Tag: Spy thrillers

Argo (2012)

John Goodman and Alan Arkin say hoorah for Hollywood in Ben Affleck’s middle-brow, over-praised award-winner Argo

Director: Ben Affleck

Cast: Ben Affleck (Tony Mendez), Bryan Cranston (Jack O’Donnell), Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel), John Goodman (John Chambers), Victor Garber (Ken Taylor), Kyle Chandler (Hamilton Jordan), Tate Donovan (Robert Anders), Clea DuVall (Cora Amburn-Lijek), Christopher Denham (Mark Lijek), Scoot McNairy (Joe Stafford), Kate Bische (Kathy Stafford), Rory Cochrane (Lee Schartz), Taylor Schilling (Christine Mendez)

There is an art to telling a “true story”. Apollo 13 is a masterclass in turning a story everyone knows into edge-of-the-seat tension. For many people, Argo does a similar trick. It doesn’t for me. I can’t understand the praise for this middle-brow, conventional movie other than that its smoothly made blandness makes it easy to watch. I got so annoyed when re-watching it I threw my slipper down in anger, like the middle-class rebel I clearly am.

Anyway, the film kicks off with the US embassy in Tehran being stormed on 4th November 1979. While the embassy staff are taken hostage, six embassy officials escape and find shelter with the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). But how to get them out of the country safely? CIA extraction officer Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with the “best bad plan we’ve got” – set up a fake Hollywood production company, finance a fake movie, fly to Tehran, then fly the fugitives out on Canadian passports, passing them off as the movie’s crew on a scouting mission. The cover film is sci-fi epic Argo, and with producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and famous make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) on board to give the project realism, the mission is on.

Argo won itself a lot of friends on the way to its Oscar for Best Picture. Why? Because this is a very easy-to-swallow, middle-of-the-road film that successfully turns an American foreign policy disaster into a charming heist movie with a happy ending. It faithfully follows the pattern of all heist movies: the crazy idea, pulling together the perfect team, the difficult rehearsal, the weak link who pulls it out of the bag at a crucial moment even the panicked “we do it anyway!” ending as the best-laid-plans need to be partially improvised on the fly.

In fact, for all its desperate attempts to look like a smart, political, 70s-style piece of cinema making, The Sting is by far and away the 1970s film it most resembles, for all it wants you to think it’s The China Syndrome by way of All the President’s Men. The film starts with an inspired story-board montage of the way Western interference in Iranian politics from 1953-1979 effectively ruined the country. But that’s as good as it gets politically. After that, any further attempt to engage with either Iran or America’s foreign policy gets completely abandoned. It becomes a simplistic rescue story stuffed full of uncomplicated goodies and baddies.

Hollywood of course loved it. Why wouldn’t it? There’s only one thing Hollywood loves more than a film that takes good-natured insider pot-shots at itself. And that’s a film where Hollywood saves the day. Argo does both. It’s a celebration of how Hollywood may be shallow, but when push comes to shove it delivers. Alan Arkin (Oscar-nominated for a role he could play standing on his head) coasts as a (fictional) old-school producer, selling the film’s mediocre punchlines about the Golden Globes, WGA and the uselessness of directors. Argo has a real “slap-on-the-back” air to it, the sort of gentle roast you might get from a guest speaker at an end-of-year party.

But of course you want to know: why did I threw my slipper? Quite frankly, Argo is a con. It starts with a burst of documentary-style realism, charting the attack on the embassy. The film uses a range of different film stocks, including home-movie style footage and newsreel material. It gives an impression of complete factual reality. But, like the movie, that’s just an impression. None of the footage we see is from the time period. It’s all glossily re-created to give the idea that we are watching something snatched from the headlines.

It’s probably the last time the film touches reality. Because from there Argo is a “true” story only in the broadest sense. Almost every single specific in the film is invented or repackaged. Most crucially, the film presents all this as a CIA operation from top-to-bottom. In reality, it was a Canadian operation, with the CIA providing assistance. Not the impression you get here. Even worse the end even has the team at Langley smugly smacking each other on the back and saying they’ll give the Canadians the credit for National Security reasons. Ouch. Not content with that, it also falsely accuses the Brits and New Zealanders of leaving the fugitives hanging out to dry. Ouch again.

I don’t mind most of the film’s other myriad inventions. Its fine to hugely expand the Hollywood stuff, as it’s fun. I don’t care that Mendez (who was Hispanic by the way – but I guess Affleck with a beard is the next best thing) was only in Tehran for 36 hours not the several days he is in this film. Building a bit of tension at the airport passport control – until that weak link proves his worth by talking fluently through the made-up film’s plot – is classic heist cinema. It’s cliched but its fine.

What really, really bugs me is that Affleck and team obviously decided the real story wasn’t exciting enough so – while poking fun at the shallowness of Hollywood – turned this story into exactly the sort of shallow adventure-fantasy that’s Hollywood’s bread-and-butter. In real life, there were nerves at the airport, and a delay to the flight. And there is a lot of old-school-conspiracy-thriller-tension that could have been created with that – if the film really was the sort of The Parallax View style thriller it wants you to think it is.

But that’s not bombastic enough for Affleck et al. Instead the ending is ludicrously overblown, stuffed with problems to overcome. The mission is off-then-on-again (this convoluted resolution requires a real-life childless man to have two kids at school). Then the Iranians work out something is up, and tear through the airport, guns waving in a race to stop the flight. Police cars race onto the runaway as the plane carrying our heroes takes off. And then I threw my slipper.

I threw it because it makes no sense. If the Iranian secret service knew about the extraction, they wouldn’t run through the airport. They’d RADIO THE CONTROL TOWER and stop the plane taking off. They’d scramble jets to bring the plane back while it was still in Iranian airspace. They certainly wouldn’t race cars onto the runaway – and I’m not sure a civilian plane would take off with an armoured car just underneath its wing. Nothing like this happened, or would happen. Its reality filtered through the tired cliches of Hollywood movies. It doesn’t even feel true.

Argo starts trying to comment on world affairs, but then focuses overwhelmingly on a minor victory in the middle of a disaster. The Iranian hostage crisis was a national humiliation that lasted years. But in this film, Affleck shows he learnt something from Pearl Harbor just like that film’s celebration of the Doolittle raid, this uses a small success to excuse a disaster. We even get Jimmy Carter bragging in voiceover that the crisis was resolved without resorting military force: the only reason for that was because the military strike Carter himself ordered was so ineptly planned it had to be humiliatingly cancelled mid-mission.

Argo doesn’t care. It’s a cuddly story about Hollywood saving the day, that starts with a critical eye and turns into a cheerleader for Carter’s disastrous policy in Iran. The hostage crisis is a tough story it doesn’t want to talk about (a brief scene of some hostages undergoing a mock execution only reminds us that the film can’t be bothered to talk about them). It repackages disaster as triumph and pretends to be a cleverer, richer film than it is. It apes 1970s conspiracy thrillers and political films but is only a faint shadow of them. Garlanded with awards, it’s competent-at-best.

