My 10 favorite spy movies

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) introduced the concept of hypnotic mind control assassins walking among us. The film was recently remade, although the more modern version was a disaster and conveys none of the suspense of the original, which was based on an explosive book by Richard Condon, who’d served as the publicist for Walt Disney before launching his career as a novelist. Disney was very close with J. Edgar Hoover and a real Cold Warrior himself. There were some deep secrets revealed by this film, so much so the studio pulled it one year after release because it had some eerie parallels to the assassination of JFK.

If you were expecting a James Bond film on this list, I’m afraid to disappoint. The Bond films are entertaining but really just silly melodramas that bear little resemblance to the moral complexities real spooks face when they delve into deep politics. John Le Carre’s portrayals of spook world were far more accurate than anything Ian Fleming ever wrote, although they both worked for British intelligence, though Le Carre’s “Circus” was initially based on the inner sanctum of the SIS, while Fleming initially worked for British naval intelligence. Based on Le Carre’s third and most successful novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) introduced George Smiley to most of the world.

The Ipcress File (1965) followed in the wake of Manchurian Candidate by delving into the use of hypnotism and psychic driving to rearrange the brains of secret agents who knew too much. It would soon become much imitated. Sealed the career of Michael Caine and got him noticed in Hollywood. Based on a novel by fromer RAF pilot Len Deighton. In response to the Bond franchise, Deighton revealed spook world was actually filled with meaningless red tape and interdepartmental rivalries to great comic effect.

The Kremlin Letter (1970) was a ground-breaking film that bombed at the box office, but remains one of the great masterpieces of the genre directed by John Huston and based on a book written by Noel Behn, formerly of the United States Army Counterintelligence Corps. This is probably the closest thing to a real CIA operation in Russia you will ever find, and it all revolves around drugs and prostitutes. The protagonist is recruited out of the Navy because of his photographic memory and soon enters the rabbit hole into a wilderness of mirrors. The spooks are ruthless and will use any tactic to fulfill a mission, and you never know which side they’re on because sides change quickly.

You don’t see this film on many lists, but I love it, and it revealed the dark underbelly to our involvement in Vietnam, including capturing a monopoly on opium from French intelligence. It’s not really classified as a “spy” movie because the main character was loosely based on Neal Cassady. They even recreate a version of the Pranksters hangout in Perry Lane for the big climatic ending, when the bad spooks and Cassady slug it out. Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978) is a rousing adventure story in which the spooks are the bad guys.

In the real world of spooks, the hidden machinations of the oil industry play a crucial role. Oil is a weapon, and when the price goes high, countries that don’t have any, like China, are kept in check. Syriana (2005) remains one of the few peeks into the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has become a haven for spook activities.

Munich (2006) may be my all-time favorite spy film and details how Israel set-up assassination teams to get vengeance against the Black September group that assassinated their Olympic champions at the Munich games in 1972. Based on the life of real-life Mossad agent Juval Aviv, it shows how the moderate Palestinian leadership was replaced by violent fanatics after the assassinations, leaving the Mossad spooks wondering if they weren’t being manipulated to increase violence and tension rather than resolve it.

The Company (2007) is actually what many undercover CIA spooks call their outfit, and this history of the CIA is better than the more expensive The Good Shepherd, which covered similar territory and was released a year earlier, the difference being this was released as a TV miniseries and not a theatrical film. Unfortunately, both projects blinked when it came to covering the JFK assassination, which was a Company project undertaken by many of the same spooks involved in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Other than that major oversight, there’s some real truths revealed in this complex drama.

Spooks and terrorists go hand-in-hand, and in the wilderness of mirrors it’s often hard to tell the two apart. Carlos (2010) is a masterful glimpse into this world and would have been even better if the original Feelies soundtrack had been left intact. Unfortunately, the band didn’t want to get associated with a notorious terrorist and nixed their music. You won’t find a better miniseries about deep political events and I promise this will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.

