Oct 30, 2007
Blog-iversary, Double O Section:
One Year Old Today
Today, the Double O Section has been around for one year. It’s hard to believe! It’s been a good year for spies. When I started this blog, Casino Royale was looming on the horizon, and Daniel Craig was still an unknown quantity. The two-disc special edition Bond DVDs weren’t out yet. No seasons of Mission: Impossible existed on DVD! A lot’s changed, and it’s all been covered here. Many of those things I just mentioned figured heavily in my very first set of posts, a list of the seven top spy-related people or things on my mind a year ago. At the time, I vowed to do more such lists, but never really did. It might be a nice idea to do one a year, a sort of "state of the union of spying," but I don’t have another one prepared right now. Instead, over the next few days, I'll revisit that original list and check in on those people and things one year on...
Tradecraft: Bond 22 Script Done
In a story about the impending Writers' Guild strike on the cover of today's Hollywood Reporter, it's revealed that Paul Haggis has delivered his completed draft of the next James Bond movie to anxious Sony Executives. If the writers strike on Thursday, Haggis won't be able to do any further work on the script. But since he's finished, hopefully the movie will be unaffected by any strike and proceed on schedule. If there's still work to be done, I wonder if producer Michael G. Wilson would do it himself? He's got a number of Bond writing credits under his belt, but I doubt he'd want to piss off the Guild. An interesting prospect to consider, nonetheless.
Poor Pierce Goes Direct To DVD
Oct 25, 2007
Oct 23, 2007
Today is a huge day for spy-related DVD releases!
First, and most directly spy-related, is Sony’s two-disc release of the Ridley Scott-produced TNT miniseries The Company, based on the book by Robert Littell. Chris O’Donnell stars as a young man caught up in the early days of the CIA; the great Alfred Molina plays his mentor, and Michael Keaton plays real-life spy hunter James Jesus Angleton. Angleton is, of course, the historical figure upon whom Matt Damon’s character was based in The Good Shepherd, and based on the special features (I haven’t had a chance to watch the miniseries itself yet), The Company looks to have a lot in common with that film. Not only does it cover many of the same actual events and feature the same characters (whom The Good Shepherd vaguely fictionalized), but it also looks very much the same, art direction-wise, and sounds the same, as Jeff Beal’s music is quite reminiscent of Bruce Fowler and Marcelo Zarvos’. Of course, my major complaint about The Good Shepherd was that, as long as it was, it was too short for the story it was trying to tell, so perhaps The Company fares better over three two-hour episodes. In one of the two making-of featurettes, producer Scott mentions some rival stories in production (The Good Shepherd and what else?), but he and John Calley proceeded undaunted, with a script by Black Hawk Down scribe Ken Nolan. Although relatively brief, both featurettes are worth watching, and fans of Littell’s books will be interested in Nolan’s comments on adapting one of them.
The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Volume 1
Regular readers certainly know how excited I am about this release, as I’ve written quite a lot about it in the past. I think this show was probably my most anticipated DVD of 2007, and Volume 1 is finally here! Twelve discs of historical Indiana Jones adventure, and dozens of meticulously-produced documentaries on the subjects featured in the episodes. Volume 1 doesn’t actually get into the lengthy espionage stage of Young Indy’s career, but it lays the groundwork for it. Going in chronological order (rather than the order in which they originally aired), this set features five adventures of the 9-year-old Indiana Jones (played by Cory Carrier), and two of the teenage adventurer, played by Sean Patrick Flannery. Each “episode,” however, is really a new movie-length adventure, made up of two actual television episodes put together. The original series, then titled The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, ran as hour-long episodes on ABC from 1992-93, and featured wrap-around segments with an elderly Indiana Jones (George Hall) recalling his exploits. These segments are not featured on the DVDs. The movie length seems appropriate, though, since the big name directors and guest stars, exceptionally high production values, and breathtaking location photography (shot in thirty-five countries around the world!) gave the series a very filmic quality.
