A Legacy of Spies

The other year, in preparation for a novel I hoped would have more intrigue and action than I was used to writing, I decided to break with my comfort zone and read a few spy novels to deconstruct the genre and see how the action was set up and paced. I’d read a James Bond novel once and was less than impressed; the movies I loved so much were horribly dull novels, and the book-Bond looked much more like Truman Capote than any pretty-boy actor.

I didn’t want to waste time, so I Googled “best spy novels”, and one of the top two on almost every list was John LeCarré’s 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, so that was the one I read first.

The lists were right. The book was brilliant, and I couldn’t put it down. After that I rushed out to watch the 2012 BBC film version, an incredible cast including Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, and more – which was still excellent, though some people prefer the 1979 mini-series adaption with Alec Guinness (that’s Obi Wan Kenobi to some of you). The strangest part was that, while reading the book, I had already cast Toby Jones in one of the roles in my head  –  but as Peter Guillam, though, not Percy Alleline as he was in the film.

Why so good? Well, see – like Ian Fleming, John LeCarré (real name: David Cornwell; spies aren’t allowed to use their real names to publish novels) was an actual British spy in World War II, so he knows the ins and outs and tiny little details of how the game is played, layers upon layers of secrets and trades and double-dealings. He’s lived it first hand, and that makes all the believable difference. He began writing novels in 1961 (Call for the Dead), but it wasn’t until his third novel in 1963, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, that he hit the best-seller list and wound up quitting MI6 (the British Secret Intelligence Service) to pursue writing full time.

While all of us sit here and think, why would you quit being an awesome spy to write books?

But LeCarré certainly is good at it, with more than 24 novels to his name, almost all of them best-sellers. Several have been made into successful film adaptions, including The Constant Gardener (2005), starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) starring Richard Burton, and the recent delicious adaption of The Night Manager (2016), starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, a book that reads more like a James Bond adaption than a Bond novel does.

Unable to sit still in retirement, LeCarré, now 86, has pumped out yet another novel last year, A Legacy of Spies, a conclusion of sorts for George Smiley’s people, his ex-agent who keeps coming back. Pulling his best-loved characters from so many of his novels, LeCarré manages to weave them together with new characters in present-day, finding new depths and bringing new truths to light, even after 50 years. LeCarré shows that time has not diminished him nor his characters, and if you think you know how it will end, like all of his works, it’s pretty well guaranteed you don’t.

Give le Carré a try. If you like mystery, espionage, intrigue, and unraveling puzzles with characters who won’t let you go, then you’ll love his work. If you haven’t tried him, he’s a wonderful place to begin to explore the genre. For modern novels, he’s rather clean, without a lot of graphic violence or sex or language, perhaps making the stories even more remarkable. Start with Legacy of Spies and work backward, or start at the beginning and work forward. If you prefer to watch rather than read, there are more than ten films, five television adaptions, and four radio plays to keep you entertained. You’ll be so glad you did.

Wick-ed Action

I love a good action film. In going over lists of various film genres, I discovered I’ve seen the majority of the “best” action films, though I don’t always agree with what is considered an “action” film. I expect an action film to have – well, action: a lot of movement of characters or equipment, such as vehicles. It could be modern reality based – James Bond or Air Force One, or futuristic, such as Terminator, Alien, or Serenity, comic book heroes, or war-type films such as Commando or Rambo (my grandmother made me take her to every Stallone and Schwartzeneggar film that came out). There should be suspense, perhaps mystery, a vehicle chase, and almost always a good fight scene. Body counts are expected, but graphic violence isn’t required – Suicide Squad had a high bullet count, but little gore. History of Violence had a lower bullet count, but extremely graphic depictions. I don’t mind gore, but I won’t watch cruelty or sadism – I shut off Killing Season because it was focused on torture, not action.

I adored John Wick, an action movie with Keanu Reeves as an assassin who tries to retire but is sucked back into the business against his will. It was just about everything I could want in a film – the script is good, the acting is good, the cast is excellent and the action is awesome. It’s just a good all-around film. I saw John Wick 2 on opening day (the DVD was released June 13) and – it was good, but not quite as great as the first. The action is impeccable – perhaps the best actual hand combat choreography I’ve ever seen (especially compared to the farce of Batman v. Superman). The script is good. But Wick’s lines, so eloquent before, are cut to choppy, often one-word sentences, which Reeves is not good at. It’s got a high bullet count, a high body count, and realistically graphic splatter from a man who was known for killing four people with a pencil.

