On the day NO TIME TO DIE was scheduled to premiere, before the COVID-19 virus led EON Productions to delay the release, it is perhaps fitting that we get the latest episode of MARK KERMODE’S SECRETS OF CINEMA: SPY MOVIES.
First shown on BBC4 in 2018 SECRETS OF CINEMA is a fantastic documentary series where arguably the UK’s best known film reviewer takes us through the history of film genres, supported by insightful writing and a wealth of movie clips.
The first series examined THE ROM-COM, THE HEIST MOVIE, COMING OF AGE, SCIENCE FICTION and HORROR. Three specials looked at CHRISTMAS MOVIES, OSCAR WINNERS and DISASTER MOVIES. And the most recent series examined SUPERHEROES, BRITISH HISTORY and finally SPY MOVIES.
Bond features heavily in this episode, but then again so do many of the spy thrillers that I’ve loved over the years. And some of my favourite directors.
The episode follows the same structure as the rest of the series with Mark Kermode identifying the main conventions or genre indicators of the film. And one of the pleasures of the series is how it delivers a film history lesson in such an entertaining way.
Hitchcock’s influence on the genre is undeniable and Kermode takes time to highlight how the hero in films such as The 39 Steps and North by Northwest are often innocent non-spies caught up in events beyond their experience. There’s a great side-by-side comparison of From Russia with Love and North by Northwest highlighting the similar visual style in action. Hitchcock ‘s work influencing the beginnings of the worlds most famous spy.
The episode is structured around the main genre indicators: 1. The Superspy, 2. Spycraft, 3. Realistic Spies, 4. The Spy Chief, 5. Paranoia, 6. Villains, 7. The Great Escape, 8. Endgame.
The episode highlights the wide range of films that have dipped into the spy genre – from the Cold War The Ipcress File, to the 70s paranoia of The Conversation, the kinetic violence of Atomic Blonde, and even the marvellous German film The Lives of Others which takes a much more serious approach to the surveillance state of East Berlin in the 1980s.
One of the best things about the series is that while reveals the conventions of the genre (that are hiding in plain sight) the reveal doesn’t ruin anything – instead, it makes you appreciate the films even more – which is surely what the producers were aiming for.
There are a couple of plot spoilers in the episode – so be on alert!
Sadly, the complicated rights issues around the clips used in the episodes means that a DVD release of the series would be problematic to say the least, The great news, for those that can access it, is that the current series is on BBC4 and BBC I-Player and the previous episodes will also be available to view from 9th April.
I use the COMING OF AGE episode with my Media students to help them understand the genre, but every episode is full to the brim of keen observations and wonderful clips – and if you are a movie fan you should seek it out.
MARK KERMODE’S SECRETS OF CINEMA: chief writer Kim Newman, director/producer/co-writers John Das and Nick Freand Jones, archivist Jane Long, composer Neil Brand, and excellent graphics by Danny Carr.
A version of this article was first published on reelanarchy.
The episode mentions Hitchock’s “macguffin” and the paranoia thrillers of the 1970s – here are two previous posts of mine on these topics: