Director: Ronald Neame
Writers: Brian Garfield and Bryan Forbes, based on the novel by Garfield
Stars: Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterson, Ned Beatty
The Story: A laid-back old-school CIA man gets unceremoniously fired by his new neo-con boss. Rather than fade away, he decides to set off a few bombshells, in the form of a tell-all memoir. But does he really want to blow the whistle or is he just jerking their chain? He keeps everybody guessing right until the climax.
How it Came to be Underrated: Ronald Neame (The Horse’s Mouth) was a fine but anonymous director. By consistently letting story take precedence over style, he ensured that his movies would be good but also that his name would be totally forgotten. Even his best-known-for-the-worst-reasons movie, The Poseidon Adventure, is better than its reputation.
Why It’s Great:
- Almost all spy movies are super-spy movies. I don’t mind—I love super-spy movies, but all that imaginary derring-do has hidden one fact from the world, that real down-in-the-mud spy work is actually quite fascinating. Very few movies have dared to turn over that rock and get to know the worms squirming underneath, but this movie shows how much fun dirty work can be.
- I read a lot of spy non-fiction, but probably my favorite true-life spy story is hidden inside another book: the story of Gust Avrakatos is merely a sub-plot in George Cirile’s masterwork Charlie Wilson’s War (the book, not the terrible movie) but it’s the most brutal and hilarious true confession of a dirty trickster you’re ever likely to read. Avrakatos’s relationship with his boss Clair George wasn’t public knowledge in 1980, but Garfield must have known his stuff, because it’s extremely similar to the relationship shown here between Matthau and Beatty.
- The dialogue is as clever and sparkling as you can get while still feeling believable. This movie shows the difference between ‘banter’ and actual smart talk.
- Matthau’s infinite charm makes this movie a lot of fun, but what gives it its bite is the underlying horror about the dirty tricks that had recently been revealed by Congress’s Church Committee. Amazingly, every time Matthau mentions a “dirty trick” in his memoir, it’s a real-world accusation—the sorts of things that hadn’t been confirmed at the time but are well-known now, featuring names such as Duvalier and Somoza.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: A darker, even more realistic depiction of spycraft from around this time was the British TV epic The Sandbaggers, newly out on DVD.
How Available is It?: It's on DVD and available to Watch Instantly.