Category: Spy thriller

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (2011)

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (2011)

We’re going on a Mole Hunt: Le Carré’s finest book is boiled down into an atmospheric and masterful spy thriller

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Cast: Gary Oldman (George Smiley), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), Tom Hardy (Ricki Tarr), Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux), Ciaran Hinds (Roy Bland), Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), David Dencik (Toby Esterhase), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline), John Hurt (Control), Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs), Roger Lloyd-Pack (Mendel), Svetlana Khodchenkove (Irina), Konstantin Khabensky (Polyakov)

Anyone taking on this, Le Carré’s finest novel faced a tough challenge. After all, arguably the definitive version already exists: the masterful, slow-burn, 1979 TV adaptation (one of my favourite films ever) starring an Alec Guinness so perfect as the rotund, inscrutable spy-master George Smiley that Le Carré stated he could no longer write the character without thinking of him. I’ve long been nuts for Tinker, Tailor: I rushed to the cinema to see this with an equally keen-friend about five days before my wedding (on my wife-to-be’s birthday!) because I was looking forward to it so much. (Despite this the wedding went ahead). It can’t match that Guinness version – but it runs it close.

It’s the height of the Cold War, and the respected head of the British Intelligence Services (‘the Circus’) Control (John Hurt) is forced out, along with his deputy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) after a rogue mission in Hungary goes disastrously wrong. Over a year later, Smiley is secretly recalled to lead a mole hunt. Someone at the top of the service is a Russian agent – but who? New head Percy Alleline (Toby Jones)? Or one of the deputies – Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) or Toby Esterhase (David Dencik)?

The first inspiration here is the screenplay. When I heard the film was two hours long I was stunned: the TV series unfolded over nearly seven hours! But the script, by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor (who tragically died of cancer during it’s making) is a masterpiece. It brilliantly and skilfully compresses and restructures the novel, boiling down scenes to their core. But yet, it never feels rushed. The script creates composite scenes – most brilliantly a flashback to a Circus Christmas party – which allows a vast range of sub-plots and characters to simultaneously unfold.

Alongside this, the film is superbly, atmospherically directed by Tomas Alfredson. Alfredson brings a sharp, outsider’s view to this public-school nightmare turned espionage hub. These are posh boys, running an exclusive club, which plays by punishing rules. Everyone constantly spies one everyone else and there is no moment of privacy. Alfredsen brilliantly explores the social and emotional impact of spying, trapped within a grim and oppressive 70s mileu of dirt, beige, fear and loneliness.

The film is brilliantly designed, capturing a vast array of 70s designs and shades. The Circus is an industrial office – with its centre piece an orange lined, sound-proof room. Streets are lined with political graffiti – at one point we see “The Future is Female” a nifty comment on the all-male institution we are watching. Communist Hungary is a post-industrial slum, hotel rooms crowded with papers, cigarette smoke and overflowing ash trays.

At the centre is Gary Oldman, simply brilliant as Smiley. Controlled, measured and deploying only as much energy is needed, Smiley adds a hint of Guinness to his voice and always seems in control. But this lugubrious Smiley bubbles with tension, driven by twin demons. The first is Karla, the Russian spy-master Smiley let slip through his fingers years ago, the subject of a maudlin late-night recollection to his assistant Guillam. Even more important is his wife Ann, the betrayer Smiley still loves to distraction, a half-sight of her enough to make him stumble and lose breath. We never see either of these clearly in the film, reflecting their status as the only characters Smiley never understands and can’t make cool, calm, passion-free decisions about.

Cold-eyed reason guides everything else he does. Oldman’s Smiley may be grandfatherly, softly-spoken and controlled, but he’s as ruthless (if not more so) than everyone else. Smiley is precise and patient. There is a beautiful character establishing moment: Smiley, Mendel and Guillam are in a car bothered by a wasp. Guillam and Mendel flap with futile energy: Smiley waits and then lowers the window slightly at the perfect moment to let the wasp fly out. It captures in microcosm Smiley’s investigation. But he’s not afraid to use force: quietly threatening Dencik’s trembling Esterhase with deportation (not even flinching as a plane lands behind him), ruthlessly mining witnesses for evidence and verbally lashing out bitterly at the mole.

Alfredson’s film zeroes in on much of the emotional impact on spying. Smiley is a man slightly lost in the world outside of spying: retired, he seems adrift walking the streets, swims alone, sits at home in his suit. He’s so deactivated he doesn’t even speak for the first 18 minutes of the film, when he is recalled to life. Smiley has suppressed his emotions so completely only the shadow of his wife can move him. His home is a strange shrine, so much so he even keeps the gifts her lover gives her.

Each of the characters suffers under their burdens, and the demands on them for secrecy and isolation. Mark Strong’s Jim Prideaux buries himself in guilt in a caravan and forms a friendship with a young boy he later realises he is crafting into the same secretive man he is. Guillam is quietly ordered by Smiley to end his relationship with his boyfriend and acquiesces in private tears. Connie Sachs lives in retirement like a mad woman in an attic, cradling her memories. Control dies alone in a hospital bed. Later the Mole clings to having “made his mark” to supress his guilt, while a man whose career is ruined walks into oblivion blank faced not even noticing the rain around him.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is full of moments like this, the high-price of dogged, dedicated work like spying. Alfredson’s coolly, beautifully shot film (by Hoyte van Hoytema) with its lyrical score by Alfredo Iglesias is a masterpiece of tone. This is a dark, dangerous world and we are constantly reminded of it, in between the muttered meetings in board rooms and dark corriders. Tom Hardy’s (wonderful) Ricki Tarr and Mark Strong’s deeply emotional Prideaux are spies-on-the-ground, face-to-face with dangers. Theirs is a world of brutal throat-cuts, eviscerations in a bath and sudden executions. The decisions played out in rooms like that orange-lined sound-proof office with its methodical, intricate ship’s clock, lead to death and violence.

The film is stuffed with beautifully composed shots and brilliantly edited (Dino Jonsäter’s cuts frequently carry us over brilliantly over transitions and segues that streamline the narrative perfectly). Despite cutting back and forth over multiple timelines, it’s always clear when we are (an ingenious device sees Smiley change his glasses in retirement, instantly grounding us in the timeline based on the pair he is wearing). The Christmas party scene – exactly the sort of bizarre public-school irreverent piss-up (where spies who fight night and day to destroy the USSR raucously sing communist songs with a Lenin-dressed Santa) is a superb distillation of character and plot beats and becomes, in many ways the emotional pivot of the movie. It’s a very inventive addition.

The film assembles a superb cast. Oldman, of course, leads from the front but there is not a weak turn in the cast. Hardy is gritty, bitter and jumped-up, Cumberbatch holding his tension down under professionalism, Strong drips quiet grief, Firth swaggers with superb, assured insouciance, Hurt is the book’s arch-spy-master come to life, Jones is full of preening pride, Burke lost in memories. If I’d like the film to be longer for any reason, it would be to see more of these actors.

Full of moody, seventies beauty and creeping paranoia, it’s also crammed with beautifully judged lines and incidental moments from the book. Alfredson’s atmospheric film has a profound emotional understanding of the cost of this life of isolation and paranoia. It took a couple of viewings, but this emerges from the shadow of my favourite TV series.

