pies have to have a cause, a nation to fight for - whether good or evil - but the rootlessness and anarchy of terrorism could never be confined to a single ideology or country. What therefore survived of the reel spy, was either the 'spy parodies a spy' in Schwarzenegger's True Lies (1994), or a spoof of the Bond franchise - the wildly successful Austin Power series.

The serious spy franchise was adrift and heading to oblivion when it was rescued by the Mission Impossible films - which looked at the spy movie from a new angle - the war within. In the movie, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is betrayed not by a Russian spy but a mole from within the agency he works for. This was true of all the Bourne films, too, where Jason Bourne's actual enemy was the CIA, the very agency that trained him to be an assassin. Recent movies, like The Good Shepherd (2006) and the Body of Lies (2008) (also George Clooney's superb film, Syriana) have also looked at the complex life of a CIA agent.

Last month, with the release of Salt (2010), coming on the heels of the recent Russian spy scandal in the US, Hollywood seems to have discovered yet another 'Jane Bond' persona in Angelina Jolie's portrayal of Evelyn Salt. 

The spy movie franchise continues to evolve into exciting plot narratives, changing causes and issues with the relentless shift in geopolitics. However, as its mainstay is a complex network of relationships that rely on trickery, conspiracy and noble heroism to survive, it's definitely a film genre that will never go out of fashion.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2010

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