It’s not much help saying “We used the minimum force” to the terrified people running barefoot for their lives over blood and smashed glass, dragging suitcases and children with them on their way to nowhere. —The Tailor of Panama, by John le Carré
Ali Kerim Bey: You’ll like my gypsy friends. I use them like the Russians use the Bulgars. I’m afraid it’s created a blood feud between them. —From Russia with Love
In a way, the deaths of Sean Connery and author John le Carré last month represented the passing of an age. Two of the men who embodied the way the West mythologized the Cold War are gone, and this year will see the 30th anniversary of the end of that conflict. With their passing and the conflict that defined their films in the rearview mirror, looking back at their film legacies shows two completely different storytelling sensibilities that have, interestingly, never been in real competition with each other, even while they’ve occasionally been in conversation.
M: “Christ, I miss the Cold War.” —Casino Royale
The reason so many 007 fans hold to the conviction that Connery is still the best actor to have ever held the license to kill is that it seems impossible to imagine the film franchise without his performance. The exotic locales, bombastic horns of the score, and dry one-liners wouldn’t have landed the same. They certainly haven’t, hung over the shoulders of the five other actors who have occupied the tuxedo since—some of them with nonchalance and others with what appears at times to be genuine discontent.
Daniel Craig, in particular, seems to chafe against the template set by Connery—a template fans of the series are notoriously resistant to seeing changed at all. Much of that template rests very heavily on just ignoring the actual Cold War that was the justification for a man like Bond in the first place. Ian Fleming’s original novels were somewhat concerned with MI6’s spy game against the Soviet Union, inventing colorful antagonists (and of course, women) to populate his world of secrets. By the time that formula made it to film and Bond came to be embodied by Connery, though, a lot of the actual spying was left behind.
If you look at Bond’s escapades in his first three outings, Dr. No, From Russia with Love and Goldfinger, only the middle entry takes the Cold War very seriously at all. The MacGuffin is a code machine that will enable MI6 to crack Soviet transmissions, and locating and stealing it involves snooping on Russia’s embassy in Istanbul and using local ethnic groups as proxies—all stuff that would almost sound at home in le Carré’s works. Yet even then, the Soviets aren’t the real bad guys: They’re getting played by SPECTRE, same as James. Dr. No mentions the conflict only perfunctorily, and the eponymous baddie of Goldfingeris just a criminal—you wonder why it’s even Bond’s job to deal with him, considering the whole mess is going down in America and Felix Leiter doesn’t look all that busy.
At the very least, though, the Cold War explained why there’s a massive office in London willing to put up with Bond’s nonsense, and also supply him with bulletproof cars, briefcases with hidden gas canisters, and wristwatches with lasers. Ever since GoldenEye, though, there’s been the question of who he even is when he’s removed from the context of his ostensible mission. Decades of reappraisal of everything related to the character have followed, from the underlying misogyny and racism of the character to the questionable act of cheering on an explicit agent of Western colonialism. And, at the same time, Bond’s nemeses in those movies have started to explicitly resemble him more and more, with vengeful ex-agents like Trevelyan and Raoul Silva to dark reflections of him like Gustav Graves and the Blofeld of 2015’s Spectre.
Every iteration of Bond has had to grapple with at least some of these same problematic elements, and every last one of them is on display in Connery’s origination of the character. Have a rewatch of Skyfall, a movie that is seemingly entirely about what good a man like Bond is, and then go back to watch the films that gave birth to the series, released all in a rapid flutter in the 1960s on the back of the novels’ popularity, and you’ll get some cognitive whiplash.
Connery’s Bond is a suave, iconic creation of cinema, and everything about the movies built around his inspired portrayal are trashy, irresistible fun. His 007 is also the ultimate beneficiary of patriarchal privilege in every possible sense. Ignore the plot and just focus on the interpersonal dynamics at play in every single scene, and you see a guy who objectifies and belittles and forces himself upon women, bosses around minorities, makes other countries the playground for his personal game of Grand Theft Auto, and is ready to kick his heels up so the locals can entertain him with a tourist’s high-priced repast and their quaint customs.
One of the artistic conflicts of the movies has been finding some way to move past all that while still maintaining the core of what makes the property popular. As much as I like the movies—or enough of them that the really bad ones don’t ruin it for me—it may be a futile exercise. We continue to wait for the latest entry to see how they’ll manage the trick this time.
Connery’s character (for the filmic Bond is not the Bond of the novels) outlives him, even as the past decades have increasingly seemed like that character’s time has passed. In the meantime, Eon Productions, the house that makes Bond, has faltered in at least one attempt at crafting a spy thriller that seemed as if it addressed some of the outdated elements people find so concerning about Bond.
Released in 1965, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold can almost read as an anti-Bond film, coming as it did right on the heels of the movies that made that series into a phenomenon. Ian Fleming’s Bond novels had already been publishing for a decade by the time le Carré published his first novel that was wholly concerned with spycraft, the 1963 novel which was adapted into the film. Book and film never hit the same heights as Fleming’s works (few fictional works in either medium ever have), but The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is so iconic that researchers have tried to figure out if he’s actually the one who coined the figure of speech itself.