Hell and High Water (1954)

Hell and High Water (1954)

Action below the waves in this dutiful, for-the-money thriller from Samuel Fuller that lacks imagination or freshness

Director: Samuel Fuller

Cast: Richard Widmark (Captain Adam Jones), Bella Darvi (Professor Denise Gerard), Victor Francen (Professor Montel), Cameron Mitchell (“Ski” Brodski), Gene Evans (Chief Holter), David Wayne (Tugboat Walker), Stephen Bekassy (Neumann), Richard Loo (Hakada Fujimori), Wong Artarne (Chin Lee), Henry Kulky (Gunner McCrossin)

Few films start with a bigger bang than Hell and High Water: a nuclear explosion. What caused it? The film winds back to tell us. Retired submarine captain Adam Jones (Richard Widmark) is hired by a cabal of intellectuals and scientists working to maintain world peace. Somewhere on an island off Japan, the Commies are working on a secret nuclear bomb. Jones – in return for a fee – will shuttle Professors Montel (Victor Francen) and Denise Gerard (Bella Darvi) to investigate. Cue submarine duels, personality clashes, romance and shoot-outs.

To be honest, nothing in Hell and High Water lives up to that bang at the start. Samuel Fuller took on the film as a favour to producer Darryl F Zanuck, but had a low-opinion of the result (labelling it his worst film). Fuller rewrote the script, added a lot of his compulsive drive to the direction and handled it well – but it feels like a “gun for hire” film. Goodness only knows what Fuller made of Spielberg telling him in 1979 he loved it so much he carried a print of it in his car (perhaps “Have you not seen Pickup on South Street?”)

Hell and High Water is a serviceable men-on-a-mission film that sneaks in a few interesting beats, but otherwise goes for well-shot action and predictable events over invention and insight. It’s anchored by a grumpy Richard Widmark (who thought the script was crap and co-star Darvi couldn’t act) as a hard-to-like hero. Never-the-less Jones’ ruthless mercenaryism is the film’s most interesting beat – even if it is a repeat of the same actor’s attitude in Pickup on South Street, right done to mouthing almost the same contemptuous line about ostentatious flag wavers. Jones does his job professionally – and he’s got no truck with his country being dishonoured or attacked by Commies – but his main concern is always the $50,000 fee he’s been promised.

Also paid off are the whole crew who, in the film’s other interesting beat, are a regular united nations all of whom treat each other with equality and respect (the only people not represented here are Black people). We’ve got a German, a Japanese, a Frenchman, several Americans – considering only nine years previously all these nations had been working over-time to kill each other, it’s great to see the team on the ship working as a tension free-unit. We even have a Chinese sailor – who entertains his fellow crew with improvised ditties – becoming a crucial hero.

Fuller also shoots the sub action – a mix of models and trick photography – very well. The angles he uses of the subs underwater, in particular their turns, and the sweaty look of those underwater (and the increasing tensions) influenced several future films. All the submarine lingo you’d expect is trotted out with real commitment (“Right full rudder!”) and every box is carefully ticked, from sinking the bottom, to the costly rush to close a bulkhead. The torpedo fights are well-staged and whenever the film dives it’s at its best.

Where it is less so is whenever the film dwells on its characters. It tries to push the envelope a bit by introducing a female professor who is assured, competent, super-smart and gets stuck in with helping out when things go pear-shaped. She’s played by Bella Darvi, a protégé (and more) of Zanuck, who he was determined to elevate to stardom. Despite Widmark’s criticism, she’s fine here, even if she struggles to convey the charisma the role needs, often falling back on slightly grating over-earnest, head-girl smartness. What fails is the complete lack of chemistry between her and Widmark, their half-hearted, dutiful romance (probably mostly Widmark’s fault).

You’ll feel sorry for her though as the crew – and Jones – eye her up like a piece of meat when she arrives. Of course, this dated sexual leering is par for the course, but is still more than a little uncomfortable. But this is still the era when a sailor taking his top off to push his tattoos into a woman’s face was funny rather than a crime. The film does gives Darvi’s Professor a lot of proactivity and does generally take her side – even if she, inevitably, needs to learn our hero knows best.

Hell and High Water charges through to a decent ending, with just the right mix of self-sacrifice, tension and pay off. Victor Francen gives the films best performance as an illustrious, brave French scientist. But it never feels like anything more than a dutiful, for-the-money film. There is none of Fuller’s fire or feeling here, no real imagination or freshness in the ideas or concepts. It hits all the beats, ties things up with a bow and sends you home – but its very hard to really remember anything distinctive about it when the credits roll.

The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost Writer (2010)

Conspiracies, lies and dirty politics surround a politician who definitely isn’t Blair in Polanski’s superb thriller

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Ewan McGregor (The Ghost), Pierce Brosnan (Adam Lang), Kim Cattrall (Amelia Bly), Olivia Williams (Ruth Lang), Tom Wilkinson (Professor Paul Emmett), Timothy Hutton (Sidney Kroll), Jon Bernthal (Rick Ricardelli), Tim Preece (Roy), Robert Pugh (Richard Rycart), David Rintoul (Stranger), Eli Wallach (Old Man), James Belushi (John Maddox)

An American publishing company is in dire straits. They’ve paid a fortune for the autobiography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), once seen as a visionary liberal idol but now blamed for a deeply controversial war in Iraq (sound familiar?). Problem is his trusted aide Mike McCara – who is actually writing the book – has been found drowned on Martha’s Vineyard where Lang, his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and staff are staying. The book needs to be finished in a month – but it’s in an unpublishable mess. Who ya gonna call? A Ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) of celebrity memoirs to finish the job of course. But will the Ghost resist trying to investigate whatever McCara uncovered in Lang’s life that may have led to his suspicious death?

Adapted from a novel by Robert Harris – who turned from a strong supporter of Blair, to terminally disenchanted – The Ghost Writer comes to the screen as a superbly controlled, perfectly placed piece of tight-wound tension from Roman Polanski, that mixes wonderful elements of Hitchcockian menace and Seventies conspiracy thriller, not to mention lashings of his own Chinatownbut here switched to the doom-laden drizzle of New York, rather than the sunkissed glory of California.

Set on a grim, grey and foreboding Martha’s Vineyard (although, for obvious legal reasons, actually filmed in Potsdam), Polanski lets every scene grow in unsettling tension. Very little explicit is every said, but danger from unknown, unseen forces is a constant presence. Accompanied by a Herrmann-esque score from Alexandre Desplat (also with a hint of a twist on Jerry Goldsmith’s work on Chinatown), this is film made with such calm, patient authority that its exudes engrossing tension. Polanski employs some beautiful touches, worthy of Hitchcock: from the Ghost, uncertain if he is being followed when boarding a car ferry, making a desperate run for freedom; to a wonderful tracking shot at a book launch that follows a note containing a vital reveal, passed from hand to hand through a crowd to the guilty speaker.

