Nov 29, 2012

Tradecraft: Chad St. John Developing Spy Series at Two Different Networks

Deadline reports that writer Chad St. John (who toiled on a script for Spy Hunter that's apparently no longer being used) now has new spy shows in development at both Cinemax and Fox. Cinemax, who seem to limit their original programming exclusively to spy shows (no complaints here!), are developing St. John's project Kingpin, which, according to the trade blog, "centers on a crafty and careful mid-level drug trafficker trying to get out of the business. He is blackmailed back into it by a dirty DEA agent — who’s really a dirty CIA agent, because the agency can no longer work with murderous cartels — who plans to make the trafficker a puppet kingpin…a tidbit the trafficker and his partners will wish someone would have told them."

Fox, meanwhile, recently bought Watchlist from the writer, which "is about two ex-clandestine Special Ops teammates who sacrifice their normal lives to come to the rescue of a third former teammate who is framed by a powerful CIA faction for a political assassination. A game of cat and mouse on the streets of Boston ensues as the trio takes on the technology and unlimited budget of the CIA." Both shows are executive produced by St. John, his wife Viruna Arend, and James Lassiter, and hail from Lassiter's production company with Will Smith, Overbrook Entertainment.

Read About the Astrology of James Bond

Here's an interesting look at 007 from a perspective you don't see too often. Content Engine has a lengthy look at "The Astrology of Bond—James Bond." The astrological examination of the success of the series by Seth Jaret includes evaluations of star charts for Ian Fleming, Sean Connery and George Lazenby, along with an examination of the astrological chart for the night Dr. No premiered. A forthcoming Part 2 will look at the Moore, Dalton, Brosnan and Craig eras from the same perspective. I always thought that John Pearson selected November 11 as James Bond's birthday purely because of its Armistace connection, but perhaps there was more to his thinking. According to Jaret, "James Bond is, archetypally, pure Scorpio energy."
He’s a spy, first of all, someone who’s secretive, prone to violence, highly sexual, and who wields a sarcastic wit. Quick-thinking and suave but suppressed emotionally, and sometimes as vengeful as his enemies, he’s a man of action and passion—a ruthless sort who faces down a lot of death. In fact, he causes death as part of his job. Power issues surround him, usually coming from some domineering enemy. He must continually prove himself, transcending limitations of danger and fear. Indomitable, courageous, he always wins in the end. Plus, he gets the girl—often a whole passel of them! All of these traits describe Scorpio in its pure, unadulterated state. The Bond character puts a face on one of the twelve zodiac signs as clearly as we can possibly hope for.
There's a taste. Read the rest here.

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Pan Am: The Complete Series

TV Shows On DVD reports that Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will release Pan Am: The Complete Series on DVD on January 29. The Sixties-set drama focused on the lives of jet-setting stewardesses, but featured more espionage than one would have expected given its promotional campaign. One of the stewardesses worked for British Intelligence, who took advantage of her frequent trips to political hotspots like Berlin. A subplot (albeit a fairly major one) in the show's first (and, ultimately, only) season, the spy thread was reportedly set to take center stage in Season 2, had that happened. While the show didn't generate good enough ratings to last on ABC, it was very popular and much better critically received overseas, and even won a prestigious award in France. The 3-disc set contains all 14 episodes, with retail set at $30.99. It will no doubt be available much cheaper than that, however, on Amazon. Extras (a rarity for failed shows) include the featurettes "Becoming a Pan Am Stewardess," "The Berlin Set," "The Life of a Stewardess," and "The Plane Set," along with an interview with Former Pan Am stewardess and the series Executive Producer Nancy Hult Ganis.

Upcoming Spy DVDs: Seal Team Six

Zero Dark Thirty hits theaters in December and January (depending on where you live), but the other hunt for Bin Laden movie, Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden (which premiered on the National Geographic Channel earlier this month, where it drew 2.7 million viewers) hits DVD and Blu-ray on January 8 from Anchor Bay Entertainment. The movie chronicles the dramatic hunt for the world's most notorious terrorist, covering both the CIA and JSOC sides of the operation. Cam Gigandet, Anson Mount and Freddy Rodriguez star. According to the press release, the film was "vetted by a team of experts, including a recently retired Navy Seal, a top CIA operative, and one of the most renowned bin Laden historians." Retail is $19.98 for the former, and $24.99 for the latter. The only announced special feature is a making-of featurette.

Nov 26, 2012

Tradecraft: Jesse Plemons Joins The Missionary

Deadline reports that Matt Damon lookalike Jesse Plemons (The Master) has been tapped to co-star opposite the previously announced Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) in HBO's Berlin-set Cold War spy series The Missionary. The trade blog offers up the most comprehensive description I've seen yet of the show, which comes from writer Charles Randolph (The Interpreter) and producers Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson and Malcolm Gladwell: "Set in Berlin in the late 1960s, The Missionary centers on Roy (Walker), a young American missionary who gets caught up in Cold War intrigue while helping a young woman escape East Berlin. Plemons ... will play Sherwood Elbridge, a young Coca-Cola executive who helps smuggle defectors out of the Eastern Bloc." Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, who directed Wahlberg in Contraband (a remake of the Icelandic film Reykjavik-Rotterdam, which Kormákur produced), will helm the pilot. There's a lot of good talent involved in this series. I like both Walker and Plemons, and the behind-the-scenes involvement of Gladwell, Wahlberg and Kormákur is certainly intriguing. This is definitely a series I'm looking forward to!

Tradecraft: Focus Features Explores 1970s Assassination in A Man Must Die

Deadline reports that Peter Buchman, who scripted the two-part Che for Steven Soderbergh, will return to the subject of late 20th Century South American politics to do a rewrite on Miss Bala director Gerardo Naranjo's A Man Must Die. According to the trade blog, the fact-based thriller centers on "the assassination of Orlando Letelier, a Chilean diplomat in the 1970s who was targeted and killed in Washington D.C. by agents of the Pinochet regime. This story focuses on the FBI investigator who starts to suspect a government conspiracy surrounding the murder." It's a pretty fascinating story involving the Stasi, the CIA and its then-director George H. W. Bush that, weirdly, I had just been reading about the day before seeing this trade article. Good material for a film! Naranjo wrote the previous script draft, and will helm the movie. Perhaps in the wake of Argo's success we'll see more fact-based, Seventies-set spy thrillers.

