In the much maligned but lucrative Men in Black II, Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) has an epiphany. His remembers being an undercover agent who regulated the affairs of extraterrestrials on earth, and he sees the world as it is: a fake surface beneath which seethe the forces that run everything. This omnipotent, ubiquitous underground is perhaps malignant and certainly alien. And once known, it’s impossible to ignore.
How to deal with it? Duty compels Agent Kay and agents like him to sacrifice their individuality, identity, and often their lives in their quest to seek out the truth and set the world right. The rest of us get to sit back and enjoy the perils of these on-screen agents, indulging in their terror and confusion or, in this case, laughing at it.
That’s the way genre movies work, and the spy genre draws on the elements that make movies work in general: voyeurism, illusion, emotional deception, gadgetry, sex, and violence. After its heyday in the ’60s, at the height of the Cold War, the genre took a fall along with the Berlin Wall back in 1989, but the events of last September have re-established espionage as both topic and target. This Friday, for example, marks the opening of the International Spy Museum in Washington, even as the government quietly undoes the restrictions it once imposed on the intelligence community’s most egregious excesses. Meanwhile, the movies come not like single spies but in battalions: The Sum of All Fears, The Bourne Identity, Minority Report, and, in weeks to come, Austin Powers in Goldmember, XXX, Spy Kids 2, The Tuxedo, and the movie version of the Robert Culp/Bill Cosby ’60s TV show I Spy.
Chaos and conflict spawn espionage and intrigue — and movies about them. Such were the conditions in a 1915 France mired in the trenches when Louis Feuillade began his serial Les Vampires. A gang of black-clad thieves, killers, terrorists, and anarchists led by the bug-eyed vixen Irma Vep (vampire spelled sideways), the Vampires, through Feuillade’s movie magic, were everywhere and nowhere and up to no good.
You had to love these guys (all the Surrealists, including Dalí and Buñuel, did), certainly more so than the ostensible hero, stuffy bourgeois journalist Philippe Guérande, who lives with his mother. Les Vampires tapped into something subversive and forbidden in the audience, so much so that the authorities banned one of its more flamboyant episodes.
Neither did the end of the Great War make life any more of a walk in the park. Weimar Germany was a battleground crawling with spies, at least in the films of Fritz Lang. "My God, who’s behind it all?" asks a title card as Lang’s Spies (1928) opens with a montage of murder and theft and depravity. Could it be the wheelchair-bound financier Haghi, who looks like a cross between Lenin and Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone? The world’s last hope is agent No. 326, and he’s smitten with Haghi’s comely minion Sonia.
If Haghi isn’t behind the chaos, maybe it’s Lang’s more charismatic and chimerical villain, Dr. Mabuse. In Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1924) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), he runs an underground cabal exploiting Weimar decadence with mind control, disguises, assassinations, psychoanalysis, and manipulation of the stock market. Siegfried Kracauer, in his seminal 1947 work on Weimar-era film, From Caligari to Hitler, saw Mabuse as a prefiguration of Hitler (current audiences might detect traces of Osima bin Laden and Martha Stewart) representing "an omnipresent threat that cannot be localized and thus reflects society under a tyrannical regime — that kind of society in which one fears everybody because anybody might be the tyrant’s ear or arm." In other words, out of total chaos comes totalitarian control, a state in which we’re all spies, secret agents of an omnipotent ruler.
Not only did Lang predict Hitler, he established the basic conventions of the spy genre: the gizmos, the secret identities, the paranoia, the evil masterminds, the loss of individuality in the service of an ideology or a tyrant. It took Hitchcock to restore some of the innocence and the irony. The Depression saw the rise of Nazism in Europe and screwball comedies and gangster films in Hollywood. Somewhere between those two lay Hitchcock’s whimsical notion of the spy film.
No doubt the voyeurism at its heart appealed to him, but he also saw spying as a good way to meet women. Secret Agent (1936) opens ominously enough, with army officer John Gielgud returning to London from the western front to find that he’s been listed KIA. It’s all in a good cause, however, as he’s issued a new identity and assigned to track down a German spy in Switzerland. He’s also issued a "wife" whom he’s never met, another agent played by Madeleine Carroll. A weird balance of suspense and silliness, Secret Agent is regarded by some as the Master’s oddest outing, by others as his most characteristic.
More matchmaking occurs in Foreign Correspondent (1940), as New York crime reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) gets a new name — Huntley Haverstock — and a new assignment — Europe on the brink of war. Chosen because of his utter innocence of the world he’s investigating, he stumbles across a spy ring out to sabotage a peace treaty. He also stumbles across lovely peacenik Carol Fisher (Laraine Day). "I think the world has been run long enough by well-meaning professionals," she proclaims. "We might give the amateurs a chance now." The film ends with McCrea haranguing his fellow amateurs in America to join the fight.
And so they do. Humphrey Bogart dons his trenchcoat to sleuth against Japanese spies in John Huston’s Across the Pacific (1942), then sets aside Ingrid Bergman and that hill of beans to undermine the Nazis in Casablanca (1942). Even Joan Crawford pitches in: she and spouse Fred MacMurray tour pre-war Germany as ad hoc agents in Above Suspicion (1943).
