Dec 7, 2012
In Restless, Dockery plays a woman in 1979 who learns that her mother (Rampling) has been living a double life and is really a former spy for the British Secret Service. In flashbacks to 1939 Paris, Atwell plays Rampling’s younger self who’s recruited into the service by and falls in love with Sewell’s spymaster. After a crucial mission collapses, she must go into hiding, but 30 years later wants to resurface and enlists her daughter to track down her former lover, now played by Gambon. Part 1 airs tonight, Friday, December 7, at 9PM on Sundance; Part 2 airs next Friday, December 14, at the same time. Watch the trailer below:
Mar 18, 2012
Mar 12, 2012
In Lassiter, Selleck plays the suave titular cat burglar, operating in 1930s London. When British and American Intelligence get wind of a major diamond shipment moving through the German embassy, the spooks force Lassiter to pull another job—for them, It Takes A Thief-style. As he plots the heist, he finds himself between two beautiful women: his sweet, long-suffering girlfriend, played by former Bond Girl Jane Seymour, and sexy femme fatale Lauren Hutton. Persuaders! composer Ken Thorne provides the jazz-heavy, period-appropriate soundtrack. One of my favorite moments to date toiling (fruitlessly, thus far) in the Hollywood salt mines of screenwriting came on a heist movie my partners and I were writing that had endured an excruciatingly lengthy development process, when one of the producers name-checked Lassiter on a conference call. I was so excited to discover that there was someone else in this industry for whom Lassiter was a touchstone (and reassured that despite the frustrations of the project, I was clearly working with the right person), and I hope that this DVD release makes it a touchstone to a whole new generation as well. It's a really fun movie, and for my money Selleck's best theatrical effort.
Feb 16, 2012
The Debt starring Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain. Maybe you've even picked up the recent Blu-ray. But have you seen the original Israeli film on which that one was based? If not, now's your chance. American spy fans can now see the 2007 version (originally titled Ha-Hov) of this spy thriller about Mossad agents on the trail of a Nazi war criminal in Cold War Berlin, and the present-day ramifications of their mission, on DVD thanks to MPI. This version is in German and Hebrew with English subtitles. I wasn't crazy about the remake, but I've heard good things about the original and I'm curious to see how the compare. Retail is $24.98, but it's only $14.49 on Amazon right now.
Additionally, the Warner Archive unleashed a wave of MOD spy fare this week.
Warner Archive for $19.95, and available to pre-order from Amazon.
Warner Archive and for pre-order from Amazon.
Part One and Part Two, available this week from Warner Archive and to pre-order from Amazon. Part One features Mission: Impossible star Peter Graves as a guest star, along with Octopussy villain Louis Jourdan, On Her Majesty's Secret Service villain Telly Savalas and Archer's mom, Jessica Walter. A fact-based series, The FBI drew story ideas directly from the Bureau's actual casefiles, and J. Edgar Hoover himself served as a creative consultant up until his death in 1972. Like Dragnet, it's all a bit dry, but unlike Dragnet, the show frequently deals with espionage, since that falls within the Bureau's purview. You can actually watch one of those espionage-themed episodes, "The Courrier," guest starring a young Gene Hackman, for free right now. Warner Archive is streaming the episode here through February 17th.
Aug 10, 2011
Apr 30, 2010
Oct 4, 2009
Nov 25, 2008
Espionage Agent blames nefarious foreign spies and saboteurs for warmongering in America, ignoring all the other factors that led to U.S. involvement in the Second World War, but at the same time makes the sound case that the United States badly needs a counterintelligence agency of its own to root out those spies. That, the film’s creators naively believe, will be the end of it. As long as U.S. authorities can round up all the foreign agents operating within the country, America need have no more involvement with the war in Europe. So while it’s heart may have been in the right place, the movie’s politics have dated badly. But how does Espionage Agent fare as pure entertainment? Sadly not so well. Director Lloyd Bacon and the four credited writers had not yet cracked the genre the way Hitchcock had.
At a time when Hollywood films weren’t supposed to stir up trouble by specifically identifying the foreign powers behind the spies and saboteurs creeping all over movie screens, Espionage Agent boldly opens with headlines about German agents operating subversively on U.S. soil and Congress’s need to take action. They get away with this by hiding behind a title card that identifies these events as occurring in 1915, but the implication is clear that they’re happening again. Once we flash forward to the contemporary setting of 1939, there’s no more specific mention of Germany, though all the foreign agents speak with German accents and have names like Muller and come from a country that borders Switzerland with soldiers whose uniforms closely resemble those of the SS.
McCrea plays Barry Corvall, a U.S. diplomat in Algiers. He helps a throng of American travelers escape the revolution-rocked nation, including the beautiful Brenda Ballard (played by the equally beautiful Brenda Marshall). When he sees Brenda, it’s love at first sight. Unfortunately, we’ve just seen her agreeing out of desperation to spy for the loathsome Herr Muller (Martin Kosleck) if only he’ll furnish her with an American passport so she can get home. Barry books Brenda passage on the same steamship he’s taking back to the States, and woos her throughout the voyage. Not wanting to drag him into her own unfortunate predicament, Brenda adamantly refuses his advances.
Back in America, Barry and his friend Lowell enroll in some sort of advanced diplomat school, and learn more about the dangers of foreign spies. This section plays out like the Top Gun of the diplomatic corps; it’s clearly designed to attract eager recruits for foreign service. Barry eventually completes his higher learning and gets posted to Paris. And he finally convinces Brenda to marry him. Of course, that’s when the snake Muller emerges from the shadows, reminding her of her debt of service to his organization. Here, the movie does something surprising. It doesn’t milk the drama of a wife coerced into spying on her husband. Instead, Brenda comes clean with Barry and tells him everything. He, in turn, reveals all this to his bosses in the State Department.
I don’t know if their response accurately belies the astonishing ignorance of the pre-war U.S. intelligence community, or merely the astonishing ignorance of Hollywood’s screenwriters at telling good spy stories. Either way, instead of using this newfound asset as a double agent to pass misinformation along to the Germans, the honchos at the State Department call Muller into their office and tell him exactly what they know, blowing their chances at running any sort of counterspy operation. Muller smiles and says it’s all true, but what can they do about it? He’s a foreign citizen, so under the current U.S. law they have no choice but to let him go. Way to go, State Department; way to accomplish nothing. Yes, that’s the movie’s point, but it makes for frustrating plot development.
So halfway through the movie, we’re robbed (twice) of what could have been the compelling espionage drama promised in the film’s title. Luckily, Corvall feels just as cheated as the audience, and vows to single-handedly bust up this spy ring. Of course Brenda won’t let him go it alone, so he reluctantly accepts her help. As a private citizen, he’ll fashion himself and Brenda into a two-person CIA. And so they head off together to take on all the espionage agents in Europe, trying to gather evidence of infiltration that will force Congress to act... somehow. This private mission leads to the good stuff we expect from Thirties spy movies, like secret codes, foreign embassies, listening to conversations through windows and–of course–crossing borders on trains. But still, Barry and Brenda are dogged by America’s general lack of preparedness to function as a superpower. When Barry tries to bluff that American agents are watching all the train stations, the head German (oops, I mean head "foreign") agent snidely gloats, "Ve know America has no counter-espionage service."
Things still manage to get exciting in a kind of third-rate way, and then wrap up very suddenly against the same conditions that end Foreign Correspondent, with the world on the verge of war. It’s not giving away too much about a movie of this era to say that Barry does something worthy of praise, but sadly America is in no position to offer it. "You helped forge the weapon the service so badly needed," says his former State Department superior. "And yet the service can’t show its gratitude for it." The age-old secret agent’s dilemma: there’s no public reward for secret service. Of course, the movie itself has managed to make its very public case for an American counterintelligence agency, so it’s undeniably successful to some degree, and of considerable interest to students of spy history. Yet its creators remain blissfully hopeful that such an organization will enable the country to maintain its isolationist outlook, and steer clear of the troubles in Europe.
