Extra Credit: Five Spy Thrillers to Stream After ‘Red Sparrow’
In the weekly column Extra Credit, Charles Bramesco recommends supplemental viewing for moviegoers whose interests have been piqued by a given week’s big new release.
Hot take: Being a Russian espionage agent does not seem like a great time, at least not according to Red Sparrow. The new Jennifer Lawrence vehicle casts the people’s favorite as Dominika Ergorova, a ballerina who pivots careers into the burgeoning sex assassin field for the Reds after a broken leg ends her dancing days. She and her fellow super-hot agents undergo a battery of torture both physical and psychological to toughen them into masters of heartless manipulation, using eroticism to get information out of their targets. Our gal finds some solace when the hunky American (Joel Edgerton) she’s sent to crack wins her heart, but for the most part, being a Sparrow looks like a rough gig.
She’s just the latest in a long line of morally compromised characters who have surrendered their personal lives, even their identities to serve their country. Below, you’ll find five more tales of secrets and lies from the world of espionage, grimmer and grittier films than the globetrotting glamour reels popularized by James Bond. Read on, and — wait. That guy over there, is he watching us? Act natural. Just keep reading and act natural.
Like Athena busting out of Zeus’ forehead fully grown, the spy genre arrived with all of its defining hallmarks fully intact in Fritz Lang’s proto-pulp picture. A dashing and unknowable agent makes his way through a dangerous world of femme fatales, nefarious foreign villains (Lang’s portrayal of Asians is very, let’s say, “of its time”), and coveted state-secret MacGuffins in a plot that set that standard for magnificent convolution. Lang’s perfectionism set the bar on the spy picture high from the start, carefully calibrating every element of his style for maximum dramatic impact. Spy films would grow more complex, but the wonders he worked with moody shadows would never be surpassed for gratis artistry.
John le Carré is the king of the espionage novel, and this adaptation of his definitive work captures all that made him so inexhaustibly profitable in the paperback industry. The people love their twists, and with director Martin Ritt, he gave the fans a doozy: Richard Burton earned an Oscar nod for playing a double agent cozying up to East German officials while reporting back to the Brits, his every waking moment plagued by the fear that he could be found out at any time. Razor-blade dialogue, pulse-quickening set pieces, and three consecutive reversals-of-fortune piled on in the tangled denouement all amounted to the finest spy yarn this side of James Bond.
Screenwriter Graham Greene drew on his own experiences during a stint in British intelligence agency MI6 for this cornerstone of mid-century film noir from director Carol Reed. World War II is winding down in Vienna, and American, British, French, and Soviet forces have divvied up the city into one big martial base with a loose relationship to the law. A writer from the states (Joseph Cotten) comes to visit a friend (Orson Welles) a moment too late — the man has just died. Or has he? The ensuing investigation to straighten out just how dead this guy really is leads through the black market, a criminal underground, and the shadier corner of Allied operations. Shockingly cynical, the film’s worth seeing for the immortal “cuckoo clock” monologue alone. (And about a thousand other reasons.)
In the compact canon of paranoid thrillers that crept into theaters during the ’70s, none weds its anti-authoritarian bent with the purer pleasure of Hollywood-style suspense like Sydney Pollack’s 1975 film. Robert Redford plays CIA desk jockey Joe Turner, who returns from his lunch break one afternoon to find that all of his co-workers have been shot to death. So begins the most stressful 72-hour period of the man’s life, as he learns that his governmental superiors cannot be trusted and a sexy stranger (Faye Dunaway) can. American integrity hit a bitter low after the twin embarrassments of Watergate and the disastrous occupation of Vietnam, and Pollack’s film channeled the atmosphere of suspicion into a cat-and-mouse chase frightening in its intensity.
5. Black Book
Paul Verhoeven tore a profane satirical swath through Hollywood during the ’90s, took a bit of time off after 2000’s Hollow Man, and then returned to his native Denmark ready to scandalize once again. He pulled out all the stops in 2006 for this WWII-era period piece, both in terms of taste and money. The story of a Jewish singer’s perilous undercover infiltration of the Nazi party for the Resistance gave Verhoeven ample opportunity to indulge his more off-color whims (the scatology-averse may do well to avoid this one). Verhoeven’s production was the most expensive ever mounted in Denmark at the time, and bizarrely enough, this alternately sadistic and wryly comical film went on to be the nation’s biggest blockbuster hit, too.
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