Dec 17, 2008

The Spy Fan’s Holiday Shopping Guide

Some people might call such a list a "last minute holiday shopping guide" or something, but if you’re like me, then last minute isn’t until the stores close on Christmas Eve! Personally, I’m planning to get an early start on my Christmas shopping this weekend... So for those in the same boat who have spy fans on your list, here’s a roundup of the many things available this holiday season for espionage enthusiasts...


Several snazzy complete series box sets have been released just in time for the holidays. At the top of my own list is HBO Home Video’s Get Smart - The Complete Series. True, it’s been available for a few years now–but only as an online exclusive from TimeLife, which may have made it a tad prohibitive as a gift in Christmas Past. This year, it’s available for the first time from retailers and etailers at deeply discounted prices. The twenty-five disc set includes not only every season of the classic Sixties spy comedy starring Don Adams, but also loads of bonus material like interviews, commentaries, documentaries, commercials featuring cast members and even pertinent excerpts from awards shows.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. - The Complete Series is another, equally feature-laden former TimeLife exclusive that recently got retail release–and the price drops that go with that. This is a truly fabulous collection of all four seasons of action-packed spy adventure, from the gritty, black and white premiere season to through the technicolor high camp of Season 3 to the somewhat more grounded swan song. The only reason this one isn't at the top of my personal wish list is because I already got it for Christmas last year; I couldn't possibly wait for America's answer to James Bond to end its window of exclusivity! Speaking of Bond, the extensive documentaries cover Ian Fleming's involvement in the conception of the series, including the entirety of his original memo to ABC.

Paramount has collected all four previously available seasons of the classic spy western starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin as The Wild Wild West - The Complete Series. Sweetening the deal, they’ve also included the two Wild Wild West TV reunion movies (from 1979 and 1980) on a bonus disc available exclusively in this set. The packaging’s kind of weird on the inside (collecting all the discs in their own little cardboard file folders in some flimsy cardboard "saddlebags"), but the attractive box would wrap up nicely and makes for some satisfying opening come Christmas morning.

A&E has created an interesting box set this holiday season that makes the perfect sampler for spy fans into British adventure series with their Spy Collection. This set features the first sets (of two each) of The Protectors, starring Robert Vaughn, and The Persuaders!, starring Roger Moore and Tony Curtis along with half of The Champions (the cult show about secret agents with superpowers that’s currently being remade for the big screen with a script by Guillermo Del Toro)–which is all that A&E has released of that show to date, unfortunately. In addition to all that, you also get a taste of the ultimate cult spy series, The Prisoner with the first two discs of the renowned Patrick McGoohan vehicle (amounting to three episodes). If the spy fan in your life doesn’t have The Persuaders! yet, then this set is worth its price for that alone–and everything else makes it a great bargain! The whole bundle is much cheaper than what the individual volumes of these series originally retailed for. It's currently available exclusively from A&E's store, but hits Amazon in February.

If you’re looking to spend a little bit less (and who isn’t this Christmas?), there are plenty of individual TV seasons available as well. Paramount’s Mission: Impossible: The 5th TV Season presents a top-notch collection of episodes, every bit equal to the earlier seasons. This one gets a bad rap, but that’s unfair. It’s classic spy TV, and an essential stocking stuffer for every spy fan. Previous seasons (including this year’s Mission Impossible: The 4th TV Season) are also available individually, as well as in bundles from Amazon. Spy seasons worth getting from earlier in the year include the first season of Get Smart on its own (and sans extras), all three seasons of I Spy (starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby) at ridiculously low prices, the sole season of Honey West (America’s delectable answer to The Avengers in the shapely form of Anne Francis), and the Canadian spy drama Intelligence.

Intelligence would make an especially nice gift for the die-hard spy fanatic who has all that other stuff, because this series probably slipped under the radar of even those die-hard fans. Playing like a cross between MI-5 and The Sopranos, Intelligence follows agents of Canada’s domestic service (and the criminals they’re spying on) as they attempt to form the nation’s first foreign spy agency. It’s compelling television, and I certainly hope further seasons are forthcoming in 2009.

24: Redemption, the TV movie based on the hit Fox series not only makes a great stocking stuffer, but also the perfect segue from TV DVDs into movies...