The Mario Bava Collection, Volume 2
There are no spy movies to be found in Anchor Bay’s second box set of Bava films (the director’s Danger: Diabolik is available as a Special Edition from Paramount, and Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs has yet to see a DVD release, although I believe Fox/MGM own the rights), but plenty of other genres are represented, from giallo to gothic to Western to sex comedy. Best of all, this box sees the reissue of two-and-a-half long out-of-print ELKE SOMMER movies, Baron Blood and Lisa and the Devil! (The half is accounted for by House of Exorcism, an appalling version of Lisa re-cut by producer Alfredo Leone into an Exorcist knock-off.) Regular readers are no doubt familiar with my feelings on the sexy spy star Sommer, and her co-star in Lisa and the Devil (the Devil himself) is no less than the very best Blofeld, Telly Savalas. Her equally charming Deadlier Than the Male partner, Sylva Koscina, also appears. Ms. Sommer contributes a commentary track to House of Exorcism, and Tim Lucas does to four others.
Oct 22, 2007
Perhaps the authors are simply picking, choosing and embellishing, doing their own reconciling of multiple conflicting sources. If that’s the case, though, I’d like to know. Speaking of reconciling, they come up with a good excuse for the differing birth dates listed for Commander Bond in various places (6 May, 1961 on the medical records in The World Is Not Enough, 13 April, 1968 on the passport in Casino Royale, etc.): As 007 is a spy, the documents are usually cover papers, and it’s hard to say if any actually reflect his true birthday! (They explain that the April 13 date in Casino Royale was chosen because that was the day on which Fleming’s Casino Royale was first published in 1953, one of those nifty facts I hadn’t known.)
Oct 21, 2007
The Authorised Biography of 007... And A Long Lost Young Bond Appearance
It should be noted that James Bond: The Authorized Biography of 007 (as it was originally published in England by Sidgwick & Jackson, complete with the American spelling) was not the only fictional spy biography published in the Seventies, nor the only one to feature James Bond! In 1977, Weidenfeld & Nicolson published John Steed: An Authorized Biography: Volume I: Jealous in Honour by Tim Held. At Eton, the young Steed encounters not only Patrick Macnee (invoking the same sort of deceptive co-existence of the real and the fictional found in Pearson's book), but also a very different James Bond than the one portrayed in Charlie Higson's books or Pearson's:
One factor which seems to have contributed to John's unhappiness at this time was the bullying which was an unfortunate feature of life in the school - or at least in those circles in which Steed moved. The main bully was a boy called Bond, later to achieve a certain notoriety in a career not totally unlike Steed's. Indeed their paths were to cross several times in adult life, seldom with profitable results. Although Bond was only two or so years older than Steed (a fact which will doubtless be disputed by Bond and his cronies) he was a great deal bigger. One of his fetishes was to make smaller boys stir his evening mug of cocoa for him, just as in later life he was to make a laughable affectation out of his insistence on dry martini cocktails being stirred rather than shaken. One day he demanded that Steed perform this service. Steed refused. Bond again insisted.John Steed: An Authorized Biography was only published in one edition, never to be reprinted. It is very hard to come by today, and sought by both Avengers and Bond collectors.
'Who the hell do you think you are?' enquired Steed, suggesting at the same time that he should pick on someone his own size.
'Bond, James Bond,' replied the bully, clearly expecting young Steed to fall grovelling at his feet.
'Well, Bond,' said Steed evenly,'If you'd like to present yourself behind the Fives Courts by Jordan in half an hour's time I'll show you in the only language you apparently understand, precisely why I have no intention of stirring your rotten cocoa.'
Alas, poor Bond! He had never heard of the Bodger business at Lydeard Lodge. Thirty minutes later he was waiting behind the fives courts, aglow with cocky truculence. Thirty-five minutes later he was being half dragged home by two of his familiars, his jaw and his ego both equally badly bruised. Yet even this success made little difference to Steed's happiness. He continued to find Eton not to his taste.
*I chalk up the lack of critical interest in The Moneypenny Diaries to an idiotic initial marketing strategy that backfired horribly. For some reason, IFP let John Murray pretend like they had acquired "real" documents, belonging to the "REAL" Miss Moneypenny and telling the "truth" about James Bond. While the literary conceit works in the context of the books (a conceit established by Ian Fleming in a jokey throw-away line in You Only Live Twice, and first exploited by Pearson), attempting to fool mainstream media and the public into believing such a ridiculous story was a grievous error in judgement. I suspect it led instead to critics writing off Ms. Weinberg’s impressive novel as a joke, or something for die-hard Bond fans only (many of whom were also alienated by the lame ploy), and not for general consumption. Both beliefs are fallacies. Weinberg’s Moneypenny Diaries (published under the pseudonym of "Kate Westbrook") are legitimate novels worthy of critical notice, and excellent additions to the Bond canon.
