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B-Movies Extended: Eight Spies Who Are Better Than Bond

Bibbs and Witney call out James Bond's espionage skills and highlight other movie spies who do it better.

 

As we finished recording the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast (now 93 episodes young), the four of us arose, dazed and sweating from our recording table, squinting into the first rays of the rising sun, unable to think of anything but James Bond. I was so tired, I began hallucinating a bit. For a fleeting, golden, gorgeous moment, I was James Bond. I was wearing the tuxedo. I was drinking the expensive drinks. I did have the ability to seduce a woman merely by opening her robe (which, I assure you, doesn’t work in real life. Don’t go to the gym and try it out for yourself on strangers. Don’t make the same mistake I did). The moment did pass, but it was a poetic and elegant moment amidst my beautiful delirium.

By way of this weekly addendum to The B-Movies Podcast, I would like to expound briefly on a theory I posited on the show, and one I have previously written about in the pages of my six-week odyssey through all the James Bond movies as part of The Series Project: James Bond. My theory runs thus: James Bond is covering for a more talented spy. Think about it. When James Bond meets someone for the first time, he’s rarely being inconspicuous as a spy perhaps ought to be. He’s usually in a ritzy environment, wearing an expensive suit, driving a flashy Italian sports car, winning huge amounts of money at a casino, and often dragging hot women back to his hotel room which he undoubtedly got for free. He’s rarely in a position of real subterfuge, having to take up a disguise, or hide amidst a crowd. Heck, when he meets people, he even introduces himself by name! In addition to saying “Bond, James Bond,” he may as well add “I’m a spy for the British government.”

What’s more, if he does manage to hide in plain sight, he’s often just called out by his foes anyway. He runs into a rival spy or an evil high-roller, and they not only know his name, but his 007 code number, his reputation, and even what he drinks. Many can even identify his iconic gun. You would think being so recognizable wouldn’t behoove a spy. My theory posits that James Bond, while indeed in the employ of MI6, is not actually the central spy behind whatever operation he’s been assigned to. He may think he is, but MI6 has actually assigned Bond to behave as a decoy. MI6, knowing that Bond is so conspicuous, sends him into dangerous locales in order to draw the eye of whatever evil mastermind they are trying to capture that month. While the bad guys are all looking at James Bond winning money and seducing Russian babes, another unseen, unnamed, and much more talented spy is actually cracking the case in the background.

On the podcast, our special guests Athena Stamos and Brad Hansen pointed out that producer Michael G. Wilson has actually had cameo roles in most of the Bond movies. Wilson, then, I posit, is that spy. The actually talented and covert one who is fighting the good fight while Bond is busy drawing all the fire.

Despite his clear deficiencies in secrecy, James Bond is still considered the greatest movie spy ever. I would say that he is certainly one of pop culture’s more significant icons, but I hesitate to call him a great spy. If you sat and watched all the James Bond movies in a row (as I have, and as I’m sure many of you have), you might find that 007’s skills leave a lot to be desired. Indeed, much of his information comes to him through dumb luck, being in the right place at just the right time. When he does accumulate information by, say, photographing a strip of microfilm or something, he typically has to run the information back to MI6 to learn his next move. I’ve seen average TV detectives do better deducing than James Bond. When it comes to charm, the man has us all beat. When it comes to his job, well… I guess it may be comforting to know that he, like many of us, spends a lot of his time on duty trying to look busy.

Are there any good movie spies? Since James Bond is our model, and a lot of the appeal of a movie spy is the romance of the situation, there must be some degree of outward fetishizing of the lifestyle. Which means movie spies don’t often spend their time in the shadows.
 

Alex Leamas

But some do. For instance, there’s Alex Leamas (Richard Burton) from the 1965 drama The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Perhaps intended as an antidote to the flamboyant antics of his more famous counterpart, Leamas lived a life that was essentially the exact opposite of James Bond’s. He was so wrapped up in his work, he essentially destroyed his own soul, turning dead-eyed, alcoholic, and perhaps a little too reliant on the continuance of the Cold War. He has been dehumanized. He is a cog. And he knows it. The film depicts his actual struggle to return to some semblance of humanity after too many years of death. This is what real spy work is like. Hard, violent, dead, heavy. It’s not all drinks and cars.
 

Frank Raymond

Isn’t the point of being a spy to do some actual… spying? Like sneaking around and gathering intelligence? Being invisible? That premise was taken to a logical extreme in the 1942 The Invisible Man sequel The Invisible Agent, a wacky and enjoyable American propaganda film made during the height of WWII. Frank Raymond (Jon Hall) is the grandson of the Invisible Man we all know and love from the famed Universal classic, who uses his grandfather’s formula to make himself invisible and pursue work as an American spy. He goes behind enemy lines, and spies on the Nazis. Yes, the film is played for laughs, but I imagine that even an amateur invisible man is a better spy than a visible James Bond.
 