One thing I noticed about John Wick 2, though not as obvious as it was in London Has Fallen, a C+ film with multiple script flaws: the impact of videogames on choreography of action sequences. JW 2 has a wonderful flight/fight scene through the ancient underground tunnels of Rome, but you can see the influence of popular games such as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. Run, stop, run, corner, shoot, shoot balcony. Man pops out of hall, bang. Run, stop, turn, shoot. It might fit the tone of the scene, but it’s very stiff and staged. London Has Fallen was much worse: the greatest action sequence of the film, the Big Rescue, and the movie looked as if you’d taken a clip from Call of Duty, overlayed it with actors, and CGI’d them together. Maybe it was my TV upgrading the blu-ray to 4K, but you could almost see pixelation in the edges of the graphics. You could have checked it off a list: guy pops up behind garbage can? Check. Drive-by shot through windshield? Check. Balcony? Check. It was so obvious that not only did it stand out, it was distracting, and you stopped watching the progression because you were so offset by the fakeness, a “Where-Have-I-Seen-This-Before?”

Is this the wave of the future? I hope not. Sure, you can look back at an early Bond film and see how cheesy the fight scenes are. You can almost hear them counting off in their heads: fist, block, step, kick, block, groin, throw, grab, twist… You can marvel at the slo-mo twists and turns of The Matrix sequences, but that’s not exactly reality, either. CGI is wonderful – it gave us Legolas sliding down oliphaunts , Avatar, and Inception. Almost all movies are made with a green-screen at this point, even comedies. But videogames are another empire – like trying to equate a romance film with porn: all the action, none of the reason. You can pop bullets all day, but why you’re doing it is a vague battle against “bad guys.” Relying on a videogame sequence kills the creativity needed. Think of the cliché of the good guy crouched down, pointing people what direction to go and then shooting at the target to cover them, or the stock western of a shootout on main street, with townsfolk peering through broken shutters. Action movies need to reinvent themselves by nature to keep themselves fresh and interesting.

Videogames are fun. Action films are fun. Sometimes movies based on a videogame are really fun (Warcraft, Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat). But using videogame mentality in place of a more expensive or creative thought process – that’s cheating, and it doesn’t look nice.

Have you noticed the “videogame effect” in any other films?

A Playlist for the Road

My family is all over the place, more in summer, perhaps, but it’s almost a guarantee we’re out of state at least once a month. Just between August and September, we’ll log Baltimore, Boston, New York City, Maine, and a couple of days in California. In October, it’s Minnesota for a wedding. If it’s on the eastern coast, we’ve driven it. Nothing makes time pass faster than listening to good music, so here is a compiled playlist of songs about cars and the open road.

Now, before you start listing all the songs I didn’t include, know that there are HUNDREDS of songs about cars and driving, from John Denver’s Country Roads to Dr. Dre all the way back to Roger Miller’s King of the Road, which, honestly, makes my hair stand on end. Maybe it’s because it was on too many K-Tel or Time-Life albums that were pushed at every single commercial break back in the 70’s & 80’s. If you search the internet, you can find several lists, some of which are actually about cars and driving, and others that make no sense at all to me (Hey Jude? Psycho Killer?).

My criteria for the list were, yeah, songs about cars, but more so songs that make me want to hit the open road, that make me wish for an empty highway so I can drop the stick down to third and wind that engine out, that make me feel the wind in my hair and the sun on my face, songs that make a ride seem exciting. And I added a few fun songs at the end, too.

1) On the Road Again (Willie Nelson) This is practically our theme song every time we get in the car. Even if you don’t like country music, this one is quite tolerable.

sm2) East Bound and Down (Jerry Reed) This is the theme song from Smokey and the Bandit, and there probably isn’t a better long-distance driving movie than that. So stick a six-pack of Coors in your trunk, load the dog, open the windows if you can’t take off the roof, but don’t let Sheriff Justice catch you.

3) Life is a Highway (Rascal Flatts) – Again, don’t be fooled by the singer. This is perfectly good rock, without a bit of twang. Your kids will know it from the movie Cars.

4) Thunder Road (Bruce Springsteen) One of my favorites for driving. Upbeat, nostalgic – makes you want to run away from home and never look back.

5) Rockin’ Down the Highway (Doobie Bros) – Old school, fast moving, something that’s been on the radio forever.

6) The Passenger (Iggy Pop, or Alison Mosshart and the Forest Rangers) Choose your version. I know the song by Mosshart, from the Sons of Anarchy soundtrack, but Iggy Pop sang it long before. Iggy’s version is a little plainer, while Mosshart’s is harder and has a more driving beat (no pun intended).