The Ghost Writer also has neat moments of dark comedy which also feels reminiscent of Hitchcock’s ability to mix dark chuckles with oppressive tension. The Ghost’s recruitment as a writer – and his hilariously frank suggestion that political memoirs are boring beyond belief – is a lovely lightly comic entrée that completely fails to prepare us for the conspiracy thriller that follows in all the right ways. Stuck in Lang’s house on Martha’s Vineyard, the Ghost tries to secretly download a copy of the memoir he is only allowed to read under supervision: his attempt coincides, to his terror, with what turns out to be a test of the alarm system. In the background of a shot during a monologue from Lang, a worker struggles with wearied patience to clean the wind-filled grounds of leaves, constantly, dutifully, collecting them back up as they blow away.

These moments of lightness make the dark even blacker. We are constantly left guessing as to who knows what. Was McCara murdered? What mysteries lie in Lang’s university past that McCara considered so important? Lang and his wife oscillate from welcoming to coldly distant. Particularly so with Ruth Lang, a superb performance from Olivia Williams. Ruth has, quite possibly, been the power behind the Lang throne, but now seems less sure of where she stands. She’s tense, without making clear why and at times painfully blunt. Suffering no fools, brittle, sharply intelligent, coldly determined, her surprisingly vulnerability draws the Ghost in, despite him knowing its “a bad idea”.

But then The Ghost makes more than a few bad ones. Perhaps because he gets fed up with people thinking he’s stupid and is too keen to prove them wrong. Ewan McGregor is wonderful as a man who spends most of his time wearily ignoring digs at the fact he’s best known for ghosting the autobiography of a celebrity chef. The Ghost – as in Harris’ book he remains un-named, suitable for a man whose job is to pretend to be his client – seems to be a disconnected observer, but emerges as a dogged detective – even if he is painfully out of his depth and acting way beyond his expertise. He becomes increasingly panicked at the terrifying world of international politics and espionage, like a beginner swimmer dropped in the deep end, while unable to stop himself digging further, like picking at a scab.

The film picks at its own scab with the legacy of Blair. Brosnan’s confident, charismatic performance captures an impression of Blair while never trying to be an impersonation. He perfectly conveys the easy charm and casual but shallow warmth of the professional politician, but the slightest scratch of the surface reveals a man who feels hard-done-by and undervalued and sick of being judged for making the tough calls. Polanski allows him moments of sympathy: it’s hard not to see his point when he makes the case for what many would call intrusive security and the self-righteousness of his persecutor, former foreign secretary Ryecart (Robert Pugh, channelling Robin Cook) hardly warms the viewer (or the Ghost) to him.

The Ghost Writer manages to make its political parallels – especially about Iraq – pointed but not too heavy handed. (There is a lovely performance from David Rintoul as a calmly spoken former-army type who turns out to be a rabid anti-war protester). It imaginatively fictionalises a version of history, humanising characters who could otherwise be crude caricatures. The cast are wonderful and this is an intelligent, gripping, classic conspiracy thriller. Mastered by Polanski, who assembles the film with such control that it takes a cold grasp of your heart without ever seeming to overwork itself. As the credits roll, Polanski having left us with a poetically tragic image of pages blowing emptily in the wind on a London street, you’ll realise how the quiet doom so expertly built could only have led to one thing. The Ghost shoulda forgot about it: its Chinatown.

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Shailing into Hishtory! The Hunt for Red October is the finest Tom Clancy adaptation made

Director: John McTiernan

Cast: Sean Connery (Captain Marko Ramius), Alec Baldwin (Jack Ryan), Joss Ackland (Ambassador Andrei Lysenko), Tim Curry (Dr Petrov), Peter Firth (Ivan Putin), Scott Glenn (Commander Burt Mancuso), James Earl Jones (Admiral James Greer), Jeffrey Jones (Skip Tyler), Richard Jordan (National Security Advisor Jeffrey Pelt), Sam Neill (Captain Vasily Borodin), Stellan Skarsgård (Captain Viktor Tupolev), Fred Dalton Thompson (Rear Admiral Joshua Painter), Courtenay B Vance (PO Jones)

“We shail into Hishtory!” It’s the film that launched a thousand Sean Connery impressions. Only Connery could get away with playing a Soviet submarine captain with the thickest Scottish accent this side of Lithuania. He only took the role – from Klaus Maria Brandauer – at short notice, but he’s a pivotal part of the film’s success. The Hunt for Red October is a superb film, the finest Tom Clancy adaptation ever made and one of the cornerstones of the submarine genre. It expertly mixes beats of conspiracy, espionage, naval adventure and even touches of comedy, into a superbly entertaining cocktail.

Connery is Captain Marko Ramius, the USSR’s finest naval captain, given command of The Red October on its maiden voyage. The Red October is equipped with a technical miracle: a “caterpillar drive” that uses a water powered engine to run silently, making it invisible to sonar. So why is the entire Russian fleet being scrambled to find and sink the submarine? Could it be, as the USSR tells the US, that Ramius has gone mad and plans a nuclear strike? Or is it, as CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) argues, because Ramius plans to defect and bring the technological marvel with him?

Of course, we know Connery plans to defect. After all, we’ve already seen him murder shifty political officer Ivan Putin (Peter Firth – to whom alphabetical billing is very kind) and tell his handpicked crew of officers, led by loyal second-in-command Borodin (Sam Neill, so dedicated to affecting a Russian accent it’s as if he felt he needed to do in on behalf of himself and Connery) that there is no turning back. The film’s expert tension – and it rachets it up with all the precision of a well-oiled machine – is working out how. How will Ramius evade the Russian fleet? How will he manage to arrange his defection without communicating with the US? And will he and Ryan – unknowingly working together – persuade the US not to blow The Red October out of the water?

With McTiernan, in his prime, at the helm it’s not a surprise the film is expertly assembled. The parallel plot lines are beautifully intercut. Our two heroes, Ramius and Ryan, face very different obstacles (dodging Soviet torpedoes vs patiently making his case to sceptical superiors mixed with risky long-range travels to far-flung US subs) but somehow seem to be building a bond before they even meet. Ryan is an expert on Ramius and his career, while his thoughtful, good-natured decency is exactly the sort of American Ramius tells his crew they need to meet (as opposed to “some sort of buckaroo” – a word Connery relishes).

McTiernan isn’t just an expert mechanic though. There are lovely touches of invention and magic here. The Hunt for Red October has possibly one of the finest transitions ever. Connery, Neill et al start the film speaking in Russian. Ramius meets with Firth’s Putin (great name) in his quarters to open their orders. The two chat briefly in Russian, then Putin reads from Ramius’ copy of the Book of Revelations. As Firth reads (in fluent, expertly accented Russian), McTiernan slowly zooms in on his lips until he reaches the word “Armageddon” (the same in both languages) – the camera then zooms out and both Firth and Connery continue the scene in English (Firth switching mid-shot from Russian to English without missing a beat). It’s a beautifully done transition, rightly a stand-out moment.

But then it’s a film full of them. Many rely on Connery’s performance, superb as Ramius (this was his career purple patch, where one effortlessly excellent performance followed another). Ramius has a grizzled sea-dog charm and a twinkle in his eye, but he’s also nursing a private grief and pain that motivates his defection. He can be demanding of his men, but also inspires loyalty – that “We Shail into Hishtory!” pep-talk speech is delivered perfectly (and McTiernan makes Soviet sailors singing the Soviet anthem a punch-the-air moment even though (a) we know they are technically the bad guys and (b) we know Ramius is lying through his teeth in his speech). But he is always a commander, Connery investing him with every inch of his movie star cool.

