I Spy – A look at Hollywood’s love for the spy genre

Robert De Niro’s sophomore directorial effort The Good Shepherd comes out on DVD on April 3rd.  The film tells the story of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) through the eyes of a fictional character played by Matt Damon, though based on real life operatives, as he participates in the fledgling agency. 

The project had been a pet project of De Niro’s and in the works for over nine years.  The film shows the reality behind the delicate art of spying as well as showing the pitfalls and dangers of having spying as your career or profession.  Hollywood has always had a fascination with spies and espionage.  I thought that I’d take a little trip through the crevices of my mind and look at a collection of films that deal with the spy genre. 

De Niro’s spy film is grounded in reality

De Niro’s spy film is grounded in reality

My first thought when told of the Good Shepherd was of Mervyn LeRoy’s The FBI Story (1959).  When you think of the CIA most likely the other agency mentioned is the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).  Made under the watchful eye of dictatorial chief of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover, the film follows the “aw shucks” antics of agent John “Chip” Hardesty played with 1950s goodness by James Stewart (who Hoover hand picked for the role). 

The film begins with a 12 minute dramatization of a 1955 case where a young punk blows up an airplane to collect the insurance money on his mother.  This somewhat reflects scenes in Good Shepherd that shows how a piece of film is investigated, down to the model of the ceiling fan that’s in the film.

The similarities probably end there since Stewart is probably a more likeable fellow than the stoic portrayal of Matt Damon.  Don’t get me wrong, I thought that Damon was actually excellent as the sphinx-like agent.  The  FBI Story also shows the stress and strain on the families of the agents involved as Good Shepherd shows as well. 

As for the FBI Story, just be prepared for the 1950s gloss (and positive spin) and you’ll find a good movie in there.  Warner Brothers put the film out in an anamorphic widescreen (1.77:1) enhanced for 16×9 televisions.  The only special feature is the film’s theatrical trailer.  You can buy this film by itself or in the James Stewart Signature Collection box set. 

Another film that echoes the themes found in the Good Shepherd is director Marvin Ritt’s  The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965).  When you’re in the spy game you’ll not know who to trust and burn out comes easily to those involved in the game.  Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is one such burnt out spook who finds himself pulled back into the Cold War.  Burton gives a brilliant performance and the film’s tone bleeds realism. 

On the hunt for Nazis in The FBI Story

On the hunt for Nazis in The FBI Story

The ending is not the typical ending for your usual spy film and ends on a very bleak note.  Such notes are to be found in the Good Shepherd and not all endings for the characters in that film are happy ones.  Paramount put the film out in an anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer enhanced for 16×9 televisions.  Sadly, there are no special features for this excellent film. 

Those three films take a realistic approach (well, by Hollywood standards – dramatic license to thrill is always taken) to spying, but a new genre was born in 1962 when a super-spy went down to Crab Key and put an end to the devilish operator named Dr. No. 

James Bond went on to start up a series that continues to this day.  Sean Connery rocketed to international superstardom as Ian Fleming’s master spy.  The role has been portrayed by George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and the current Bond is Daniel Craig. 

The franchise recently returned to the first Fleming novel and also went back to the beginnings with an adaptation of Casino Royale.  Both Mr. Bond and Casino Royale were well represented with nice DVD releases by both Sony and MGM/Fox.  The entire franchise was digitally cleaned and given 2 disc special editions and boxed together in four volumes.

Recently, they also started releasing the films in one disc editions that jettison the second disc of special features but do have the digitally remastered films.  Casino Royale was given a very nice treatment by Sony on DVD, but rumors of an Ultimate Edition along the lines of the Bond box sets seem to persist

With James Bond fever sweeping the nation in the 1960s meant that imitators were popping up left and right.  My favorite of the theatrical imitators was a suave secret agent that could slow down his heartbeat and had a cigarette lighter that had a multitude of functions (one more if you count lighting a cigarette).  That fellow was named Derek Flint and he appeared in Our Man Flint (1966) and In Like Flint (1967).  He was played by the king of cool James Coburn and offered gruff support from Lee J. Cobb as his grouchy boss. 

Bond ushered in a new age of spy thrillers

Bond ushered in a new age of spy thrillers

The Flint films have a sense of fun and irony.  Austin Powers found some inspiration from them as well.  Fox released a wonderful 3 disc set called the Ultimate Flint Collection.  It included a bevy of special features including commentaries and a nice collection of featurettes on disc 3. 

The hideous television movie Our Man Flint: Dead on Target (1976) is also found on the third disc, but it’s best avoided since it bears no resemblance to the Flint of the Coburn movies and is more like an episode of Columbo.  Coburn didn’t return and Ray Danton takes over as Flint.  It’s good to finally be able to see it out of curiosity, but believe me it is best to be avoided if you love the Coburn versions. 

The small screen didn’t escape the influence of our man Bond.  Although hopeful fan’s wishes were eventually dashed, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was announced to be coming from Anchor Bay and then the vile claw of copyright pulled it off the schedule. 

However, fans of another small screen spy would be excited to learn that another show would be released on DVD in 2006 and the second season came out most recently.  1965 would see a spy come out of the west, the Wild Wild West that is.  James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) were commissioned by President Ulysses S. Grant to spy for him in the old west. 

They used both West’s skills at fighting, Gordon’s ability at disguises, and an array of gadgets that would make Bond jealous.  They’d face some fierce competition from that diminutive devil Dr. Miguelito Loveless (the delightful Michael Dunn) as their arch nemesis. 

The first season DVD release features a great selection of special features including comments and introductions from Robert Conrad, other audio interviews, bloopers, and even Conrad’s famous Eveready battery commercial.  The second season has been recently been released onto DVD, but it doesn’t keep up the special features begun on the first season (actually it has none).  However, it does switch to color and the shows are a whole lot of fun. 

The Flint films have a sense of fun and irony

The Flint films have a sense of fun and irony

Spies, spies, everywhere the spies.  Though I stuck to some of my favorites, Hollywood will always be obsessed with the spy genre.  They’ll continue to make both realistic and fantastic spy films.  It will be a genre that will never die, though some of the poor spies might find themselves on the wrong end of a gun. 

Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.

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