Two of this summer’s blockbusters, both re-makes of popular television shows of the 1960s, belong to the spy genre: Mission Impossible 5: Rogue Nation and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. A fourth movie starring Daniel Craig as James Bond, titled Spectre, will soon follow.
The origins of the spy movie lie further in the past than the Cold War, though, and outside of the Anglo-American and Soviet spheres of influence. Fritz Lang established many conventions of the genre in Weimar Germany between the two world wars. His Spiders (1919-1920), Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922), and most of all Spies (1928) introduced now familiar elements: theft of state secrets and political assassinations carried out by underground organizations and charismatic supervillains; dashing young government agents fighting for love of country and comely women. In visual terms, Lang’s spy movies are miracles of editing. Storyboarding an entire film before shooting achieved both a famously German efficiency and a highly graphic impact on screen. See how quickly and forcefully Lang opens Spies, available in full on DVD from Netflix:
Alfred Hitchcock’s spy movies, beginning in the 1930s, adopted many of Lang’s narrative conventions and his intensive storyboarding process. Hitchcock’s most famous espionage picture, North by Northwest (1959), added two of his own trademark plot devices: a case of mistaken identity and a double chase. He also adds a new political critique, questioning the ethics of a state that willfully endangers individual citizens to preserve itself. See this spy classic on DVD from Netflix.
The Bond films that followed in the 1960s borrowed much from Lang and Hitchcock. From Lang’s Mr. Haghi and Dr. Mabuse came the supervillain, a brilliant but twisted man instantly recognizable from his eccentric costume, manner of speaking, and racial or ethnic otherness. Bond’s identification as Agent 007 also echoes Spies’ hero Number 326. The early Bond’s combination of boyish charm and sophisticated adult tastes, as well as clever quips in the face of danger, come directly from Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill in the Hitchcock film. The on-screen Bond would return to the simmering rage and thuggishness of Ian Fleming’s novels only in the Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig eras, as the fine Epix documentary Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 observes. Watch it instantly on Amazon:
The Bourne series starring Matt Damon (2002 - 2007) is a similar collage of Lang, Hitchcock, and the darkest Bonds. Upping the action, shooting with handheld cameras and tight framing in documentary fashion, and lowering the color palette into the blue, gray, and black ranges seem to be the most obvious innovations.
Today, viewers may look abroad, past the usual white, English-speaking male heroes, for more variety in the spy genre.
Fans of the American television program The Americans (FX, 2013-present) may enjoy German filmmaker George Maas’s Two Lives (2012), an intense drama with a female protagonist based upon real events. During World War II, German soldiers occupying Norway took local women as lovers and wives and sent the children of these unions back to the Fatherland for a proper Teutonic upbringing. After the defeat of the Nazis and the partition of Germany, many of these children, now teenagers, returned to Norway in search of their Scandinavian kin. The secret police of Communist East Germany planted agents among the “lost children of Norway” with orders to spy upon newfound family members in the military and political positions. Two Lives begins in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification, when one agent, embedded within a loving Norwegian family for decades, realizes that she faces exposure. Its non-linear narrative then moves backward and forward by turns, revealing the most sinister details of the espionage and the genuine affection that has developed between the spy and her spurious family. Two Lives is available instantly on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes.
Viewers in search of more action in their spy stories may travel cinematically to one of the most politically and militarily tense locations in the world: the border between North and South Korea. Add to the uneasy truce there centuries of martial arts practice and decades of filmmaking in South Korea on tight budgets and with practical visual effects, and the results are three spy movies with nail-biting tension, jaw-dropping stunts, and righteous ass-kicking. The action sequences in the Bond and Bourne movies, often heavily overlaid with computer generated imagery, may seem staged and distant in comparison to the visceral, un-enhanced hand-to-hand combat, car chases, and gunplay in the South Korean pictures. Their editing, a departure from the smoothness of the Hollywood continuity style and a return to the leaping transitions of Lang, packs additional punch into their images and storytelling.
Park Hong-soo’s Commitment (2013) has the most youth appeal. Choi Seunghyun, known as T.O.P. from the K-pop boyband BIGBANG, plays the teenage protagonist Li Myung Hun. To save his little sister, he must rebel against the North Korean authorities who have forced him to become a spy and assassin. Commitment is not a film for children, though: the violence of its fist-fighting and shoot-outs rises well above typical Hollywood levels.
Won Shin-yun’s The Suspect (2013) is a similar story, but even darker. Here the principal theme is not salvation, but revenge. North Korean agent Ji Dong-chul (Gong Yoo) is older than Commitment’s Li Myung Hun, and his wife and daughter suffer horribly at the hands of a fellow operative. He flees to the South, where he works as a driver for a powerful businessman by day, searching for his family’s killer at night. The depths of Ji Dong-chul’s character, and the movie's bleached colors and black shadows to match, may even surprise fans of Bourne and Craig’s Bond. At their worst, they may cross the line into unacceptable means of protecting the noble end of preserving Western freedom and democracy. As an agent of North Korea, Ji Dong-chul received his training from the one of the worst actors in international relations; it taught him that any and all forms of combating one’s enemies are obligatory. When this kind of agent turns against his handlers in a personal vendetta, look out! Like the Bourne and Bond films, however, the conclusion of The Suspect leaves some business unfinished, making room for at least one sequel. Consider the possibilities, after watching this likely first installment instantly on Netflix, Amazon, or iTunes.
Ryoo Seung-wan’s The Berlin File (2013) has the broadest international ambitions. Its story begins in Germany with shadowy arms deals that involve Russians, Middle Eastern terrorists, the Israeli Mossad and even the CIA, but eventually it narrows to matters of North versus South Korea. Again, a North Korean husband and wife -- he a secret agent and she an embassy translator -- defect to the South, pursued by a “fixer.” The look is brighter than Commitment or The Suspect, and the final collaboration between the Northern agent and his Southern counterpart, both disgusted by the respective bureaucracies that undercut their work and sustain the nation’s division, is optimistic about the future of the peninsula. Find The Berlin File streaming on Netflix.