Ramius is also an interesting reflection, in a way, of Ryan. Played with a great deal of young-boy charm by Baldwin (and also wit, Baldwin dropping impersonations of other cast members into the film – including a stand-out Connery), Ryan is brave, determined but also slightly naïve and out-of-his-depth. But like Ramius he respects his “enemy”, is open to negotiation, thinks before he acts and wants to save lives. The two even share similar upbringings. The film triumphantly shows a desk man, spreading his wings and doing stuff he couldn’t imagine: the guy who tells an air hostess in an early scene he can’t sleep on flights due to fear of turbulence, will later have himself dropped into the sea from a perilous helicopter flight, steer a Russian sub and duke it out with the last Soviet hard-liner standing in The Red October’s missile room.

McTiernan shoots Ryan’s conversations like combat scenes: quick reversals and cross shots and even whip pans and zooms. It ratchets up the tension and drama in these sequences – and allows him to play it cooler in the sub shots which (with its more constrained set) where patient studies of tense faces follow sonar reports of the approach of torpedoes or enemy subs. Sound is a triumph in Red October – every ping or sonar shadow is sound edited to perfection, with much of its tension coming from their perfect rising intensity.

It builds towards a superb resolution as several plot threads come together in a dramatic face-off that gives us everything from sub v sub to gunfights, with tragedy and triumph all mixed in. It’s a perfect ending to a film that is a masterpiece of plotting and construction, acted to perfection by the whole cast (Connery and Baldwin, but also Jones, Neill, Glenn – perfect casting as a no-nonsense naval captain – and several reliable players in smaller roles). McTiernan directs with exceptional pace and excitement, it’s sharply scripted and technically without a fault – from its gleaming Soviet sub (with church like missile room) to brilliantly edited sound-design. It’s a joy every time I watch it.

Clear and Present Danger (1994)

Clear and Present Danger (1994)

Tom Clancy’s door-stop thriller is turned into an involving conspiracy thriller that makes masterful use of Harrison Ford

Director: Philip Noyce

Cast: Harrison Ford (Jack Ryan), Willem Dafoe (John Clark), Anne Archer (Dr Cathy Ryan), Joaquim de Almeida (Colonel Felix Cortez), Miguel Sandoval (Ernesto Escobedo), Henry Czerny (Bob Ritter), Harris Yulin (James Cutter), Donald Moffat (President Bennett), Benjamin Bratt (Captain Ramirez), Raymond Cruz (Domingo Chavez), James Earl Jones (Jim Greer), Tim Grimm (Dan Murray), Hope Lange (Senator Mayo)

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan has always been the All-American hero (his slimy, besuited CIA rival even frustratedly snarls “you are such a Boy Scout”). Ryan is almost too-good-to-be-true: pure as the driven snow, incorruptible, a success at everything he does and a devoted family man. What chance does someone like that have in Washington? In Clear and Present Danger, Ryan is dragged into the War on Drugs, unwittingly becoming the front man for an illegal military assault team against the Columbian cartels, ordered by a US President on a vendetta for the death of a friend. When the truth comes out, you’ve got one guess who takes it on himself to save the soldiers who are hung out to dry by the suits in Washington.

We know he’ll do the right thing as well, because he’s played by Harrison Ford. Ryan is basically a blank slate as a character, so Ford’s straight-of-an-arrow everyman decency does most of the heavy lifting to establish who he is. As an action hero, Ford has the chops but his real strength is his ability to look frazzled, scared and muddling through – rather like the rest of us would. Ryan gets in some real scrapes here, from dodging missiles in an attack on a diplomatic convoy to desperately fighting for his life in a timber factory. Ford’s strength as an actor is to be both authoritative and also vulnerable – his willingness to look scared but determined works wonders.

Clear and Present Danger also gives plenty of scope for Ford to employ his other major empathetic weapon: the clenched jaw and pointed figure of moral outrage. He does a lot of both here, a central scene seeing Ryan confronting besuited rival Ritter (played by a weaselly, bespectacled Henry Czerny, the polar opposite of Ford’s clean-cut everyman-ness) earnestly telling him he broke the law and is heading to jail (laughed off). There can’t be an actor more skilled at getting you to invest in someone, to both simultaneously worry about him while being confident he will do the right thing. It’s a rare gift, and Clear and Present Danger exploits it to the max.

Ford is the centrepiece – and main strength – of a competent, well-made conspiracy thriller, directed with a professional assurance by Philip Noyce. It makes a good fist of translating Clancy’s doorstop novel – with its huge complexities – to the screen (although you might need a couple of viewings to work out the twisty-turny, backstabby plot, where wicked schemers turn on their own schemes). Noyce has a special gift for keeping dense technical and exposition scenes lively. At one point he cross-cuts a parallel investigation into a fake car bombing between Ryan (who flicks doggedly through textbooks) and his Cartel rival who employs gadgetry and computers. Plot heavy scenes like this are well-shot, pacey and capturing plenty of reaction shots, even if they only feature characters messaging each other on clunky 90s computers or walking-and-talking in shadowy metaphors.

Clear and Present Danger also successful juggles its Washington shenanigans, with parallel intrigue in its Columbia setting. There ruthlessly charming Cortes (played with a wonderful cocksure suaveness by Joaquim de Almeida) is scheming to takeover his boss’ (a blustering Miguel Sandoval) operation. These plot unfold both together and in parallel, allowing for a little bit of neat commentary contrasting the cartels and Washington. The film manages a bit of critique of America’s thoughtlessly muscular intrusion into the affairs of other countries, with a President turning a blind eye after passing on implicit instructions (but still with a boy scout hero who will sort it all out).

Noyce also pulls out the stops for a couple of brilliantly executed scenes. Great editing, sound design and committed acting makes a scene where Luddite Ryan races to print off incriminating evidence from a shared drive while technically assured Ritter deletes the files, edge-of-the seat stuff. Never before has racing to fill a printer with paper seemed more exciting.

That pales into significance with the film’s centre piece, a genuinely thrilling Cartel ambush on a US diplomatic convoy, with Ryan stuck in the middle. With perfect build-up – from James Horner’s tense score to the skilful editing – the attack (with Oscar nominated sound design) is hugely tense, leaves our heroes terrifyingly powerless and is flawlessly executed by Noyce and his crew. It makes the whole film a must watch all on its own.

It’s surrounded by several other well-handled action set pieces, featuring the Marines sent on a covert mission (and then hung out to dry). As the operation leader, Willem Dafoe plays very successfully against type as a (ruthless) good guy, as Clancy’s other regular character, uber-fixer John Clark. Dafoe also has the chops to go toe-to-toe with Ford, and like de Almedia’s charmingly wicked Cartel-fixer also serves as another neat contrast to Ryan’s decency-with-a-fist.

The film is rounded out by a troop of reliable actors. Anne Archer has little to do as Ryan’s supportive wife, but Donald Moffat is good value as the shifty President (communicating both intimidating authority and Nixonian survival instinct), Harris Yulin perfectly cast as a President-pleasing apparatchik and Raymond Cruz as an ace but naïve marine sharp-shooter. Clear and Present Danger has few pretensions to be anything other than an involving thriller – but that also helps make it a very enjoyable one.