Oct 18, 2007
Book Review: HURRICANE GOLD by Charlie Higson (2007)
Under a shiny gold cover, Charlie Higson’s third Young Bond novel finds the 14-year-old James Bond far from the safety of Eton, where his adventures usually begin. James is accompanying his aunt Charmian (a Fleming creation mentioned in You Only Live Twice, but fleshed out by Higson to be an anthropologist) on an expedition to Mexico in 1934. A powerful storm forces Charmian to deposit James in the company of two bratty siblings, JJ and Precious Stone (I’m surprised Fleming himself didn’t think of that one!), while she flies off into the jungle with the children’s father, WWI air ace Jack Stone. While James is holed up with the spoiled siblings, a vicious gang of thieves break into their house in the middle of the storm and take Precious and JJ hostage in a Key Largo scenario. And all that happens in just the first few chapters!
Hurricane Gold could be seen as Higson’s homage to Doctor No, with most of the action taking place on the run through the jungle, culminating in a diabolical obstacle course very similar to that of the good doctor. However, it ultimately owes more to Indiana Jones (specifically Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) than to any James Bond book or film. One breathless escape leads directly into another, filling the book with pretty much wall-to-wall action. The plot of Higson’s last Bond novel, Double or Die, was driven by a complex puzzle, a coded message that James and his friends needed to decipher. Clearly, the author wanted to go in the exact opposite direction with his next book, requiring no puzzle-solving–and very little thought whatsoever!–of his young hero, who is whisked along on a breathless thrill ride, primarily driven by external forces. Throughout Hurricane Gold, and in stark contrast to Double or Die, James is required to react far more often than he is to act. That formula makes for a pulse-pounding page turner, as they say, but ultimately a less rewarding read than the previous book.
In one breathtaking sequence, James helps Precious and her little brother escape the storm–and the gang. They try to move inland, away from the ravaged coast, only to be literally thrown backwards by a rising river in another spectacular action scene. In the aftermath of the ensuing flood, they once more run into the gang, which is led by an enigmatic American named Mrs. Glass.
James and Precious are again taken prisoner, again escape (getting separated from third-wheel JJ in the process), and again run into a member of the gang. Eventually they escape from him, only to once more be recaptured. One of Ian Fleming’s more memorable villains once analyzed his recurring run-ins with the adult James Bond thusly: “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but a third time it's enemy action.” Auric Goldfinger understood that only so much could be chalked up to coincidence, as did Fleming, who divided the villain’s eponymous book into three sections, appropriately entitled “Happenstance,” “Coincidence” and “Enemy Action.” There’s only so much coincidence a villain–or a reader–will accept. Higson seriously strains credibility this time out by allowing a third and fourth instance of coincidence before James and Precious finally take some not particularly well thought-out action against their enemy. Their action leads them directly into the clutches of another villainous type, known as El Huracán.
We meet El Huracán in the book’s first chapter, wherein we also get our first glimpse of his deadly, critter-filled obstacle course, La Avenida de la Muerte. El Huracán runs a haven for criminals on the run–provided they have lots of loot and are willing to live out the rest of their days on his island paradise. Throughout the book we occasionally cut back to El Huracán and his island, setting up the inevitable confrontation between El Huracán and James Bond, and young James’ equally inevitable ordeal in La Avenida de la Muerte. Unfortunately, since James and Precious are not on a course that will naturally lead them to El Huracán, we also resign ourselves that this meeting will have to be manufactured, and these “teaser” chapters have the unfortunate effect of making all that leads up to that meeting seem a bit like treading water. (Exciting water, nonetheless!)
All of Higson’s other Young Bond novels have had a clear mission for James, even though it’s not one officially assigned to him by a government agency, as in Anthony Horowitz’s rival teen spy series. In SilverFin, James had to discover what happened to his friend Red Kelly’s missing cousin. In Blood Fever, he had to save the captured sister of a fellow Eton student. And in Double or Die, he had to locate and rescue his kidnapped professor. His only goal in Hurricane Gold is survival, for himself and for Precious. Survival is a perfectly good goal for adventure stories, but it somehow doesn’t feel as Bondian.