Espionage Agent is a curious time capsule from that moment when Hollywood was first dabbling with the notion of a secret agent hero. Spies were still shadowy villains, aiming to do America harm, but what about a counterintelligence officer, protecting the country from such threats? Barry Corvall is still a private citizen, and a cinematic James Bond is still two decades away. Despite a few anomalies during WWII, the heroic counter agent wouldn’t emerge until the Cold War, but Espionage Agent is notable as an early experiment in that direction. It’s also worth seeing for solid performances from Joel McCrea and the truly stunning Brenda Marshall, whose career was sadly never as big as it should have been. But it’s far from top-shelf spy entertainment. For that, seek out McCrea’s next spy movie, Foreign Correspondent.
Feb 13, 2008
Nov 30, 2007
The satisfyingly thick liner notes to Criterion’s superb new DVD of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes call it "not a slice of life, but a slice of cake." A commentary track and a "video essay" on Disc 2 then go a long way to refute that, and illuminate all of its subtext. So is it the pure, escapist entertainment that a "slice of cake" implies? Or is it something more, layered with hidden meaning and symbolism? Like most Hitchcock movies, it’s both. It’s a richly layered cake!
The Lady Vanishes was one of Hitchcock’s last English films before decamping to Hollywood, and a key bridge between his somewhat stagier early British productions and his glossy, high budget American ones, notable for their intricate setpieces. Unlike Foreign Correspondent or Saboteur, this isn’t one setpiece on top of another. Instead, most of the movie is a single setpiece (prefiguring more radical experiments like Lifeboat, Rope and Rear Window): a suspenseful, romantic spy adventure entirely confined to a train.
Well, not entirely. First we have a lengthy set-up at an Alpine hotel (its exact whereabouts disguised by the gibberish language its staff speak, assembled from odds and ends of various European dialects) introducing us to all of the characters. This portion is played mostly for comedy, although (as commentator Bruce Eder points out), here we are also unknowingly introduced to the film’s MacGuffin.
Primary figures include wealthy socialite Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) and her frivolous companions, elderly (and ever-so-proper) British nanny Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), playboy musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), adulterous couple Mr. and "Mrs." Todhunter, and the comic duo of cricket-obsessed "overgrown schoolboys" (to borrow a phrase from Eder) Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne). All of these vacationers are trapped in the hotel overnight while they wait for snow from an avalanche to be cleared from the train tracks.
Amidst farcical hijinks about overbooked rooms and noisy neighbors and an It Happened One Night-style "meet-cute" between Iris and Gilbert, there is an incongruous and rather alarming murder, but we’re not remotely privy as to why. And as it goes unnoticed by all of the characters, it’s purely for the audience’s benefit, reminding us that we’re in Hitchcock territory (even if it doesn’t quite feel like it yet) and that there is something sinister lurking beneath all this frivolity. Kind of like prewar Europe, still partying on the eve of strife. You see? The cake has layers! And like all of the director’s work of that time, they’re not particularly subtle.
Everyone boards the train the next day, and it isn’t until the thirty minute mark (roughly a third of the way into the film) that the lady in question actually vanishes. That lady is the nanny, Miss Froy. After helping Iris onto the train following a nasty bump on the head, and treating her to tea in the dining car, Miss Froy disappears. Iris awakes to find her gone, their compartment filled with severe Teutonic faces. All of the occupants claim to have no recollection of any English woman. Neither does the porter, or the waiter who brewed Miss Froy’s unique tea. Against all evidence to the contrary, Iris insists on her friend’s existence, leading neurologist passenger Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) to diagnose her as suffering hallucinations following her head trauma. Gilbert agrees to help her in her search, on a lark at first, but then more seriously as clues start amassing that suggest she’s telling the truth.
The brilliance of this part of the movie is that Hitch and writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder provide separate, plausible reasons for all of the characters we’ve gotten to know to lie about having seen the governess. The adulterous couple doesn’t want to risk exposure should there be an official inquiry. Charters and Caldicott don’t want to do anything that might delay the train for fear of missing a crucial cricket match back in England. Even a stage magician traveling with the apparatus for his trick "The Vanishing Lady" has his reasons for lying.
