We’re all stuck inside stewing in our thoughts; his happen to be about movies. In Quaran-Scenes, writer Kyle Turner will take a look at some of his favorite scenes from cinema: how and why they “work,” and what about them he loves so much. Just a little bit of fun while we’ve got nothing else to do but watch.
Few people are less suited to songs about being vulnerable, about revealing themselves (so to speak), than spies. It is exactly what those in the international espionage game cannot do—be vulnerable—and while some may find loopholes by using deception as a kind of performance of authenticity (akin to drag), spies, perhaps especially if they’re men, aren’t naturally the kind of people to ask for a shoulder to cry on, to seek companionship or a partner (in any sense of the word). It’s why buddy cop and detective movies have always played with homoeroticism and why, for many people, Casino Royale (2006) was so important to challenging a particular trope of masculinity, one that posited that avoiding vulnerability was just part of the job, and the job was just part of one’s identity.
In Guy Ritchie’s 2015 The Man from U.N.C.L.E., when brick wall-esque KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) must keep an eye on his crucial contact/cover wife Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) in an effort to track down her Nazi nuclear physicist father for both the KGB and CIA—with Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) representing the Yanks—all of Gaby’s attempts at developing even a modicum of intimacy with the man are shut down. He’s not good at flirting, with women at least. In their hotel room, she’s left nursing a bottle and he stares at a chessboard, so keyed into a mode of professionalism it nearly renders him sexless. Sloshed, Gaby walks to her room, turns on the radio and tunes into Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me.”
Years after the influential preacher, singer and royal of R&B and soul (in the video below, he literally sits on a throne while performing) helped Bert Berns craft a hit in 1962, a song that would go to be recorded by the Pretty Things and the Rolling Stones, few would have thought to place it in a spy movie that takes place in the midst of the Cold War, let alone one dripping with irony and sarcasm about spy movies that take place during the Cold War. (Then again, its soundtrack is filled with ’60s soul and R&B, including Roberta Flack’s “Compared to What,” which plays over the slick history-as-aesthetic-lesson credits, and “Take Care of Business” by Nina Simone.) Ritchie’s film is stylish to the point of parody, a delicious fantasy of secret agents and the fictions created about them, as if the cultural imagination of post-War espionage found itself in an orgy with Valentino, Versace and, for a little kinky anachronistic fun, Moschino. And Burke’s is a song ostensibly about homosocial comfort! The pleasure and solace of having another person, another man, to soothe you during your romantic troubles. Sure, yes.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. casts a winking eye towards both buddy cop homoeroticism and the queer competitiveness between nation states. Kuryakin may suck at flirting with women, but the verbal volleys he juggles with Solo, a Ken doll of a CIA agent, are charged with sexual curiosity and resentment. (What’s gayer than masculine resentment?) They are proud men fighting for their countries in very gendered terms, their nations their “wives” while they are husbands in close quarters confronting how those gendered roles may impact their own sense of self. (They spend a majority of the film measuring their… advancements in spy technology and intel, respectively.)
Just as importantly, Ritchie’s film is a jovial knee in the crotch to the James Bond franchise, which has sprouted a two-pronged mythology: The old Bond movies could never show 007 as a vulnerable human being (wrong: see On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, For Your Eyes Only, Licence to Kill and GoldenEye) and the James Bond movies in the wake of Daniel Craig are too self-serious and devoid of a sense of humor, in spite of their more “human” approach to the character (I don’t know about you, but SPECTRE is hilarious). Today, Bond is tied up in an emotional and cinematic paradox of character, of how his films have been defined in a broader cultural consciousness. It’s fairly ironic given that a majority of the theme songs for the franchise have been torch songs of some nature; even if they’re directed at the MI6 agent doesn’t mean that the films have no capacity for romance or erotics.
“I’m going to finish this bottle,” Gaby says. “The only question is, are you going to help me or not?” It’s sexual bait, and Kuryakin isn’t biting. She turns on the radio, and, after a bit of static, the song comes on, cinematographer John Mathieson facing his camera directly at a fairly irritated (though trying to maintain face) Kuryakin. Behind him, slightly out of focus, Gaby slides into frame, vodka bottle in one hand and tumbler in the other, all the while donning sunglasses in her pajamas, like some sly nod to Tom Cruise. She doesn’t give a shit, and it’s infectious as she sways back and forth to the soulful sounds, her body free and her inhibitions out the window. Whether a game or not, her offer to know Kuryakin better, to maybe set him at ease, let him be himself in the relative privacy of this room, has been passed on. (Maybe it’s not her he wants to be vulnerable with…hmm? The pronoun confusion of the song certainly helps this reading: “When you’re all alone in your lonely room / And there’s nothing but the smell of her perfume.”)
Gaby swings her arms about with enough grace to be charming and enough clumsiness to be endearing, her limbs akimbo deeper into the song. Not once does Kuryakin turn around, his gaze set firmly on his chessboard. His eyebrows are furrowed, as if her actions are in a completely foreign language to him. When she makes her proposition more explicit after he does take notice, instead asking her to turn the radio off, there’s something delightfully askew about their chemistry. Rather than bristle with sexual tension—as the scene is surely intended—they appear to have a dynamic more like petulant younger sister taunting her older, maybe closeted, grumpy brother. Their play wrestling does nothing to dissuade me from this interpretation; it’s joky, fun, energetic, but absent of erotic attraction. And that works, too!
The “Cry to Me” scene is emblematic of what I love about The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: At once, it captures a breeziness in tone, a freewheeling but no less astute attention to aesthetic (or cinematic) detail and, if one is so inclined, a satiric edge that responds to the spy cinema to which it owes so much. The film is droll and affected, like Henry Cavill’s bizarre and unplaceable American accent, but not so concerted an effort that its artifice becomes alienating. You can imagine the end of the film, which leaves room for a sequel with the three leads returning, as a hopeful testament to not so much a ménage à trois but a young woman and her two bickering gay friends. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think, as far as drunkenly dancing in a spy movie goes, nobody does it better.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is available to buy or rent on pretty much all major platforms.