Tag Archives: spy films



Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 24 November 2014

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Fritz Lang

Writers: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou

Based on the novel by: Thea von Harbou

Cast: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Gerda Maurus, Willy Fritsch

Germany 1928

145 mins

Fritz Lang’s Spione starts with a bang and rarely lets up. Documents are stolen, couriers assassinated, there’s a motorcycle chase and all hell breaks lose at the Ministry of War, yelling and shouting that something must be done. The frenetic excitement of the opening minutes and much of the unflagging two and a half hours of glorious entertainment that follow suggest a conscious need to please, divert and thrill.

For Lang, the film was a return to familiar territory. Following the grandiose and financially disastrous Metropolis, the 38-year-old director found himself besieged. His studio, UFA, wanted to dump the blame for the disaster onto him and get rid of him, and there was undoubtedly the anxiety that he had lost his touch, lost his ability to pull in an audience. Harking back to his earlier work, Spione was ‘a small film, with plenty of action’ as Lang himself described it. Based on a screenplay by his wife Thea von Harbou, the story revolves around a Mabuse-like super-criminal, Haghi (played by Mabuse actor and Harbou’s former husband Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Haghi sports a Lenin beard, smokes cigarettes that must taste of brimstone and perfidy, and sits in a wheelchair in his secret lair located in an important bank.

Ranged against him are the inept and bureaucratic government agencies, who are largely played for laughs with red-faced confusion and a lot of harrumphing from Jason (Craighall Sherry), the head of the agency tasked with bringing Haghi to justice. If anything is to be done it will be thanks to the agent known only as Number 326 (Willy Fritsch). Initially a streetwise tramp, 326 quickly sheds his disguise to become a dapper gentleman, but his cover is already blown and Sonja Baranilkowa (Gerda Maurus), one of Haghi’s agents, has been sent to seduce and compromise him. However, Haghi didn’t bank on Sonja and 326 falling in love.

Lang keeps everything going at a hell of a pace and there are a number of stunning set-pieces. His universe is one of detail, and he litters the film with scraps of information, numbers and names, a puzzle to be unpicked, but the meaning of which, or even the existence of meaning, remains unclear. Haghi’s power is facilitated by the corruption of the society he seeks to destroy. Not only is its elite ripe for extortion – a wealthy society girl is blackmailed because of her opium habit, inscrutable Japanese spy Akira Masimoto (Lupu Pick) falls for a rain-sodden waif – but its institutions are inept and blustering and deskbound. Whereas Haghi has a nicely minimalist control panel and a telephone, Jason et al are buried under mounds of paperwork. Haghi himself, though, represents a paradox, one perhaps that lies at the heart of all conspiracy theories. If this master criminal is so powerful, with his massive infrastructure and his metaphorical tentacles stretching, his obvious wealth and endless resources as the director of a bank, then what does he hope to gain by all this convoluted plotting? This point is made all the weirder when he reveals that he doesn’t even need a wheelchair. Why go to the bother and discomfort of pretending to be an invalid? As William S. Burroughs might have observed, we are all controlled by our need to control.

Ultimately, Fritz Lang’s film is a thrilling entertainment, whose inventiveness is evident in every scene, almost every shot. Twists can happen on every level, from the narrative to something as simple as a location. A brutal fight in a boxing ring is revealed to be incongruously and brilliantly taking place in a nightclub. The details – a bloody hand print on a stolen document – tell a whole story, and his characters are drawn with a variety of techniques, from naturalism to heightened theatricality. As Adrian Martin notes in his brilliant essay on the film, everyone smokes in a highly individual way. Of course it is difficult to watch pre-war German cinema without glimpsing foreshadowing and prophecies for what is yet to come, but this restored and re-mastered version will now allow everyone to experience this world at its darkest and brightest.

Eureka’s Masters of Cinema dual format release of Spione comes with a 69-minute documentary on the film and a 40-page booklet including new and exclusive writing by critic Murielle Joudet and an essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

John Bleasdale

A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man
A Most Wanted Man

Format: Cinema

Release date: 12 September 2014

Distributor: Entertainment One

Director: Anton Corbijn

Writer: Andrew Bovell

Based on the novel by: John le Carré

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Daniel Brühl, Nina Hoss, Willem Dafoe

USA, UK, Germany 2014

122 mins

A Most Wanted Man – what a weirdly plummy, English title, but this is a John le Carré adaptation, after all, even if most of the characters are Germans. Played by Americans. Doing German accents. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman is an anti-terrorist spook in Hamburg, and is as electrifying as you’d expect, though it’s odd seeing him apparently do an impersonation of Anthony Hopkins pretending to be German, while Willem Dafoe seems to be doing Peter O’Toole as another German, possibly in Night of the Generals.