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Richard Widmark and Jean Peters feel the heat from the cops, the commies and their own passion in Pickup on South Street

Director: Samuel Fuller

Cast: Richard Widmark (Skip McCoy), Jean Peters (Candy), Thelma Ritter (Moe), Murvyn Vye (Captain Tiger), Richard Kiley (Joey), Willis B Bouchey (Zara), Milburn Stone (Winoki), Henry Slate (MacGregor)

It’s 1950s, and the biggest bogeyman in America is the Commies. Candy (Jean Peters) is one of their unwitting couriers, funnelling top secret microfilm for her ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley) to pass to his Moscow superiors (poor Candy just thinks she engaged in helping Joey with some good-old All-American industrial espionage). Trouble is, while the Feds are trailing her, they watch her being pickpocketed by career thief Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark). Skip now has on his hands on some serious state secrets. Should he return the film to the police who want to lock him up? Or make a big score by blackmailing the Commies who want to kill him?

What makes Pickup on South Street so intriguing is it’s not necessarily as straight forward as you might think. Fuller’s film is an anti-communist film – the sort of “reds under the bed” scare that terrified millions in a country still reeling from Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs. But this isn’t your standard Red Scare film. Because our heroes have about as much stake in the USA as they do in the USSR. They are the down-trodden, the under-class, the grifters. At the end of the day, I’m not sure Skip McCoy really cares who ends up with the MacGuffin. He’s motivated firstly by financial gain and secondly by personal revenge. No appeal to flag and country cuts any ice with him.

Making the hero this sort of anti-social career criminal was a master-touch as it not only enriches the entire perspective of the film – what has their country ever done for these people – but also adds an air of uncertainty over the whole thing. There would never be any doubt if the microfilm had fallen into the hands of a clean-cut Henry Fonda type. The fact that it’s Richard Widmark – who always looks like he’s torn between laughing in your face or punching it – means you never quite know what he’s going to do. If it works out best for him to hand that film over the Russkies, you can be sure he will.

That’s despite the heavy-handed entreaties of the cops and feds. Skip faces a barrage of hostile interrogations, vague promises, handcuffs and searches from law agents who are damn sure he has the film, but can’t prove it. Like many Fuller films, there is more than a hint of roughness and violence in every frame – and the law and order figures aren’t averse to this. Captain Tiger (what a name!) has already served a suspension for beating Skip in custody. An illegal search or two isn’t beyond them. You can see why the FBI was unhappy with this film – not least because it shows them constantly out-thought by a pickpocket.

The Commies though are a thoroughly bad lot. After all, it’s still an anti-Communist film. Richard Kiley’s snivelling coward Joey is no true believer, but the kind of low-breed opportunist tempted by a quick buck. The other communists we meet are corrupt, shady types, sitting in backrooms puffing pipes and casually handing out death sentences. Kiley’s weak-willed and increasingly desperate Joey becomes more and more despicable as the film goes on, desperation to save himself from the fury of his paymasters leading to ever lower and despicable crimes.

So the only people who really come out as truly decent – and playing by a very fixed moral code of their own – are the criminal underclass. In this world, everyone knows where they stand. Skip isn’t angry at stool-pigeon Moe, who carefully trades information with the police – everyone has to make a living he observes. Skip will pick pockets to earn his keep, and punch back when he’s attacked, but there is no sense that he has any taste for the crimes of the Communist agents. He’ll sell on the microfilm to them – but that’s only because his own government offer him nothing but hot air and empty promises. And, as the unspoken message of the film goes, what difference would it really make to Skip and his like anyway where the film ends up?

Instead Skip becomes motivated by personal feelings – specifically his feelings for Candy and Moe. There is a genuine sexual frisson between Skip and Candy from the start: Skip’s pickpocketing of Candy is shot like a sex scene, all sweaty brows, heavy breathing and close-ups (with Skip’s hands ‘penetrating’ Candy’s handbag with all the metaphorical energy of a train speeding into a tunnel). As events draw them closer together, the two maintain this electric sexual energy – whether arguing or fighting or lying to each other they seem unable to take their hands off each other – and the intimacy of close-ups and low angles Fuller uses for this brings a real sexual charge to their scenes. Widmark – superb as a heavy with a (hidden) heart – and Peters are also great, with Peters bringing a real roughened hinterland of disappointment to her role.

The other motivator for Skip becomes the stool-pigeon Moe, brilliantly played with an eccentric bag-lady energy by an Oscar-nominated Thelma Ritter. Moe is a grifter, selling ties by day and trading information on the side. She embodies the underdog nature of the criminal world, wanting nothing more than to earn enough to buy a decent funeral when she goes. Ritter has a marvellous speech on just how tied she feels from this constant scramble of scrapping by on the edge of society. A surrogate mother figure of a sort to Skip, Ritter’s performance is a classic piece of character acting.

Fuller’s scene is lean, short and fast-paced. Like many of his films there is a lot of violence – beatings, fights, shootings – all shot superbly with the camera pulling back to soak up the action. Sex and violence go hand in hand – Skip accidentally punches out Candy thinking she has broken in to kill him, and the two of them are in a passionate embrace moments later. Mixed in with touches of reality, that bring the tough urban world the characters live in, Pickup on South Street is a lean and mean film that manages to be more than just a straight anti-Communist film. It doesn’t just give us something to fight against: it also asks how we might give people something to fight for.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

lady vanishes
May Whitty is searched for by Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in The Lady Vanishes

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Margaret Lockwood (Iris Henderson), Michael Redgrave (Gilbert Redman), Paul Lukas (Dr Hartz), May Whitty (Miss Froy), Cecil Parker (Mr Todhunter), Linden Travers (“Mrs” Tothunter), Naunton Wayne (Caldicott), Basil Radford (Charters), Mary Clare (Baroness), Catherine Lacey (Nun), Googie Withers (Blanche), Sally Stewart (Julie)

In his conversations with Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut declared every time he tried to study The Lady Vanishes, all its tricks and mechanics, he always ended up too wrapped up in the plot to notice them. It’s about as fitting a tribute as a film can get, that it got one of the world’s ultimate film buffs just sit down and enjoy the ride. The Lady Vanishes is Hitchcock’s penultimate British film and it might well be one of the most enjoyable and entertaining films he ever made.