It’s difficult to discuss the final act of the film without revealing too much, but when one of the characters turns out to be a British agent, the film becomes a rare early example of the "hero spy" genre. Spy films of this era (including many of Hitchcock’s) tended to portray spies (usually German) as the enemy, fifth columnists thwarted by an everyman hero. While The Lady Vanishes adheres to that everyman (or, in this case, "everywoman") tradition for heroine Iris, the actual spy is a good guy too, and a very atypical sort of movie secret agent.
The train eventually ends up in unfriendly territory, surrounded by the Gestapo-like secret police of a foreign power. All the British characters are gathered in the dining car (for tea, of course!), and wind up rallying around their nation’s agent, shooting it out with the enemy to provide cover. This scene exemplifies the sort of propagandist themes Hitchcock would infuse most of his wartime films with: patriotism (in this case British, and not American as in Saboteur), international responsibility and anti-isolationism. The film’s pacifist (a term at the time more associated with cowardice and Nazi collaboration than with a legitimate peace movement) abandons his British brethren, exiting the car waving a white flag. For his efforts, he’s gunned down. Everyone else, men and women, rich and poor, risk everything to escape. Even the comic bumblers Charters and Caldicott prove themselves refreshingly handy with firearms. This final scene, confined not just to the train, but to a single car, represents a uniquely Hitchcockian blend of humor and suspense. The situation is a real nail-biter, but the "veddy English" stiff-upper-lip resignation of the characters about the whole bothersome affair lightens the mood.
Film historian Bruce Eder discusses the more obvious symbolism of this scene and more subtle touches throughout the film in his solid, highly informative, wall-to-wall commentary. The guy never even pauses to take a breath! He’s well-prepared, and he knows his subject, making for a good track. (Although he does occasionally inject some personal opinion not directly related to the film, particularly about current US foreign policy!) Throughout the commentary, Eder gives plentiful production tidbits, delivers a plausible origin for the term "MacGuffin" (generally attributed to Hitchcock himself), and makes an interesting comparison between the opening of this movie, in the hotel, and that of Rear Window. In The Lady Vanishes, we’re introduced to all the characters by briefly eavesdropping on snippets of each of their conversations; in Rear Window, we’re similarly introduced to Jimmy Stewart’s neighbors via his own voyeurism, but mostly sans sound. (It should be noted Hitchcock makes excellent use of sound and music throughout The Lady Vanishes, something various other directors coming from a silent film background were never able to master.)
Disc 2 includes a "video essay" by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff. This is basically another, shorter commentary, delivered over a thirty minute montage of scenes from the movie cut together with behind-the-scenes stills and posters. While it covers some of the same ground as the audio commentary (both men discuss the framing of a scene in which someone’s glass is poisoned in the dining car, for instance), it also offers a nice counterpoint to it. Leff and Eder disagree on certain interpretations, particularly with regards to the Charters and Caldicott characters. Leff believes that they’re supposed to be gay, while Eder refutes that and argues that they’re essentially overgrown schoolboys, representative of a certain class of British men of that period. Both make plausible cases for their points of view.
Of particular interest to spy fans, Leff takes a whack at defining the "spy picture," a task I’ve pretty much concluded is impossible after rethinking every definition I ever come up with. Leff calls it a "subgenre of the crime picture" and states that it came out of fiction. (Didn’t pretty much every film genre?) One phrase he uses to describe spy movies that I quite like is "just inside the borders of the possible." He postulates that Hitchcock’s sextet of British thrillers leading up to and including Lady all fall within the spy genre, but after further consideration concludes that they’re something different: "The Hitchcock picture." I think that both labels are apt, but I do agree that Hitchcock is essentially a genre unto himself. I’d love to pinpoint Foreign Correspondent as the genesis of the contemporary "action movie," but since it failed to spawn any serious and successful imitators on an equivalent scale (besides others by the director himself) until... probably Dr. No, I cannot identify it as the genesis of anything. One inescapable conclusion, however, is that Alfred Hitchcock was absolutely integral to the development of the spy genre. The video essay is both instructive and thought-provoking, and leaves a viewer with plenty to ponder.This disc doesn't include any of the making-of documentaries we're used to from the Warner and Universal Hitchcock sets, and lacks the welcome comments from the ubiquitous Pat Hitchcock and Peter Bogdonovich, but, while I miss those, the alternative is frankly preferable. Those featurettes do start to run together a bit after you've watched so many of them, and they become somewhat repetitive. The "video essay" is less than a full-on documentary featurette, but really much more than the printed essays, or text features, that Criterion loves so much. A featurette might tell you about the making of the movie, but a video essay tries to interpret it for you, like a film school lecture. At least they offer a few different interpretations to choose from! And it does offer some behind-the-scenes info: it goes into detail about what Hitch himself added to the existing script, which was adapted from a novel.