Nov 24, 2012

Skyfall Blu-ray/DVD Artwork Unveiled

Amazon has a pre-order listing up already for the latest James Bond movie Skyfall on DVD and Blu-ray. Special features haven't been announced, and neither has a release date, but retail is listed as $39.99 for the Blu-ray and $29.98 for the DVD, though both are already significantly discounted on Amazon. What has been revealed is the cover art, which uses the ubiquitous final U.S. 1-sheet artwork. Looks great in Blu-ray dimensions!

Amazing Amazon Deal on Bond 50

Wow! This is the best price you're ever likely to see on the Bond 50 Blu-ray collection, containing all 22 official EON 007 movies from Dr. No through Quantum of Solace (with an empty slot reserved for Skyfall), plus a bonus disc. All day Saturday only, until 11:59 PM tonight, the Bond 50 Blu-ray set is on sale for just $99.99! That's 67% off of its retail price of $299.99! That works out to $4.55 per title for Bond on Blu. How can you beat that? You can't. If you've been holding off on getting this for yourself, or want to get it for someone on your Christmas list, today is the day! (And, let's face it, everyone in the world should own this set.) Order Bond 50 on Amazon for under $100 right now!

UPDATE: The set, unsurprisingly, proved remarkably popular, and has sold out by noon on Amazon, so this deal is over.

Nov 21, 2012

Amazon Lightning Deal on The Prisoner, Plus Other Great Spy Bargains

Amazon's got some amazing prices on DVDs and Blu-rays all week for Black Friday. Some of them last for a few days, but some just for a few hours. One of those "Lightning Deals" for today is a holiday bargain perennial: A&E's DVDs and Blu-rays of The Prisoner: The Complete Series. Until 12:20 PST (too late now), the DVD set is on sale for $17.99 and the Blu-ray for $22.99. Remember when the original DVD megaset cost over $100?

Well, that deal's over now. But lots more remain! Among the longer lasting deals (though I have no idea for how long) of interest to spy fans are Acorn's Blu-ray of the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy miniseries for just $21.99 (a great deal at a whopping 63% savings!), the Bond 50 Blu-ray collection for less than half-price at $129.99 (working out to around six bucks a movie!), the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection Blu-ray set for just $149.99 (half off!), Homeland: The Complete First Season on DVD for $19.99 and Blu-ray for $24.99 (well over half off in both cases), Covert Affairs: Season One for just $11.99(!), the Austin Powers triple feature Blu-ray for $10, The Bourne Trilogy Blu-ray set for $27.99 (less than half price), Magic City: The Complete First Season on Blu-ray for $23.49, Burn Notice: Season Five (that's the most recent one) for a mere $11.99, Burn Notice: Season Four for $14.99, Burn Notice: Season Three for $12.99, Burn Notice: Season Two for $12.99, Burn Notice: Season One for $12.99 and the Indiana Jones Blu-ray set for half off, making it just $49.99. Wow!

Nov 20, 2012

Book Review: The Holcroft Covenant by Robert Ludlum (1978)

Is the lead character named Holcroft? Yes.
Is there a covenant? Most definitely! And mentioned often.

The Holcroft Covenant is notable as the first of Robert Ludlum’s truly globehopping contemporary international thrillers. If The Chancellor Manuscript the year before had signified the transition from more localized action (The Osterman Weekend was more or less limited to a single location, and The Matlock Paper took place entirely in Connecticut) to at least a cross-country chase, then The Holcroft Covenant represented the full-on plunge into the man-on-the-run-around-the-world type of thriller the author would define and dominate over the coming years. (His next novel, The Matarese Circle, was the beginning of his most creatively fecund period.) Taken on its own, however The Holcroft Covenant isn’t one of the author’s better books. That may prove a somewhat controversial statement among Ludlum fans, many of whom consider it a favorite. I'll grant it’s still Ludlum, to be sure, which automatically places it head and feet above most of the imitators, and it’s got a very memorable surprise ending, but it meanders too much along the way. Certain subplots go nowhere; characters are introduced and then disappear. And, worst of all, the hero is profoundly irritating!

Ludlum heroes are all either disavowed professionals or rank amateurs plunged into the world of international espionage who find themselves in way over their heads. But few of his amateurs take so long to learn the ropes as Noel Holcroft—or whine about their predicament so much along the way. (Well, Bourne whines a lot, but his predicament is so awful that it seems more forgivable.) It doesn’t help that Ludlum provides the sort of reveal that usually comes late in his books less than a third of the way into the 512-page tome, and from that point on the reader is always ahead of the hero. It’s nearly impossible not to get frustrated with a hero so far behind you in terms of the plot! (Though in other novels Ludlum uses variations on this device to generate suspense instead of frustration.) Never able to catch up on his own, Noel has to rely on other characters to provide the exposition necessary to get him up to speed. Often, however, that information is stuff that the reader already knows from previous scenes, and functions as boring filler when read again. Noel blunders his way through the plot as a pawn, never sure who’s his friend and who’s his foe, but not dissuaded because of that position from acting (rashly) first and asking questions later. Making matters worse, his hopeless actions generally get his friends and anyone who helps him brutally murdered. And he stubbornly dismisses anyone who can provide him real help! If the book were a movie (and it was, later—but different enough from the book so as not to share all the same deficiencies), the audience would constantly be shouting at the character not to do stupid things.