It’s late 1930s in Europe and a group of mostly British travellers have got stuck waiting for a train in the fictional country of Bandrika (but it’s clearly Germany). Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is on her way back home to (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) get married, exasperated by the loud noise made in the room above through the night by folk music expert Gilbert (Michael Redgrave). Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) are cricket obsessives, desperate to get home for the big test match. Mr Todhunter (Cecil Parker) is a lawyer, keen not to draw attention to the fact Mrs Todhunter (Linden Travers) isn’t actually his wife. When the train finally leaves the station the next day, Iris is hit on the head by a plant plot (was it pushed?) that very nearly hits governess Miss Froy (May Whitty). Miss Froy takes care of Iris on the train – but when Iris wakes after a rest, she finds Miss Froy has disappeared and – furthermore – everyone denies she ever existed in the first place. While a Bandrikan psychiatrist Dr Hartz (Paul Lukas) claims she may be suffering from concussion, only Gilbert believes her story. Will they be able to prove Miss Froy is real and rescue her from whatever peril she has found herself in?

Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes shouldn’t really work – not least since it takes nearly 20 minutes before we get any indication that we are watching anything other than a romantic comedy. But perhaps that’s also why it works, because those first 20 minutes are beautifully scripted, with some cracking dialogue and some skilfully drawn character work that invests us in these people long before any danger arises. It also serves as a brilliant counterpoint to the nearly non-stop tension and action that comes in the final hour of the film – who could have believed that all that light hearted banter in a guest house could end in a ruthless shoot out in the woods?

It all seems to change pace on a classic Hitchcock touch – a folk singer is suddenly, violently, strangled by an unseen assailant (why? I’ve no idea. The film doesn’t think you’ll care about the logic gap, and you don’t). But a large part of the film’s success stems from Hitchcock’s collaboration with Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder on script-writing duties. Gilliat and Launder made a number of changes to the original novel, adding a greater espionage element. Even more importantly, they overhauled several of the characters, not least changing the Gilbert character from an engineer into a charming (if eccentric) folk music expert with a deadpan wit. Even more successfully, they introduced the hilarious ultra-British Charters and Caldicott, classic eccentric grown-up public schoolboys with a fascination with cricket (the combo was so popular Naunton and Wayne played versions of these characters another eleven times).

The script’s wit, playfulness and scintillating dialogue is what drives most of the film’s energy – and certainly what helps to make it as entertaining as it is. In particular, the dialogue exchanges between Lockwood and Redgrave hum with the sort of love-them-hate-them banter that wouldn’t seem out of place in a screwball comedy (“You’re the most contemptible person I’ve met in all my life!” “Confidentially I think you’re a bit of a stinker as well”), and the two actors shine in roles that start with classic feuding but subtly and beautifully come together as a romantic couple by the film’s end. Lockwood has pluck, guts and determination, a mix of socialite and head girl determination. Redgrave is superb as Gilbert, showing the sort of matinee idol wit and charm – not to mention an unconventional romantic sex appeal – that he very rarely got to exhibit again (sadly he didn’t get on with Hitchcock, and never worked with him again).

The film is full of wit and invention, but mixes it with a properly engrossing mystery. Every character has very clear reasons for denying the existence of Miss Froy (May Whitty is superb as a seemingly dotty old woman, hiding cunning and an unexpected capacity for action). We know that of course Iris is right – but even so, it’s hard not to begin to suspect that maybe the oily Dr Hartz (Paul Lukas whose professional smoothness neatly tips into cruelty) is right and she is suffering from concussion. The unravelling of this mystery is half Agatha Christie (vital clues pop up here and there), half famous five adventure – but the nearly “real time” playing out of the mystery injects huge amounts of tension and excitement, particularly as the villains start to be revealed.

The film also serves, interestingly, as a plea for British invention in European affairs in the era of appeasement. The train is stuffed nearly exclusively by Brits, most of whom are quite content at first to let things drift and not rock the boat. However, when the chips are finally down and its time to make a stand, the majority of the characters knuckle down and get their hands dirty to fight for justice. Even Charters and Caldicott take up arms (with a typical British reserve) to protect their fellow passengers, while Gilbert has already shown himself capable of being a man of action (as well as a pretty neat impressionist and physical comedian) when called upon. It’s telling that Cecil Parker’s Mr Todhunter is the nearest thing we see to an appeaser on the train (with a fear-and-hope-tinged expectation that everyone is playing by his own antiquated rules), and he’s the only one who angrily questions taking a stand.

It’s not surprising from Hitchcock, who made an even more passionate plea for intervention a few years later with Foreign Correspondent. Neither is it a surprise how superbly the film is made. Hitchcock is at the top of his game here, shooting the train brilliantly (the set was tiny, not that you could tell from the number of angles Hitch finds here). His mastery of the pace and tone of the film is spot on: the second half never lets up, and you never for one minute lose the film’s wit, even while the stakes become more bigger and bigger. The film has possibly the most winning romantic pairing in all of Hitch’s movies, helped hugely by the natural and winning playing of Redgrave and Lockwood. It so successfully builds up the possibility of Iris being mistaken, that it makes the audience start to question what they’ve seen.

It’s a superbly directed film, but above all it’s supremely entertaining in a way few other films can hope to be. Its re-watch value – from hearing the jokes again, to spotting the early clues – means it will be rewarding audiences for decades to come.

Ministry of Fear (1944)

Ray Milland and Marjorie Reynolds take on Nazi agents in Ministry of Fear

Director: Fritz Lang

Cast: Ray Milland (Stephen Neale), Marjorie Reynolds (Carla Hilfe), Carl Esmond (Willi Hilfe), Hillary Brooke (Second Mrs Bellane), Percy Waram (Inspector Prentice), Dan Duryea (Cost/Travers), Alan Napier (Dr Forrester), Erskine Sanford (George Rennit)

Neither Fritz Lang nor Graham Greene (the author of the original book) cared much for Ministry of Fear. Both of them thought that the film they ended up with was only a shadow of the original novel, with both of them largely blaming the script by Seton I Miller and the producers for turning Greene’s novel into a more simplistic B-movie. And yes the film is at heart just a B-movie, that races through a conspiracy thriller – and you’d have no idea that it ever came from Greene-land unless you were told so – but it’s put together with such professionalism that you admire its skill, even while it’s no Third Man.

At the height of the Blitz Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is released from an asylum only to find himself immediately embroiled in a load of shady goings-on with suspicious séances, hidden microfilm and Nazi sympathisers. Can the fragile Stephen get to the heart of it?

Ministry of Fear has a slightly dream like quality to it – probably because it’s a fragmented narrative that makes quick jumps from event to event, sometimes with very few links between them. Stephen emerges from an asylum straight into a charity fete, hence to a train, the centre of London and a séance, with all the speed of a logic-skipping dream. Everything is swift and somewhat low in logic. The plot of the film becomes sheer B-movie fluff, with the typical spy hijinks you might expect, lacking any of the complexity of the book. 

Greene was particularly disappointed by the deletion of the guilt Stephen feels around the death of his wife – and the film indeed skims over this very swiftly, leaving the reasons for Stephen’s being in an asylum in the first place largely unexplored and dispatched as swiftly from the film as possible. It’s not a film that has the time to explore the complexity of personalities of characters – instead it’s all about turning the content of the novel as much as possible into a high-flung spy thriller.