We also get to hear from the auteur himself, in an eight-minute excerpt from Francois Truffaut’s "legendary 1962 audio interview" with Hitchcock. Even he discusses the much-mooted "poisoned drink" scene, and offers a few unique insights on the film while attempting to talk over a French translator.
By far the biggest extra on Disc 2, if not the most instantly captivating, is the inclusion of an entire other movie, Crook’s Tour. Crook’s Tour is a spin-off from The Lady Vanishes, featuring the popular Charters and Caldicott characters (who also appeared in Carol Reed’s Night Train To Munich, again supporting Margaret Lockwood, and their own radio serial) in starring roles. Crook’s Tour is definitely not Hitchcock, and clearly much lower budget, but it’s a very generous inclusion nonetheless, and a film that’s never been available on DVD before. The transfer is also superb for a B picture of its vintage, if not up to the quality of the truly remarkable picture and sound on the main attraction.
The Criterion disc is rounded out by a comprehensive gallery of international poster art and behind the scenes stills (featuring young Hitchcock with lots of hair!) and two interesting and very readable essays (by Geoffrey O’Brien and Charles Barr) in the aforementioned booklet. All of this is wrapped up in a very handsome package. Not many DVD cases compel me to write about their beauty, but everything about this design–from the vintage poster artwork to the colors to the attractive spine to Criterion’s relatively new logo, which has finally grown on me–is so pleasing to the eye that it bears mention. It’s the kind of DVD that you’d be happy to add to your collection even if it didn’t contain such a wonderful movie just because it looks so good on the shelf! This is one of the best Hitchcock DVD releases to date, and a must-purchase for fans of the director.
Sep 11, 2007
Jan 4, 2007
Mark Gatiss’s follow-up to his excellent spy debut The Vesuvius Club has been out for a while now in Britain, and just hit American stores this week. While The Vesuvius Club was a whole lot of fun, it ultimately lived up to its subtitle by being "A Bit of Fluff," just as it claimed. I loved every minute of reading it, but come the final chapter, I just wanted something more, and I wasn’t sure what. Gatiss did an excellent job of going through all the motions of a turn-of-the-century thriller, right down to the obligatory evil Chinaman, but that wasn’t quite enough. It was a dead-on pastiche, and I couldn’t fault it for that, but coming from one of the co-founders of The League of Gentlemen, I expected some sort of twist on the genre. (Well, some twist beyond the hero being bisexual, which I guess would have been quite a shock to Edwardian readers, but, coming from Gatiss, I pretty much expected.) In The Devil In Amber, Gatiss finds that missing ingredient and then some.
Gatiss once outlined his plan for a Lucifer Box trilogy (Box being the hero of Vesuvius and Amber). The first book was to be his take on Sherlock Holmes and Victorian/Edwardian adventure, the second was to be his 1920s/30s John Buchan-style thriller, and the third (forthcoming) to be Gatiss’s version of Ian Fleming, set in the early Fifties. Rather than doing a straightforward 39 Steps-style story, though, Gatiss has stepped outside the box, so to speak, and outside of the strict borders of the spy genre. Lucifer Box is very much still a secret agent "by appointment to His Majesty," but his struggle against would-be Facist dictator Olympus Mons in The Devil In Amber takes him into the realm of the supernatural. Mons’s objective? To summon the Devil himself, in the flesh. As, of course, a means to rule the world. (Note to would-be dictators: such plans rarely work out as you expect.)
