Espionage Movie Classics (IMHO)

Since the cold weather will be with us for a while longer, I’m planning to re-watch some of my favorite spy thriller films. I’d even call them “classics.” But which ones? Excluding James Bond films, here are a few of my all-time favorites, mostly because of their excellent use of suspense techniques. In fact, if you want to know more about suspense in general, be sure to tune into the Top Suspense webcast, Thursday, Feb. 20 where authors Lee Goldberg, Joel Goldman, Paul Levine, and I will be talking about just that. In the meantime, take a look at these, especially the trailers. Who’s got the popcorn?

 The Hunt for Red October – Tom Clancy

As many of you know, The Hunt for Red October was Tom Clancy’s 1984 debut novel. The story follows the intertwined adventures of Soviet submarine captain Marko Aleksandrovich Ramius and Jack Ryan, former Marine turned CIA analyst. The film came out in 1990 starring Sean Connery as Captain Marko Ramius and Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan. The story, set during the Cold War, involves a rogue Russian naval captain who wants to defect to the United States, and an American CIA operative who suspects that’s the case, unlike his superiors who think the sub is poised to attack. Ryan has to prove his theory to the U.S. Navy in order to avoid a violent confrontation between the two nations.

This is one of Sean Connery’s best performances, and the suspense, more psychological than most thrillers, is exquisite. Great supporting cast, too, including James Earl Jones, Scott Glenn, and Sam Neill.

Marathon Man – William Goldman

Marathon Man is a 1976 thriller directed by John Schlesinger. It was adapted by William Goldman from his novel of the same name and stars Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider, William Devane and Marthe Keller. Goldman was paid a reported $500,000 for the film rights to his novel and to do a screenplay. Goldman says John Schlesinger only agreed to do the film because he had just finished The Day of the Locust and was “terrified he was dead in Hollywood”. Olivier was cast early on. However he had health issues and at one stage it was uncertain whether he would be able to do the film. Richard Widmark auditioned for the part, but Olivier eventually recovered and was able to make it. Good thing too, because the scenes between Olivier and Hoffman in the dentist chair are unforgettable.

Three Days of the Condor – James Grady

Three Days of the Condor is a 1975 American political thriller film directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, and Max von Sydow. And who doesn’t like a Robert Redford film? The screenplay was adapted from the 1974 novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady. Set mainly in New York and Washington, D.C., the film is about a bookish CIA researcher who comes back from lunch and discovers his co-workers are all dead. So he goes underground until he can figure out who he can trust.

The film (which came out right after Nixon resigned) unsurprisingly explores the moral ambiguity of the government during the early 1970’s. Faye Dunaway plays a vulnerable photographer who ends up helping the Redford character. I still remember her “November” photographs. Great film in which the suspense builds to an explosive climax.

The Odessa File – Frederick Forsyth

The Odessa File, by Frederick Forsyth, was first published in 1972, about the adventures of a young German reporter trying to discover the location of a former SS concentration-camp commander. The name ODESSA is an acronym for the German phrase “Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen”, which translates as “Organization of Former Members of the SS”. The novel alleges that ODESSA is an international Nazi organization established before the defeat of Nazi Germany for the purpose of protecting former members of the SS after the war. The film came out in 1974 film adaptation starring Jon Voight and Maxmillian Schell was pretty faithful to the book.

The Bourne Identity – Robert Ludlum

The Bourne Identity is a 2002 film adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s novel of the same name. It stars Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, suffering from extreme memory loss, who attempts to discover his true identity amidst a clandestine conspiracy within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The first in what is turning out to be a series, it was followed by The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and The Bourne Legacy (2012). But I like the first Bourne film the best, mostly because Ludlum shows Bourne becoming increasingly isolated from the people he used to trust, and relying on his wits rather than brute force to figure out his way forward. Both are staples of suspense, and they work beautifully in this film. My only quibble is the ending where he walks off into the sunset with his girlfriend. Ho-hum. In this day and age, can’t we do better than that?

The Day of the Jackal – Frederick Forsyth

Probably my all-time favorite thriller is The Day of The Jackal, the 1971 novel by Frederick Forsyth, which was made into a film originally in 1973 with Edward Fox. It was reprised not too long ago with Denzel Washington, but I never saw  that version. However, I can tell you the original film was the only film I’ve ever seen where you know the ending before you ever walk into the theater, and yet you’re on the edge of your seat the entire time. It’s probably one of the most suspenseful films I’ve ever seen. In fact, I use it as an example in my own suspense workshops. The intercutting between the detective and the assassin is superb, and the tension just keeps building until the very final scene. A wonderful book, an even more wonderul film… NOT to be missed.

All the Others

I know I’ve left out a lot of thriller films, like Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,  and The Little Drummer Girl, which I wanted to like because a woman took center stage, but it fell flat. There are many more, like The Ipcress File, Black Sunday, and the film adaptation of Restless by William Boyd which is one of my all time favorite espionage novels, because the main characters are women. In fact, I just discovered Restless is on Netflix! Guess what I’ll be doing tonight?

Your turn now. What are your favorite spy novel movies?