September 24, 2013

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR And HOPSCOTCH Make Me Long For Analog Espionage

"Money is too expensive to be earned that way." 
"You play games, I told them a story."
It wasn't until later that I realized I had inadvertently bookended the two days of Noteworthy Reunion with a pair of old school spy movies, Sydney Pollack's Three Days Of The Condor starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway as well as George Neame's Hopscotch, starring Walter Matthau, Ned Beatty and a babyfaced Sam Waterston.  Furthering the coincidence, both films center on an upstanding CIA agent who's betrayed by the Company and forced to go on the run from the fellow agents who are trying to kill him.  However, tonally they couldn't possibly be any different; Condor is a dark and deadly serious thriller while Hopscotch is a comedic, globetrotting romp.  But looking back on both movies, what I'm struck most by is my fondness for this era of low-fi, analog spy tales.

James Bond was staple of my youth.  I still have fond memories sitting on the couch with my dad and watching the old "13 Days Of 007" marathons on TBS, including the time that someone hacked the station and broadcast a few minutes of porn instead.  (I just spent ten minutes Googling this and found no corroborating evidence that it actually happened, but I swear that it did.  Either that or it was a REALLY awkward dream I had.)  Over the course of fifty years, that franchise has embraced a number of different styles and directions, so there's pretty much a Bond that appeals to everyone no matter what your tastes.  I've always been a Connery man myself, but I've really never met a 007 I didn't like.  But I also feel a particular kinship with Pierce Brosnan because that iteration of the character really falls right in the sweet spot on the timeline of my life.  Timothy Dalton's dark take on the character, which is actually pretty close to Daniel Craig's current version, effectively stopped the franchise dead in its tracks with License To Kill when I was only six years old.  Bond lay dormant for over half a decade until Brosnan took over the role with 1995's GoldenEye, right at the point where I was starting to appreciate the actual craft of filmmaking.  THe movie turned out to be an absolute monster hit and also spawned a massively popular video game that some of my friends still play today.  Brosnan's Bond was not only charming and capable, but more importantly he was fun!  He was clever, sexy and he had a whole new arsenal of amazing gadgets that wowed audiences.  But over the course of seven years, Brosnan was eventually hoisted on his own pitard, drifting from fun and exciting to silly and absurd.  Brosnan's run became the embodiment of too much of a good thing, and by the time Bond found himself driving a remote control invisible car around the North Pole, audiences were done.

Too many of our modern spy movies hinge upon crazy gadgets and/or some kind of future-tech MacGuffin, and unsurprisingly the same principal has begun to take hold of our real life espionage.  In a world where enemies are tracked and monitored by orbital satellites before being eliminated by unmanned drones, the art of proper spycraft is dying a slow death, but it's hard to say whether life is imitating art or vice versa.  Still, try to remember the last time you watched a spy film that didn't involve thwarting a doomsday weapon or someone getting out of a jam via some technological toy that looks cribbed from a comic book.  If it didn't, then chances are that the hero was some kind of unstoppable killing machine, a crack shot who's able to disarm and pummel anyone to death with their bare hands in the blink of an eye.  Guys like Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt or Bryan Mills are entertaining to be sure, but it rarely feels like they are in any real jeopardy or, for that matter, are actual flawed, mortal human beings.

I love spy movies about smart guys who can think their way out trouble but can also kick a little ass when necessary.  Spy Game, Argo, Sneakers, all of the (non-Affleck) Jack Ryan films and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy rank among my very favorites and I'll happily add Hopscotch and Condor to that list.  Redford's Joseph Turner and Matthau's Miles Kendig are each men who rely primarily upon their wits to anticipate a threat and stay one step ahead of the enemy, as opposed to waiting until they're cornered and then relying upon brute force.  Matthau engages in a particularly great game of cat & mouse, constantly toying with the CIA and making an absolute monkey out of Ned Beatty's agent Myerson.  Since the film is set in the late 70's the whole affair is charmingly low-tech, with Kendig sending chapters of his tell-all memoirs by postage and evading the authorities without even so much as a wig or an accent.  (That is, until the film's final scene where he appears as a surprisingly believable Indian.)  Hopscotch actually feels like the kind of movie that would be ripe for a remake these days, as it's a simple premise but not the kind of source material that's so well known as to feel in any way sacred.  In fact, I had never even heard of the movie until I saw it pop up on a list of recent additions to Netflix Instant.  Then again, I feel like some of the brazen fun might not translate as well in the modern era.  Watching Tom Hanks or George Clooney sending encrypted emails just doesn't have quite the same appeal.  Of course, put Bill Murray or Steve Martin in that role and my ticket is sold.

There is one caveat to my appreciation for Three Days Of The Condor.  I found the romance between Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway to be a little troubling, as she falls for him despite the fact that he basically holds her hostage in her own home and is kind of a dick to her the whole time.  It would be one thing if she was actually drawn into danger with him, because then at least she would form a connection with Redford based on his ability to protect her.  Hardly the strongest basis for a lasting relationship, but at least it's understandable.  Instead, most of their relationship can essentially be boiled down to a case of Stockholm Syndrome.  And the ultimate secret behind the Agency's desire to kill him feels a bit weak.  But Redford is Redford and his onscreen charisma is simply undeniable.  He can make even the more problematic of romance stories feel vaguely palatable.  (There's a reason he appears frequently on the above list of my favorite spy movies.)  To be honest, I'm somewhat astounded that someone hasn't already tried to remake this one either.  I feel like Paramount would've backed up a Brinks truck to Brad Pitt's front door years ago.

Perhaps we've hit the point where my best hope for the kind of espionage films I love so much is to wait for a period film set in the days before cell phones, wifi and digital anything.  That's probably a big part of why I enjoy FX's The Americans so much, because so much of the Soviet agents' time is spent spent cultivating assets, surveilling marks and planting bugs the size of a deck of cards.  Then again, Daniel Craig's modern run on James Bond has really turned a corner for the franchise.  Sure he's got some gadgets and yeah he can take down a room full of thugs without flinching, but he's a far cry from the last days of Remington Steele.  And soon we'll be getting a whole new Jack Ryan in the form of Chris Pine, and he's a character that has always been an analyst first and foremost.  I'm sure he'll end up blowing some stuff up, but surely it has to be a step up from The Sum Of All Fears, right?

To paraphrase the great Rocky Balboa, "If Bond can change, and Jack Ryan can change...maybe every spy can change."

Title: Hopscotch
Director: Ronald Neame
Starring: Walter Matthau, Ned Beatty, Sam Waterston, Glenda Jackson, Herbert Lom,
Year Of Release: 1980
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (Laptop)

Title: Three Days Of The Condor
Director: Sydney Pollack
Starring: Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow, Cliff Robertson, John Houseman,
Year Of Release: 1975
Viewing Method: Netflix DVD

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