Women in Espionage Roles

I have just watched the three films in the Jason Bourne trilogy, and when the third film ended I noticed two things that stood out quite clearly. The first was that Matt Damon is probably going to find it really hard to get decent priced auto insurance in future, and the second was the clear distinction made in the series in the ethics of male and women characters. Women Good: Men Bad.

For anyone not familiar with the Jason Bourne stories, a basic plot would have Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) an American agent who defects rather than complete his mission to assassinate the leader of a fictitious African country. Shot whilst escaping he suffers total amnesia and as he struggles to recover his memories his controllers collude to eliminate him before he uncovers their numerous illegal plans involving Russian oligarchs, millions of dollars in untraceable cash and oil extraction licenses worth billions to the right man. There are three women in the story, the first is Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente), a German woman who innocently gets drawn into Bourne’s travel plans and falls for him in a big way. The second woman is Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), CIA Deputy Director and Chief of a Task Force set up to bring Bourne in. Unaware that her enemies are her supposed colleague’s and Bourne’s previous controllers, she has her work cut out for her but eventually sees the light and chooses morality and ethics over duty and responsibility and sides with Bourne to bring down the bad guys and blow open the CIA. An interesting fusion of these two characters is Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) who starts off as a logistics officer on Bourne’s team, graduates to a sort of psychological profiler in phase two but recognises which way the wind is blowing and when the crunch comes her affection for Bourne nudges her into doing the right thing.

What I thought interesting about these three is that not only are they morally upright characters, they are also the two most common character stereotypes for women actors in espionage movies. The first is the woman as love interest, and the second is the highly moral agent working away from the inside to expose her corrupt superiors. The only female role not found in Bourne is the extremely rare female villain. Below I have a summary of some films in the genre highlighting the female roles and illustrating this curious stereotyping of women’s roles.

The Third Man (1949) had Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) who believed that Harry Lime (Orson Welles) was real, by which she meant that he had his faults, but she loved him anyway, which is why she went to both of his funerals, one at the beginning and one at the end of the film. Meanwhile, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) found his friendship tested as Lime’s faults were revealed for what they were. Anna chose to look past these details to the man she fell in love with but Martins could not ignore them despite falling for Lime’s girl, leaving her to choose between a dead lover or a live hero.

North by Northwest (1959) is a Hitchcock thriller that has Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) as the mole inside a criminal enterprise run by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a Manhattan advertising executive, is mistaken for George Kaplan, a man who doesn’t actually exist, but has been created to throw Vandamm off the scent of his suspected mole. When Thornhill falls for Kendall’s charms he has to continue the deception in order to save her. When she shoots him it seems the plan may have gone awry, but nothing is quite what it seems and it turns out she is a good girl after all.

In The Quiller Memorandum (1966), a thriller devoted to British preoccupations with a feared Nazi revival, Quiller (George Segal) falls for the doe-eyed German schoolteacher Inge Lindt (Senta Berger) who turns out to be one of the enemy, but when she flutters her eyelashes at him he just can’t bring himself to turn her in.

Odessa File (1974) has investigative journalist Peter Miller (Jon Voight) uncovering the secret organisation that shields Nazis fleeing from justice, including Eduard Roschmann (Maximilian Schell) who is disguised as respectable German businessman, Eduard Kietel. Miller gets emotional support from his mother, Frau Miller (Maria Schell), and practical help from his girlfriend Sigi (Mary Tamm).

In The Line of Fire (1993) Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) has secret agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo) to play the piano to whilst he plays telephone poker with Mitch Leary (John Malkovich) who is trying to shoot the president of the United States. Raines is just about the only person in the Secret Service who thinks Horrigan is up to the job, and she is ultimately proved right, but as Horrigan himself says, she is only, “window dressing,” for the real story.

Enemy of the State (1998) has Baltimore lawyer Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith) fighting to clear his name of allegations he has been having an affair with fellow lawyer Rachel Banks (Lisa Bonet), a situation caused by his inadvertently discovering that Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight) a rogue NSA agent, killed US Senator Phil Hammersley (Jason Robards). For a woman in an espionage movie innocence is not a safety net but a sure path to ignominous death and Banks is duly killed to further the plot by having Dean implicated in her murder.