Granted, it’s hard to blame Noel too much because of the awkward position he’s thrust into at the novel’s opening. Holcroft is an architect with a failing firm who’s enjoyed an all-American upbringing, even though in truth he’s the son of a high-ranking Nazi officer. His mother, Althene Holcroft, vehemently disagreed with her husband’s politics and bravely fled Germany with her infant son before the war. She hasn’t hidden the identity of Noel’s true father from him, but he doesn’t dwell on a past he never knew. He fully identifies with his mother’s second husband, the man who raised him, as his dad. Therefore, it’s a surprise and a bit of an inconvenience when he’s summoned to Switzerland to be told by a secretive banker that he’s the beneficiary of a very unique trust fund. In the final days of World War II, he’s told, his father made a covenant along with several other ranking Nazi officials. These were men who loathed Hitler, and attempted to assassinate him. Failing that, they secretly funneled hundreds of millions of dollars out of the Reich. The funds were to be used after forty years had passed to compensate for all of the Nazis’ horrible crimes against humanity. As the son of the leader, it falls to Noel to track down and bring together the other Nazis’ offspring and, with htem, start a non-profit corporation dedicated to distributing this money where it’s most needed. He’d be doing the right thing, atoning for his father’s sins… and, ultimately, collecting a not-insignificant payday for himself—enough to save his failing business. That final incentive—along with a genuine belief that he’s doing the right thing, and a newfound respect for his biological father—convinces Noel to go along with some very unusual conditions, which threaten some particularly dire consequences should the terms of the covenant not be carried out in total secrecy. But how could those threats bear any weight forty years later? Surely there’s no one left associated with these Nazis now, he figures….

Noel’s quest to find the other inheritors takes him back to New York, down to South America, and ultimately all over Europe. Along the way, people start violently dying in his wake. And in New York, he finds his apartment broken into and rearranged—not burglarized, just rearranged. (It’s a subtly chilling scenario, which has the desired, maddening effect on Noel.) A man claiming to work for MI5 calls him up and tells him they need to meet urgently, but then he’s killed on the other end of the line as Noel listens, unable to do anything to prevent it. It’s one of many very tense, effective suspense sequences. Even lower-shelf Ludlum is still rousing excitement.

In Europe, Noel’s mission brings him into contact with the Von Tiebolt family. Among this uber-dysfunctional group, he must pick a sibling worthy of the Covenant to be a co-inheritor. Unfortunately, the family includes a crazy, nymphomaniac elder sister, Gretchen, a younger sister, Helden, who lives in hiding because her denouncement of her Nazi lineage has made her a target for extremists on both sides of the equation, and a brother, Johann, who may or may not be the international assassin known as the Tinamou. (By the way, has there ever been a less scary-sounding assassin name than “the Tinamou?” Sure, it’s explained that he’s named after a bird with a remarkable ability to blend into its surroundings, but still. Ludlum would do much better with his next torn-from-the-headlines international assassin, even if the real-life Carlos the Jackal had to borrow his scary-sounding animal nickname from the fiction of another spy author!) Oh, and Johann and Gretchen are also involved in a creepy incestuous relationship. Yep, it’s slim pickings to find a worthy heir, yet all is not what it seems with any of them. Clearly, Ludlum had a blast creating this mad clan, and they’re collectively the best creations in the book, far more interesting than the bland and annoying Holcroft!

Partially by default, given the drawbacks of the other siblings, Noel ends up on the run with Helden in tow, and she becomes the romantic interest. Luckily, she’s got far more experience than he does when it comes to living on the run, and she’s able to give him a crash course in evasive techniques. By the time everything comes to a head in a rousing Swiss finale involving the Von Tiebolts and Althene (among others), Noel’s finally starting to learn how the game is played. But is he already too late? Will the funds really be used for the purpose the thinks, or has the covenant been co-opted by others with a more nefarious purpose? Or was its stated purpose all just a ruse to begin with?

The final chapter brings the book to a truly shocking conclusion unlike anything else in all of Ludlum’s body of work, and it’s for this that the book remains most memorable. But it’s undoubtedly a keystone in the evolution of the author’s career. Not only does The Holcroft Covenant mark his first contemporary international thriller, but it also serves as a blueprint for all his (generally better) international thrillers to come. Of course, it’s worth reading beyond its historical context. Like nearly all of Ludlum’s books, it’s a real page-turner, even if some setpieces are better than others, and even when packed with more filler than most of his books. And the conspiracy Noel finds himself up against is just as harrowing and creative as any of Ludlum's nefarious conspiracies. But Ludlum would revisit the same theme a few more times in his career, and The Sigma Protocol is a much more satisfying variation that theme.

The Ludlum Dossier
Read my review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.
Read my review of The Sigma Protocol (2001) here.

Nov 19, 2012

Condorman Soundtrack Debuts on CD

Intrada has just released Henry Mancini's score to the incredibly entertaining 1981 Disney spy/superhero comedy Condorman on CD. This release, which contains the score in its entirety, plus bonus tracks, marks the first time this Mancini gem has ever been available! The $19.95 disc, available "while quantities and interest remain," can be ordered from Screen Archives Entertainment. Now if only Disney would re-release the movie on DVD and Blu-ray! Or at least as an MOD title in their Disney Generations Collection. The old Anchor Bay release (which was flawed anyway), now commands hugely exorbitant prices used on Amazon. (The film is available to stream, however.) As I remember it (and, admittedly, it has been a very long time since I've actually seen it), Condorman is a whole lot of fun, and basically a Bond film for kids. It re-teams the Jokers duo of future Phantom of the Opera Michael Crawford (as the hero) and Oliver Reed (as the Russian villain), along with future Bond Girl Barbara Carrera as a goodie rather than a baddie.

Previously Unknown Thunderball Demo Surfaces On New Lionel Bart CD

007 music expert Jon Burlingame did a book signing and lecture at a Los Angeles Barnes & Noble on Friday, and teased some of the fascinating stories covered in his book, The Music of James Bond. What role did a bra (or the lack thereof) play in Shirley Bassey's classic rendition of "Goldfinger?" What famous non-Bond spy actor was the first person to hear that song? What lawsuit put Bassey out of contention for other Bond songs of the Sixties? What lyrics did Harry Saltzman strenuously object to? Why did John Barry pass on composing Live and Let Die? You can find the answers to all these and any other burning question on Bond movie music (including rogue productions Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again) in Burlingame's essential work on the subject. I'll be reviewing that in full soon (though, trust me; it's a book you definitely want on your Christmas list!), but in the meantime, Burlingame also offered an exciting tip too new to have made it into the book. He tipped me off that a hitherto unknown "Thunderball" demo penned by Lionel Bart ("From Russia With Love") had turned up out of the blue on a 2012 Sepia Records CD release of lost Bart treasures entitled The Genius of Lionel Bart: Stage & Pop Songs, Demos & Rarities. The 3-disc set is available on CD and, much more cheaply, as a digital download on Amazon, but Bond fans can also buy just the relevant tracks as individual MP3s. That's right, tracks—plural! In addition to the main vocal "Thunderball" demo (performed by an unidentified rock group and containing the lyric, "Don't come here to spy, Thunderball!"), there are also several instrumental variations no doubt intended for use throughout the film. (Which makes me very curious as to the circumstances under which this song was written, as wouldn't that have surely been stepping on John Barry's toes?) Those versions are: "Thunderball Love Theme," "Thunderball Bossa Nova" and "Thunderball Jazz."