A Most Wanted Man is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on 19 January 2015 by Entertainment One.

Is Tarantino right to propose that films in which foreign characters speak English are outmoded? People still seem to be making them. In this case, the man responsible is Anton Corbjin, the talented music video director who made a strong debut with the Ian Curtis biopic Control and followed it with the Melvillean thriller The American. This movie aims for a similarly crisp, glassy surface, a deadpan thriller full of moral ambiguities and questionable alliances.

A Chechen/Russian fugitive arrives in Hamburg illegally and attempts to claim a vast inheritance left by his father. He could be a terrorist, or the Arab philanthropist he plans to donate the money to might be funding terrorism. Hoffman might have a plan for how to turn them both to his side, but the Americans, led by Robin Wright, might not be trustworthy (you think?).

The film’s biggest problem is one particularly affecting audiences who know le Carré’s work: the story’s outcome is never in doubt. Maybe the attempts to make it a surprise were misguided. No doubt the doom-laden setting and tragic denouement are true to the reality of these situations, but the audience would appreciate some surprises. Still, things going wrong allows Hoffman to display his extremely skilled deployment of the F-bomb one last time.

Elsewhere there are a few unfortunate sops to the dummies, which patronise the rest of us: when Dafoe, a wealthy banker, reads a name on a card, he is obliged to read it aloud, despite being alone in the room and the card being held in a giant close-up so we can read it ourselves. When Hoffman lights one of his constant cigarettes, there’s a slight hissing crackle as the tobacco catches fire, a movie cliché that has no real place here. And the early suspense scenes feature ominous music playing over shots of Muslims praying, pandering to an Islamophobic mindset the film is otherwise at pains to avoid.

This review was first published as part of our 2014 EIFF coverage.

David Cairns

Watch the trailer:

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Control (John Hurt) in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Photo: Jack English. All rights reserved. Copyright 2010 StudioCanal SA)

Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 September 2011

Venue: UK wide

Distributor: Studio Canal

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Writers: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan

Based on the novel by: John le Carré

Cast: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt

France/UK/Germany 2011

127 mins

With the resurgence of the super spy as seen in the popularity of the Bourne franchise and the Daniel Craig reboot of the perennial 007 series, it is only right that the corrective bucket of cold water be applied. David Cornwell, who took the pseudonym John le Carré under Foreign Office rules, has made a career of writing against Ian Fleming’s fantasy creation, again and again insisting on a reality of betrayal, banality and English skies, grey with waiting rain. Cinematically, he has been best served by directors who were foreign to the particularly English post-war crisis that he explores - Sidney Lumet, Martin Ritt, Fred Schepisi and Fernando Meirelles - and this tradition continues with Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

In a way, Alfredson’s film is not only an adaptation of the novel, but also a remake of the popular television series that made Alec Guinness synonymous with George Smiley, le Carré’s enigmatic bureaucratic spy master. Taking this role is Gary Oldman in his meatiest part for decades. Oldman brings a sense of hidden danger and tightly repressed rage to Smiley. It is a perfectly measured performance, which, in its restraint, allows the ample cast, drawn from the cream of British male acting talent, to provide the fireworks around him. He is the eye of the storm that imperceptibly directs the storm. Mark Strong, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbacht are the three up-and-coming young Turks, and Colin Firth, Toby Jones and John Hurt are the old guard. If anything there is too much talent, and Ciaran Hinds and Stephen Graham (both fantastic actors), for example, have very little to do but fill places at the table.

The sense of place and time is perfect: a pre-swinging London, rain-drenched and as cold as the war being fought. Alfredson has an eye for the telling detail: Smiley eating his Wimpy burger with a knife and fork, the rundown hotels and the looming post-war office buildings with the orange wallpaper. Staying true to the spirit of the book, Tinker is the anti-Bourne. There might be a shooting but there won’t be a shoot-out; there are paper chases rather than car chases. One of the most exciting scenes in the film involves the movement of a file through an office building. Guns are signed for, pocketed, but perhaps never fired. It often comes down to men in rooms talking, men in parks talking, men on airstrips talking. The story is complicated but screenwriter Peter Straughan allows it to unfold with its byzantine complexity intact, probably assuming most of the audience will already know the plot from the series or the book. There are very few genuine twists, the film aiming more for a grinding inevitability, a weary despairing admission that what you always feared was true.

Perhaps the film’s most daring innovation is its rebranding of Cold War homosexuality. Whereas previously being gay in a Cold War context (especially in the aftermath of Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess) was seen as tantamount to being a traitor, here sexuality is something that must be hidden or itself betrayed. Aside from one explicitly gay character, there is an underlying bromance of sorts, which adds an emotional sting to the eventual revelations of betrayal.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy had its world premiere at the 68th Venice Film Festival where Electric Sheep saw it.

John Bleasdale