Operation Mincemeat (2022)

Operation Mincemeat (2022)

Wartime heroics get bogged down in bland love-triangles and tedious inventions

Director: John Madden

Cast: Colin Firth (Ewen Montagu), Matthew Macfadyen (Charles Cholmondeley), Kelly Macdonald (Jean Leslie), Penelope Wilton (Hester Leggett), Johnny Flynn (Ian Fleming), Jason Isaacs (Admiral John Godfrey), Simon Russell Beale (Winston Churchill), Paul Ritter (Bentley Purchase), Mark Gatiss (Ivor Montagu), Nicholas Rowe (Captain David Ainsworth), Alex Jennings (John Masterman)

In April 1943 a body washed up on the shore of neutral Spain. It was a Major William Martin, carrying Allied plans to launch a massive invasion of Greece in July 1943. German agents intercepted these plans before they could be returned to the British and the Germans shifted their troops to counter this invasion. Problem for them was, Major Martin wasn’t real, the plans he carried were inventions and the Allies were planning to attack Sicily. Welcome to Operation Mincemeat.

Adapted from an entertainingly written and well researched book by Ben MacIntyre, Operation Mincemeat is about one of the most successful wartime deception plans ever launched. The film is a bit of a deception operation itself. Although it looks like a Boys-Own caper film, with eccentric boffins solving problems and running circles around the Nazis, it’s actually a dry, slow, sombre film that seems embarrassed at even the faintest idea of flag-waving Wartime heroism. Instead, everything is glum, depressing and bogged down in invented details that never convince.

Which is a real shame, because when the film focuses on the things that actually happened it’s both entertaining and informative. To create Major Martin, MI6 needed a body – specifically a military-age male who drowned. That was almost impossible to find in London at the time – and the final ‘candidate’ had to be kept as ’fresh’ as possible for months. The letters he carried included ‘private correspondence’ from one British General to another – a letter that went through almost twenty drafts as the British authorities squabbled about how blunt its ‘personal’ views could be. When the body washed up, a helpful Spanish officer tried to return the papers immediately. When the film is on this material it’s good.

But it feels embarrassed by the idea of enjoying this stuff. After all, war is hell and the idea that we could even for a moment think these eccentrics (nearly all of whom spend their time penning spy stories) might find part of this subterfuge fun is disgraceful to it. So, we are constantly reminded of the horrors of war: the moral quandaries of using a person’s body for an operation, the troubling “wilderness of mirrors” of espionage. All this means that lighter moments – or moments where we could enjoy the ingenuity of the characters – are rushed over as soon as possible.

The other thing the film is embarrassed about are the lack of female characters. As such Kelly MacDonald’s Jean Leslie – who contributed a vital photograph of herself as ‘Major Martin’s’ paramour and the background of this fictional relationship – is elevated to third wheel in the planning. But, in a move that feels bizarrely more sexist and conservative, she also becomes the apex of a love triangle between herself and Firth and MacFadyen’s characters. This tedious triangle takes up a huge amount of time in an overlong film and is fatally scuppered by the total lack of chemistry between any of the participants.

It also means our heroes are forced to spend a lot of time running around like love-sick, horny teenagers, following each other and passing notes in class. At one point Cholmondeley tells Jean about Montagu’s wife with all the subtlety of “I saw X kissing Y behind the bike sheds”. This also means that the matey “all in this together” feeling essential to these sort of caper films (which is what this story really is) is undermined. This ends up feeling rather like a group of people who learn to dislike each other but vaguely put personal feelings aside for the greater good.

The real exciting history clearly isn’t exciting enough. Instead, ludicrous, artificial “improvements” littered through the story. I get that Jason Isaacs’ Admiral Godfrey is turned into a moronic, obstructive bureaucrat for narrative reasons. But the ridiculous shoe-horning in of a link between the Operation and the Anti-Nazi resistance in Germany in the second half of the film feels blatantly untrue even while it’s happening. By the time one of our heroes is being confronted by a German agent in their own home, the film has checked out of reality.

Truth is, this is a bad film, over-long, overly dry and crammed with artificial flourishes. Partially narrated by Ian Fleming (a woefully flat performance by Johnny Flynn, sounding oddly like Alex Jennings), the film attempts to draw links between this and the formation of James Bond but these fall as flat as everything else. MacFadyen gives probably the best performance among some wasted Brit stars. The truth is, a one-hour straight-to-camera lecture from Ben MacIntyre would have been twice as entertaining and interesting and half as long. A chronic misfire.

The Courier (2021)

The Courier (2021)

True-life Cold War thrills, as two spies battle to prevent the Cuban Missile crisis

Director: Dominic Cooke

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Greville Wynne), Merab Ninidze (Oleg Penkovsky), Rachel Brosnahan (Helen Talbot), Jessie Buckley (Shelia Wynne), Angus Wright (Dickie Franks), Željko Ivanek (John McClone), Kirill Pirogov (Oleg Gribanov), Anton Lesser (Bertrand), Maria Mironova (Vera)

In October 1962 the world nearly ended, as the USA and the USSR clashed over Soviet missiles in Cuba. The history of this grim month is well known, as the fate of the world hung in the balance. What’s less known is the role Soviet double agent Oleg Penkovsky played in passing information on Soviet capabilities and strategy to the West – and how crucial this was to bringing the crisis to a (world-surviving) end.

The Courier covers – in a pleasingly old-fashioned, Le Carré-ish way – Penkovsky’s (Merab Ninidze) dangerous espionage career, and the relationship he built with British businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch). Wynne – totally unconnected to the Secret Services – was chosen by MI6 to make initial contact with Penkovsky. He then served as Penkovsky’s courier, carrying secret documents and microfilm back to the West under cover of business trips to the Soviet Union – and the two men became close friends. When the Cuban Missile Crisis increases the risks to Penkovsky, it’s Wynne who pushes for a risky mission to extract him before he is uncovered and killed.

Directed with confident, low-key aplomb by Dominic Cooke, The Courier mixes shady, spy-thriller tropes (secret meetings, scratched signals, one-time pads, secret cameras) with a genuine friendship between two very different people. All taking place in a grim, Soviet environment where the risk of discovery lurks around every corner. Ordinary receptionists and chauffeurs could all be active or potential informants of the KGB, and there is not a single room that cannot be bugged.

It’s a very unusual world fish-out-of-water Wynne finds himself in. Expertly played by Cumberbatch as a stiff-necked people-pleasing fixer (introduced deliberately losing a game of golf to close a business deal with the triumphant winners), Wynne uncovers depths he didn’t suspect in himself. He at first has no interest in spying – or the Soviet Union – and simply wants a quiet life rebuilding trust with his wife (Jessie Buckley making a great deal of a rather thankless part of a woman kept in the dark about her husband’s activities) after a past affair.

He needs brow-beating from MI6 to even carry out his first mission – which he executes with a nervy unease – and reacts with horror at the idea of repeating it. What draws him in is the same quality that will see him take huge risks: his sense of humanity and fair play and the bond of mutual friendship and understanding between him and Penkovsky. Wynne willingly accepts dangers and sacrifices others would blanche at, out of loyalty and a sharply defined sense of right and wrong.

