Tomas Alfredson’s much-lauded espionage drama Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy draws from a fine cinematic history of spies and double-crossings. Craig Mathieson looks at some of the best.
1 Feb 2012 - 4:00 PM  UPDATED 24 Sep 2017 - 12:55 PM

Suffused with a particular kind of dread – it's not a question of if the situation is bad, rather how bad it is – and an unnerving atmosphere where deception feels like the norm, even for the audience, Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of John le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (SBS, Friday) has put the spy film back before appreciative audiences. With its grim period setting of 1973 London and emphasis on information over action, the movie feels like a throwback to a more complex era. But espionage has long fascinated filmmakers and the pictures that have resulted have moved through multiple incarnations, shedding skins and assuming new identities just as their subjects do.


Watch 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' on SBS

SBS, Friday 29 September, 8.40pm

United Kingdom, 2011
Genre: Thriller
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: David Dencik, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth
What's it about?
George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a recently retired MI6 agent, is doing his best to adjust to a life outside the secret service. However, when a disgraced agent reappears with information concerning a mole at the heart of the Circus, Smiley is drawn back into the murky field of espionage. Tasked with investigating which of his trusted former colleagues has chosen to betray him and their country, Smiley narrows his search to four suspects – all experienced, urbane, successful agents – but past histories, rivalries and friendships make it far from easy to pinpoint the man who is eating away at the heart of the British establishment"¦

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Tomas Alfredson interview
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The Amateurs
The great Fritz Lang had made The Spies during the silent era and Greta Garbo played the title role in 1931's Mata Hari, but many of the early spy film focused on the innocents and outsiders trapped within nefarious plots they could not initially comprehend. Some of Alfred Hitchcock's best British productions from the 1930s helmed to this course, including 1934's The Man Who Knew Too Much and 1937's gripping Sabotage, which compared the cinema's power to create images with that of the terrorist. But the best was The 39 Steps, the rattling 1935 pursuit of a man framed for murder (Robert Donat) who must escape from both the authorities and his new adversaries.


Browse Secrets and Spies movie collection at SBS on Demand 

For One or For All?
After World War II no-one could deny that the various intelligence services and covert arms had a role to play, and as their importance to a country became clear so did the question of what mattered more: allegiance to the state or another individual. It was Hitchcock who perfectly captured this with the love triangle forged for 1946's Notorious: Cary Grant's American agent falls in love with the daughter of a Nazi spy (Ingrid Bergman) who he has recruited to infiltrate a Brazil-based cell of her father's comrades. When he pushes her into the frame, she decides he was only pretending to love her and spites him by committing even further and marrying one of the Nazi's, played by Claude Rains. Smuggled uranium, subterfuge and poison illuminate the gap between duty and the heart.

“They can make me do anything”
There would be many strains of spy films in the 1960s, as the Cold War took hold, and one held to the nightmarish as a measure. The plots were not only grander, they trafficked in the terrifying. There's no better example than John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate, where Laurence Harvey's Korean War hero is actually a Soviet spy who can be programmed to carry out heinous tasks without knowing. With its hallucinatory clinics and switches between opposing realities, the film turns a somewhat ludicrous thriller into a fever dream, with Frank Sinatra as the U.S. Army officer who was taken alongside Harvey's scion and slowly begins to piece together what happened. The coup de grace: Harvey's increasingly mournful Raymond Shaw is ultimately controlled by his black widow mother (Angela Lansbury), who is an Oedipus complex for the ages.

Antidotes to Bond
Beginning with 1962's Dr. No, the James Bond films stand as their own distinct genre. The sleek gadgets and icy seductions of 007, personified by Sean Connery, turned spy films into blockbusters, but they're equally important for the reaction they engendered. Another stream of espionage tales in the sixties emphasised everyday grit and bureaucratic betrayal. Michael Caine played the distinctly working class Harry Palmer, a British secret agent, in a trio of films, the best of which is the first, 1965's The Ipcress File. None cut deeper, or played out better as tragic reality, than Martin Ritt's 1965 adaptation of John le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Richard Burton is the British agent who poses as a defector, destroying lives as he goes, realising too late that his superiors based their plans on him failing in his mission. Guilt and self-loathing came easily to Burton, and this performance trades on them.

No-one Knows
In the 1970s it was difficult to tell who was a spy in the movies, or who they even worked for. Paranoia and conspiracy theories combined in the age of Watergate to make for a milieu where protagonists found themselves in a world where even their quarries weren't certain of the parameters. Corporation and governments intertwined in the likes of the The Domino Principle and The Parallax View, but the standout was Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor, where Robert Redford's CIA analyst nips out for coffee and comes back to the office to find that everyone has been killed. His enemy is his own superiors, and Redford's Joe Turner goes on the run with Faye Dunaway's Kathy Hale, only finding a degree of safety when the assassin pursuing him (Max von Sydow) is awarded a different contract.

Rats in the Ranks
The eighties in Hollywood are routinely described as being a populist clampdown after the often remarkable movie brat cinema of the seventies, but amidst John Rambo and Porky's there were several espionage films that examined betrayal amongst the kind of Americans who once upheld the country's idealised view of itself. Roger Donaldson's No Way Out, made with Kevin Costner at his most dashing, turned on a plot twist that rewrote audience allegiances, while in 1985's The Falcon and the Snowman John Schlesinger told the real life story of Christopher Boyce (Timothy Boyce) and Daulton Lee (Sean Penn), the sons of privileged Californian families who ended up selling classified U.S. information to the Soviet Union. The film sat between tragedy and farce, with a fine pair of complementary lead performances.

“Who am I?”
The most popular – and critically acclaimed – spy films in the 21st century has been the Jason Bourne trilogy, with Doug Liman directing 2002's The Bourne Identity before Englishman Paul Greengrass took over for 2004's The Bourne Supremacy and 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum. With Matt Damon as the amnesiac spy fighting his way towards the truth about his own life, these were gritty espionage tales that focused on how the vast machinery at work made the individual an afterthought. These were action films as existential struggles, and the theme was made explicit in Syriana, Stephen Gaghan's allusive 2005 geopolitical thriller, where George Clooney's burnt out spook races across the desert to explain himself to a prince from a fictional Gulf state ruling family even as the CIA plot to kill the royal from an antiseptic facility half a world away. The spy, here, is just a minor asset, human and all too expendable.