This is the second in a series of four pieces written summarising and reflecting on the talks I witnessed at the Spying on Spies conference of September 2015.
My first panel of the long, good – but not Docklands-set – Friday – was chaired by the President of the European Language Council, Maurizio Viezzi. This panel covered a range of European Cold War films and television shows and representations of Europe.
Lorenzo Medici (Universita degli Studi di Perugia, Italy) focused on Italian spy movies in the late-1960s, with a decorous power-point that incorporated a vast array of amusing and bizarre film posters. He identified 170 Italian movies in this genre of ‘Eurospy’ – which is marked by its usually ‘incomprehensible’ plots. The genre’s heroes included: ‘Agente 077’, ‘008’, ‘Upper-7’, ‘OSS-077’ and ‘James Tont’ – ‘tonto’ being Italian for stupid! One film was entitled O.K. Connery (1967), and featured Neil Connery – Sean’s brother. From Russia With Love’s Daniela Bianchi was cast alongside These films sounded silly, lurid and surely would be entertaining, containing such tantalising signifiers as ‘booby bombs’, ‘a thermo-nuclear navel’, ‘rich colour’ and ‘Pop Art’. While, seemingly, they lacked the considered satirical intent of a Modesty Blaise (1966), who wouldn’t want to see a Eurospy film called Goldginger (1965), where action is situated at a Ginger Ale factory!?
Medici pinpointed La Guerra Segreta (1965) – starring Henry Fonda and Annie Girardot – as a ‘strange film’. Secret Agent Fireball (1965) – set in Beirut, unlike the film version of The Ipcress File (1965), which excises the novel’s Beirut sequence.
Any direct mention of Communism was avoided, due to the strength of the Italian Communist party – and indeed, in the late-1960s détente had enabled these films to portray the Soviets and Americans as allies. The focus in the Eurospy genre was on Chinese villains, not Soviets. In the Q&A, Medici disavowed any sense that these films might be seen as part of the NATO or Atlanticist Cold War ‘effort’, arguing that this was an economically booming country trying to maintain a frivolous distance. In the 1960s, Italians had more leisure, which was said to be mirrored in the films’ technology, foreign locations and action sequences. Italians had money and did travel. There’s at least one 1960s episode of Steptoe and Son where Harold yearns for Fellini’s Italy – ‘Sunday for Seven Days’ (TX: 04/02/1964) – and Italian food and fashions were coveted by urban connoisseurs like Harry Palmer (unnamed in the novel) in The Ipcress File. Medici closed with a precis of the ingredients of this filmic sub-genre: ‘funny’, ‘lust’, ‘troubles’, ‘mystery’.
The forceful Rui Lopes (Universidade Nova de Lisboa) explored US filmic portrayals of espionage in Lisbon in the reign of fascist dictator Salazar, who ruled Portugal from 1933-74. Greene and Fleming had both cited Lisbon as an inspiration for certain of their writings. In Casablanca (1942), Lisbon is the gateway to freedom. The West, as ever selective with its adherence to democracy, backed Salazar and he aligned with the West, though Portugal was neutral in WW2. US films were accepted; foreign markets were deemed necessary. Lopes mentioned numerous films with Lisbon signifying a safe haven, or path to America. These included The Lady Has Plans (1942), which depicts the said lady having secret plans tattooed to her body. There was intriguing mention of Alfredson referring to espionage as the feminine version of war, foregrounding intuition and persuasion.
Lopes commented that the dictatorship, if portrayed at all, is seen as saviour, not, as many Portuguese would have seen them, as torturer and persecutor. The Conspirators (1944) was seen as a key film – not just featuring Hedy Lamarr, the “little man” (Peter Lorre) and the “fat man” (Sydney Greenstreet), but with the Dutch Resistance hiding out with the Portuguese fishing community, and a rallying anti-Nazi speech that implied there is no parallel between Nazism and the Salazar regime. In several 1950s and 1960s films, the pattern continued: of avoiding comment on the Salazar regime in favour of Lisbon as site of ‘romantic allure’, seen through the prism of espionage. As Lopes comments in the programme: ’Hollywood’s formulaic narratives – in some cases combined with Washington’s propaganda strategies – resulted in a depiction of Portugal that ultimately dissociated Salazar’s dictatorship from its fascist origins and practices.’
Then, Sebastian Haller (Danube University Krems) was the first of two conference speakers who addressed Das unsichtbare Visier (1973-79), an espionage TV series from the GDR. This was a story of the Stasi, over sixteen episodes, covering the period of the late-1940s to the end of the 1960s. Episodes 1-9 focused on one agent (‘an East German James Bond’), before a more ideologically apt focus on a collective of agents from episodes 10-16! It featured its Stasi agent heroes in a fictional world which encompassed far-flung locations as various as West Germany, Argentina, Portugal, Italy and South Africa.
