Each week Elma and I give you 5 opinionated but culturally relevant choices, based on our experience of curating smart sticky stuff for Ovation, Trio, Bravo, A&E, Sundance, Fuse, and others.
Just when you thought the Cold War was a relic of history…
A clandestine Russian spy ring was uncovered in the US as recently as 2010. Dubbed the “Sexy Russian Spy”, Anna Chapman was deported to Russia and became a media celeb, modeling lingerie in Maxim and proposing to Edward Snowden via Twitter.
And now Putin is once again implausibly denying any involvement in Crimea – just in time for the return this week of our favorite sleeper couple.
THE AMERICANS (TV 2013-15)
Wednesday night was Season 3 premiere for the FX series written by former CIA officer, Joe Weisberg, and set in 1980 during the waning days of the Cold War.
This year Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell have something new to fight about – whether to bring their teenage daughter into the fold as a junior spy.
THE THIRD MAN (1949)
Directed by Carol Reed and written by Graham Greene. Reed had previously directed Odd Man Out (1947) and The Fallen Idol (1948) which was based on a Graham Greene short story.
The Third Man gave the Cold War an unforgettable name and face (Orson Welles) in the character of Harry Lime. The film, shot against the bleak backdrop of a divided post-WWII Vienna, is a famously atmospheric meditation on cold war politics, betrayal and deceit.
One of Harry Lime’s most famous quotes was purportedly written by Welles: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock …”
The Third Man came out at the height of the Hollywood Blacklist witch hunt, as the cases of the “Hollywood Ten” were being appealed. By 1950 the appeal was denied and all ten were sent to jail: Alvah Bessie (c. 1904-85), Herbert Biberman (1900-71), Lester Cole (c. 1904-85), Edward Dmytryk (1908-99), Ring Lardner Jr. (1915-2000), John Howard Lawson (1894-1977), Albert Maltz (1908-1985), Samuel Ornitz (1890-1957), Robert Adrian Scott (1912-73) and Dalton Trumbo (1905-76).
THE IPCRESS FILE (1965)
Directed by Sidney J. Furie with a screenplay by Bill Canaway and James Doran. The film was based on Len Deighton’s novel.
Michael Caine plays Harry Palmer a sort of anti-Bond thrown into a tangled web of intrigue, treachery, murder and espionage. Produced by Harry Saltzman in between Bond movies, the film also features a haunting score by another Bond veteran, composer John Barry.
Michael Caine reprised the role of Harry Palmer in two inferior sequels, Funeral in Berlin (d. Guy Hamilton, 1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (d. Ken Russell, 1967).
Considered to be one of the best spy thrillers of the 60s and on the BFI’s top 100 films of the 20th Century.
THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1962)
Directed by Martin Ritt and based on the novel by John Le Carre, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold stars Richard Burton as a British secret agent who is singled out by agency chief “Control” to play a boozy, dissolute loser who is then quickly recruited by the East Germans. The double agent plays both sides to his own detriment and disillusionment. This first great Le Carre adaptation became emblematic of the dual-espionage acts of the Cold War.
Spy has an extra Cold War twist – although not officially investigated by the HUAC, Ritt himself was blacklisted by Hollywood and forced to work in the theater for several years in the mid-50’s.
In 1956 he returned to Hollywood, and 20 years later Ritt directed the first dramatic feature about the blacklist, The Front, starring Woody Allen and written blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein (a few of its supporting actors were also blacklisted). We have included a link to the film below.
THE FRONT (1976)
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)
Directed by John Frankenheimer with George Axelrod’s screenplay (based on Richard Condon’s novel).
The Manchurian Candidate is infused with the Cold War paranoia of the 1960s when nothing was it seemed. An American patrol returns to the US after being captured and brainwashed by North Koreans and Chinese.
Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey play members of the patrol—one of whom returns to the US with a deadly agenda. Also of note is Angela Lansbury playing Harvey’s monstrous mother–one of her most daring roles.
The film took on mythic resonance when, one year later, JFK was assassinated.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (2004)
Like several titles on this week’s list, this was remade to pretty good effect – in 2004, with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep in the Angela Lansbury role.
TORN CURTAIN (1966)
Hitchcock’s fourth to last film is a cold war oddity. Paul Newman plays an American scientist, Julie Andrews is the fiancé who tags along as he pretends to defect to East Germany as part of a clandestine operation to obtain Soviet nuclear secrets.
The film is notable for its odd casting – Andrews was coming off Mary Poppins and Sound of Music. And Newman, at the height of his career, was a little too Method for a classicist like Hitchcock.
It’s also notable for one of Hitchcock’s more disturbing and powerful scenes – Newman and a farmwife’s protracted struggle to murder an East German agent. Hitchcock said of the scene that, “People are killed so easily in movies. The whole idea was not only to show how difficult it is to kill a man, but to point up to the character what espionage entails: you’re involved in killing!”
DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)
One of the most celebrated films on our list — and certainly the most infamous. Directed by Stanley Kubrick with script by Kubrick and the brilliant Terry Southern.
Initially, Kubrick wanted to make a serious movie in the vein of Fail Safe about an accidental nuclear war, but could not reconcile his feelings about the military with the possibility of global nuclear annihilation. He decided the concept was so absurd that it would work better as a comedy.
With classic lines like “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room,” the film viciously satirizes nuclear threat and the tensions of the Cold War.
FAIL SAFE (1964)
Directed by Sidney Lumet, based on the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler. This is one of the best anti-war thrillers of the 60s, starring Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman and Fritz Weaver as a team of military men on the verge of nuclear war. “Fail Safe” refers to the system that prevents anyone from aborting a nuclear attack once it is set in motion. Ultimately the system does everything else but make you feel safe!
In 2000 CBS broadcast a black-and-white version as a live televised event, starring George Clooney, Richard Dreyfus and Noah Wyle. They pulled it off amazingly well – unfortunately it’s only available on DVD.
FAIL SAFE (2000) DVDs