The absolute must-have disc of the holiday season for any spy fanatic is Sony’s luxurious new three-disc Collector’s Edition of Daniel Craig’s James Bond debut, Casino Royale (2006). This is a thoroughly classy production, inside and out. The packaging is downright beautiful, with a satisfying heft to it that will keep Bond aficionados guessing as they shake their presents the night before Christmas. And what we have inside is quite simply the best James Bond DVD ever produced. The first disc boasts not one but two amazing commentary tracks that manage to remain informative and entertaining all the way through while the second ports all of the special features from the original two-disc release of the title. The third, though, is the main course. Here you’ll find a series of amazing, in-depth documentaries on every aspect of production that go off on fascinating tangents covering the entire history of James Bond 007. Producer John Cork boasted that even the most well-versed Bond fans would learn at least one thing they didn’t know from each documentary–and he’s right. There’s a trove of knowledge here that will delight the 007 fanatic in your life. This is the must-have disc of the season. And it's also available on Blu-Ray!

It’s not the only Casino Royale Collector’s Edition, though. MGM has rather confusingly called their newest release of the 1967 spoof version a "Collector’s Edition" as well–but you’re not likely to mix up the two movies. The new MGM disc also comes in a nice package, utilizing the film’s original poster art and including reproductions of the famous door posters on the inside. I’ve always contended that the behind the scenes story of making this movie was far more compelling than the movie itself, and that story is well told in a five part documentary produced by Bond luminary Steven Jay Rubin. Rubin and Cork also provide an informative commentary track.

The seemingly ubiquitous Cork also produced the special features on another one of the season’s classiest releases, MGM’s new Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection. Included are the spy titles Sabotage and Notorious (the latter long out of print as a Criterion Edition) as well as Spellbound, Lifeboat, Rebecca, The Paradine Case, The Lodger (looking better than it ever has before) and the little-seen gem Young and Innocent. Not only is this a wonderful assortment of movies, but the special features are every bit as gripping and educational as we’ve come to expect from Cork’s Cloverland Productions. Best of all, Amazon is offering this set at half price right now!

Another appealing MGM collection out in time for the holidays is The Pink Panther Ultimate Collection, which collects (almost) all the movies (even the one where Roger Moore played Clouseau!) as well as seemingly every Pink Panther and Inspector cartoon ever produced, along with a hardcover book on the series.

If you’re not after box sets, try the individual James Bond Blu-Ray discs (for the most technologically up-to-date spy fans on your list) or a pair of recent theatrical hits out on DVD just in time for Christmas: Traitor and Burn After Reading. Anchor Bay’s Traitor, starring Don Cheadle, is a slight but enjoyable post-Bourne "War On Terror" spy flick that makes excellent use of its globe-hopping exotic locations. The Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading, from Focus Features, is easily one of my favorite movies of the year and another must-have for fans of the genre. The brothers delightfully send up the entire CIA genre in a comedy about intelligence... and lack thereof. The DVD is a little short on features, but the ones included are surprisingly good for their brevity.

There's also a revered cornerstone of the genre that's just been given the Criterion treatment: Martin Ritt's 1965 film of John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. This amazing disc not only features a stunning new transfer that blows the old Paramount release out of the water, but also some of the best supplemental material you could hope for. The second disc contains a lengthy, brand new interview with Le Carré as well as an insightful hour-long documentary on the man. Between the two of those things, it's the best portrait we've got on film of one of the towering figures of the genre. There are also ample features focusing on the filmmakers.


The book that better be under every Bond fan’s Christmas tree this year is Roger Moore’s new memoir, My Word Is My Bond. The star of The Saint, The Persuaders! and the most James Bond films of anyone is also a great raconteur–as anyone who’s ever heard one of his DVD commentaries already knows. You can open up to any page of this book and find a great behind-the-scenes story that will have you laughing out loud thanks to Moore’s self-deprecating sense of humor. Even if Sir Roger isn’t your favorite 007, his book is sure to entertain.

‘Tis the season for actor memoirs, apparently, and other secret agent stars with autobiographies out this winter include Robert Vaughn (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), Robert Wagner (It Takes A Thief) and Tony Curtis (The Persuaders!). For some reason, all of these books have remarkably similar covers (especially Moore’s and Wagner’s), so you might not want to give too many of them to the same person...