Wonderfully played by Ninidze, The Courier makes clear the huge risks Penkovsky is taking even considering talking to the West. This is a country where a Western spy is executed in the middle of a special staff meeting at his ministry. Whose leader is hell-bent on asserting Russian dominance and devil-take the consequences (sound familiar?). A country taking part in an arms race that could destroy the world, and disregarding the risks that could lead to those weapons being used. A quiet, loving family man, Penkovsky is appalled at the aggressive posturing of his country and how it is endangering his family and millions like them around the world.

It’s the bond between these two men, their sense of duty and their desire to protect, their quiet wit and small acts of thoughtfulness – as well as their capacity for betrayal (Penkovsky of his country, Wynne of his wife) – that draws them together. For Wynne, the selfless risks of Penkovksy create a deep well of respect and admiration, as well as pushing this businessman to develop into a justified-risk-taking moralist with a greater emotional connection to the beauty of life (represented by two contrasting scenes showing the two of them attending a Russian ballet – the second performance moves them both to tears, as if reminding them why they fight).

Around them, shot in a beautifully drained out style that really adds to the sense of terror and danger, plays out a sharp, well-paced spy thriller. Rachel Brosnahan plays Penkovsky’s CIA handler – an invented female agent, allowing the film to take a few shots at the stuffed-shirt unimaginativeness of her superiors – while Angus Wright (all stiff realpolitik) is his MI6 one. The official agencies play a more pragmatic bat, pushing Penkovsky to greater-and-greater calculated risks to improve their access. They also coldly accept any double agent has only a limited shelf-life before discovery, and getting the maximum out of them while they can is essential.

The film’s final act explores the impact of this, as Penkovsky is exposed and Wynne goes to dangerous lengths to try and help him escape. Shifting at this point into something more claustrophobic and hand-held, the film’s final act layers on the grim suffering spies face when uncovered – and includes several moments of genuinely moving suffering.

The Courier is a low-key, efficient, well-made and well-paced true-life espionage story, that feels like the professional, smartly assembled, film-making that often gets squeezed out of cinemas today. Very well acted by a strong cast, every frame has a perfect mixture of 50s/60s style and Cold War paranoia and its final sequence carries a decent emotional punch. A fine retelling of an overlooked story.

Casablanca (1943)

Casablanca (1943)

Bogart and Bergman are a love story for the ages in the ever-young Casablanca

Director: Michael Curtiz

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Rick Blaine), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa Lund), Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo), Claude Rains (Captain Louis Renault), Conrad Viedt (Major Henrich Strasser), Sydney Greenstreet (Signor Ferrari), Peter Lorre (Signor Ugarte), Dooley Wilson (Sam), Madeline Lebeau (Yvonne), Curt Bois (Pickpocker), SZ Sakall (Carl), Leonid Kinsky (Sascha), Marcel Dalio (Emil), Joy Page (Anna)

For today, for tomorrow and for the rest of your life. That’s the sort of lifespan Casablanca has: to see it is to fall in love with it. That’s what people have been doing for nearly 80 years. There isn’t a more popular “great” movie. This is vintage, top-notch, prime Hollywood product, made by a group of people at the top of their game that has such impact you’ll know most of its highlights without having ever seen the film. No wonder people have been saying since it was released “Play it again” (famously, a phrase you will never actually hear in the film itself).

Casablanca, December 1941. Corrupt Vichy France officials rule the roost, with the city clinging to neutrality. European refugees and American ex-Pats mix with Nazi officers – everyone trying to get those all-important “letters of transit” you need to climb onto a plane and get out of the warzone. Letters like this will cause a world of trouble for American ex-Pat Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), keeping Rick’s Café going as a place where politics are never discussed. But Rick may be forced to choose sides when his lost love Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) lands back in his life, on the run from the Nazis with her husband Czech freedom-fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). Just before the fall of Paris, Rick and Ilsa had a love affair (she thought Victor was dead at the time) and neither of them has got over it. Will Rick take a stand and help Victor flee to continue the fight against the Nazis? Or is this a chance for Ilsa and he finally to be together?

Like many hugely beloved films, Casablanca combines a host of genres into one superbly digestible, hugely enjoyable, package. This is a star-crossed romance in the middle of a war film, with lashings of everything from espionage to gangsters to comedy of manners. In short, there would have to be something wrong with you not to find something to tick your boxes in Casablanca and it’s all brilliantly packaged together by Michael Curtiz into possibly one of the most purely entertaining and crowd-pleasing films ever made.

Casablanca is a superbly written pinnacle of the hard-edged but strangely romantic dialogue of Hollywood at the time, all delivered with more than a dash of humour. There isn’t a scene that doesn’t have a quotable line in it: and all of them delivered by a brilliant actor. Each scene is a master-class in Hollywood professionalism and skill. From our introduction to the streets of Casablanca – capped with the shooting of a Free-French fighter, who collapses to his death underneath a poster of Petain – to the beautifully evocative set (wonderfully shot by Arthur Edeson) for Rick’s café, where we will spend so much of the movie. In swift economy we see how ruthless Rick can be – not lifting a finger to help to petty crook and friend Ugarte (a wonderful cameo from Peter Lorre) – before understanding fully why he’s like that when he responds with something between shock, horror and desperate longing by the arrival of Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa.

It’s also a film where the stakes are expertly set out. There are jokes about the cold ruthlessness of the Germans, but we are left in no doubt about their danger. (Conrad Viedt is grimly imperious as head Nazi Stasser). The scar on Victor’s face is a constant reminder of the horrors he escaped in the concentration camp (although, as per the time, the film understands these as jails rather than the hell they were). The refugees are putting on a brave face, but there is desperate practising of English and a willingness to trade anything (including their bodies) for letters of transit speaks volumes.

Nearly all of those actors (and Curtiz) are of course refugees and migrants themselves (only Bogart, Wilson and minor-player Page were American). The film gains a sub-conscious depth from this being more than just a story for so many of them. Fleeing from German advance in Europe (or escaping from Nazi persecution) was no theoretical for Henreid, Veidt or the host of great European actors in small roles. You can see that emotion when Victor cajoles the café’s clientele to sing La Marseillaise. The scene never fails to move because of the genuine power of watching real refugees, playing refugees, defiantly singing in the face of the Nazis who ruined their lives (the shots of Madeline Lebeau genuinely tear-stained face or the increasingly moved Spanish guitar player are beyond memorable). You can’t watch this sequence without a lump in your throat.

Mind you can’t watch most of it without that lump. Bogart and Bergman cemented themselves as icons with this passionate love story. It’s grounded, like so many truly affecting romances, on loss and pain rather than joy. Aside from a brief flashback to their time together in Paris – before Ilsa jilts Rick at the train station, rain washing the ink from her note (the sky shedding the tears Rick cannot) – these are two people essentially at loggerheads, because it’s the only way to keep their hands off each other. Rick deeply resents Ilsa, Ilsa can’t even begin to allow herself to think about her lost love for Rick because she fears it will take control of her. Particularly as, in Bergman’s beautifully judged performance, she clearly has a sort of spiritual (as opposed to romantic) love for the noble Laszlo.