Scott

Leave it to David Mamet to make a film that is less about the glamor of a profession, and more about the hard-hitting everyday shoptalk. In his 2004 film Spartan, Mamet shows the everyday workings and impenetrable lingo of real-life American agents, and all the workaday crap they have to go through, even when they’re shooting guys and going to faraway lands. The film sends Scott (Val Kilmer) to another country to rescue the pretty daughter of a high-ranking US official, who may have been sold into sexual slavery. The film does have whiffs of politics, but more than that, it’s a comment on the ins and outs of the spy trade. Scott is not living a sex-soaked and well-moneyed life. He’s just a guy with a job to do.
 

Evelyn Salt

Sadly, I can’t tell you too much about Evelyn Salt, or I’d have to kill you. Salt, Philip Noyce’s 2010 spy thriller, was one of the best action films of that year, and I’m surprised it wasn’t a bigger success. Evelyn (Angelina Jolie) plays a CIA spook so well-trained that even her boyfriend doesn’t know where she works. It helps your case as a spy if you can actually, y’know, keep your job secret. At the film’s outset, a Russian defector accuses her of being a Russian double agent, and she flees, using her skills and badassery to elude her pursuing peers who think she might actually be a spy. I can’t say too much else about the plot, as there are a lot of cool twists. Needless to say, Evelyn Salt has more skills than you think she does.


You can follow Witney on Twitter at @WitneySeibold. Y'know, if you like. 



From the Desk of William Bibbiani:

What happened to you, James Bond? You used to be cool.

Well, strike that. You used to be less cool, and that’s the Bond I preferred. At the start of the film franchise, in Dr. No and From Russia with Love, James Bond was actually a halfway decent spy. He lurked in the shadows. He deduced plans. He kept his head down. He followed orders. And while both films had broader elements within them – Dr. No had a monologuing villain with robot hands, From Russia with Love an enormous climactic chase – they had the good sense to save those Hollywoodisms for the last act, when the suspense has been built up and we need a good catharsis, whether it’s blowing something up or just plain finding out what’s really been going on in the plot.

And then Goldfinger changed all that. Many people point to Goldfinger as the quintessential Bond movie. All the pieces, they claim, were finally in place. The title sequence, the tone, the bigger-than-life villains, the supercar, these were the elements that came to define the Bond franchise, and they are largely celebrated by the fan base. Goldfinger is a fun film, sometimes misogynistic but mostly a good time, but it also does what practically every other third film in a franchise does: go over the top. It’s the Batman Forever or Spider-Man 3 or Transformers: Dark of the Moon of the James Bond franchise. The only big difference is that, unlike those culturally panned movies, everyone really liked Goldfinger. The franchise hit a broadly painted groove that carried it into the early 2000s, occasionally fitting a decent “spy” movie in there (For Your Eyes Only comes to mind), but mostly employing a superhero vs. supervillain storyline that had little to do with actual spy work. Sometimes it worked great (The Spy Who Loved Me is a particular fan favorite), sometimes it went too far (Moonraker is a popular example), but it was rarely proper “spying.”

Is that such a bad thing? No, not really. The James Bond movies evolved into a distinct entity, related to but separate from Ian Fleming’s relatively grounded novels, and Bond himself because a cipher-like action archetype on which the audience could project their masculine power fantasies or sexual desire (or both). But with 2006’s Casino Royale, the franchise took a turn back toward something more cunning and intelligent. The villain was an embezzler and saboteur, and Bond’s mission was to remain incognito and subtly screw with that villain’s plans. He ditched the “incognito” part, but it was an attempt at strategy, to mess with the mind of a master poker player. He didn’t saunter into the bad guy’s layer, get singled out and then spend 2/3’s of the movie traveling from exotic location to exotic location, the plot largely rendered moot in favor of a 2+ hour sightseeing tour of “We Had This Neat Idea for an Action Sequence-berg.”

That’s the Bond I like. But because Bond is a cipher now, a cultural touchstone with multiple valid interpretations that suit every kind of fan, I won’t always get that Bond in the movies. I’m a little worried that, after Skyfall (and I think you’ll understand my concerns after you’ve seen it), Bond will be going back to the archetypical superhero vs. villain model. He basically already did: if you remove Bond’s emotional journey from the equation, that’s basically what Skyfall was, and don’t think I didn’t notice. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, but it’s a step away from the direction I personally prefer in the series.

But that’s okay. Like Witney, I too have seen some other spies in the wonderful world of cinema who scratch the itch that Bond can’t always reach. Here are some of my picks for the best proper spies in the business.
 