Among the many threats to that survival, James encounters every imaginable sort of reptile and disgusting insect. These include scorpions, wasps, mosquitoes (with which James has already tangled in Blood Fever) and army ants. The latter provide that particularly gruesome death scene for a baddie that’s become a staple of the series when a column of the unstoppable fiends cut and bite their way through a paralyzed thug. All of the above-mentioned insects provide plot points, but for good measure Higson also throws in botflies, who provide nothing but some extra grossness that the author seems to believe (correctly, I suppose) that his young male readers crave. I suppose if you’re crafting a boys’ adventure story set in the jungle, you need to include the real-life version of the popular urban legend about insects laying eggs in people’s skin for the maggots to later feed on and burrow out of. Don’t make the mistake of reading the botfly chapter while eating lunch, as I did!
Overall, Higson has really embraced that “boys’ own adventure” mantra this time around. Judging from the popularity of the series in England, he seems to know what boys want, but in Hurricane Gold that mentality unfortunately leads the series away from roots that feel Bondian and steadfastly toward the more gross-out elements of serial-inspired adventures like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Despite my criticisms, there is still plenty to like in Hurricane Gold. Once again, Higson manages to slyly sneak plenty of nearly undetectable education into his action, and it’s all fascinating stuff. (Fleming himself, a professional journalist, was a master of this, but he didn’t have to be quite as sly about it as his intended audience–at the time, anyway–wasn’t young boys.) Kids will learn about pre-war geopolitics, Mexican history and jungle zoology. Even though they’re not specifically designed to educate, like The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, the Young Bond adventures offer far more information than a lot of Young Adult literature.
Readers are also treated to another cavalcade of memorable characters. Even though James’ stable of Eton friends (who we just got to know a lot better in the last book) sit this one out, he encounters a number of memorable allies and enemies. American gangsters Strabo, Whatzat and Manny the Girl are all well-drawn antagonists, and worthy predecessors (or successors, depending on how you look at it) to Fleming’s many gangster types, like Shady Tree, Whisper, Slugsy and Horror. (Fleming always seemed fascinated with eccentric American gangsters.) There’s a Japanese semi-villain named Sakata (in a nice tribute to the Oddjob actor) who teaches James some of his first lessons in hand-to-hand combat, and a proto-Marc-Ange Draco/Kerim Bey figure who straddles the line between good and evil, and makes young James a tempting offer at a very different life than the one he goes on to lead. Finally, Precious Stone is a wonderful creation. Whereas all the other Young Bond Girls have been very (almost anachronistically) capable, self-sufficient, even tomboyish lasses, Precious is a very girly girl. She starts out a lot like Temple of Doom’s Willie Scott, but actually undergoes a more believable transformation over the course of the book, not only growing as a person, but becoming a more likable character.
Oct 17, 2007
DK released two new fully-illustrated, large-format hardcover tomes this week of interest to spy fans: the long-awaited James Bond Encyclopedia and 24: The Ultimate Guide. It’s kind of odd to see 24 given the DK treatment, since their Ultimate Guides are usually for more family-friendly franchises like Spider-man or Star Wars. But author Michael Goldman has managed to compile the best guide book to the series yet, fully illustrated in that somewhat incongruous DK style. The book is divided by seasons. John Cork and Collin Stutz’s James Bond Encyclopedia isn’t quite as user-friendly, as it’s organized by categories instead of in the purely alphabetical format one expects of an encyclopedia. It takes some getting used to, but there are advantages to the unusual format. For example, gadget-lovers can entertain themselves by reading that section in its entirety instead of slogging through entries on Girls, Villains and Vehicles to find what they’re looking for. And most of all, the way this book is organized goes a long way towards separating it from Stephen Jay Rubin’s fifteen-year-old tome, The Complete James Bond Movie Encyclopedia. I’m sure that was important to the authors.
Oct 12, 2007
Clooney Spies Tourist
George Clooney just can't stop spying. Following his role as an assassin in the Coen Brothers' comic CIA thriller Burn After Reading, he might write, direct and/or star in another espionage role. According to The Hollywood Reporter, he and his writing/producing partner Grant Heslov have picked up the rights to an upcoming novel by Olen Steinhauer entitled The Tourist. The trade reveals: "Picked up in early manuscript form, the story is described as being a contemporary international thriller in the vein of John le Carre and Graham Greene and follows a spy who must risk everything to reveal a conspiracy after he's suspected of a murder he didn't commit."