There are two celebrated versions of this famous Le Carre novel, one made for the BBC starring Alec Guinness and the other a British-French theatrical film starring Gary Oldman. Since I haven’t seen the BBC version I can’t say which is better, but I was greatly impressed by Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy (2011). The story is a loose interpretation of the unveiling of super spook Kim Philby, but some elements are ignored to make it more palatable, especially Philby’s friendship with Victor Rothschild.

Just one of many categories in my fun film guide, available exclusively on Amazon.

Israel & 9/11

I love spy movies, especially when they reveal true facts and trade-craft. For a long time, my favorite in the genre was The Manchurian Candidate, which introduced both martial arts and mind control to America. Unfortunately, Hollywood did a terrible remake a few years ago. (The book by Richard Condon, however, is a masterpiece, just like the original film.)

A few years ago, Roman Polanski did an excellent job with The Ghost Writer, capturing the fog of paranoia surrounding a deep political event. (Such fog can be manufactured to conceal controllers of a managed confrontation.) Carlos, about Ilich Sanchez, is another great spy miniseries that could have been better if the director had been allowed to keep his original soundtrack (by The Feelies), but unfortunately, the band didn’t want their music identified so closely with a terrorist.

One of my all-time favorites, however, is Munich, directed by Steven Spielberg, based on the life of  Juval Aviv, an Israeli soldier put in charge of an assassination squad to avenge the deaths of Israeli athletes killed by the Black September terrorists during the 1972 Summer Olympics. There were probably three such squads actually created and for years they remained one of Israel’s most closely guarded secrets.

As the story unravels, however, the assassination team begins to suspect they are eliminating moderate leaders of the Palestinian movement to make way for more violent extremists to take their place. (Gee, just like the non-violent cannabis dealers of the seventies were replaced by the violent cocaine dealers of the eighties?) Meanwhile, the real instigator of the bloody Munich operation was being hidden and protected by the CIA.

The most revealing detail from the film is the existence of a network in Europe that provides weapons, fake ID’s and safe houses to terrorists (for a fee). This network can also clean up any mess left behind after an assassination. Although the network works with any terrorist, left or right-wing, they refuse to deal directly with any government agency of any country.

After watching the movie and reading the book, I could not help but surmise this network was, in fact, Operation Gladio, the “stay-behind” secret army set-up by NATO in the event that socialism might spread throughout Europe. Apparently, Gladio financed false flag terror operations all around Europe to discredit the left-wing. Gladio was revealed by the Italian Prime Minister in 1990 in an attempt to do damage control on the Propaganda Due scandal.

When I discovered Aviv’s security company (Interfor) was based in New York City, I called his office to see if I could arrange an interview. Aside from the crucial Gladio question, I also planned to query him regarding Michael Harari, who had led a team just like Aviv’s. Harari later surfaced in the Iran-Contra scandal and I thought Aviv might have some interesting background on Harari’s alleged involvement in money laundering with Manuel Noriega.

Much to my surprise, Aviv agreed to do a one-hour interview on camera. After High Times expressed no interest in the interview, I posted the highlights on my youtube page. The first episode was titled: “Juval Aviv is the Real Zohan.” Aviv would neither confirm nor deny that Operation Gladio was the identity of the terror network. He admitted that contrary to the impression left by the movie, he remains a dedicated supporter of Israel who would fly to its defense if necessary. He admitted explosives probably contributed to the fall of the Twin Towers, but stated they could have been illegally stockpiled in a federal office, which would require a cover-up of their existence. He didn’t want to discuss the Israeli Art Students but admitted the Mossad was watching most of the 9/11 terrorists and they provided information on them to the CIA and FBI. He feels that info was not acted upon out of neglect, but also admits there could have been a deeper motivation. He cringed when asked if Harari was “the greatest Mossad agent of all time,” and I got the impression he and Harari might be contesting for that honor. After I turned off the camera and got ready to leave, he dropped a number of bombshells, first telling me he was one of the last people to speak with Danny Casolaro.

“Danny was talking to Lester Coleman and investigating Pan Am 103,” said Aviv, who then added: “I tried to talk about the JFK assassination with Bill Clinton, but he didn’t want to discuss it.” It felt like Aviv was letting me know he had not given up the store in my one-hour grilling, and still had plenty of juicy conspiracy stories left in reserve.