Grit not glamour is the mark of a real movie spy

As the espionage thriller A Most Wanted Man opens in cinemas today Tony Earnshaw takes a look at the netherworld of the movie spy.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as German intelligence officer Gunther Bachmann in  A Wanted Man.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as German intelligence officer Gunther Bachmann in A Wanted Man.

Ian Fleming lived vicariously through his creation James Bond. Not for him the icy chill of the Cold War where battle lines were drawn across a no man’s land of plot and double-plot.

The world of 007 was populated by stunning females, traversed by sleek cars and played out against a backdrop of baccarat tables, pristine beaches and casinos where the super rich gambled away the equivalent of the English national debt

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“It is the author’s pillow fantasy,” said Fleming. “I really don’t see why Bond should drink miserable cups of tea and dreary half pints of bitter. I insist on seeing that the man enjoys only the best. I’ve the usual vices myself, but Bond is really a latter-day St George. He does kill wicked dragons after all.

“Bond is the kind of man every girl secretly dreams of meeting, and leads the life every man would like to live if he dared. He takes care not to fall in love. He gets the girls – beautiful girls – but I make him suffer for it.”

If Fleming’s Bond is the average man’s image of the eternal MI5 spook then Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer represented the blue-collar antithesis. Bond was an old Etonian thug in a tuxedo.

The 1960s were the classic era for the British spy. But it was less Bond and Palmer – and their stars Sean Connery and Michael Caine – than the world-weary burn-outs created by John le Carré that epitomised the real McCoy.

It was Richard Burton as Alec Leamas in the 1965 film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold who utters the spy’s credo. In a speech to Nan, the naïve young Communist duped into doing the Soviets’ bidding, he unburdens himself with rare passion.

“What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not.

“They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me. Little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they live like monks in a cell balancing right from wrong? There’s only one rule: expediency.”

Le Carré is the daddy of all spy thrillers. His characters, notably Leamas and George (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) Smiley occupy a terrain of intrigue, lies and bluff and double bluff. Le Carré’s world is authentic.

Günther Bachmann, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, in A Most Wanted Man which opens in cinemas today, is cut from the same cloth as Alec Leamas. He’s weary, grey, rumpled. Too many late nights, too many cigarettes, too many days at the sharp end, fighting an elliptical foe so that the masses can sleep soundly in their beds.

The enemies have evolved but the landscape is unchanged. Bachmann is a German but he and Leamas – and Smiley – are interchangeable. Fifty years on there is still an international army of spooks, but these days the bad guys are even badder.

If le Carré has been a constant the movies made from his books have not. The game changer was the character of Robert Ludlum’s hero Jason Bourne. For those who think Matt Damon was the actor who helped re-define James Bond then they’d be wrong.

For Damon came a late second after 54-year-old Richard Chamberlain, who played Bourne in a 1988 TV mini series. However, no one remembers that now. It was the Damon/Bourne combo that shifted the 21st century spy movie to a whole new level. Suddenly Hollywood was making intelligent, plausible spy thrillers. There had been others such as The Three Days of the Condor but that was in the 70s. It took 30 years to match that quality.

Told at a nervy, frenetic pace by Doug Liman The Bourne Identity in 2002 never paused for breath. Boasting a cerebral script, bone-crunching fight sequences and the best car chase since John Frankenheimer’s Ronin in 1998, The Bourne Identity showed what Hollywood studios could do when unencumbered by formulaic genre stereotypes and lazy, effects-reliant scripts.

Yet the globe-trotting, kinetic action and eye-popping stunts are still eclipsed by the keenness of le Carré’s eye for geopolitics and the purity of the radical terrorist.

These days the enemy is more enigmatic – stateless, without a flag and without scruples.

The Americans might think they have the world of espionage movies sewn up but it is the cadre of craggy men like Bachmann, Leamas and Smiley – professional, anonymous functionaries – who keep us all safe at night.

A Most Wanted Man is out on general release today.