Alicia Huberman

Alfred Hitchcock – who I seem to be writing an awful lot about lately – made an awful lot of spy movies in his career. Usually, in films like Saboteur, North by Northwest and The 39 Steps, the spies were bad guys whose shenanigans upset the daily lives of hapless heroes dragged kicking and screaming into the world of international espionage. In Notorious, one of Hitchcock’s best, the hero goes willingly. Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is enlisted to spy on a “former” Nazi in South America by suave American agent Devlin (Cary Grant). She’s old friends with Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), who’s up to no good but whose plans are a mystery, and Devlin wants her to exploit Sebastian’s crush on her to get close enough to find out what those plans are. In Bond movies, the hero usually travels somewhere, sneaks around, gets the info and winds up shooting some guys. In real life, spies have to get comfortable with their targets and earn their trust over a longer period of time. Hitchcock milks the protracted timeline of Notorious – Alicia’s in play long enough to have to marry the villain to keep up appearances – for incredible suspense. If she gets caught, she’ll be killed, not given total access to the bad guy’s underground volcano lair. It’s plausible and utterly thrilling.
 

Quiller

In the little-seen spy classic The Quiller Memorandum, an agent named Quiller (George Segal) is assigned to find East Berlin, in order to find the location of a secret base of Neo-Nazis. Quiller’s a cool customer, does some investigating and yes, even beds an attractive woman in the process, but the tables turn very quickly. Quiller is discovered by the enemy and, like Bond, kidnapped for his trouble. Unlike Bond, Quiller spends an enormous part of the film fighting a truth serum while interrogated by the lead Neo-Nazi “Oktober” (Max Von Sydow), who wants to use Quiller to reveal his own faction’s secrets. The hunter becomes the hunted, it’s an old cliché, but The Quiller Memorandum takes the kind of plot points you’d see in a James Bond movie and focuses only on the plausible and scary parts. Quiller’s struggle to overcome the chemicals in his body that threaten his country is positively Herculean, and when his love interest is kidnapped, Quiller deals with a suspenseful moral quandary, because the only way to save her is to betray his principles. It’s like they turned one act of a Bond movie into an entire feature dilm, and if you’re okay with your spy films not having a proper action sequence, it’s just as exciting as the full tale.
 

George Smiley

John le Carré wrote a whole series of novels about the decidedly human espionage agent George Smiley, but I’ve only seen him in last year’s fantastic spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, as played by Gary Oldman (in an Oscar-nominated performance). The film is a master class chess game of mysterious alliances and motivations, and cannot be watch properly while playing “Words with Friends” on your cell phone. For some, that makes it impenetrable. For myself, that makes it one of the best spy movies ever made. Smiley is forced into early retirement from British Intelligence (aka “The Circus”) after a covert operation to Turkey turns disastrous. Some time later, he’s assigned by the government to spy on The Circus itself to investigate a younger, possibly rogue agent (Tom Hardy) that there’s a mole in the organization. Smiley quietly infiltrates The Circus with the help of a small, trusted circle of agents and discovers the secrets of his old friends and associates, all of whom are hiding something, which leads him to an insidious Russian plot. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about the act of spying: betrayals of trust, fear of getting caught, the trade of valuable secrets and the personal impact of living with a duplicitous nature. It may be the most plausible spy movie around, and that makes it particularly fascinating.
 

Felix Leiter

Witney Seibold’s theory that James Bond is a cover for another, better spy is a really cool one that I choose to entertain. The idea that this spy is actually producer Michael G. Wilson, who appears in most Bond movies as a tiny Hitchcockian cameo is extra nifty. But Bond’s old ally Felix Leiter (played by different actors throughout the series, and most recently by Geoffrey Wright) actually does it on camera. Leiter – who has appeared in about half the Bond movies so far – is friends with Bond and exploits his crazy shenanigans for the CIA’s gain, most notably in 2006’s Casino Royale, where he actively assists Bond’s overt game for Leiter’s covert gain. Bond is responsible for besting the criminal Le Chiffre at a high stakes poker game in order to bankrupt the villain, so he’ll be forced to turn himself over the British Intelligence and expose his secrets. The government stops bankrolling Bond after his crass methods cost him the game, so Felix Leiter bankrolls Bond, who is a better poker player, provided that Le Chiffre winds up in American hands. Leiter’s tactics are sound: he stays undercover, takes advantage of a less skillful foreign agent, and reaps the benefits. Even though the twists and turns of the plot eventually rob Leiter of his grand prize, he played the game better than Bond. I wonder if he’s been doing that all along…

Who’s your favorite movie spy?
 

You can follow Bibbs on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.