It’s why Lang was so disappointed with the script – and he became more and more dismissive of the film as he got older, claiming it to be bad film that he fell asleep in during a later showing – but he still bought to it a visual magic. The film is crammed with beautiful expressionistic images, present right at the start with Stephen watching a ticking pendulum through to some of its beautiful later images, in particular a shooting through a door that allows a beam of light to shine through a bullet hole in a door. Lang crams the film with striking images that help lift it above its B-movie roots.

Which is just as well because the general drift of the plot isn’t always that special, playing like the off-cuts from several Hitchcock films. Despite the artistry with which Lang presents it, he can’t hide the basically generic stuff that Greene’s book has been turned into. And its fast pace and logic jumps can perhaps find their root in the general contempt Lang had for the material he had to work with. Nothing in this feels particularly right – the England it presents is laughably wrong on several counts – while as always much of the mystery is reduced from the small cast list and tiny selection of possible suspects. 

There are some good sequences, don’t get me wrong. A séance is beautifully made and carries a fair degree of tension. The final confrontation with the architect of the misdeeds makes for a decent scene. It’s just a shame it’s counterbalanced with clumsy “this is what’s going on” scenes, such as Stephen’s briefing from British Intelligence. 

There are some good performances among the cast. Milland gives a well-judged performance of vulnerability, confusion and growing strength. He has just the right good-looking-but-not-drop-dead-handsome look to him to make him someone you can sympathise with but not completely trust (if the film hadn’t dropped some of the more interesting questions around Stephen’s guilt or innocence for past crimes this casting would have really worked to strengthen that). But he gives a fine performance. The array of suspicious characters around him are confidently performed, with Hillary Brooke a particular stand-out as a manipulative, seductive medium.

But Lang’s film is a covering of class and technique other soil that isn’t rich enough. The complexities of Greene has been lost and the film’s general plot and content doesn’t give much more than the sort of cheap thrills you could expect from a well-made B movie. With those involved this could have been more, but it never becomes a classic.

Red Joan (2018)

Judi Dench coasts through this weak spy drama Red Joan

Director: Trevor Nunn

Cast: Judi Dench (Joan Stanley), Sophie Cookson (Young Joan), Tom Hughes (Leo Galich), Tereza Srbova (Sonya), Stephen Campbell Moore (Max), Ben Miles (Nick), Laurence Spellman (Patrick Adams)

Red Joan is based on the true-life story of Melitta Norwood, the British civil servant who from 1937 passed piles of top-secret intelligence documents to the KGB. These documents helped the Soviets create their own bomb. This feeble dramatization has Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) arrested in the late 90s, with flashbacks showing her recruitment and spy work as a young woman (Sophie Cookson), motivated by her desire to “level the playing field” and by her love for shadowy KGB recruiter Leo (Tom Hughes), a German Jew.

Trevor Nunn’s flat, dull spy story has all the freshness and imagination of an ITV Sunday night drama. Tedious, dragging and very silly, it takes a ludicrous view of 1930s and 1940s espionage. The film is obsessed with downplaying the impact of Joan’s actions, and stressing that handing over these sort of secrets was fine really because the poor Russians – Stalin’s boys lest we forget – were likely to fall victim to those Imperialist Western powers that would soon be throwing their nuclear weight about.

On top of that, the film has an almost insultingly crude idea of Cold War politics, with the world neatly divided it seems into goodies and baddies and the moral implications of actions made as simple and clean-cut as possible. Joan means well, so we can’t have any problem with what she’s doing can we? 

It’s a miracle she isn’t caught anyway since her espionage skills are so lamely ham-fisted. Maybe that’s because the investigation into the leak is handled so incompetently by the authorities, with heavy-handed arrests and quick and sudden lock-ups. But then that’s in keeping with the film’s view of British authorities as trigger-happy bullies, with even Clement Attlee reimagined as a “let’s drop one on ‘em” nut, desperate to have the bomb to threaten the Russkies with.

This simplistic vision of the past is made all the more clumsy by its feeble romance plot between young Joan and her romantic German spy and lover Leo (Tom Hughes, channelling his performance as Prince Albert in ITV’s Victoria). This romance should be the drive of events, but instead falls back on the usual clichés of young love on film, making some obvious points along the way about the lies we tell for love. 

Joan herself is absurdly reinvented as a science expert, more adept than the men she works with (who typically look down on her as little better than a tea girl). The real Melitta was indeed little more than an office worker, but Joan here is reinvented as a pioneer of physics, a genius it seems far more evolved than the mediocre men around her. Yawn, we’ve seen it all before.

Nunn’s direction is flat beyond belief – he has never really adjusted well to film, where his (even in theatre) lack of sense of pace is often exposed – but there is a decent performance from Sophie Cookson as the young Joan, a confused idealist who struggles to do the right thing. She carries the film very well – and certainly has more to do than Judi Dench.

Dench only infrequently appears, largely for a series of “I am reflecting on the past” reaction shots. These are intercut with tediously clumsy narrative-establishing interrogation scenes, which largely serve as intros to more flashbacks (“Tell us about X now…”). There is a feeble continuation of the theme that passing nuclear secrets can’t be that serious after all, with Ben Miles as her son going through a painfully obvious arc of disbelief, anger and acceptance culminating in a “nick of time” appearance at Joan’s press conference (based on Melitta’s real life front-garden press conference to the press announcing her guilt).

Red Joan has an interesting idea, but it’s told with trivial obviousness and dramatic flatness. It’s got all the inventiveness and spark of a fairly run-of-the-mill TV drama, and despite a good performance from Sophie Cookson, it’s got little to recommend it.

North by Northwest (1959)

Cary Grant is on the run in the sublime North By Northwest

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Cary Grant (Roger Thornhill), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall), James Mason (Phillip Vandamm), Jessie Royce Landis (Clara Thornhill), Leo G. Carroll (The Professor), Martin Landau (Leonard), Josephine Hutchinson (“Mrs Townsend”), Philip Ober (Lester Townsend)

What is it about? Ernest Lehman went in wanting to write the “ultimate Hitchcock film”. And I think you can say he pulled it off. North by Northwest is the perhaps the most electric, fun, dynamic and nonsensical of all Hitchcock’s action-adventures, a neat bookend with The 39 Steps for Hitchcock’s career. It’s such good fun you scarcely notice the plot makes very little sense and the film is barely about anything at all other than a man getting chased. It has the most Macguffiniest MacGuffin in the whole Hitchcock career, an item of such little interest to the viewer that it never appears on screen and is only cursorily discussed. 