DK released two very nice gift books in conjunction with Daniel Craig’s current theatrical Bond outing: the behind-the-scenes photo book Bond On Set: Filming Quantum of Solace, and the all-ages-oriented James Bond: The Secret World of 007 in a brand new updated edition. The latter would make a great gift for the younger Bond fans in your life; the former is essential supplemental material for fans of Craig’s 007.

Digging back to earlier in the year, Robert Sellers’ The Battle For Bond is the best book about the Bond movies to come along in quite some time. Every year a new movie hits cinemas, there’s a slew of books riding its coattails–and many of them are very good–but rarely do they offer truly new insight for the seasoned Bond fan who’s read them all, including the staples like The James Bond Bedside Companion and The James Bond Legacy. The Battle For Bond is the rare tome that actually offers all sorts of new information, mainly thanks to its steady focus. Sellers’ book tells the whole thorny story of the Thunderball lawsuit. Of course, that case ends up encompassing a good chunk of Bond’s cinematic history, from Fleming’s first attempts to get a movie off the ground with Alfred Hitchcock directing up through Sean Connery’s Bondian comeback, Never Say Never Again. Absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in the Bond films, the entertainment industry or copyright law. And it's now available in a new, more affordable (if slightly censored) version.

There’s new spy fiction out from John Le Carré (A Most Wanted Man), Stella Rimington (Deadline) and Mark Gatiss (Black Butterfly, a hilarious Bond send-up with a dead-on Richard Chopping style dust jacket). There’s also that much ballyhooed Centenary James Bond novel by Sebastian Faulks, but it turned out to be pretty lousy, unfortunately. So instead of saddling the Bond fan in your life with a subpar read, how about stuffing their stocking with a far more interesting, more unique take on Ian Fleming’s world with Samantha Weinberg’s The Moneypenny Diaries? While the whole trilogy is out in England (Final Fling hit paperback this fall), we’re only at Volume 1 here in America–and that’s the perfect place to start. These Bond novels from the point of view of M’s famous secretary really transcend what admittedly sounds like a gimmicky premise, and deliver first rate spy reads. Alternatively, the other series of Bond spinoff novels, Charlie Higson’s Young Bond books, also deliver the goods much better than Mr. Faulks’ pastiche. By Royal Command closed out the initial cycle in style in England this year; America is again behind, with the third volume, Double or Die, still being the most recent.

Finally, for the avid spy reader who’s already burned through every Bond book, ever Ludlum and Le Carré–and everything else in between–get them started on Greg Rucka’s Queen & Country. This series may have eluded even the most voracious spy fiction readers merely because it happens to be primarily comprised of graphic novels. As I’ve said before, Rucka’s tales of SIS operative Tara Chace and her Director of Operations, Paul Crocker, are still the best spy story going in any medium, so they’re sure to please even readers who normally turn up their noses at books with pictures. (They’re also a good way to enlighten such people!) Oni Press have handily collected the entire series into three volumes (with a fourth due in 2009) of Definitive Editions. Each one contains several of the original graphic novels together, making them the ideal way to hook new readers. If you know someone who lives and breathes spy novels but hasn’t yet opened their mind to comics, the Queen & Country Definitive Edition Volume 1 is the ideal stocking stuffer.


There's plenty of new spy music available this holiday season as well. Foremost amongst it has to be Network's fantastic box sets of score music from classic Sixties spy shows. Most recent are two boxes worth of Edwin Astley music from Danger Man (aka Secret Agent) one comprising the soundtracks to the half-hour episodes, the other the hour-long ones. Also available are sets for The Prisoner, Man In a Suitcase and Department S.

If you're just looking for stocking stuffers, try Varese Sarabande's recent single-disc release of Dave Grusin music from The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. Or pick up David Arnold's stellar score for Quantum of Solace, one of the movie's most successful elements. If you prefer Jack White's theme song, "Another Way To Die" (performed with Alicia Keys), you can also get that as a single with a cool instrumental-only version as a B-side.

Happy shopping–and Happy Holidays as well!

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