Finally, speaking of rare Bond tracks available for download as MP3s, another Bond music expert, Neil, alerted me to the fact that the iTunes version of Thomas Newman's Skyfall soundtrack contains an exclusive extra track not available on the CD or through other digital vendors, entitled "Old Dog, New Tricks." Fortunately, it can be purchased independently of the album for $1.29.

Nov 17, 2012

Book Review: The Sigma Protocol by Robert Ludlum (2001)

Is the main character named Sigma? No, but that is the name of the evil organization.

Is there a protocol? Not really. Ludlum or his editors were grasping at nouns.

“At times like these,” writes Robert Ludlum in The Sigma Protocol, during a scene in which one character comforts a grieving friend, “we speak in clichés and mind it not a bit. Clichés are comforting; they’re well-worn grooves through which we can move easily, unthinkingly.” Those are apt and perhaps self-aware words coming from Ludlum in his final completed manuscript. The author spent his career trading in clichés, and was a master of them. Time and again he returned to the same familiar ingredients in his novels, and, indeed his readership never minded it. They were comforting, and we did return to them again and again precisely because we could move through Ludlum’s well-worn grooves easily and unthinkingly. This is not a criticism of the author, but a commentary on the genre. “International thrillers” (to borrow a term from Otto Penzler that’s perhaps more accurate than “spy stories”) are constructed from a pool of well-worn clichés that have been rearranged again and again since at least the days of John Buchan and E. Phillips Oppenheimer into page-turning paperbacks of varying quality. Ludlum was one of the very best at organizing these familiar elements into hundreds and hundreds of pages in new and exciting novels for over three decades. The Sigma Protocol reads like a “Best of Robert Ludlum,” revisiting all of his favorite tropes. We’ve got the basic ordinary man on the run, caught up in a vast international conspiracy and secret cabal operating within the American Intelligence Community that fuel the majority of the author’s books, along with the twin brother angle from The Gemini Contenders, the Nazi inheritance angle from The Holcroft Covenant, the Swiss banking intrigue from The Bourne Identity (among others), the secret pact between Allied and Axis industrialists from The Rhineman Exchange, and the long-thought-dead loved one revealed to be alive from The Parsifal Mosaic. And that’s all in just the first hundred pages of a fairly sizable tome!

As with Van Damme movies, you can’t refer to a Robert Ludlum novel as “the one with the twins,” because there are actually two with twins—one in which the living twins must fight each other and another in which one of the twins is dead and the survivor must avenge his death. The Sigma Protocol is the latter twin book. Ben Hartman is a wealthy international banker (by inheritance, not by choice) who discovers that his twin brother’s death was not an accident, but the work of a sinister cabal dating back to the final days of WWII that will stop at nothing to conceal its secrets. The inciting incident that leads him to this discovery is typically Ludlumesque: while vacationing in Switzerland, Paul runs into an old college friend he hasn’t seen in years on the platform of a train station. Rather than fondly embracing and catching up, however, the old friend draws a gun and attempts to murder Paul, who inevitably finds himself on the run from that moment on.

Meanwhile, back in the States, Justice Department agent Anna Navarro finds herself transferred to an even more shadowy government agency and ordered by its enigmatic boss to investigate a string of murders of wealthy old men who share a secret connection and, ideally, predict and prevent the next assassination. Her inquiries take her from Canada to South America to Europe, and inevitably result in multiple attempts on her life. While Paul is very much cut from the cloth of classic Ludlum heroes (affluent, idealistic, and in over his head), Anna is the most successful character in a new breed of Ludlum women that came along in the Nineties. She’s tough and resourceful—but not a mere cardboard cut-out. Like Marie from the Bourne series, she feels like a real woman, but unlike Marie she’s far more capable when it comes to combat and espionage than her male counterpart.

It takes far more pages than you would think for these two storylines to intersect and Paul and Anna to cross paths, but once they do, they form a formidable team. Suddenly Anna finds herself wanted by her own agency, and so the unlikely pair end up on the run together, resulting in still more globe-hopping. New clues take them from city to city on multiple continents, and into contact with aged Nazis and Nazi hunters alike, powerful business tycoons (one a shut-in after being horribly burned years before), and a truly diabolical villain unlike any other in the Ludlum oeuvre. These are all familiar beats—the “well-worn grooves” a reader can move easily but comfortably through—but the bad guys’ scheme is something entirely new for this author. Unusual for the genre at large, in fact, because while ostensibly scientifically grounded, it owes more to Bram Stoker than Ian Fleming. No, it doesn’t actually get into supernatural territory, but it’s the closest you’ll ever come to seeing Jason Bourne fight vampires! (And that’s all I’ll say.) It’s this unique (and quite brilliant) twist that elevates The Sigma Protocol above a mere “best-of” late career refresher. It makes it one of the author’s best books. It’s also probably the one in most glaring need of being filmed.

There’s been a movie in the works for a few years now, and one version reportedly strayed far from the book’s storyline to tie it in with the global financial crisis. Hopefully the new screenwriters hew much closer to Ludlum’s story (their stated intention upon taking over). Because what would you rather see: boring stock market stuff bearing little resemblance to its source material, or something straight out of Ludlum tantamount to Bourne-vs.-Dracula? I know which one I’d prefer, and I suspect audiences would as well. A faithful adaptation of The Sigma Protocol is a film I would love to see. The book is a great read, and the audio version read by Paul Michael is a fiercely compelling listen. After finishing it, I found myself on a whole new Ludlum kick, revisiting many favorites I hadn’t read since high school, and reading and listening to ones I’d never experienced before. I’ve made many great rediscoveries and a few new ones, and I’m grateful to The Sigma Protocol audiobook for putting me on that track. The Bourne Identitiy might be responsible for getting me hooked on Ludlum to begin with, but it's The Sigma Protocol that did it all over again and resulted in this Ludlum Dossier series.