Cary Grant is Roger Thornhill, nifty Mad Man-esque ad executive (you can imagine that Don Draper dreamed of being Roger Thornhill) who accidentally gets mistaken by shady goons for the mysterious “Mr Kaplan”, actually a non-person used as a distraction by the FBI. Cue Thornhill’s kidnapping, interrogation by the goon’s suave leader (James Mason, never more James Mason than here), escaping a murder attempt, getting embroiled in the murder of a UN official and fleeing New York in the train compartment of smart and sexy Eve Kendall (Eva Maria Saint). And that’s before we even mention killer crop dusting planes, faked shootings, auction house shenanigans and a vertigo inducing game of cat-and-mouse on Mount Rushmore. Is there a more fun film in the world?

North by Northwest gained its Hamlet inspired title (“I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a hawksaw”) and it’s pretty meaningless – Lehman basically liked it and throws in a fictional “Northwest airline” so Thornhill can fly ‘North’ at one point (geddit?!) – but it also captures a sense of manic powerlessness in the film. Thornhill spends a good slice of the film telling anyone who will listen he is notKaplan, while every action he carries out seems to serve only to convince his pursuers he definitely is. The film’s echo of madness in its title carries across to the frantic energy of the film, and Thornhill’s belief that he must surely be the only sane man in a world of lunatic chaos. 

And it’s prime Hitchcock chaos here in his most engaging, fast-paced and funny action adventure. The sort of prime piece of entertainment assembled with such skill, energy and excellence it looks really easy (but of course isn’t). Hitchcock keeps the momentum of this crazed chase perfectly pitched, and stages each of the set pieces so well that all of them have become icons of adventure cinema. Who can look at a crop dusting plane without thinking of Thornhill running in desperation, in the middle of nowhere, from a lethal plan swooping down on him from above? Who can look at Mount Rushmore without imagining Grant and Saint climbing all over it with Landau in pursuit?

It’s Grant as well that really makes the film work. He’s such an accomplished screen presence, so smooth and practised, it’s very easy to see this as a film where he is barely acting. But that would be to do him a major disservice. Not only is such a balance of light comedy and action so hard to pull off (so much so that Harrison Ford as Indy is possibly the only one who can get close – and that character is chalk and cheese with Thornhill) – but Grant builds a character who develops perceptively and clearly over the course of the film. 

Initially the typical Grantish stereotype – so suave, confident and shallow that even his middle initial “O” literally stands, Harry Truman like, for nothing – Thornhill begins as a man who blithely assumes he can drift through his life and getting anything without question. Events – and his embroilment in them – however see him develop from a deeply selfish and lazy man into one who carries moral force, loyalty, determination and dedication to duty and an increasing sense of confidence and derring-do. From the man who is the victim of circumstance at the start of the film, failing to get anyone to believe him, he becomes a man who saves himself and everyone else with his pluck, daring and resourcefulness. And he does it all while never losing his light, almost put-upon, wit and playfulness. It’s a truly great personality performance with real depth and development: a hollow man who becomes a real man of standing and purpose.

He’s backed superbly by the cast who seize their roles with gusto. James Mason drips British superiority and suaveness (has there ever been two such cool actors facing off?) as VanDamme, Eva Marie Saint is every ounce the brave, resourceful, daring and clever lady that prompts Thornhill to man-up. Jessie Royce Landis gets some lovely comic mileage from Thornhill’s pecking-hen mother (hilariously she’s only 8 years older than Cary Grant). Martin Landau simpers rather effectively as VanDamme’s fey sidekick.

The script is crammed with great lines from Lehman, all of which delivered superbly by the cast. But it’s a director’s treat, and Hitchcock delivers it brilliantly. I’ve mentioned that MacGuffin – it’s some microfilm or something in a statue that’s the root of the all the problems – but it hardly matters. The film powers forward with the dynamic energy of a comic farce crossed with action adventure. Thornhill’s initials spell out “ROT” and in an affectionate thing that’s what the film is – something that doesn’t take it self seriously but sets out to entertain at all costs. 

So we get Hitchcock splicing in rom-com flirtations between Grant and Saint (and no less than two shots of trains speeding down lines and into tunnels, just to hammer home exactly what they are doing to kill time on the ‘sleeper’ train) with edge-of-the-seat sequences (the slow tension build at an abandoned bus station while Grant waits for “Kaplan” only to fall victim to assault from crop duster) then segues back into comedy (the hilarious “pretend to be drunk” to escape assassination at an auction) it’s perfectly assembled. And that end sequence at Mount Rushmore – a near perfect mix of comedy, action, adventure, suspense, thriller and romance. It’s flawless.

William Goldman famously stated North by Northwest had the finest, most economical ending of all time – and it ties up perfectly and beautifully about six plot threads and cliffhangers in less than 70 seconds – but the entire film is a perfect package. Hitchcock’s glossiest chase adventure is wonderfully directed and in Cary Grant it perfectly married up possibly the only actor in the history of film with both the charisma and the acting chops to play the part with one of the greatest entertainments in the history of film. It’s mad, meaningless nonsesense – but who cares, it’s a great, great, great film.

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

Roger Moore takes aim in this most low-key of his adventures – and one of his best

Director: John Glen

Cast: Roger Moore (James Bond), Carole Bouquet (Melina Havelock), Topol (Milos Columbo), Julian Glover (Aristotle Kristatos), Lynn-Holly Johnson (Bibi Dahl), Michael Gothard (Emile Leopold Locque), Cassandra Harris (Lisl van Schlaf), John Wyman (Erich Kriegler), Desmond Llewelyn (Q), Jill Bennett (Jacoba Brink), James Villiers (Bill Tanner), Geoffrey Keen (Minister of Defence), Walter Gotell (General Gogol), Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny), Jack Hedley (Sir Timothy Havelock)

Where could Bond go after he went to space in Moonraker? Another planet? The future? The producers of Bond decided they couldn’t top that – probably wisely – so for Bond’s next outing they went back to low-key basics. For Your Eyes Only Bond would find himself in an old-school Cold-war game of cross and counter-cross, scrambling for the Russians for ownership of what looks like a cross between a typewriter and child’s cash till toy. 

That toy is the ATAC (though it might as well be called MCGUFFIN) a ministry of defence system used to co-ordinate nuclear subs or some such. When the ship it’s on sinks somewhere off the coast of Greece, MI6 and the KGB swing into gear to be the first claim it from the Ocean depths. So Bond is off to Greece to investigate, not knowing who to trust: should it be MI6 contact and shipping magnet Kristatos (Julian Glover) or playboy smuggler and former resistance man Columbo (Topol)? And how will he deal with Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet), the long-haired, half-Greek archer intent on revenge on whoever ordered her parents killed while they (without her knowledge) searched for the ATAC? Either way it will involve chases, deadly winter sports, flirtatious teenage ice skaters and a death defying climb up to a monastery at the top of a mountain.