Socialist Unity Party and GDR leader from 1971-89, Erich Honecker, was quoted in terms of how the series depicted nationhood in terms of class. It represents West Germans as an out-group, and their country as associated with an unemployment crisis, in contrast with the stability and security offered by the GDR. The series’ rhetoric was said to incorporate anti-imperialism and anti-fascism and depicts a peace-loving state. A bit of a contrast, then, to its British contemporary, Brian Clemens’ The Professionals (1978-82)! West German NATO membership and reinstatement of former Nazis is critiqued; the building of the Berlin Wall is commended and contextualised. This was all in response to the late-1960s, early-1970s rapprochement and Ostpolitik, with both Germanys moving away from the policies of reunification: an easing of tensions but also a need to establish distinct identities. To end a particularly fascinating paper, Haller referred to the series as ‘popular culture’s contribution to the establishment of a Socialist nation’.
When asked, Medici scotched any question of their being significant residual fascism in post-WW2 Italy, and restating his point that the country didn’t really want to be involved in the Cold War. Lopes referred to Italian director Sergio Corbucci as being an outspoken leftist, and Medici accepted that most in Italian cinema held communist or socialist beliefs, but these views did not shape the content of the films. Sergio Grieco was mentioned as another Italian Communist, who had made films in the Soviet Union, working as assistant to Vsevolod Pudovkin. There was discussion of how Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953) was edited for West German and Italian release, to remove communism from its plots, to avoid losing a large section of the audience with communist sympathies; Medici referred to the Communist Party’s regular 30% support in the polls. Haller made the point that the 1970s was the one time where the GDR could plausibly present itself to be on the right side – with Portuguese and Spanish fascist regimes collapsing and anti-imperialist movements growing in Angola and Mozambique. Haller also stated that most people in the GDR would have known Bond, and that it would have been perceived as an imperialist fairy tale – in effect, James Bond fuels wars, the Stasi spy in the series ends them.
As a curious complement to the Eurospy films, Lopes discussed maritime imagery in Mexico-set films made in Portugal, and made droll reference to a sardine cannery featuring as a villains’ HQ in one WW2 era film. There was reference to transnationalism in the sense of co-productions, which made me think of Hammer and how much of British horror wasn’t quite so pure in its ‘Englishness’ as is supposed, in production and funding contexts, at least. I was curious what the audience sizes were, for both the Italian Euro-spy thrillers and the GDR’s Cold War epic narrative, but didn’t get the time to ask.
A line from this marvelous panel that stayed with me as encapsulating the self-image of Italians was Medici’s quote – “I’m neutral. I’m Italian!” – from a scene of a Europsy thriller, when an Italian ‘hero’ character is menaced by a Chinese spy.
Experienced popular culture academic James Chapman (University of Leicester)’s Keynote Lecture focused on the neglected spy films of Alfred Hitchcock, who made more in the genre than many others. He placed the twelve films – 5 UK, 7 US-made – into ideological and historical context, while also providing notable points on recent archival research at the Margaret Herrick Library, California. He quoted Peter Wollen on Hitchcock’s films being about a ‘disruption of the surface normality by forces of anarchy and chaos that lurk beneath that thin crust, that thin protection of civilisation’, which Wollen had misquoted from John Buchan’s The Powerhouse (1913).
Chapman placed Hitchcock’s British films in the context of the 1927 Cinematograph Act, a protectionist measure which required a quota of British films, alluding to ground fascinating covered by Steve Chibnall and Matthew Sweet among others: the “quota quickie”, a type of film cheaper than historical epics or the like. Regarding 1930s British cinema, he made the salient point that Edgar Wallace was the most adapted author, not the more ‘important’ figures such as A.J. Cronin or J.B. Priestley. 350 British crime films were made in the 1930s, Chapman reported, with about 10-12 spy films per year. The BBFC was very against “American style gangsterism” with its tommy guns, and the spy film grew as a result. The W Plan (1930), a WW1 spy film, and the contemporary Rome Express (1932) started the cycle and 1936-9 saw the peak in the numbers of British espionage films, and he situated Hitchcock’s films in context of the rise of fascism and appeasement. He begins with discussing The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) as a concise, fast-paced spy thriller about an ‘anarchist threat’, suggesting to me certain Conrad and Chesterton texts.
The Thirty-Nine Steps’ (1935) political meeting scene is highlighted, along with a reference to Michael Denning’s analysis of Hannay’s navigation of the class system by assuming different guises. Secret Agent (1936), a Maugham adaptation was referred to briefly as a somewhat denigrated film and not one of the most interesting. Sabotage (1936) – confusingly, the adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) – is placed in Denning’s lineage of the ‘existential thriller’. He is said to combine and move between the Buchan-James Bond and Graham Greene-John le Carré schools of spy story.