7) Truckin’ (Grateful Dead) You know that steady beat you get on some concrete highways (like I-684), where there’s a definite thump as you hit each and every expansion gap? This song has that same beat, adding to that illusion of cruising down the road.

8) Greased Lightnin’ (John Travolta, on the Grease soundtrack) Who wouldn’t want to cruise the streets in Greased Lightnin’?

GLEE: The boys perform in the "Glease" episode of GLEE airing Thursday, Nov. 15 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. L-R: Harry Shum Jr., Samuel Larsen, Chord Overstreet, Blake Jenner and Jacob Artist. ©2012 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Adam Rose/FOX

9) Fast Car (Tracy Chapman) Another song you can feel, racing through the dark, laughing, carefree, someone’s arm around your shoulder, not giving a hoot at that exact moment to the pressures and responsibilities waiting to crush you when you finally stop.

10) Little Red Corvette (Prince) – This was SO overplayed when it was new it kind of scrapes my nerves, but who wouldn’t love to drive one? I love Fire-Engine Red, even though it attracts speed radar, but I’d prefer one in Candy Apple Heavy Metal Flake.

11) Cars (Gary Numan) – the epitome of that 1980 technofunk that shifted over to what’s considered modern “dance” music. It came out around the same time as “Funky Town,” and I always pair the two.

12) Convoy (C.W. McCall) – more properly it’s talking blues with a chorus, and the movie was filmed so badly you can spot the microphone in some scenes, but the premise remains good – a ticked off trucker who accidentally picks up a convoy, and the media takes it to mean a message. Nothing like a hundred semi’s (and “eleven long-haired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse microbus”) to say Road Trip. And fear not, the line is truckin’ convoy.

And just for Fun:

13) Batman theme – the old 1960’s version will give you more nana nana’s for your money, but who doesn’t want to drive like Batman, especially if you’re in the car alone and no one can see you? Crank it up.bond

14) James Bond theme – if Batman’s not dignified enough for you, if you’re wearing a suit and not a cape, if your car is European, crank this one and go practice your corners on the Saw Mill River Parkway, one of the squiggliest little roads I’ve ever seen.

15) Beep Beep (Little Nash Rambler) (The Playmates) Yes, it starts out slow, but that’s the gag. Stick with it to the end. Your kids will love it.

Eye on the Spy: Happy Birthday, Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

Happy birthday to Ian Fleming, born May 28, 1908!

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Fleming is the author behind the James Bond series of thrillers, but did you know he also wrote the children’s classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? He also wrote several non-fiction books, some of which, like The Diamond Smugglers, arose from his background research for his stories, in this case, Diamonds are Forever.

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Fleming was not necessarily the inspiration for James Bond, but he had more than enough experience to rely on for creating his character. Educated not only at English prep schools but in Munich and Geneva as well, he was pulled into the British Naval Intelligence during World War II. He worked on several secret missions – including one code-named Operation Goldeneye, the name he would give to his home in Jamaica.

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Fleming’s 1950’s, post-war design of Bond was to have a dull, every-man character that events seemed to the-10-highest-grossing-james-bond-films-of-all-timehappen to. He stole the name James Bond from the author of an ornithology manual he owned, a name he thought was as dull and plain and ordinary as could be. It wasn’t even until the second film that he began to give Bond a nationality and sense of humor. His books have had mixed reviews over the years, yet sold more than 30 million copies before his death. Two were published posthumously – Man With the Golden Gun and Octopussy and the Living Daylights. He ranks number fourteen on the list of “50 Greatest British Authors since 1945.” Fleming was a notoriously heavy smoker and drinker, and died of a heart attack at age 56.

Although he wrote only twelve novels and 10 short stories, his stories have inspired more than 23 major films spanning fifty years. Their total adjusted gross is more than $10 billion, placing them behind only the Harry Potter series as most profitable film series in history. Fleming, however, left little family to benefit from his fortune. He had a daughter who died at birth, and his son Caspar, for whom he wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (also a classic film), died in 1975 at the age of 23. His widow, Ann, died in 1981.

 

For a dull, middle-aged nobody, James Bond continues to entertain us for more than 50 years, 25 films, and 7 actors and inspire generations of authors and fans. In addition to his original novels and films, there are several licensed tie-in series, such as Charlie Higson’s “Young Bond” children’s novels.

Who is your favorite Bond?

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