The spy game isn’t easy. That’s a lesson that we learned from that Tony Scott movie with Robert Redford and Brad Pitt that no one really saw. Actually, we all probably learned that from James Bond and his numerous big screen adventures that roll on this week not only with the release of Skyfall and with the continuation of a large scale exhibit (Designing 007) and retrospective of the famed super-spy’s dozens of other films.
But sadly, not every spy can have a simple two-syllable name that instils fear in the hearts of men and women everywhere, and for those people (and for people like myself who literally just sat through every single Bond film less than a month ago), it’s good to know that the folks at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (specifically Midnight Madness guru Colin Geddes, who also just got done with his George A. Romero shenanigans) have some down and dirty (sometimes hilarious) spy games planned for us with Beyond Bond: The Other Secret Agents (running select dates between November 9th and January 18th). No Bond, none of the time. But there will be occasional sexy times, some hard boiled gunbutts, high speed chases, and plenty of international intrigue.
Rightfully kicking off with Sydney Pollack’s excellent thriller Three Days of the Condor (Friday, November 9th, 9:15pm), the concept of an international man of mystery is put squarely on its ear in this story of a literary historian (oddly enough, played by the aforementioned Redford in one of his best performances) who gets pulled a bit too deeply over his head in his CIA funded job. More prepared for bookish mysteries than assassins bullets, Redford does a splendid job in a role that requires him to essentially do the least spy-like thing ever: immediately running around and freaking out while trying to figure out what to do. Pollack balances quiet moments of menace with realistic moments of bombast in a film that actually feels like one of the most authentic spy procedurals this side of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It also boasts killer performances from Cliff Robertson and Max Von Sydow as the film’s villains, and some surprisingly strong work from Faye Dunaway as a woman our hero impulsively kidnaps as a cover.
Equally lower in key and closer in tone to the Tinker Tailor vibe is the Michael Caine starring The Ipcress File (Friday, November 23rd, 9:00pm), which more explicitly makes the flushing out of a mole at the top of MI:6 a major driving force to the plot. The first in a trilogy of films based around British author Len Deighton’s Bond-lite creation Harry Palmer, the series was almost too subdued to fully connect with North American audiences, but time has been kind to this sort of film almost more than most of the lesser Bonds, and it establishes Caine as almost more of a calculating badass than Get Carter did.
While Bond was already an established literary character, several other major authors of the period were also dabbling in spy thrillers, and several of their best known works are also represented here. Probably the best known and hardest writer to adapt of the bunch would be John le Carre, who would never see a better adaptation of his work than the sadly forgotten about The Looking Glass War (Tuesday, January 15th, 9:00pm), which finds a very young looking Anthony Hopkins as a secret agent assigned to protect a Polish defector escape from Communist East Germany to provide info about a potentially dangerous arms operation. It isn’t the flashiest film of the bunch, but it’s brimming with atmosphere and tension, in the film that’s probably closest to a true cold war experience.
Lesser known that Bond, but almost equally as popular was the literary exploits of gumshoe and insurance investigator (!) Bulldog Drummond. Brought to the big screen several times with varying degrees of success, the everyman sort of spy gets his due with the deliciously ludicrous title Deadlier Than the Male (Friday, December 14th, 9:00pm), in which our hero tracks down a sexy duo of female assassins. It really isn’t much of a Drummond tale in the purest sense since every attempt is made to turn the series into a cut rate Bond exercise, but as far as knock offs go, this one’s as supremely entertaining as it is delightfully loopy.
While not necessarily high literature, Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway’s Modesty Blaise (Friday, November 30th, 9:15pm) was a mainstay among UK comic strips, but never considered high art. The exploits of a female working undercover in the spy game would have been tough to adapt for a litany of reasons (did I mention she was a serious spy figure in 60s literature despite being a woman?), but unlikely directorial choice of Joseph Losey – a name more closely associated with operatic adaptations and serious psychological thrillers – turned the camp dial all the way to 11 with this one for a film that never once takes itself seriously, and yet serves as a perfect introduction to the character. It’s a stellar looking glass styled portrait with frequent Antonioni collaborator Monica Vitti in the lead acting opposite a young looking Terence Stamp as her knife wielding partner in one of the most outwardly fun and silly roles to watch in his esteemed career.
While Bond sometimes ends up parodying himself to a great extent (just ask Roger Moore), take-offs and piss takes on the character have been around since almost before the character made the leap from Ian Fleming’s pulpy pages. While the silliest North American takes on the character often stand out the most, the series takes a look at two international looks at the suave, globetrotting masters of blending in almost better than the whole lot of their English speaking counterparts.
In OSS 117: Lost in Rio (Friday, November 16th, 9:00pm) , the now award winning pairing of actor Jean Dujardin and director Michel Hazanavicius who made that really popular silent film last year that everyone loved with that cute dog) revived a French Bond knock off from the 60s and working for the Mossad to create a swinging look at an oversexed spy bumbling through a mission in Argentina to track down a former Nazi. Period accurate and appropriately cheeky, it’s the perfect primer to show North American audiences just what Dujardin is capable of as a comedian, even if it is a sequel to a slightly less successful outing with the same character in Cairo. It also pairs nicely with the drunken, swinging antics of Dean Martin who appears as an incredibly ineffective and dopey spy in 1966’s The Silencers (Friday, January 18th, 9:00pm).
The most faithful Bond styled comedy, however, might come from Hong Kong action comedy mastermind Stephen Chow. In From Beijing With Love (Friday, December 7th, 9:00pm), Chow amps up the goofiness as a spy called in from his cover job as a lowly butcher to service his country once again. Playing a character whose name is literally translated as “zero zero seven” and almost mimicking the music of the series to a dangerously lawsuit baiting level, Chow manages to poke fun at and simultaneously show deep admiration for the Bond character. It also includes a golden gun toting villain and it seems to be the only Bond parody that isn’t afraid of making its main character kind of look like a huge jerk at times.
Finally, but not least, is Geoffrey Reeve’s Puppet on a Chain (Tuesday, November 27th, 9:30pm), a film that I haven’t seen but I know through reputation alone for having one of the wildest boat chases ever committed to film. Considering that the Bond films had their share of memorable boat chases, I’m completely unopposed to seeing a film that did the aquatic chase sequence before Bond even did his first one in Live and Let Die. That’s what’s dually great about this series. You will see the films that were made in the wake of Bond’s success AND the films that the series would continue to learn and evolve from in the future.