For Your Eyes Only is one of those quiet gems of Bond movies that, because it is about something quite small scale and quiet compared to the films it precedes often gets overlooked. It’s certainly the point where Moore should have stopped making the films – when your turning down the advances of someone because she’s too young (as he does ice skater Bibi) you know it’s time to go – and to be honest Moore was flagging already here, clearly too old for the action and certainly far too old for Carole Bouquet, who looks like she could have him for breakfast (she struggles to muster much sexual interest in him). But it doesn’t really matter because this is an old-school bit of spy cool, mixed with some decent but grounded fights and chases and shot with a loving eye for Switzerland and Greece (with plenty of clichéd visuals and sound cues thrown in from both as you would expect).

The producers wanted to shy away from the gadget filled antics of the previous films. As if to make the point, Bond’s car is destroyed almost immediately, forcing him to make a getaway at one point in a bashed up Citroen 2CV. The long sequence in the film where Bond is chased around a ski resort – which takes in cross-country skiing, a ski jump, a toboggan and several other winter sports is remarkable for nary a gadget in sight, with Bond relying on his wits and native skill with skis. Even when ascending the mountain at the film’s end, he uses nothing more than standard climbing equipment, putting his trust in ropes and hooks. It’s possibly the least tech heavy Bond film since Doctor No. There isn’t even a novelty watch and no humorous Q briefing on the gadgets. The only visit to Q’s lab is to use a cumbersome facial recognition system, that hilariously uses computer disks the size of stone slabs loaded into something that today resembles a dishwasher.

Other than that Bond is on his own, and it’s fairly neat to see him go about an investigation and follow a trail – even if Bond is, as usual, a hopeless undercover agent who largely relies on waiting to see who tries to kill him first. The villains, as always oblige, spending most of the film attempting to off Bond for all sorts of confused ill-defined reasons. Perhaps it has something to do with our main villain – the rather low-key Julian Glover, playing possibly the least colourful Bond villain ever, a guy who just wants to sell the ATAC for some cold hard cash – using so many cut outs for his operations, speechless goons (including an early appearance from Charles Dance) and East German skiing champions who seem motivated to kill Bond purely for larks and the evilz.

The first half of the film though is huge fun, watching Bond blunder around the ski resort dodging hits, fighting people, punching out butch hockey players and the like that it hardly matters that most of the plot is pretty inconsequential. When Bond finally stops mucking around in Switzerland and heads to Greece the ATAC is found in about 5 minutes flat (Havelock helpfully left a map with the downed boat coloured in on it, making his daughter’s ability to translate his cryptic notes pretty much useless), while the villain immediately takes this chance to comprehensively unmask himself.

After a further elaborately sadistic attempt to off Bond involving dragging him across coral in shark infested waters (sharks are always such deadly threats in Bond films), Bond unites with Topol to storm the castle in an actually pretty gripping and vertigo inducing climb sequence, another triumph of John Glen’s mastery of the action sequence. It’s a nice touch as well to introduce the “guest star” of the film not as the antagonist but as a protagonist ally, a neat twist that must have come as quite a shock back in the day. Topol plays his role with realish, cracking nuts, gags and heads with equal glee.

The film also heads into some dark places. For all his charm, gallantry and debonair wit, Moore does his meanest thing in years here when he kicks a heavy’s teetering car off a cliff. But that’s a fair repayment for the brutal running over of his mid-film squeeze (played by Pierce Brosnan’s real life late wife Cassandra Harris) earlier on by the same heavy. The early murder of the Havelock’s is surprisingly graphic (and also gives a great reaction shot for Carole Bouquet as she turns and looks back as the plane carrying her parent’s murderers jets away, her eyes screaming “I shall have my revenge!”) and Carole Bouquet’s Melina is determined figure, who does more than her fair share of the action.

Of course the film can’t endorse too much her need for revenge. “That’s not the way” Bond, like a disapproval uncle, rather prissily tells her several times. Which is a bit rich coming from a man who opens the film by dropping his wife’s murderer down a factory chimney shaft. That opening sequence by the way is a joy, a neat call back to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (whenever Bond went serious, it referenced Bond’s status as a widower) as well as a the dispatching of a it-could-be-anyone bald, scared, cackling villain with a white cat who makes an ill-advised attempt to kill Bond with a remote controlled helicopter (the film is so anti-Gadgets, only the baddies seem to use them and they don’t even work for them). It’s a neat “fuck you” to Kevin McCloy, at that time in a feud with the producers over the rights to Bond who had refused to allow them to use Blofield or Spectre again in the films. Keen to show they didn’t need Blofield, the producers introduced him in all but name to ignominiously kill him off, his final pathetic words a hilariously meaningless offer to buy Bond a “delicatessen in stainless steel” if only Bond would let him go.

FYEO is a crackingly old-fashioned Bond film that, despite being more grounded, has some great action sequences and a host of actors having a good time. Carole Bouquet is one of Moore’s best Bond girls and Moore himself certainly should have stopped here, this film throwing together one of his best mixes of light comedy, moral uprightedness, playfulness mixed with a dash of cruelty. John Glen did such a good job assembling this one he directed the next four films. It’s not got the smash-and-grab of The Spy Who Loved Me, but it’s an excellent action adventure.

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Joel McCrea, Laraine Day and George Sanders take on shady European powers in Foreign Correspondent

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Joel McCrea (John Jones/Huntley Havestock), Laraine Day (Carol Fisher), Herbert Marshall (Stephen Fisher), George Sanders (Scott ffolliott), Albert Basserman (Van Meer), Robert Benchley (Stebbins), Edmund Gwenn (Rowley), Eduardo Cianelli (Mr King), Harry Davenport (Mr Powers), Edward Conrad (Latvian)

In 1940, Hitchcock was new in America, after a parade of successes in Britain. 1940 was a red-letter year for the master, directing not one but two of the films up for Best Picture. The Oscar was carried home for his masterful gothic adaptation of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, but equally memorable was Foreign Correspondent, a stirring, heartfelt thriller about the build-up to war in Britain, a passionate cry for American intervention and brilliant propaganda contribution to the British war effort (even Joseph Goebbels tipped his hat to it).

John Jones (Joel McCrea) is the new foreign correspondent in Europe for the New York Morning Globe. Given the pseudonym “Huntley Havestock” (because it sounds better), Jones is picked out because he’s a hard-boiled crime journalist, practised at winkling out a story, rather than the cozy posh boys usually sent out to Europe. In Amsterdam, Jones attends a peace conference hosted by leader of the British peace party Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), where eminent Dutch diplomat and architect of the fragile European peace Van Meer (Albert Basserman) is due to speak. While Jones falls in love with Fisher’s daughter Carol (Laraine Day), Van Meer mysteriously falls to show at the dinner – and arrives at the conference the next day only to fail to recognise Jones and immediately get assassinated. Suddenly Jones finds himself in the middle of a dangerous game of spies with only British journalist Scott ffolliott (George Sanders) and Carol to help him.

Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent is a masterful spy caper, in the style of many of his early successful works such as The Thirty-Nine Steps, superbly assembled by a genius at the top of his game, with access to funding and techniques beyond what he had in Britain. Hitchcock went through several versions of the script – there were no fewer than nine writers who worked on this film, four of whom are credited – but it matters not a jot when the script they finally came up with matched such superb, zingy, screw-ball style dialogue with such brilliant set-pieces.

The film also had a serious purpose as well. From the start, this is a cry of one of Britain’s most prominent ex-pats to his newly adopted nation to join the effort to preserve Western civilisation against the onslaught of Nazi oppression. Joel McCrea’s Jones – a part written for Gary Cooper, who forever regretted turning the role down – is the quintessential American, disinterested in the world, sure of America’s place in it, who has his eyes opened and passion ignited by seeing up-close and personal the dangers from the agents of totalitarianism. The agents of the enemy nation – probably Germany, a country that is referenced in passing, but the film deliberately keeps it shady in an attempt to appear even-handed – are ruthless, brutal and unscrupulous. Their plans are fiendish and they are bent on world domination. But all this is worn very lightly within a caper framework that has as much interest in Jones falling in love with Carol as it does with foiling the baddies.

It also plays neatly on Jones’ very old-school American obsession with fair-play, and bringing down the baddies no matter what. Witnessing Van Meer assassinated before his very eyes, Jones is determined to go to any lengths to ensure both that justice is done and he is the man who gets the story. At the same time, Jones also has an honest and homely sense of romanticism about him. The film gets a tonne of comic and romantic mileage out of the cracking dialogue between McCrea and Loraine Day as Carol, with the sort of intelligent, witty banter that wouldn’t seem out of place in a screwball comedy, with Jones’ blunt “I say what I mean” attitude crashing beautifully against Carol’s more English rectitude. 

Hitchcock shows himself a brilliantly adept director of comedy – something he doesn’t get enough credit for – in these sequences between the two of them sparring over the course of the movie. And it’s not just them, but also his work with George Sanders – cast against type as a cool, noble British agent – brilliantly hilarious as the curiously named “ffiolliott” (the sequence, mid car chase, where he calmly explains to the befuddled Jones while bullets fly why his name deliberately has no capital letter is hilarious). Comedy is a rich vein in Foreign Correspondent and it works so well here because it lightens both the drama of the thriller elements and the political message of “pro-intervention”.

The thriller sequences are just as superb. The assassination sequence is a stand-out, a shooting on a rain soaked series of steps outside a conference, with the assassin making his retreat through a crowd of on-lookers carrying umbrellas under hot-pursuit from Jones. Hitchcock takes his camera above the crowd, meaning we only follow its progress through the disruption of the umbrellas, before the two men emerge (bullets flying) and move straight into a breathless car chase through the Dutch countryside. It’s a masterful sequence.

And it’s far from the last. The film has a superb series of tension-filled sequences, from Jones playing an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse in a Dutch windmill, trying to avoid being seen by the German agents occupying it while finding out as much as he can about their plans, to Jones reporting what he has found to a man we already know is a double agent. Edmund Gwenn, cast well-against type as a jovial, remorseless assassin, gets a brilliant sequence of attempts to kill Jones without putting him on guard, culminating in a vertigo inducing sequence at the top of Westminster Tower. It’s the second such sequence, Jones already having to climb over the roof of a hotel in Amsterdam to escape assassins (along the way brilliantly hitting the neon sign of the Hotel Europe so that it reads “Hot Europe”). Hitchcock tops it all with a brilliant plane-crash sequence shot with chutzpah and daring and is a technical marvel considering the resources available in 1940.

All this excitement and adventure helps to deliver the message of the film as strongly pro-interventionist to encourage the Americans to enter the war on the side of the Allies. Van Meer (a fabulous performance from Albert Bassermann of old-school nobility, made even more astonishing by the fact he didn’t speak a word of English and learned it all phonetically) has a brilliant, impassioned speech – all the more affecting for its  lack of histrionics – that condemns the brutality and violence of the dictatorships. The film is capped with Jones’ Ed Murrow-style broadcast from Blitz-besieged London. Both sequences raise genuine lumps to the throat – McCrea’s delivery is perfect – and the final sequence is all the more astonishing when you realise it was conceived and shot before the Blitz even started.

Not that the film is completely obvious in its allegiances. The turn-coat Brit in the film is a complex, even sympathetic figure who is merely serving his actual home country in the best way possible. He’s largely presented as reluctant to commit crimes, but believing that they must be done and is even allowed a heroic death. His identity perhaps is fairly guessable (he even has a Germanic dog!) but it still works very well in the film.

Hitchcock draws superb performances from the cast – helped by that script of zingers. McCrea is just about perfect, Day very sweet, Sanders is brilliant, Herbert Marshall’s Stephen Fisher a brilliant portrait of arrogance and tortured duty, Robert Benchley very funny (and writing his own scenes) as Jones’ colleague who’s struggling to stay on the wagon, Harry Davenport superb as Jones’ His Girl Fridayish editor. Basserman was Oscar nominated – and deserves it for his big speech – but it could have been any of the cast. Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent is often overlooked among the master’s many, many triumphs. But any pro-interventionist, anti-German film that has even Joseph Goebbels singing its praises must have a fair bit going for it.

Body of Lies (2008)

Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio fail to master the Middle East in Ridley Scott’s spy thriller Body of Lies

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Roger Ferris), Russell Crowe (Ed Hoffman), Mark Strong (Hani Salaam), Golshifteh Farahani (Aisha), Oscar Isaac (Bassam), Ali Suliman (Omar Sadiki), Alon Abutbul (Al-Saleem), Vince Colosimo (Skip), Simon McBurney (Garland), Lubna Azabal (Cala)

Ridley Scott is a bit of a curate’s egg as a director. You can always expect a film with a certain visual flair, as well as a story that attempts to tackle big themes and engaging topics. However, it doesn’t always produce an end result that really grips or feels like something that particularly stands out from the crowd. That’s what you end up with Body of Lies, a film that constantly feels like it is on the cusp of saying something important or interesting about the relationship between East and West, but constantly falls back on the sort of spy movie tropes it initially feels like it wants to debunk.

In the Middle East, Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a dedicated CIA operative, with an intricate knowledge of the cultures and issues of the region. He constantly finds himself frustrated and undermined by his boss Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), based in Langley, who is constantly willing to sacrifice long-term gains for short-term political pay-offs. Assigned to Jordan, Ferris begins an investigation into a terrorist cell, working closely with head of Jordanian security Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) – but Hoffman’s intercessions increasingly cause tension.

