Category Archives: Spies

John le Carre, my 2020 and The Looking Glass War

It is fitting that my last post on this site for 2020 is a short tribute to the passing of a writer who has given me an enormous amount of pleasure during this difficult year, David John Moore Cornwell or as he is better known, John le Carré. Since his death on December 12, a sea of ink has been spilt on le Carré’s influence on the spy novel and his undoubted merits as a writer. I don’t intend to go over this territory again. Instead, I want to briefly discuss what it is about his George Smiley series I have found so fascinating. I also want to talk about one of the films based on his work that I believe does not get nearly enough praise, Frank R Pierson’s 1970 adaptation of le Carré’s 1965 novel, The Looking Glass War.

Melbourne, the city I live in, spent the better part of 2020 in hard lockdown in response to the Covid 19 virus. Reading was one of my many responses to suddenly finding myself with more free time. One very wet, cold Saturday morning at the outset of winter I picked up a paperback I bought ages ago – I can’t even remember when and where – the 1964 Penguin Crime edition of Call for the Dead.… Read more

Up periscope: a celebration of submarine cinema

I love a good submarine film. The claustrophobia of the confined setting, the tensions arising from a group of people having to co-exist and operate in a completely unnatural, extremely dangerous environment, is all pretty much guaranteed to hook me in every time.

I was reminded of this while I was watched the 2014 thriller Black Sea on the weekend. A hard as nails, embittered Scottish deep sea salvage expert, Robinson, (Jude Law), takes a job with a shadowy backer, to salvage hundreds of millions of dollars of gold rumoured to be in a sunken Nazi U-boat sitting on the bottom of the Black Sea. He has at his disposal a surplus communist era Russian submarine and recruits a fractious crew of washed up seafarers, half of whom are Russian because they are the only ones who know how to properly operate the vessel.

I don’t know why this film passed me by when it first came out but it ticked virtually every box on the my list of requirements for a good submarine film. The crew have to contend with a never ending series of life threatening technical and nautical challenges. Within the narrow confines of the aged submarine, the tensions between crew members ratchet up along ethnic grounds and how they will split up the gold.… Read more

“The Horror Never Leaves My Mind”: Ian Sharp’s ‘Who Dares Wins’

I have just contributed my debut piece for the amazing site, We Are The Mutants. It’s on nuclear nightmares & the amazingly contradictory contradictory politics of Ian Sharp’s 1982 film, Who Dares Wins. A sledgehammer of the 1980s political thriller, influenced by real events and with an avowedly conservative agenda, the film was a favourite of US President Ronald Reagan. But is also accurately captures much of the zeitgeist of the peace movement, which I was active in, of the time.

You can check out my piece in full here.Read more

‘Broadsword calling Danny Boy’: In praise of Where Eagles Dare

Like a quick and dirty mission behind enemy lines, last weekend I polished off Geoff Dyer’s love letter to the 1968 war thriller, Where Eagles Dare, ‘Broadsword Calling Danny Boy’.

It is a strange little essay. Not really a monograph, because it tells you very little about the making and impact of the film, the things a monograph usually does, and more an extended meditation on why it is such a great action film and the culture milieu into which it was born. A milieu that Dyer grew up in and which was pretty similar for a boy in Australia in the 1970s when I was growing up.

One of my favourite things about Dywer’s essay was the various cultural associations and memories it aroused. The war had only been over for a quarter of a century and, looking back then, it still felt strangely present, like it was not quite ‘history’ in the way it is now; war films were big business and our parents unselfconsciously took us, often at a very young age, to see them; newsagents were full of those graphic Sven Hassel paperbacks; we lived on British comics that were full of German soldiers barking basic English; and, the must have toy was a GI Joe, who amongst his many uniforms, could be dressed as a German soldier.Read more

Pulp Friday: Guns with plots

Let’s make one thing clear. I don’t own a gun. Never have and never will. Indeed, the only guns I want to see are in film or on the cover of books like the ones featured in today’s Pulp Friday post.

For a while now I have been obsessed with the cover above of the 1964 Panther edition of Len Deignton’s The Ipcress File. The cover, done by influential English graphic designer, Ray Hawkey, who would go onto to do a number of paperback covers, exudes a style and tone I could never imagine being used today except as a deliberate retro homage.

It speaks to the everyday grime, drudgery and unglamorous boredom of the Cold War spy racket, which the Deighton novels featuring the working class spy, Harry Palmer, evoke so well. There is also the mess that comes with the trade: a cold cup of tea (probably cold); cigarettes, because in the sixties every fictional spy smoked; paperclips for the paperwork; and, a gun and bullets, because sometimes you have to kill someone.

It is a gritty, cluttered layout I associate with mass paperback novels of the type that were largely targeted at men in the 1960s and 1970s. As it turns out, a bit of a dig around reveals it was a style that was widely used in those two decades – but it also bled over into the 1980s – by mass market paperback publishers in the crime, mystery and espionage thriller categories.… Read more