Read my review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.

Upcoming Spy DVDs: The Hardy Boys: Season 3... With Patrick Macnee

Avengers fans, take note! Six years after the first two seasons of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries came out from Universal, TV Shows On DVD reports that Shout! Factory is releasing the third Hardy Boys season, sans Nancy this time, on DVD in February. Why is this of particular interest to spy fans? Well, the show does sometimes deal in espionage, and in this season the Hardy men have graduated college and are official government agents themselves and help a Soviet defector wishing to relocate to Hawaii in one two-parter... but that's not why I'm mentioning it. Not specifically, anyway. No, I'm mentioning it because Patrick Macnee turns up as a guest star in the episode "Assault on the Tower" playing a debonair, bowler hat-wearing British agent identified only as S. This was just a year after The New Avengers went off the air, so fans of John Steed will probably want to add the DVD to their library. (Well, completists, anyway, like myself.) The 3-disc set hits shelves on February 12, 2013, and retails for $24.97, though it can already be pre-ordered from Amazon for significantly less.

Nov 16, 2012

Tradecraft: Hunted Gets Reconfigured for Second Season on Cinemax, but Not BBC

Frank Spotnitz's BBC/Cinemax spy co-production Hunted, starring Melissa George (Alias), has earned a second season from its American network, but not its British one. I don't get Cinemax, so I have yet to see the show myself, but the reviews in America seemed decidedly more positive than those in Britain, so that might partially explain the networks' differing decisions. Ironically, it was the BBC who initially commissioned the eight-episode series, and Cinemax only came aboard after the fact as the American distributor. Because of that arrangement, Deadline reports that "continuing the series in its current form proved impossible without partner BBC. That has led to Cinemax brass looking for another way to keep the premise and the Sam Hunter character alive while also assuming greater creative control." So the series will undergo some changes in its second Cinemax season, which might possibly amount to a new title, a change of location (without a UK company on board, will the production remain based in London?) and cast changes (though George will remain). Additionally, the trade blog reminds us that "for a pay cable network, doing a series with a public broadcaster like the BBC imposes certain restrictions on the content." Considering this is Cinemax, and considering their brand (think Strike Back), I would hazard that that translates to "expect more nudity." But this is all speculation on my part. All the cable network will promise, at the moment, is that "We are making plans with creator and executive producer Frank Spotnitz and star Melissa George to present a new chapter in the Sam Hunter mythology."

The first season (series) comes out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on November 26, but no U.S. release date has yet been announced. Following standard patterns, I wouldn't expect one until next summer, closer to the air date of the second season or new series or whatever it turns out to be.

Music of James Bond Book Signing Tonight in Los Angeles

Attention Los Angeles area Bond fans: you can pick up a copy of Jon Burlingame's new book The Music of James Bond and get it signed by the author tonight at the Barnes & Noble at The Grove. The event begins at 7pm, with a discussion followed by a signing. See the store's website for more information.

Book Review: The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum (1980)

The Bourne Identity is the perfect spy novel. Not the perfect novel, mind you (it’s got some definite flaws), but the perfect spy novel.* It’s also probably more responsible even than the James Bond books for making me a fan of the genre. I first read it in sixth grade—the same year I discovered Bond. (I suppose I was a late bloomer in that respect.) Up until then, I’d been voraciously devouring Hardy Boys books. Then my Aunt Joan gave me a pair of Robert Ludlum novels for Christmas (the other one was The Gemini Contenders), and my life was forever changed. I was absolutely transfixed by this exciting world of assassins and spies and Swiss banks and fiches confidentielles and gunfights and car chases through faraway European streets. And I was utterly absorbed by the twistiest, cleverest, most intricate plot my hungry young mind had yet encountered. That plot probably attracted me most of all. Sure, I fully appreciated the escapist aspects of the genre—particularly those faraway, exotic European cities. But I skipped the phase of wanting to be a spy. From the moment I read The Bourne Identity, I wanted to write about spies. What other genre lent itself to plots so ingeniously complex? My steady diet of Franklin W. Dixon was suddenly interspersed with regular doses of Ludlum (the brick-like paperbacks comically thick compared to the slim Hardy Boys Casefiles), John Gardner (whose Bond novels at the time were easier to come by than his predecessor’s), and, when I could find them, Ian Fleming (the initial thirst simply to get my hands on every book led directly to my appetite for collecting the first editions and various paperback runs).

Then, eventually, sometime in high school as I became exposed to more and more great literature, I developed that literary snobbishness common in avid readers of that age. While nothing would ever take away the enjoyment his books had given me upon first reading them, I became dismissive of Ludlum as a writer. For years (right up until the early days of this blog, I’m ashamed to admit), I snarkily reflected that I had gone directly from Hardy Boys to Ludlum, and that the quality of the prose hadn’t changed, just the amount of sex and violence and complexity of the plots. How wrong I was, colored by that sad superiority that tends to accompany the transition from adolescence into adulthood. Upon re-reading Ludlum as an adult, I find far more appreciation for his prose than I owned up to in those days of pretentious folly. He’s a far better writer than the vast majority of his modern imitators who fill up today’s bestseller lists.

That said, The Bourne Identity is not his best written book. (That would probably be The Chancellor Manuscript.) The dialogue is atypically clunky at times (what couples repeatedly refer to each other as “my love, my love, my only love?”), the romance is forced at first (only the events that drive the couple together; after that the relationship between Bourne and Marie is actually one of the better pairings in the genre), and some subplots are forgotten about and left unresolved. But none of that for one instant affects the furious pace with which readers are propelled from page to page, because The Bourne Identity boasts far and away Ludlum’s most ingenious premise and most ingenious plot. And the two things should not be mistaken, as they were in the Matt Damon movies.

