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Ten Romantic Spy Thrillers

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 9, 2010 at 7:40AM

It's probably escaped your attention, as the film's essentially being buried by all involved, but the Angelina Jolie/Johnny Depp spy flick "The Tourist" hits theaters tomorrow. Early reviews have been poisonous (and we certainly were not impressed) but it's not entirely surprising -- the film's genre, that of the romantic espionage thriller, is not the easiest one to get right, requiring a fiendishly difficult juggling of tone.
7

“Notorious” (1946)
Often overlooked in favor of the more popular “North by Northwest” when it comes to Alfred Hitchcock-Cary Grant pairings, “Notorious” is a brooding, sometimes brutal romantic thriller about love, betrayal, deception...and uranium. Grant’s American agent Devlin recruits Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia to spy on a group of Nazis in post-WWII Brazil, by seducing and ultimately marrying Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains). Since we’re talking Bergman and Grant, their mission is complicated by the inevitable love between Devlin and Alicia, which reaches a heady climax in a minute-spanning kissing scene. Hitchcock got around the production code’s criteria for kiss length by breaking up their kisses with whispers and touching far sexier than any single, lengthy kiss would’ve been. There’s a fun MacGuffin, but we’re far less concerned with the plot device than we are with the complex characters and their heated interactions.

"On Her Majesty’s Secret Service" (1969)
It’s ironic that this most untypical of Bond movies is one of the most satisfying in stand-alone film terms. Of course it’s a perennial Trival Pursuit answer -- George Lazenby’s only performance as 007 -- but that isn’t the only thing that sets it apart. It’s also the only one Peter Hunt directed, it was the first time the female lead was the more famous (something not repeated until the Brosnan era), it features Bond’s only marriage, and it foreshadows recent developments in the series by showing Bond scared and hurt (emotionally if not physically). Lazenby does a better job than history credits him with -- he’s no Connery, but he’s not as campy as Roger Moore or as humourless as Timothy Dalton either. And there are enough familiar elements: exotic snowy locales, gadgets, ludicrous world domination plots involving beautiful women (among them Rigg’s ‘Avengers’ successor Joanna Lumley) and arch-villain Blofeld (here played by Telly Savalas), to provide all the continuity we need. It may be the cuckoo in the 007 nest, but it’s worth checking out anyway.

"Three Days of the Condor" (1975)
They don't make romantic spy films like they used to and they certainly don't make thrillers like they did in the '70s (though arguably films like "Michael Clayton" and "The American" do tip their caps to that era heavily). Alan J. Pakula ("The Parallax View," "Klute," "All The President's Men") was arguably the master of this genre (which is really the '70s political thriller), and Fred Zinnemann's "The Day of the Jackal" is another classic, but right up there with those greats is Sydney Pollack's 1975 thriller, "Three Days of the Condor" (man, did Pollack have an incredible '70s run including "Jeremiah Johnson," The Yakuza," and "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" at the tail end of the '60s). Shot on location in New York, Robert Redford -- the Pollack leading man of choice, they worked together on seven different films -- stars as an Open source intelligence CIA desk plebe whose job is essentially a reader looking for hidden clues or messages in books, magazines and periodicals around the globe. He turns in a report one day on a low-brow thriller novel that his office has read and when he returns from lunch, he watches his entire office get assassinated and realizes his life is in danger. On the run, and using his knowledge of CIA thinking to use counter-tactics to improve his continued escape, he kidnaps a random woman (Faye Dunaway) and forces her to hide him in her Brooklyn apartment. Holding her prisoner, and yet trusting her with his story, she is eventually convinced to believe the CIA-man on the lam and the two implausibly fall in love (or call it Stockholm Syndrome if you like). Admittedly, the romance part of the film is weak, or at least by the time they're in bed for the first time you don't entirely buy it, but the picture is such a taut, cat-and-mouser that in the end, it matters little. Full of that wonderful disquiet often utilized in '70s thrillers (little music, odd stretches without much sound), the ratcheted tension and suspense in 'Condor' is top notch, and while Pollack has many things to be proud of in his directorial career ("Tootsie," "This Property Is Condemned," "Absence of Malice" to name a few), this lean, paranoid thriller is certainly one of the most engaging pics he ever helmed and is near and dear to our hearts.

Honorable Mentions: Hitchcock's the master of the genre, and there's a few of his entries that we excluded to prevent it from becoming Hitchfest '10 -- "The Man Who Knew Too Much" is a good one, and "To Catch A Thief" falls halfway between the spy genre and the heist picture. Stanley Donen's another one who tackled the genre more than once, and his "Arabesque," while undeniably a weaker cousin of "Charade," is fitfully entertaining. Just stay away from Jonathan Demme's "Charade" remake, "The Truth About Charlie," which features Mark Wahlberg, Thandie Newton and Tim Robbins seemingly competing to see who can appear to be the most miscast.

There's a couple of Cold War romances from the early '90s which are somewhat underrated -- "The Russia House" features a fine script from Tom Stoppard and a good Michelle Pfieffer performance, while "The Innocent" is John Schlesinger's decent-enough adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel. More recently, some have tried to combine big action fare with romance -- starting with James Cameron's entertaining, albeit politically troubling "True Lies," and continuing up to 2005's "Mr. and Mrs. Smith." One of the more effective was "Casino Royale," in which Eva Green's Vesper Lynd was one of the great Bond girls, and managed to include a relationship with real heft for the first time since "OHMSS."

And, of course, there's more serious fare out there -- Godard's "Le Petit Soldat," Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" and Greta Garbo's fine performance in "Mata Hari." By all accounts, any of the above are worth checking out rather than heading to the theater for "The Tourist" this weekend...

- Jessica Kiang, Katie Walsh, Kimber Myers, Oli Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez

This article is related to: Feature, The Tourist


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