Of the British films, The Lady Vanishes (1938) received deepest analysis, Chapman describing it as ‘the most English of Hitchcock’s films’. He made amusing reference to there being a paper waiting to written on the mythical landscapes of central Europe: he theorised that The Prisoner of Zenda’s Ruritania becomes Bandrika in TLV, following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then Vosnia in the post-WW2 State Secret (1950), also by Launder and Gilliat. He analysed the key scene where, following a blunt critique of pacifism on the train, Mr Todhunter (Cecil Parker) gets out of the train, raises a handkerchief in the air and is shot and killed; critics have described this as an allusion to appeasement. Chapman explained that the film was in the can before the Munich conference, though it was in British cinemas by September 1938, so definitely had cultural topicality that affected its reception.
Hitchcock’s American films were glossier; Foreign Correspondent (1940) cost four times that of The Thirty-Nine Steps, Chapman stated. He noted that Hitchcock was equally against the grain in 1940 America with FC’s pro-interventionism stance as he had been in 1938 Britain with TLV’s anti-appeasement stance. Reflecting on research from the Margaret Herrick archive, he discussed a minor character portrayed by George Sanders: “In the first draft, he’s not called Scott Foley…” He paused for several seconds. “He’s called Ian Fleming” – a pay-off that elicited much amusement. A likeness he then analysed with Foley being a journalist with an effete manner and sporting of suede shoes…
Saboteur (1942) was discussed as a somewhat overlooked, interesting film, containing a post-Pearl Harbour speech and an ‘enemy within’ threat; Notorious (1946) was not analysed in depth but was described as a precursor of the moral ambiguity of the Cold War spy films. Hitchcock went on to make four Cold War films. There was discussion of the ‘genre upscaling’ of the more ‘leisurely’ US The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).
North by Northwest (1959) is referred to as an ‘exemplary paranoia thriller’ and the best instance of Hitchcock’s distinctive combination of the sensational thriller with the moral ambiguous Cold War drama. He dissected its sense of absurd masquerade, impersonation and fluidity of identity. Chapman entertainingly reeled off a litany of the film’s ‘bizarre and dangerous predicaments’:
“He’s mistaken for a spy… A spy who it turns doesn’t exist. He’s kidnapped in broad daylight in a crowded hotel lobby. He’s forcibly plied with alcohol and put behind the wheel of a car. He’s suspected of murdering a diplomat at the United Nations. He’s lured out to the middle of a prairie and attacked by a crop-dusting plane. Now, at the end of the film, he finds himself scrambling over the Presidential monuments at Mount Rushmore, clutching a blonde in one arm and an Amazonian statuette containing a secret microfilm in the other. This is a sensational, adventure, implausible narrative!”
Developing on Notorious’ narrative, Eva Marie Saint’s heroine has to prostitute herself in the supposed service of her country. Cary Grant is given the line to US secret service types: “If that’s the kind of tactic you guys use, then maybe you ought to try losing a few Cold Wars…” Chapman reflected that there couldn’t have been a piece of dialogue like that five years earlier, amid McCarthyism.
He discussed the influence of NBNW – a spy parody in itself –on Bond films, with the crop-duster scene as ‘far superior’ to the rip-off in Dr No (1962). Hitchcock was interested in directing the James Bond with the Secret Service film, scripted by Fleming, yet it didn’t happen as Fleming and others wanted to retain control. Hitchcock is said to have admired The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), the key film of the more ambiguous school along with the Deighton adaptations.
Defector story Torn Curtain (1966) was described as ‘perfectly passable’ and ‘underrated’, but one that fell between stools and did not match the seriousness of TSWCIFTC or the wild excesses of a spoof like the same year’s Modesty Blaise. Pauline Kael is quoted on his final spy film, the so-so Topaz (1969): ‘the same damn spy movie that he’s been making since the thirties, but it’s getting longer and duller’. Chapman concludes with describing Hitchcock’s spy films as a paradigm of the genre, displaying the full range of narrative types open to the spy film.
When asked further about the ideologies, he said that Ivor Montagu may have had much to do with some of the anti-fascism of Hitchcock’s films. Post-war, ideologically, he was said to lean perhaps towards JFK and the Democrats, due to his wife’s influence. The original script to the 1956 TMWKTM is said to very specifically include references to the Russians, written out at a later stage.
In the British TMWKTM, he identified a ‘marvellous ambiguity’ in Frank Vosper as Ramon, the Spanish-sounding assassin and the none-more-sinister European Peter Lorre playing a character with the Abbott, a traditional English surname. This is in the context of the film’s anarchists – with “our cause” – being international and not rooted. In NBNW, he makes it clear there’s no specific Soviet villainy – more a generic Eastern European one, and vague references to “over there”.
When asked regarding spy-craft and Hitchcock’s ’amateur’ spies, Chapman contrasts this tendency with Topaz – a ‘flawed film’ – is said to be the most focused on ‘realistic’ spy-craft, and there is a sequence set in Cuba including bugging techniques. Other questions elicited interesting responses: on how Sabotage shows much fidelity to Conrad and how the 1979 version of The Lady Vanishes was ‘far better’ than often credited but that the recent BBC TV was much closer to the book but that ‘just wasn’t as good!’