Amateurs all, but increasingly less innocent. Leave it to Billy Wilder to point out where the bodies are buried in Five Graves to Cairo (1943), where Franchot Tone’s stranded British soldier takes the place of a dead Nazi spy to foil Rommel. Fritz Lang, relocated to Hollywood, pointed out the madness and murder underlying the spy game in Ministry of Fear (1943). By the end of the war even the sex had lost its appeal: Ingrid Bergman plays the whore to Cary Grant’s pimp in Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). And as patriotism degenerated into oppression with the Red Scare, innocence gave way to annihilation. Ronald Neame’s The Man Who Never Was (1956) is the true story of how British Intelligence turned an anonymous corpse into a dead agent washed up on the Spanish coast bearing misinformation for the Germans. The intent was patriotic, but the utter sacrifice of individuality to the cause began to look ominous.
Maybe they got the idea from Secret Agent. Hitchcock used it again to brilliant effect in North by Northwest (1959), in which slick advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Grant again) is mistaken for secret agent George Kaplan — who exists only as a cipher concocted by American intelligence to expose a spy network. So Thornhill has problems proving who he is and uncovering who he’s supposed to be as he hits the road shaking off assassins and a murder rap along the way. Too good to be true is the aid and comfort he gets from Eve (Eva Marie Saint), and all too believable is the attitude of the unnamed American agency that exploits him as a pawn. Isolated in a cornfield and pursued by a crop duster, or hanging from the monoliths of Mount Rushmore, Thornhill is modern man as victim of the system.
But he’s also Cary Grant, suave and sexy and up to any challenge. And what is James Bond if not Cary Grant gone professional? Ian Fleming’s hero reached the screen with Dr No in 1962, just in time for Camelot (JFK was a big fan of the books), when people believed once more in knights, secret or otherwise. Played by Sean Connery as an appealing mix of the prole and the elite, of the brutal and the refined, 007 was a spy who didn’t need to sacrifice his individuality to do his job. Indeed, he would fearlessly proclaim, "My name is Bond — James Bond," in every film.
Of course, he became a self-parody long before Austin Powers or even Roger Moore. Blame, in part, his bespectacled, antiheroic counterpart Harry Palmer, as played by Michael Caine in Sidney J. Furie’s The Ipcress File (1965), a Cold War footsoldier who’s expendable. Or Richard Burton’s burnt-out Alec Leamas in Martin Ritt’s adaptation of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963). In the Cold War, he laments to an innocent, the innocents are the ones who lose.
And not for a good cause, as — on screen at least — it became clear that the real enemy was not an external threat but a malignant, self-perpetuating system that was its own justification. The professionals were no longer well-intentioned, and the amateurs were on their own, like Robert Redford’s remarkably resourceful CIA "reader" in Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975). Targeted for elimination when his research turns up too much, he must throw himself on the mercy of first his innocent hostage, Faye Dunaway, and then the New York Times. Or unwitting graduate student Dustin Hoffman, who in John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976) quickly learns that there’s no answer to the question "Is it safe?" It’s fitting that Hoffman and Redford would team up as the amateurs who take on the biggest professionals of all in All the President’s Men (1976).
The image of the secret agent would take a long time to recover, both on screen and off, after Watergate. Traitors John and Michael Walker, Aldrich Ames, and Robert Hanssen didn’t help, and neither did Iran-contra. The end of the Cold War just provided the coup de grâce. On screen and in the media, intelligence agents were depicted at best as dumb, at worst as treacherous villains.
Until writers like Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum began rehabilitating that image with bestselling thrillers — later adapted into movie blockbusters — that depict the CIA, or whoever is secretly in charge of things, as humanly flawed but humane, with good intentions if not always good judgment. In John McTiernan’s adaptation of Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October (1990), Alec Baldwin’s Jack Ryan is a CIA analyst not unlike Redford’s in Condor; this time his insight helps resolve a crisis rather than initiate a bloodbath. Harrison Ford’s older and wiser Ryan takes over as CIA head in Phillip Noyce’s Clear and Present Danger (1994), and he proves a beacon of integrity when the Clintonesque chief executive plays footsie with a drug cartel. And this summer, a miraculously rejuvenated Ryan played by Ben Affleck in Phil Alden Robinson’s The Sum of All Fears saves the day (a nuclear explosion or two excepted) from those pesky Austrian neo-Fascists.
Convinced? Well, perhaps The Sum of All Fears went too far by trying to put in a good word for the KGB as well. And not every filmmaker is toeing the company line. In Doug Liman’s free adaptation of Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, Matt Damon plays a man whose north-by-northwest search for the truth doesn’t reflect well on his former employers. In Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, Tom Cruise plays an agent of a future system of pre-emptive justice — John Ashcroft’s dream come true — who must go underground when the system turns on him. At a time when a comedy like Men in Black II has more to say about the dangers of xenophobia and jingoism than the so-called news media do, maybe it’s time to pay more attention to what these spies of the big screen are telling us.