Richard Burton fills the eponymous role of Alec Leamas in the film adaptation, whom we meet waiting and worrying at Checkpoint Charlie on the Western side of the Berlin Wall for the last one of his secret agents who hasn’t been killed by the Soviet spymaster Mundt. His contact is gunned down, and Leamas is cut loose by the service to retire in disgrace. That is, until he’s brought in for the most devious of top secret missions: He is to purposefully defect to the Soviet Union and spread false information that will lead to Mundt’s arrest and execution.
Like one of the 47 loyal ronin, Leamas plays his part to the hilt. He becomes a drunkard and a fixture at the unemployment office, hurling racist invective at the grocer who won’t front him a loaf of bread. If Leamas is acting, we don’t get the impression it’s much of a stretch for him. When he does finally attract the attention of Soviet deep cover agents who tempt him with defection, his ploy is soon found out. The earnest young woman he’s been seeing has been ensnared by the enemy, and made to testify against him in a kangaroo court. His plan to frame Mundt comes to nought, and he is sent off to a cell to await execution.
Only, we find, he actually has succeeded in his mission. Mundt—the former Hitler youth and a man who has crushed Leamas’ spy network—is actually an MI6 asset. Mundt springs Leamas and his girlfriend, and on their car ride to the Wall, Leamas explains that sending him to discredit Mundt, and to fail in this endeavor, must have been the Circus’ plan all along. It’s only cost the life of the Jewish man Leamas was sent there to set against Mundt. A Hitler youth kills a Jewish man, and it’s a win for England, Leamas remarks bitterly. Leamas was sent along with no knowledge of this—his handlers always planned to hang him out to dry, always planned for him to see the inside of a cell with the very real possibility that he might not successfully make it out once captured, even with Mundt’s help. And in the last scene, of course, he doesn’t make it over the wall, and his young civilian girlfriend is another casualty.
Le Carré’s novels, and the films they’ve been adapted into, never shied away from the grit and moral turpitude of Cold War spycraft in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. If Connery’s megawatt smirk and amused one-liners are the model of the Bond phenomenon, the quintessential le Carré protagonist is very much Burton’s Leamas, or Gary Oldman’s portrayal of an aged George Smiley in 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy—dumpy older men whose chief asset is that they are unremarkable to look at, with minds twistier than the traps within traps that they’re always one wrong move away from falling into. If you watch a Bond movie for an escapist romp, le Carré’s film adaptations are meant to make you brood.
“I dislike Bond. I’m not sure that Bond is a spy. I think that it’s a great mistake if one’s talking about espionage literature to include Bond in this category at all. It seems to me he’s more some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a license to kill.” —le Carré in a 1966 interview.
The closest le Carré film adaptations have gotten to really, explicitly taking Bond down a peg, though, was 2001’s The Tailor of Panama, a movie that managed the feat of roping in Pierce Brosnan, who still had one more really bad Bond movie in him at that point. Brosnan’s oily womanizing spy uses the checkered past of a tailor to the rich and famous of Panama (Geoffrey Rush) as blackmail to turn him into an asset. The tailor, who knows nothing useful but can bullshit like no other, weaves ridiculous non-intelligence to Brosnan that starts off a minor war.
As in the novel, Brosnan’s character Osnard is a womanizing creep, but the movie more so than the book just delights in the little details that are aimed specifically at the Bond phenomenon. The Osnard of the novel is an inexperienced charlatan, while Brosnan’s portrayal is basically an uglier version of Bond: A wild child of an agent whose trail of affairs and bad behavior have landed him the Panama posting as a sort of exile. The unsavory subtext of Bond as a character is all made into text in the movie as he aggressively and arrogantly pursues women, reacts with glee at the prospect of destabilizing a country that could be the poster child for 20th century imperialism, and openly plots how to simply take the British and American governments for everything they’re worth. As the bribes he demands get passed up the chain, every middle manager in the intelligence community inflates the number so they, too, can skim off the top. The pitch for military intervention as a result Osnard’s manufactured coup is tailor-made to appeal to a jingoistic dope of an American general (a hilariously straight-faced Dylan Baker).
Le Carré’s novels, and his films, always made spycraft out to be what it is: dangerous bullshit that often doesn’t do a thing to help us and does much to hurt the countries where we practice it. His total disillusionment with it also seems to have made his efforts to move on from the Cold War easier for his writing (though film and television adaptations have largely tended to stay in that time period). His political views always remained of-the-moment and unapologetic. A vocal protester against the Iraq War and against Brexit, le Carré wrote in his 2019 novel Agent Running in the Field about things altogether more contemporary.
“In Ed’s world there was no dividing line between Brexit fanatics and Trump fanatics,” he writes in one passage. “Both were racist and xenophobic. Both worshipped at the same shrine of nostalgic imperialism.”
In the same month, we lost the progenitor of the bad-boy, escapist secret agent and the writer who invested the spy genre with its darkest and most intricate stories, all at a time when global politics seems poised for seismic shifts. It feels as if a chapter of world history—not just film history—has come to a close.
Kenneth Lowe is a fanatic, and a fanatic is always concealing some secret doubt. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.