LITTLE NIKITA (1988) has River Phoenix learn from Sidney Poitier that his boring working-class parents are actually Soviet sleepers forced to come in from the cold by a clash between renegade Red agent Richard Lynch and the KGB officer assigned to stop him. Shows the changing times that this doesn’t feel the need to denounce the Evils of Communism or have Phoenix’ parents formally turn on their masters; a weak film, though, despite two such strong actors.
TRAITOR (2008) is a good drama in which Algerian-born American Muslim Don Cheadle joins forces with a militant Islamic conspiracy (“We have been planting martyrs for years.”) who like the FBI agents hunting them are unaware Cheadle is a deep-cover agent being run by Jeff Daniels. The good Muslim/bad Muslim approach isn’t new—it was used in The Siege, for instance—but with Cheadle and his faith front and center, it works better here.
WATERFRONT (1944) doesn’t quite qualify for my book as Nazi spies John Caradine and J. Carroll Naish sneak through the city docks whacking everyone who gets between them and the missing McGuffin. Unremarkable, but better than the usual from the PRC studio.
THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1965) is LeCarre’s dark drama of Cold War cynicism wherein hard-drinking agent Richard Burton is sent on a deep cover mission to East Berlin only to discover his handlers have agendas neither he nor Pretty Communist Claire Bloom are aware of. Makes me wonder how much LeCarre contributed to the general cyncism of spy films to follow or if he was just slightly ahead of the zeitgeist; either way, very good (though again, not qualifying for my book), though the level of deceit on our side isn’t as much of a surprise any more.
As a group of industralisiast scheme to lead America to war, THE PRESIDENT VANISHES (1934), throwing their plans into confusion as conspirator and Secretary of War Edward Albert proclaims martial law in order to find him. Despite the villains being American, this has enough Fascist Fifth Column elements to qualify for my book; as a movie, despite the presence of Arnold, Andy Devine and Rosalind Russell, it’s too much a stock mystery after the opening set-up.
MASTER SPY: THE ROBERT HANSSON STORY (2002) stars Wiliam Hurt in an excellent performance as the button-down, devoutly Catholic spy but the story structure—following Hansson from his first fall from grace, and including several scenes in Moscow discussing whether he’s on the level—is a poor second to BREACH.
For all the mockery I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE (1958) gets for its title, it also gets a lot more attention than if it had been titled STRANGE MARRIAGE or the like. Very interesting to observe that unlike Invasion of the BodySnatchers, this only has 10 aliens taking over the town, and emphasizes how they block every effort by Gloria Talbot (roads closed, phones shut down, the telegraph office is run by One of Them). Well worth seeing.
I wasn’t sure PACK OF LIES (1987) would qualify, but paranoia is the driving force that convinces Ellen Burstyn and her husband to sign up with Alan Bates’ plan to spy on Burstyn’s best friend Teri Garr (“What if they’re lying to us—spending time with us because it’s convenient?”), only to find herself considerably more conflicted that Matt Cvetic or Herb Philbrick ever did. A well-done filmed stage play.
FUTUREWORLD (1976) is the Westworld sequel in which Blythe Danner and Peter Fonda discover plots to replace world leaders with android doubles. This has several good scenes, but it also has a lot of padding, showing the fancy high tech, the cool amusement parks and a pointless dream dalliance between Danner and Yul Brynner (reprising his gunslinger role from the previous film).
WALK EAST ON BEACON (1952) is a documentary-style film showing how our FBI in Peace and War use forensic science and really cool spy gadgets to bust Evil Commie Spies (the lead spy, unfortunately for the G-Men, is a lot more impressive), though none of that would help, the narrator assures us, if we Loyal Americans weren’t willing to report anyone who looks at us funny. One of the better anti-Communist movies, despite the implausible omni-McGuffin (which we’re assured will do everything from soup up our radar to putting man into space) and not as paranoid as I WAS A COMMUNIST FOR THE FBI (while it assumes a widespread Commie spy network it doesn’t equate all Communist Party members as traitors).
WALK A CROOKED MILE (1948) is a predecessor in the same documentary style, as a British/American team of agents (Louis Hayward, Dennis O’Keefe) tries to expose how vital groundbreaking formulae are leaking out of a nuclear research lab. The casting (including Raymond Burr as yet another heavy) makes this work a lot better.
Despite Robert Redford’s discovery of “a different CIA within the CIA” THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975) doesn’t quite qualify for my book, being more seventies The Enemy Is Us paranoia as the CIA wipes out one of its own units, Max von Sydow plays an amoral assassin (“No need to believe in either side or any side.”) and John Houseman wonders if Redford’s analyst isn’t More Than He Seems. A good piece of work.
Having remembered ROLLOVER (1981) as a financial infiltration story a la Rising Sun, I was disappointed to discovers it’s financial skullduggery—Arabs moving their dollar investments into gold covertly to avoid dropping the dollar’s value too early—which entangles banker Kris Kristofferson and petrochemical executive Jane Fonda and their developing affair (though Buying Up America is such a recurrent theme in American paranoia, it’ll merit a mention, I think). Slickly watchable, though neither deep nor terribly well-knit.
BETRAYAL FROM THE EAST (1944) stars Lee Tracy as a down-and-out veteran recruited by a Japanese spy ring to deliver plans for the Panama Canal defense, which will enable the Japanese to complete their plan to destroy all West Coast defenses in a simultaneous strike (“Meanwhile, our propaganda machine shall shout of peace!”). It shows how the same themes recur in these movies that columnist Drew Pearson’s painting this as a war with no beginning and no ending would fit the Cold War or the War on Terror—though it doesn’t make much sense in the context of a shooting war.