The simple premise** is: A man is pulled from the sea riddled with bullets and without a memory. His quest to find his identity leads to disturbing implications that he might be an assassin. That premise in itself is brilliant enough that it’s been repurposed in countless other films and stories (including The Long Kiss Goodnight, XIII and Noir) to the point that assassins and amnesia have become almost inseparable in popular culture, and that it managed to serve as the entire plot (not just premise) for the blockbuster series of Matt Damon Bourne movies. That’s a shame, though, because Ludlum’s actual plot is far more complex and far more interesting. In the Damon films, the man with amnesia discovers that he was an assassin and is appalled. In the Ludlum book, the hero keeps discovering new information about himself. At first, the clues point toward his being an assassin, then toward something else, then back toward assassin, then toward a secret agent pretending to be an assassin, then back to assassin (and an even worse one at that), and eventually towards a far, far more complex background than the films ever explore. I feel like I could support my thesis better here if I could go into detail about those layers, but I would hate to spoil the discovery for first-time readers of the book who are familiar only with the dumbed-down simplicity of the film’s story. Suffice it to say, the truth of Bourne’s identity in the book is far more interesting, more rewarding and more morally complex than in the movies, and it’s a shame that the films didn’t follow Ludlum’s template. And the secretive Treadstone program of Ludlum’s covert world is infinitely more fascinating (and possibly disturbing) than the mere super- soldier factory it's presented as in the films.

The hero of Ludlum’s novel is pulled from the Mediterranean and treated by a benevolent but drunken English doctor named Washburn. He has no memory, and the only clue to his identity (besides the bullets the doctor pulled out of him) is the number of a Swiss bank account implanted under his skin. There’s also evidence that he’s undergone significant plastic surgery. Why? Who is he? What was he? To answer these questions, the patient ventures to Zurich by way of Marseilles, hoping the bank account will hold the answers he’s looking for. Along the way he discovers that he’s an exceptionally skilled fighter, that he’s fluent in several languages, and that people he doesn’t know want him dead. The Zurich account does provide him with a name, Jason Bourne, and a great deal of money (millions and millions), but ultimately it raises more questions than it answers. It also triggers something called a fiche confidentielle (a phrase that always stuck with me), alerting mysterious other parties of his transaction. One of these parties doesn’t want him to leave the bank alive, and a gunfight breaks out. Bourne barely escapes.

Suddenly on the run, Bourne relies on instincts he doesn’t quite understand and certainly doesn't approve of. Following such an instinct, he finds himself taking a hostage in order to get out of a bad situation. That hostage is Canadian economist Marie St. Jacques. At first she’s understandably terrified of her captor, but after he returns to save her from being raped by one of the mysterious killers on his trail when he could have fled, she changes her opinion of Jason Bourne. Suddenly, she wants to help the man who kidnapped her. While the germ of their relationship seems somewhat improbable, the actual relationship that develops is quite strong, and Marie proves not only to be Ludlum’s best female character up to that point, but also one of the best female characters in the male-dominated genre of spy fiction as it stood in 1980. Whereas previous Ludlum love interests were little more than damsels in distress (and frequently referred to by the male characters as “the girl”), Marie is a successful economist and smarter than Bourne. She isn’t just along for the ride; he couldn’t get out of his mess without her deductions and intuitions. In fact, she’s usually a step ahead of him, and if he would only listen to her ideas at several points in the story, he could extract himself from a bad situation with far more ease and far less bloodshed.

Bourne himself is a fascinating character as well. For a blank slate, he has quite a lot of personality. While he may have amazing combat skills—armed and unarmed—he is far from a suave know-it-all. In fact, he’s prone to fits of despair at his predicament, and has a tendency to always embrace the worst-case scenario. He frequently relies on nasty sarcasm to cope with nightmare situations that seem uncopable. Without Marie’s support, it’s doubtful he’d ever succeed at discovering his identity, or staying alive.

Also in the mix is the elusive real-life assassin/terrorist Carlos (later known as “Carlos the Jackal”). Various clues indicate that Bourne may have been hunting him, working for him, or competing with him in his pre-amnesia life. Whatever the case, it’s clear now that Carlos wants him dead, and he has a vast network of informants and thugs who will stop at nothing to carry out their master’s wishes. This is another area in which the book is infinitely superior to the film version. In Carlos, the book has a villain. The film is lacking one, and falls instead on the genre crutch/cliché of an evil CIA out to get its own agents. The CIA operatives in the book, like all parties concerned in this affair, are painted with shades of gray—not black or white.

Bourne’s journey of self-discovery takes him from the secretive banks of Zurich to the fashion houses and political circles of the Paris elite to the upscale brownstones of New York City where shadowy government officials hold secret meetings well outside of Washington. The book is a page-turner in the truest sense, packed with exciting fights, chases and escapes along with out-of-date but nonetheless riveting tips on tradecraft and secret banking (though Ludlum, who was adverse to fetishizing or even naming guns, makes that all too common mistake of repeatedly outfitting revolvers with silencers). But the primary engine propelling readers to furiously turn pages is not the action or even the characters, but that plot. Layer after layer after layer is peeled away, revealing an intelligence operation every bit as ingenious as that in le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The Bourne Identity is Spy Writing 101, and absolutely essential reading for students of the genre. And, on top of that, it’s a hell of a read. There’s a reason it stayed with me all these years, and re-read today it still holds up as one of my very favorite spy novels.

Now all that's left is to apply the LTA, or Ludlum Title Analyzer, designed to parse out the rigid "The Proper Name Noun" formula and determine which titles make sense for the story they relate to, and which were generically generated in a panic to fit the formula.

Is the main character named Bourne? Yes! No. Um, sort of. It's complicated, but it's definitely relevant!
Is there an Identity? There certainly is!

The title fits, and I'd go so far as to suggest it's Ludlum's best.

*Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy manages to be both.
**This premise actually owes something to Phillip K. Dick’s 1966 short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” though the movie based on that story, Total Recall, in turn owes a lot to Ludlum's novel.

The Ludlum Dossier
Read my DVD review of The Holcroft Covenant (1986) here.
Read my book review of The Janson Directive (2002) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Supremacy (1986) here.
Read my book review of The Holcroft Covenant (1978) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.
Read my book review of The Sigma Protocol (2001) here.