Roger Moore Makes Bio Official
Roger Moore's agent revealed to The Hollywood Reporter that the actor is indeed writing an autobiography, as has been rumored all week. The British tabloids first reported the story, but as usual they got it wrong. The Sunday Mirror claimed (in typical sensationalist style) that the "explosive, warts-and-all" memoir would tell of the actor's "colourful sex life" and "his romps with Bond girls." That didn't sound like Moore, who's always been the very picture of class and didn't seem the sort to kiss and tell. Sure enough, the trade reports that "Moore said in a statement that he would like to write 'a warm, amusing, and maybe even slightly emotional volume.'" Doesn't sound very "explosive," but it's sure to be a great read. Moore's biographer and long-time assistant Gareth Owen, who also penned the recently updated Pinewood Story, will ghost-write the book and told Reuters, "He is a great raconteur." Anyone who's heard any of the actor's audio commentaries on the Bond DVDs or The Persuaders knows that's true. Sir Roger's book deal is said to be worth £1 million. Moore received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this week, and turns 80 in just a few days.
Van Houten Lies Too
Star of last year's WWII spy thriller Black Book Carice Van Houten, rumored to have been in contention for a Bond Girl role in Bond 22, has joined the cast of another spy movie instead. The Hollywood Reporter reports that she'll play Leonardo Di Caprio's love interest in Body of Lies, "an Iraq-set spy thriller being directed by Ridley Scott." Like all Scott movies, Lies co-stars Russell Crowe. It's written by Oscar-winning Departed screenwriter William Monahan and based on the book by David Ignatius.
Spies For Tots
According to The Hollywood Reporter, "Disney Channel has gone into production on a new Playhouse Disney pre-school series titled Special Agent Oso starring Sean Astin as the voice of Oso, a fuzzy, lovable, bumbling special agent-in-training who enlists the help of viewers at home to complete his missions." The show, created by Ford Riley, will debut in fall 2008. Each episode will be comprised of two eleven minute adventures.
Oct 11, 2007
Moore's well-deserved star is appropriately located at 7007 Hollywood Blvd (outside a touristy trinket shop whose windows are lined with tiny porcelain crucifixes and movie star photos), a block west of the famous Graumann's Chinese Theater and a little over a block east of Pierce Brosnan's star. His sidewalk neighbors are Rory Calhoun and Bugs Bunny. Much was made of the address, and of the year in which the ceremony occurred.
Bob Hope is not really a name one readily associates with spy movies, but MGM's upcoming Bob Hope MGM Movie Legends Collection actually contains quite a few movies of interest to spy fans. In They've Got Me Covered (1943), Hope plays a reporter trying to crack a Nazi spy ring in Washington, D.C. Dorothy Lamour plays his girlfriend. Reading the plot description, I suddenly realized that I've seen this. I loved this movie as a kid, and have sometimes recalled scenes and tried in vain to remember what movie they were from. I guess I'll have my chance come December 4! (I hope it lives up to those memories...) The Road To Hong Kong finds frequent travelling companions Hope and Bing Crosby as vaudevillian con men caught up with Cold War spies. This last (and many would argue least) of the Road To movies was made in 1962, and predates the epic Sixties spy craze ushered in by 007 that same year. (Even at the bottom of their game, Hope and Crosby were ahead of the curve!) Spy stars Peter Sellers, Joan Collins, Robert Morley and Walter Gotell also appear. Boy, Did I Get the Wrong Number (1966, available on DVD for the first time ever in this set) co-stars sultry spy siren Elke Sommer as a European actress (quite a stretch!) famous for her bubble bath scenes who's grown sick of Hollywood. The Bob Hope MGM Movie Legends Collection will contain seven films total and retail for just $39.99.
Oct 9, 2007
The Hollywood Reporter reports that HBO is developing "a workplace comedy about an elite counterintelligence unit hidden undercover as disgruntled civil servants" called Intelligence. The show is created by Michael Patrick Jann, who recently directed the brilliant Lord of the Rings episode of HBO's Flight of the Conchords. Alias alumnus Bradley Cooper and certified comic genius Patton Oswalt (Amazing Screw-On Head) are both attached to star and co-executive produce along with Jann.
Oct 8, 2007
I thought the second episode of Chuck was much better than the first. The show is a lot more comfortable in its own skin now; it’s a spy comedy, and it’s happy to stay that way. Episode 2 was definitely funnier than the pilot, but still action-packed. It’s a good blend.
