We like Julia Roberts too, but will people please stop casting her as the femme fatale/siren who lures men to their doom with her rapier wit and bombshell sensuality (see also: “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”)? Julia is cute, even spunky sometimes, immensely lovable, but not dangerous. And so this film, a rare recent chance for a witty grown-up caper movie, misses the sexed-up Hepburn/Tracy mark by quite some distance. And it’s not just Julia who’s to blame: Clive Owen, never the most animated performer, gives her almost no help throughout, and the tedious corporate spy hi-jinks wear thin long before the inevitable TWIST! in which the con-ers become the con-ees. Writer/director Tony Gilroy lets what was presumably zingy repartee on the page turn into alternately smug and desperate banter between unlikeable leads and by the end, the only mystery is how this missed opportunity managed to get even the mixed-to-positive reviews it did on release.
"Foreign Correspondent" (1940)
Alfred Hitchcock's second Hollywood film, "Foreign Correspondent," is a blueprint for the whirlwind spy adventure movie, and the trailer for "The Tourist" shows the film liberally cribbing from Hitchcock's reporter-in-pursuit-of-spies romp (see: Johnny Depp escaping from his hotel room in pajamas). The dashing Joel McCrea (seriously, this guy could give Cary Grant a run for his money in charm school) plays American reporter Johnny Jones, aka Huntley Haverstock, who finds himself embroiled in a continent-spanning spy mystery after witnessing an assassination while on assignment. His adventure leads him into the arms of British aristocrat Carol Fisher (the angelic Laraine Day), who is just a little too connected to the action, as Johnny and the audience come to find out. He also picks up sidekick Scott ffolliott (yes, that's how it's spelled, the lowercase f in honor of a deceased ancestor in just one of the film's absurd touches of humor) played by the inimitable, impeccable, king of scene-thievery George Sanders. The engine of the plot is relentless, charging from location to location, throwing in twists and turns and ocean plane crashes until it's all just a giant MacGuffin anyway, but wasn't it a fun ride? Nevermind “The Tourist,” stay home and rent “Correspondent” this weekend.
"No Way Out" (1987)
It's perhaps hard to call "No Way Out" a romantic spy thriller, considering that the love interest, played by Sean Young, is *spoiler* killed off fairly early on. But, while it may not be the film on the list most likely to make you sigh and hug yourself a little tighter, it works like gangbusters as a thriller. The plot twists and turns in genuinely unexpected ways (with a genuinely shocking final revelation, although one that arguably is a little bit of a cheat), but it rarely feels forced or convoluted. And as brief as the romance between Young and Kevin Costner is, it's a properly sexy one. Costner's terrific too, a more complex role than the All-American Boy he often plays, and he's backed up with great support, most notably from Will Patton and George Dzunda.
"North by Northwest" (1959)
Better-respected critics than ourselves have written weighty treatises on the color of Cary Grant’s socks in the crop duster scene from “North by Northwest”, so it’s difficult to know what our little entry here can possibly say that hasn’t already been said. But while there are many Alfred Hitchcock movies to which we film bores like to append the word “essential,” in no other case can we do it with quite so light a heart. It may not have the disturbing psychodrama of “Vertigo” or even the formal perfection of “Rear Window” or “Notorious”, but what it does have is romance, humor, spies, chases, red herrings, suave villains, sleeper cars and a level of sheer kinetic fun rarely seen before or since. And on a personal note, a late-night viewing of this particular movie at age 7 will always be credited with about 30% of the reason this writer loves film, and at least 90% of the reason that my vote for Greatest Movie Star of All Time will always go to Cary Grant.