Nov 15, 2012

Tradecraft: Tom Hardy Swaps Clancy Spies

Deadline reports that Tom Hardy (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is still determined to play a Tom Clancy spy... just not the one we'd thought. Hardy was previously rumored for the role of John Clark in the Clark origin story Without Remorse, with the plan to build a parallel franchise to the rebooted Jack Ryan series with Chris Pine so that the two characters could eventually team up, as they do frequently in Clancy's novels. I liked that plan, as I like both actors and think they deserve a better spy team-up than This Means War turned out to be. Hardy seemed like a great choice, to me, for Clark, who was previously played by Willem Dafoe (in Clear and Present Danger) and Liev Schrieber (in The Sum of All Fears). But that casting seems unlikely now, as yesterday the trade blog reported that Hardy has become attached to another Clancy property, Splinter Cell. Splinter Cell is a hugely popular series of videogames Clancy created (or at least lent his name to), which in turn spawned a series of paperback original novels, two of which were written by James Bond continuation author Raymond Benson under the pseudonym of David Michaels. In June, videogame publisher Ubisoft began talking to studios about setting up a Splinter Cell film. (And it's not the first incarnation of such; a few years ago Peter Berg was attached to direct a different version.) Then, Paramount seemed like the frontrunner, because of their other Clancy properties. There's still no studio attached now, but Ubisoft has begun attaching elements themselves. Besides Hardy, who will play top covert operative Sam Fisher, screenwriter Eric Warren Singer (The International) is attached to pen the screenplay. In related news, the trade blog also reports that Clancy switched agencies this week, signing with WME.

Nov 14, 2012

Return of the Painted Poster: Gambit Remake

Gambit's not a spy movie; it's a caper... but that hasn't stopped me from writing about it on occasion here before. Anything Sixties and swinging and Michael Caine is fair game in my book! And it's a really fun film, that lots of spy fans are apt to enjoy, co-starring Shirley MacLaine and the recently late, always great Herbert Lom. But this post actually isn't about that Gambit. It's about the new Gambit, a remake with Colin Firth donning Michael Caine's signature glasses, Cameron Diaz in the MacLaine role, Alan Rickman filling Lom's shoes (who else possibly could?), and Otley's Tom Courtenay in another part. The script is written by Joel and Ethan Coen (that's right: the Coen Brothers), but when it comes to remakes, that's no guarantee. (Remember The Lady Killers?) Still, I'm hoping this one's good. Its poster certainly is! That's the real reason I'm talking about it. Fans of Sixties spy movies tend to be fans of the lurid, illustrated posters of the Frank McCarthy/Robert McGinnis school—the sort seldom seen since A View To A Kill. I certainly am. Which is why it thrills me to see a poster (via Sky Movies) for a new movie marketed with actual artwork instead of a Photoshopped collage of actors' faces floating over a generic bluish background! It's not quite on par with the original's posters, but I'm definitely a fan of this campaign. Below is the original's McGinnis artwork for comparison.

Tradecraft: Christopher McQuarrie Sought for Cruise's Next Impossible Mission

Alright! Finally, some juicy Mission: Impossible 5 rumors! After Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol turned out to be far and away the best film in the franchise and grossed close to $700 million worldwide, I'm surprised it's taken this long for news on a follow-up. Today, Deadline reports that Paramount, Cruise and producer J.J. Abrams are all keen for The Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie to direct the film. McQuarrie's fast becoming Paramount's go-to spy guy, as he's already attached to the Tom Clancy adaptation Without Remorse, which details the origins of "Jack Ryan's dark side," the deadly wetworks operative John Clark. (Tom Hardy has been rumored to star in that project.) I'd be more encouraged about McQuarrie's involvement if his upcoming Cruise-starring directorial effort, Jack Reacher, looked better. But the studio obviously likes what they've seen, so maybe there's something there that's not coming across in the trailers. To be fair, the more recent one was a vast improvement over the first one! And another point in McQuarrie's favor is that, according to the trade blog, he had an uncredited hand in Ghost Protocol's top-notch script. I just really, really hope that he continues the bright palette and clearly-filmed action sequences Bird brought to the franchise... and most of all that he continues the closer connection to the TV show established in the last installment! (Including the emphasis being on a team rather than an individual agent.) 

Tradecraft: Bond Alums Defect to Le Carre

The Wrap reports (via Dark Horizons) that two James Bond actors are contemplating defection to the other side of the spy genre, and joining a John le Carré adaptation. According to the trade blog, Casino Royale baddie Mads Mikkelsen and Skyfall's Ralph Fiennes are circling Justin Kurzel's Our Kind of Traitor, adapted by Drive and Jack Ryan screenwriter Hossein Amini from le Carré's most recent novel. Presumably, Mikkelsen is up for the potentially show-stealing role of larger-than-life Russian gangster Dima, and Fiennes for British spymaster Hector. The latter would be a tad surprising, since the role would be quite similar to his Bond part as some sort of intelligence bureaucrat. Then again, Pierce Brosnan managed to (quite wonderfully) play a le Carré role not without its similarities to his most famous part in The Tailor of Panama during his 007 tenure! Fiennes, who's no stranger to le Carré having starred in The Constant Gardener, would of course be great as Hector, though I always pictured Page Eight's Bill Nighy in the role.  (Perhaps because Michael Jayston puts on a fantastic Nighy voice for the character in his audiobook adaptation.) Jessica Chastain's name has also apparently been mentioned in connection with the film, too, presumably for the plum role of Gail, one half of a young British couple Dima chooses to be his conduit to British Intelligence. (That's a great part, among the best women le Carré's ever written.)

Nov 13, 2012

Book Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré (1974)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is probably the most famous book in the Smiley series, and deservedly so. Once again, Smiley is retired (as in Call For the Dead and, apparently, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), and once again he is summoned out of that retirement, this time by the Cabinet Office’s Oliver Lacon, the bureaucrat charged with oversight of British Intelligence. Lacon charges Smiley with the task of ferreting out a mole in the organization. Everyone who works there now, including the four-man cabal running things, is a suspect. Smiley himself is in the clear only by virtue of his having been drummed out of the Circus (as le Carré refers to the Secret Service) a year prior following the ouster of the department’s longtime ringmaster Control. Control (since deceased) went somewhat bonkers in his final year, paranoid and obsessed with discovering the leak in his organization. With the aid of trustworthy confidante Peter Guillam (still officially employed by the Circus, but exiled to an outstation by the new regime), Smiley picks up where his late mentor left off and quickly determines that the mole has to be one of four men, all former colleagues of his: Bill Haydon, Roy Blunt, Toby Esterhase or Percy Alleline—the latter now occupying Control’s old position.