The villain wasn’t much to speak of this week, but he was pretty tangential to the story anyway. This episode was about building character relationships, and he was just a means to that end. (And also served to conveniently explain away any hopes Chuck might have of getting rid of all the secret information now embedded in his brain.) I liked the choice of Iggy Pop’s "Lust For Life" as a theme song (although it seems like the opening music may change each week), and I liked that Chuck has access to ABC secrets in that billion dollar brain of his, not just NBC! (He knows what really happened to Oceanic Flight 815!) Chuck is an entertaining show, and I’m still sticking with it.
The team, consisting of Foxx, Jason Bateman and spy stalwarts Chris Cooper and Jennifer Garner, con-duct a sub-CSI investi-gation despite poor initial cooperation on the part of the Saudis. They don’t need to do any sort of impressive analysis to break the case wide open, or to demonstrate any kind of Sherlock Holmes deductive reasoning. All they need to do is dig part of an ambulance out of a watery hole, and then read the name of the hospital that’s written on it. They essentially follow their clue to a nest of terrorists in a wholly unfriendly neighborhood and then proceed to kill everyone, Rambo-style.
The action comes mainly in a self-contained forty-minute section near the film’s end, and it’s good action. It’s not quite up to the intensity of The Bourne Ultimatum, but it’s close, and shot in the same gritty, "put the audience right in the middle of it" style. It bears all the stylistic hallmarks of Michael Mann, which should come as no surprise since he produced The Kingdom. Still, it represents remarkable steps forward for Peter Berg as an action director in his own right. (If only this was an action movie!) Alias fans will be glad to see Jennifer Garner in full ass-kicking mode again, after a string of romantic comedies. Her hand-to-hand (and every other part) confrontation with one of the terrorists is the highlight of the whole movie.
Oct 7, 2007
Oct 5, 2007
After suffering some of the unfortunate delays that seem a given with indy comic publishing, BOOM! Studios’ Left On Mission #4 finally hit comic shops last week with no loss of momentum whatsoever. Issue 3 was primarily an interlude in the action to focus on character development through a lengthy flashback. Number 4 thrusts those characters, in whom we’re now more emotionally invested than before, right back into the thick of it, guns (literally) blazing. It also features the return of one of the more compelling supporting characters, the ambitious, possibly psychopathic Agent Painter.
Reactivated CIA agent Eric Westfall has tracked his former flame, Emma (now gone rogue, though possibly for noble and topical reasons) to Morocco. Like in the best spy movies, writer Chip Mosher, artist Francesco Francavilla and colorist Martin Thomas (whose contributions still add immeasurably) take some time to let us explore this exotic setting. This has been a particular strength of this series since Issue 1, and once again Francavilla manages to evoke another well-selected thrilling location in beautiful detail. He gives us the visual, and Mosher gives us the smells, through Westfall’s instructive dialogue to Painter. Together, the creators do a great job of putting the reader in the heart of North Africa.
Westfall demonstrates some handy tradecraft with all the finesse of Michael Weston, allowing a potentially explosive transaction to play out. Each party believes themselves to be in command of the situation, which Francavilla sets up very nicely with a two-page splash providing a fish-eye view of all the participants and their rooftop sniper backup. The story still churns along at a very brisk pace, but Mosher understands the importance of the set-up. From conveying a great sense of place to constructing a believable playing field for the eventual action to unfold upon, each issue of Left On Mission builds to a satisfying climax and another cliffhanger ending. Like most comic book miniseries, the story will probably read best when collected together in trade paperback (which it will be this December), but it’s also the rare modern comic that delivers the goods with each individual issue as well. Fans of Burn Notice and The Bourne Ultimatum will find a lot to like here.
Oct 2, 2007
Movie Review: SABOTEUR (1942)
Saboteur is not top-shelf Hitchcock, and certainly not his best black and white spy movie, either, but even the master’s lesser efforts are preferable to almost anyone else’s attempts at the man-on-the-run subgenre. Robert Cummings plays Barry Kane, a worker at a Glendale, California airplane factory who finds himself wrongfully accused of starting the arson fire that killed his best friend. Only he can identify the true saboteur (played with excellent menace by Norman Lloyd), a man the police don’t even believe exists. Barry follows his only clue and embarks on a cross-country journey to prove his innocence and bust open a ring of Nazi spies.