It all helped to make Bogart such an icon for generations to come. Bogart is effortlessly cool here, but he’s also incredibly relatable – who, after all, hasn’t had their heart-broken? Watch him sadly starring in the middle distance, befuddled by drink and demanding Sam play As Times Goes By over and over, and it’s no surprise that he’s so torn for so much of the film about what to do. Paul Henreid could never compete with the mix of vulnerability and misanthropic cynicism Bogart effortlessly brings to the part (one of the all-time great performances in the movies).

Bogart is also a perfect encapsulation of what America wanted (and still wants) to be. Minding his own business, but tread on him and he’ll bite back. Not only that, he’ll pick the right side and always make sure he does the right thing. It’s hinted to us that, for all his shady past, Rick has sided with anti-Fascists in Spain and Ethiopia. We even know he had to flee Paris because there was a price on his head. He might “stick his head out for nobody”, but the genius of Bogart is we don’t quite believe him, even while we see him do just that.

The chemistry between him and Bergman – who claimed never to quite understand why the film had such impact – is breath-takingly good. Helped by some of the wittiest and hard-edged dialogue in the movies, they become Hollywood’s own Lancelot and Guinevere. Bergman’s deceptively soft-edged performance, carries inner grit masking her own pain – she also brilliantly manages to show how she could be in love with two men (in different ways) at once. These two characters go through a long dance of denial before finally confessing all: and the iconic ending has the perfect combination of heartfelt longing and sacrifice they both know needs to be made.

But it’s not the only romance in the movie: having almost as much impact is the chemistry between Bogart and a never-better Claude Rains as jovially corrupt Vichy inspector Renault (merrily trading letters of transit for sexual favours and ticking the boxes of his duty while lining his own pockets). Casablanca also has in it one of the greatest love-hate friendships in the movies, between two people who can’t help liking each other, even when they barely have a single interest combined. Sounds like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Critical discussion has often revolved around whether Casablanca can be considered a piece of “high art”. It’s hard to imagine Ingrid Bergman’s famous Swedish compatriot directing it. To be completely honest, Casablanca is one of the finest packaged pieces of Hollywood Hokum ever made. And there is nothing wrong with that. It’s a master craftsman of glorious stand-up-and-applaud films in Curtiz, delivering his masterpiece. Casablanca doesn’t have the revelatory flair of something like Citizen Kane. But no other film in existence so brilliantly exploited the Hollywood formula. And it shows how much power, emotion and joy you mine from Hollywood’s narrative and filmic tropes when they were worked with as much skill and passion as you get here.

It’s a film that not only perfectly encapsulates a whole period of Hollywood professionalism, it also establishes the sort of golden rules – a brittle semi-anti-hero, sacrifice, moral complexities and open-endings – that would increasingly dominate Hollywood in the decades to come. Casablanca is a genuine turning point in Hollywood, a perfect summation of the noirs, love stories and adventures that preceded it, but repackaging them with influential insight. It’s also, above and beyond everything else, a bloody brilliant film that, as Nora Ephon said, you can never see enough.

Munich: The Edge of War (2021)

Munich: The Edge of War (2021)

The backstory of history’s most famous empty promise is explored in this solid historical drama

Director: Christian Schwochow

Cast: George MacKay (Hugh Legat), Jannis Niewöhner (Paul von Hartmann), Jeremy Irons (Neville Chamberlain), August Diehl (Franz Sauer), Liv Lisa Fries (Lena), Sandra Hüller (Helen Winter), Alex Jennings (Sir Horace Wilson), Ulrich Mathes (Adolf Hitler), Anjli Mohindra (Joan), Jessica Brown Findley (Pamela Legat), Mark Lewis Jones (Sir Osmond Cleverly)

It’s 1938 and Hitler (Ulrich Matthes) wants the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Will the British and French say no? The danger is, if they do, it will lead to a war only Germany is ready for. War is feared by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons), who remembers the horrors of the trenches. So, he flies to Munich to make a deal with Hitler. While there, a member of the British legation Hugh Legat (George MacKay) is contacted by an old friend, Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner), a German diplomat now extremely disillusioned by the brutal Hitler regime.

Schwochow’s film is a handsomely mounted film version of Robert Harris’ best-selling thriller. Lots of critics called it a “What if” history film, which pretty much suggests people don’t understand what that term means. The film presents a pretty much a faithful (if compressed) version of the Munich talks, rather than some sort of alternative history. What makes it different is the revised angle it takes on Chamberlain – spiced up with a fictional plot about young diplomats trying to bring down Hitler.

Played with an avuncular, praetorian charm by a perfectly-cast Jeremy Irons, Harris book (and this film) presents Chamberlain not as a naïve idiot, duped by Hitler, but a man very much aware of the nature of his opponent, but who felt duty bound to do everything he could to safeguard peace. Chamberlain speaks with real emotion of the loss of a whole generation in the trenches and his fear that Britain is not ready for another war. Sure, Irons’ Chamberlain can also be arrogant and blinkered, convinced of his own cunning shrewdness, but he’s willing to risk his reputation for peace.

What he’s willing to sacrifice of course are the Czechs – and the film doesn’t give a lot of time (if any) to this screwed nation, that saw huge parts of its country split off and handed over to an aggressive power. The film would have been richer with more content around the debates and discussions at the conference and giving more time – as the novel does – to understanding Chamberlain’s strategic thinking. The film implies Chamberlain’s infamous bit of paper was his effort to clarify where blame for eventual war would lie – but it doesn’t allow us to understand more about what Chamberlain initially intended to gain from the conference or when he decided that he was unlikely to win any concessions from Hitler. We never see a moment of the negotiations, which seems a waste for a film that was designed to re-evaluate Chamberlain.

That’s partly because the film, like the book, gives a lot of time to its fictional plot. And like there, never seems to make this seem as vital or interesting as the historical storyline. Perhaps because, while the Munich storyline presents us with something we’ve not seen before, the fictional storyline feels familiar and derivative. George MacKay and Jannis Niewöhner do good work as slightly naïve young men who feel they can change the world, if they find a way to apply pressure at the right moment. But they feel like narrative devices to spice up the history, to throw in a bit of light espionage and peril to stop it being a film about a conference.

But everything feels familiar: clandestine meetings in crowded bars and pubs (surely anyone watching would hear everything?), meetings in parks, document handovers, pacey walks with people looking over their shoulder… It’s all handsomely done but it doesn’t feel fresh. And somehow, since we know (as this isn’t a What if… movie!) that it all end in failure (our heroes spend ages trying to get a copy of the Hossbach memorandum to Chamberlain who basically ignores it immediately) it doesn’t feel urgent enough.

And more interesting personal stories get short-changed. There is more than a hint of sexual chemistry between Hugh and Paul, that the film does more than hint at in performance, but doesn’t explore. Liv Lisa Fries as a young woman both men fall in love with, ends up shifted into a very stereotyped martyr role. There are some interesting ideas touched upon with the growth of a resistance movement to Hitler, but it never quite tells us enough to understand this. And the film shies away from being too bleak in its ending – even though the fates of both our lead characters must surely be a terminal one as they head into the war (given their chosen paths of anti-Nazi resistance cell and the RAF).