Gatiss’s influences clearly extend beyond the obvious Doyle/Buchan/Fleming origins (all still very present) and into Hammer movies and their sources. (The League of Gentlemen also had homages aplenty to Hammer and Amicus, particularly in their Christmas Special.) Most obviously, he draws from two Christopher Lee movies: Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out (directed by Terrence Fisher) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. (Anyone familiar with that movie will spot where the plot is heading long before Box does, but the fun is in the journey!) He mixes all these ingredients, plus more (‘30s pulp fiction and comic strips, Marjery Allingham and her ilk, and a healthy dose of P.G. Wodehouse), adds his own, unique authorial touches and comes out with an expert blend of recycled pop culture every bit as skillful as Quentin Tarantino’s artful melanges of ‘70s film genres. Personally, I couldn’t be more pleased with the result. It’s as if someone (well, Mark Gatiss, to be specific) took all the entertainment I love most (James Bond! Hammer! Bertie Wooster!) and mixed them together into The Damn-Near Perfect Novel.
Yes, I loved this book that much. The Devil In Amber was just about the most pure enjoyment I’ve gotten out of any book in a long time. Even as I raced through the pages, I didn’t want it to end. And now I can’t wait for the third volume, presumably due late this year.
The Devil In Amber is set some time after The Vesuvius Club, although once again Gatiss makes it hard to pin down an exact year. Lucifer Box is older, and constantly feeling his age (especially with a hotshot younger agent biting at his heels), but he’s still just as full of himself as ever. As a narrator, he never misses an opportunity to inform us of just how handsome or... generally great... he is. And he’s still just as amoral, too. He’s a cad, through and through, and impossible to dislike for it. He’s like the polar opposite of Adam Adamant (of whom Gatiss makes no secret of his admiration, popping up all over the DVD’s special features!) While Adamant represents all the virtues of the perfect Edwardian gentleman, Box is all the sin and vice of that era wrapped up in a devilish smile.
The humor in The Devil In Amber, like Vesuvius, comes mainly in the narration, and in the organically funny predicaments Box finds himself in over the course of his adventure, amidst all of his near-death escapes. Despite what you might expect from a TV comedian, these books aren’t parodies, but pure pastiche. They are stright-up adventure stories, with humor. Like his fellow veterans of British comedy, Charlie Higson and Hugh Laurie, as an author Mark Gatiss takes his spy/adventure stories very seriously.
If you’re a spy fan, do not pass up this book because it draws outside the lines of the genre. It’s still a spy novel, albeit one with a Brimstone threat instead of a nuclear one. There’s intrigue aplenty within Box’s agency, and within an embryonic American counterpart agency as well. The addition of the supernatural Macguffin gives it the feel of an Indiana Jones movie (always a good thing, if you ask me), and I would absolutely LOVE to see this book filmed. Unfortunately, given the fact that the hero is as apt to jump into bed with a man as a woman, that’s probably unlikely to happen in Hollywood. Box’s bisexuality is really not nearly as central to the story as it was in The Vesuvius Club, but I doubt Gatiss would allow a studio to excise it entirely. So I can’t imagine a movie coming any time soon, which is a shame. In the mean time, I certainly hope there’s a graphic novel adaptation once again, as there was for The Vesuvius Club. (Like that book, the British edition of Amber features occasional full-page illustrations, complete with dialogue captions. It’s a different artist, with a style more appropriate to the 1930s.)
I can’t recommend this book enough.
Dec 13, 2006
According to DVDActive, Fox Home Entertainment will release Volume 2 of their Mr. Moto collection on February 13. Mr. Moto, like Charlie Chan, is an Asian (Japanese this time) hero played by a white guy (the incomparable Peter Lorre), in a series of 1930s B mysteries. Unlike Chan (and based on the few movies in the series that I’ve seen), Moto isn’t an offensive caricature (other than the whole "played by a white guy" thing), but a highly competent, martial arts-trained man of action. Also unlike Chan, Moto is more of an adventurer than a detective, and his adventures are often borderline spy thrillers. But what really justifies this news item on a spy blog is that this collection also includes the 1965 Return of Mr. Moto, starring Henry Silva, in which Moto was re-conceived for the Bond Age. Once again (as with the barely tolerable but still-great-to-finally-have Flint TV movie) Fox has included an obscure spy curiosity that otherwise would have remained unseen as a bonus feature with a box set.