Saboteur was made shortly after America’s entrance into WWII, and the British director lays on the propaganda thickly, packing in enough American patriotism to give Michael Bay a run for his money. In the course of his odyssey (and it is a literal Odyssey, adhering somewhat loosely to Homer’s epic), Barry learns valuable lessons about America and what makes it great. Essentially, why it’s worth fighting for at all costs. When he stumbles into the cabin of an old blind man after escaping police custody, still wearing handcuffs, the sightless seer takes him in, offers him food and warmth, and reiterates the Constitutional concept of "innocent until proven guilty," teaching the concept to his niece, Pat (Priscilla Lane), who was ready to condemn Barry and turn him in to the police. And when Barry and Pat (now dragged into Barry's plight against her will) are caught stowing away aboard a traveling circus caravan, the freaks educate them - and us, the audience -on the merits of democracy by voting on whether or not to allow them to stay aboard. (The primary dissenting voice in the matter is a midget with a none-too-subtle Hitler mustache.) And the wholesome Pat, an all-American model whose pretty face graces every billboard they pass, teaches Barry the value of patriotism itself.
It’s not just the characters who hammer home the patriotic message, but the locations as well. Barry’s journey takes him past majestic purple mountains and amber waves of grain, past the mighty Hoover Dam, presented as a spectacular example of American ingenuity (and endangered by the Fascist saboteurs), and finally to the Statue of Liberty herself. Yes, the symbolism is constant and heavy-handed, but it’s admirable how whole-heartedly Hitch threw himself into the war effort. And the story moves along at a brisk pace, too, with plenty of action scenes, including a desperate all-or-nothing leap from a bridge into churning rapids to escape the police, which I suppose Andrew Davis (who remade Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder as A Perfect Murder) must have been homaging in The Fugitive.
The movie’s two most memorable setpieces come towards the end. Barry follows the saboteur all the way to New York, to an upscale party thrown by the prominent, wealthy Nazi sympathizers behind the sabotage plot. Exposed, Barry and Pat find themselves trapped out in the open. In a lengthy, tour-de-force shot that prefigures the director’s "single take" movie Rope, the camera moves with the couple as they dance an entire song, discussing their escape options. The shot remains steady on them as the background (always fully in focus) swirls around. Again, not subtle, but highly effective. Barry tries first to escape by dramatically informing another guest that the party is "a hotbed of spies and Fifth Columnists!" but the guy thinks he’s drunk. Next he tries making a public spectacle of himself to ensure safe passage out, but the trick doesn’t serve him as well as it does Cary Grant a decade-and-a-half later in North By Northwest. The other memorable setpiece, and the film’s most famous sequence, comes in the final reel as Barry finally confronts the real saboteur atop the Statue of Liberty. Suffice it to say, one of them falls off, plunging to his doom in the shadow of Liberty.
Fortunately, there are enough thrills in Saboteur that it holds up as more than mere propaganda. And it’s aided by a sharp script co-written by Dorothy Parker that crackles with the pithy witticisms she’s known for. (The spy ring is composed primarily of wealthy New Yorkers, a circle with which Ms. Parker was imminently familiar!) For a top-notch example of propagandist, wartime Hitchcock, and an action movie decades ahead of the birth of the genre, watch Foreign Correspondent. But for an entertaining way to pass an hour and a half from an era when patriotism was pure and carried none of the stigmas it’s acquired since, you could do a lot worse than Saboteur.
Buried at the end of Variety's article about writer Peter Morgan's follow-up to The Queen is the news that the British scribe is also working on a new movie version of John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for Working Title. No further details are given on the project.
Le Carre's book was famously (and many would argue perfectly) adapted into a TV miniseries in 1980 starring the incomparable Alec Guinness as Le Carre's antihero, George Smiley. It was followed by a sequel, Smiley's People, in 1982. Denholm Elliott stepped into the role for the 1992 TV movie A Murder of Quality, but it was difficult for even a great actor like him to fill Guinness' shoes. I imagine whoever plays the part in the new movie will face the same challenge, but there are a lot of intriguing possibilities out there. Jim Broadbent, for one, leaps to mind. Rupert Davies played Smiley prior to Guinness in the 1965 film The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.
Peter Morgan won acclaim last year for a pair of royal scripts; he wrote both The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. The Queen was the second movie in his "Tony Blair trilogy" with actor Michael Sheen playing the PM. Sheen will reprise the role for Morgan's follow-up, focusing on Blair's relationships with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Morgan is also doing a polish on the script for the American remake of acclaimed British political thriller State of Play, starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.