I wish the film – just as I felt when reading the book – had dropped most of its standard espionage sub-plot and instead had focused solely on Chamberlain. Especially with an actor as well-suited to the role as Irons. It would have allowed to focus exclusively on re-evaluating and exploring the motivations of those at the conference and the political and military difficulties they faced. Unfortunately, this gets diluted too much, which means we never quite get our perceptions challenged as much as they should. It’s a well-made film, but settles too often for being traditional rather than daring.

Goldfinger (1964)

Goldfinger header
Sean Connery defines Bond forever in Goldfinger

Director: Guy Hamilton

Cast: Sean Connery (James Bond), Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore), Gert Fröbe (Auric Goldfinger), Shirley Eaton (Jill Masterson), Tani Mallet (Tilly Masterson), Harold Sakata (Oddjob), Bernard Lee (M), Martin Benson (Mr Solo), Cec Linder (Felix Leiter), Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny), Desmond Llewelyn (Q), Burt Kwouk (Mr Ling), Richard Vernon (Colonel Smithers), Bill Nagy (Mr Midnight)

It took three films, but Goldfinger was when they got the James Bond formula spot-on. So spot-on, that all the James Bond films that followed would employ elements introduced here. This is where we got for the first-time: the pre-credits action sequence, Q, a gadget filled Aston Martin, a bizarre assassination tool, a villainous henchman with a bizarre skill, an outlandish scheme and Bond delaying being saved at the end for a few more moments of rumpy-pumpy. It’s Connery at the height of his powers, has a knock-out song, one brilliant sequence after another and marks the moment where Bond wisely severed any connection with the real world, like a laser slicing through gold towards our hero’s crotch.

On vacation in Miami, James Bond (Sean Connery) has a run in with Auric Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe), gold bullion millionaire and card cheat. During this his romance with Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) is cut short when she is killed by being covered completely in gold paint (a fatal case of the not-actually-real ailment “skin suffocation”) by Goldfinger’s silent steel-rimmed hatted manservant Oddjob (Harold Sakata). Bond is hungry for revenge when he is tasked by M (Bernard Lee) to find out how Goldfinger is smuggling Gold bullion. He finds out Goldfinger has an even more fiendish plan in the works, involving Chinese agents, a nasty gas, an all-female flying circus headed by Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) and the US gold reserve at Fort Knox.

Goldfinger was a massive hit and pretty much lands somewhere near the top of any poll of the greatest ever Bond films. That’s because it’s just a massive explosion of cool fun. It’s exciting, funny, perfectly paced and has one scene after another that are so perfect, Bond films for the next fifty years would more-or-less repeat them again and again (taking it even further, A View to a Kill is virtually a remake of Goldfinger and even Quantum of Solace has a homage to death-by-gold-paint). Goldfinger takes place in a heightened reality of thrills and spills – unlike From Russia with Love or Dr No there is not even the slightest pretence espionage might work something like this – and barrels along with such pace and momentum it becomes a thrill ride you don’t want to get off.

The plot is actually rather close to Fleming’s original. Goldfinger’s plan has been tweaked, but the film still finds time for the classic “Bond takes on the cheating villain at a gentleman’s sport”, with Bond duelling with Goldfinger in a round of match-play golf (I like to think this is where Connery’s real-life obsession with the sport began, cunningly swopping the cheating Goldfinger’s ball on the final hole for default victory). But the film adds a playful, tongue-firmly-in-cheek quality. It manages to mix thrills with not taking itself too seriously, becoming a grandly entertaining thrill ride.

The re-working of the elements of the novel for the screen created an indelible template for Bond. Oddjob became a walking icon, his shadow instantly recognisable, invulnerable with a killing method – a steel rimmed hat he throws with Olympian accuracy – that’s a perfect mix of just-about plausible and utterly ridiculous. And also, of course, perfect to playfully imitate a home. What you can’t imitate is bombing around hill roads in a gadget-stuffed Aston Martin, but you can dream. The car chase is not only a show case for cool driving, it also lets you see each of the super-cool enhancements introduced by Q one-after-another (a pattern the series would follow time and again whenever a gadget-stuffed car appeared) and hammers home Bond’s super-cool confidence.

Connery was of course perfect for conveying that. In Goldfingerhe was still interested, clearly enjoying some of the best quips he got as well as just enough acting challenges – from Bond’s sad regret at anger at the death of no less than two Mastersons, to his terror at the prospect of being unmanned by a laser. That sequence has of course gone down in film history – from the striking image to the classic exchange “You expect me to talk?” “No Mr Bond I expect you to die!” – but a lot of it is sold from Connery’s desperate search for the right words to turn that machine off. Connery is cool but still just about vulnerable, cunning, smart and witty but also human. Who wouldn’t want to be so unshakeably cool that he can emerge from a wet suit (with a model seagull on his head!) unzip to reveal a tux, light a nonchalant cigarette while a factory explodes behind him, seduce a woman and then off a killer with a bathtub and a heater (“Shocking!”) – and that’s just the first five minutes!

Every scene in Goldfinger is a doozy. The playful cool of Bond outsmarting Goldfinger in Miami then getting his comeuppance (Connery is so cool in the film btw you forget that Bond is such a staunch conservative, he cheekily disparages the Beatles – that other icon of Swinging Sixties Brit Cool – to Jill as casually as he offs villains). That golf game in Kent (capped by a decapitated statue). Hillside driving with Tilly (with extra dodged bullets). Late night gadget-filled car chase. The first meeting with Pussy Galore (“I must be dreaming…”). Goldfinger’s briefing (his offing of all the attendants makes the whole thing even more funny, since its clearly just Goldfinger enjoying a bit of showing off). Bond dragging a nuclear bomb around an epic Fort Knox set. Oddjob surviving everything but a million volts. Goldfinger earning his wings in the film’s climax. It’s all terrific.

And it all works because it’s got the balance spot-on between cartoon and reality. You can see it come together in Ken Adam’s set for Fort Knox: the inside was all made up (no one would stack gold that high!) but people believed it was the real thing, because it felt like the Fort Knox we shouldhave. Goldfinger is a scowlingly wicked villain, with a little kid’s delight in his own naughtiness. Honor Blackman doesn’t appear until the film is halfway through, but is an assured, forceful, brilliant presence, more than a match for Bond (we’ll gloss over the slightly dated way Bond seems to ‘convert’ her from implied Lesbianism to – well perhaps bisexuality). The briefing sequence with a grumpy, unimpressed Q was so good Desmond Llewelyn would essentially repeat it another 13 times (only OMHSS and Live and Let Die would skip the “Now pay attention 007” sequence between this and TWINE). All of this has the bright, primary colour fun of a rollicking graphic novel.

You can watch Goldfinger about a million times – and anyone who has written a Bond film probably has, it was such a template for the next seventeen films that followed – and it would still thrill, excite and entertain you. Connery’s interest after this went downhill, and the magic wasn’t always recaptured – but this when Bond went from being a cool spy to a cultural phenomenon. Bond became the box-office franchise that would dominate cinemas for decades, the ultimate spy caper that others would be compared to. Goldfinger mixed silliness and seriousness perfectly, thrills and laughs, action and comedy. It’s a superb and hugely influential film. It’s one of the Best Bonds ever: it clearly has the Midas touch.