I’ll be honest: I love this book so much that I find it daunting to write about. John le Carré’s 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not only my favorite spy novel, but my favorite novel—period. I’m in awe of it. Every time I re-read it, it’s rewarding anew, revealing new secrets hidden within the labyrinthine folds of the author’s elegant, perfectly crafted prose. It’s at once comfortingly familiar and joltingly fresh every time. Even though I know the outcome, I always get caught up in spymaster George Smiley’s quest to root out a mole among his friends and former colleagues in the stuffy, lived-in halls of the British Secret Service.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the ideal combination of perfectly constructed prose and plot. Le Carré’s language is always amazing, but in particularly fine form in this book. He’s famous for his spy jargon—more invented than recalled from his own days in the secret world, but with such a ring of authenticity that many of his terms, like “mole,” have not only turned up in the fiction of other writers, but entered into the actual lexicon of the trade—but it’s his peerless sentence construction and turns of phrase that hook me more than that. Smiley’s right-hand man, Peter Guillam, for example, identifies his mentor’s particular talents for unraveling intrigue and subterfuge as Smiley’s “devious arithmetic.” Smiley himself reflects, with typical self deprecation, that “it is sheer vanity to believe that one fat middle-aged spy is the only person capable of holding the world together.” (This sentence is so unforgettable that Olen Steinhauer effectively resurrects it by way of homage in his own espionage masterwork An American Spy.)

Even more impressive than his sentence construction, however, is le Carré’s astoundingly intricate plot construction—his own devious arithmetic. Just as le Carré perfectly assembles words into mellifluous, multi-layered sentences, so he assembles those sentences into an equally multi-layered plot of staggering nuance and complexity. The book is put together like a puzzle. Rather than a traditional, straightforward narrative, readers are doled out individual pieces (or sometimes partially assembled sections), but the story still flows like a traditional narrative, always driven forward by Smiley’s dogged present-day investigation. That investigation consists largely of him in a hotel room, meticulously scouring old files through all hours of the night… but scouring old files has never been so exciting! (I gasp aloud every time I come to the ingenious final “knot” in Moscow spymaster Karla's master plan.)

The files he reads, summarized for us in prose far preferable to that of actual government reports, are augmented by copious portions of Smiley’s own memories. The memories and the official record intermingle to tell a story driven in equal parts by recorded facts and emotional connections—neither of which we, or Smiley, are ever certain we can trust. Le Carré is often cited for his frequent use of in medias res (beginning in the middle of things), but the actual cumulative effect of this sort of multi-tiered storytelling goes well beyond that. In the case of Tinker, Tailor, the entire novel seems to occur at once. Although the thick book is by no means a quick read, the effect of reading it seems to me like instantly downloading an entire drive’s worth of information into my brain. There is so much information—not merely expository, but also emotional—that every chapter, every sequence, every sentence appears to be packed with more than one piece. What impressed me most about Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 movie adaptation wasn’t its fidelity to the plot of the novel (many scenes were necessarily excised or altered completely), but its incredible fidelity to this highly effective narrative technique. To paraphrase my film review, screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan managed the impressive feat of “unpacking” all of le Carré’s loaded chapters and sentences and then repacking them in even smaller units for the film’s roughly 2-hour runtime.

This storytelling style isn’t limited to scenes told from Smiley’s perspective. There’s no better demonstrative microcosm of le Carré’s complex whole than the breathtaking sequence in which Peter Guillam (sent by Smiley) must covertly retrieve the top secret “Operation Testify” file from the Circus archives—right out from under the noses of Smiley’s suspects. Through subterfuge and sleight of hand, Guillam manages to remove the file and smuggle it out of the archive while being watched, but then finds himself summoned by Toby Esterhase into a meeting of Circus honchos who know that Guillam is hiding something from them—but aren’t sure what. We get Guillam’s point of view the whole time, and his mind is wandering. It’s all happening in the now, but at the same time he’s thinking of how Smiley will react in the future (Smiley would want to know who was in the meeting), what Smiley told him in the near past about the scheme, his own current lover Camilla, and his own further distant past, with regards to his predecessor Jim Prideaux (chief protagonist of Operation Testify, since wounded and disavowed) and his defunct Moroccan networks (blown by the mole), which must always weigh heavily on his mind. But these thoughts all, realistically, seem like parts of the now, and not extraneous flashbacks that take us away from the scene we’re in. Instead they all add to it; they’re all part of it, and the perfect concoction thereof makes the scene that much more suspenseful. It’s spy fiction at its very best.

Of course, the whole novel is spy fiction at its very best. Within it, le Carré manages to cover almost every aspect of the espionage trade, from uncovering moles to penetration to turning defectors to intelligence gathering and distribution to running networks to blowing networks to crossing borders to forged passports to surveillance (“lamplighter” work in le Carré’s world) to counter-surveillance to secret filing and bureaucracy to, yes, even “scalphunter” work: black bag missions and gunfire. There are even gadgets, if you count the wired walls in the “Witchcraft” safe house! Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy truly has it all. Sure, it’s a long, long way from Doctor No, but fans of the Fleming side of the spy genre may find themselves in more familiar territory here than they suspect, and every spy fan, whether they prefer serious or silly, desk men or field men, should read this book. It's simply without equal.

The Smiley Files
Part 1: George Smiley: An Introduction
Part 2: Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Part 3: Book Review: Call for the Dead (1961)
Part 4: Movie Review: The Deadly Affair (1966)
Part 5: Book Review: A Murder of Quality (1962)
Part 6: Movie Review: A Murder of Quality (1991)
Part 7: Book Review: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
Part 8: Book Review: The Looking Glass War (1965)