Scott’s film is stylish and well assembled, with a great sense of pace and place. The contrasts between DiCaprio on the ground (in the dirt, facing dangers and tackling everything from terrorists to rabid dogs) and Crowe back in the States (rarely if ever seen without a hands-free phone set dangling from his ear, viewing everything at a distance with no understanding of the intricacies) is well drawn. The sense of complete cultural misunderstanding and lack of connection between East and West is established early, and attempts to cross it generally lead to disaster. The patience and expertise of the Jordanian security forces is contrasted constantly with the more slap-dash, hasty efforts of the CIA to meet the same goals. It’s all set for something quite interesting.

But then the film somehow doesn’t quite come together. Its episodic structure increasingly stretches out as action moves back and forth from Jordan to Langley and back again. A particularly wild scheme by Ferris (which, to the viewer not the film, suggests he is as incompetent and reckless as Hoffman) turns the film towards the sort of kidnap/torture/nick-of-time-rescue plotline that wouldn’t look out of place in 24 or James Bond. Basically, the plot turns on the film transitioning from something with a genuine political statement to make into the sort of disposal rent-a-spy-thriller that you forget pretty quickly. 

DiCaprio gets a lot of “big” moments to juggle with, as well as a rather forced romance with a Jordanian nurse (something that he and Golshifteh Farahani play very well, but seems to have wandered in from an even more conventional film) but the film works hard to paint him as the “hero” who knows better than his superiors, despite the film chronicling a string of mistakes. Crowe enjoys himself as self-important windbag behind a computer, as uncaring as the institutions he represents.

The real star of the show however is Mark Strong, excellent as the suave head of Jordanian intelligence, seemingly the only character who has any understanding about what is going on. With a cool sharpness, slightly playful politeness and a slight chill of threat, Strong is the film’s most interesting character. There is a striking point made here that the most effective person in the film is a Jordanian spy chief with a mixed reputation – but the film largely shirks the possibility of really using this to demonstrate how out-of-their-depth the CIA agents are, as if worried that flagging up their manifest incompetence at every turn would sell badly Stateside.

It’s part of the film’s general lack of soul behind the skill of its construction. I know Scott is deeply interested in these themes of East vs West and the culture clashes that develop from it, but it just doesn’t come out here at all. There was a film to be made here about how the war on terror has thrown the CIA and the West into a setting they don’t understand, playing by rules they haven’t been briefed on. But all too often the film instead settles for telling us the same-old-same-old, padding out its runtime with spy story clichés and thriller plotting. Scott himself even uses visual tricks – surveillance drone shots and 24 style action – which suggest that somewhere along the line his heart wasn’t really in it. Body of Lies could have been a really interesting thriller about the world today. Instead it’s just another spy thriller about the war on terror.

Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

Stellan Skarsgård is the Russian traitor whose secrets pose a danger for the British elite in Our Kind of Traitor

Director: Susanna White

Cast: Ewan McGregor (Perry MacKendrick), Stellan Skarsgård (Dima), Damian Lewis (Hector), Naomie Harris (Gail MacKendrick), Jeremy Northam (Aubrey Longrigg), Khalid Abdalla (Luke), Velibor Topic (Emilio Del Oro), Alicia von Rittberg (Natasha), Mark Gatiss (Billy Matlock), Mark Stanley (Ollie)

John Le Carré’s works often revolve around a dark, cynical view of government agencies as corrupt, indolent and focused on petty or personal concerns rather than doing what’s best for the country and its people. Is it any wonder that there has been such a burst of interest in adaptations on film and television of his work? 

Our Kind of Traitor is straight out of the Le Carré wheelhouse. On a holiday to save their marriage (after his infidelity), Perry (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomi Harris) bump into charismatic Russian gangster Dima (Stellan Skarsgård). Perry and he strike up a surprising friendship – and before he knows it Perry is agreeing to carry information from Dima to the British intelligence services. This attracts the attention of MI6 officer Hector (Damian Lewis) who sees this as an opportunity to expose the corrupt links between Russian criminals and high-level British bankers and politicians. Dima, however, will only hand over the goods if he is promised asylum for his family – something the British authorities, aware of the mess his revelations could cause, are not happy to allow…

Susanna White, veteran of some excellent television series of the last few years, puts together a confidently mounted and generally well-paced drama, with many of the expected Le Carré twists and turns. If she leans a little too heavily on the murk – the green and blue filters on the camera get a big workout here – it does at least mean that we get a real sense of the twilight world the characters operate in, meaning flashes of wide open space and bright daylight carry real impact. She also really understands how violence is often more shocking when we see the reaction of witnesses rather than the deed itself – all the most violent and tragic events in the film are seen at least partly from the perspective of the reactions of those witnessing them. The sense of danger on the edges of every action, stays with us while watching this unjust nightmare unravel.

It also works really well with one of the core themes of the movie: our ability to feel empathy for other people and how it affects our choices. Dima is driven towards defection because of his distaste for the increasing violence of the next generation of Russian criminals, and their lack of discrimination about who they harm. He’s all but adopted the orphaned children of a previous victim of violence, and his motivation at all points is to insure his family’s safety. Hector, our case officer, is motivated overwhelmingly by a sense of tragic, impotent fury about his rival ensuring Hector’s son is serving a long sentence in prison for drug smuggling.

And Perry is pulled into all this because he has a strong protective streak – something that eventually saves his marriage. Perry frequently throws himself forward to protect the weak, with no regard for his safety, from his unending efforts to protect Dima’s family to throwing himself in fury at a mobster roughing up a young woman. His intense empathy and protective streak motor all his actions and run through the whole movie.

It’s a shame then that his actual character isn’t quite interesting enough to hold the story together. Nothing wrong with McGregor’s performance, the character itself is rather sketchily written. Aside from his protectiveness we don’t get much of a sense of him and – naturally enough – he’s often a passenger or witness to events around him. Similarly, Naomie Harris does her best with a character that barely exists.

Instead the plaudits (and meaty parts) go to Skarsgård and Lewis. Skarsgård dominates the film with an exuberant, larger than life character who never feels like a caricature and reveals increasing depths of humanity and vulnerability beneath the surface. Lewis matches him just as well, at first seeming like a buttoned-up George Smiley type, but with his own tragic background motivating a long-term career man to slowly build his own conscience.

Our Kind of Traitor handles many of these personal themes very well, but it doesn’t quite manage to tie them into something that really feels special. Instead this feels a bit more like a Le Carré-by- numbers. We get the shady secret services, government greed, good people trapped in the middle – even some of the characters, from the foul-mouthed spook played by Mark Gatiss to Jeremy Northam’s jet black Aubrey, seem like they could have appeared in any number of his novels. 

There is a film here that is wanting to be made about the invasion of the UK by dirty Russian money – but it never quite comes out as this Dante-esque, Miltonian spiral. Instead the film too often settles for more functional thrills, a more traditional or middle-brow approach that works very well while you watch it, but doesn’t go the extra mile to turn this into something you will really remember.