Manchurian Candidate (2004), sees Meryl Streep playing a duplicitous US Senator who sets her own son up to be manipulated by the forces of evil. A very rare example of the female villain in this genre.

Man on Fire (2004) John Creasy (Denzel Washington) is a burnt out ex-CIA agent hired to protect a little girl in Mexico City. When she’s kidnapped from her music lesson Creasy vows revenge on everyone involved. Mariana Guerrero (Rachel Ticotin) is a journalist intent on exposing police corruption and Lisa Ramos (Radha Mitchell) is the little girl’s mother but the female lead in this excellent film is the little girl, Guadalupe “Lupita” Ramos (Dakota Fanning), who drags Creasy’s soul back from the Gates of Hell by revealing to him a tiny bit of the good in humankind.

Munich (2005) sees Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana), heading a squad of Israeli secret service agents avenging the shooting of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Apart from a couple of attractive women draped here and there for verisimilitude, there is a Dutch assassin called Jeanette (Marie-Josée Croze) who plays out a honey trap in a London hotel and is in turn murdered on a houseboat in Holland, shot with a gun disguised as a bicycle pump of all things. Hers is in some ways a minor role and the film would play out the same without her, except that it shows how the squad of assassins have deviated from their original path and highlights how narrow is the moral line they fear to cross.

The Constant Gardener (2005) in which Justin and Tess Quayle (Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz) are loved up British diplomat and his wife posted to an Africa riven with corruption where she is the highly moral fighter of ethical fights while Sir Bernard Pellegrin (Bill Nighy) is the duplicitous villain and Tim Donohue (Donald Sumpter) is the bad boy seeking redemption for his past wrongs. A highly original story based on a novel by John Le Carre that is brilliantly acted to make a powerful and moving film, but the woman is again the moral anchor against which everything else is judged. Even her foibles are presented as cute and quirky rather than malicious, mad or vicious.

There are so many plot lines in The Good Shepherd (2006) that any attempt to do it justice in one paragraph deserves to be mocked, but, for today’s purposes there are three female roles in this engrossing thriller about the birth of the CIA directed by Robert de Niro. Margaret Wilson (Angelina Jolie) is the bored, stay at home wife of Edward Wilson, Sr. (Matt Damon), one of the founders of the CIA and utterly devoted to it. Laura (Tammy Blanchard) is the girl he loves but gives up to do the right thing and marry Margaret when she falls pregnant by him, and there is a femme fatale, an interpreter, Hanna Schiller (Martina Gedeck), who pretends to require a hearing aid that turns out to be a recording device and she is murdered to keep her quiet. Entirely in keeping with the mysterious and secretive nature of this film, her hearing aid ends up in a teapot, the significance of which did not occur to me until I had seen the film three times.

Rendition (2007) offers up an interesting debate about the morality of torturing suspected terrorists. Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a novice agent investigating the weird case of a man, Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), who disappeared from a non-stop flight from Cape Town to Chicago. Anwar’s wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), uses credit card records to prove he was actually on the flight leaving Freeman to uncover why authorities would lie about him getting off the plane in the US. It turns out to be one of those, “nothing anyone says is true,” movies with everyone up the chain of command both knowing that what they are saying is a blatant lie but not really caring whether anyone believes them because of their certainty that what they are doing is right, in the sense that Rendition serves a higher purpose the rest of us can’t see for looking. Whether Anwar actually is a terrorist then becomes virtually irrelevant, his torture is approved and will continue until such time as it is no longer approved. The top of this convoluted, morally ambiguous and weirdly deceptive tree is Freeman’s boss Corinne Whitman (Meryl Streep). If the villain in this film is a person, it’s her, making Streep the only actor I know of to twice play that extremely rare character, the female villain in an espionage movie.

Body of Lies (2008), based on the novel by David Ignatius, sees Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) playing the righter of wrongs fighting Middle East terrorists aided by Ed Hoffman (Russel Crowe) and computer geek Garland (Simon McBurney). Their very different approaches to the problem cause conflict between them and their erstwhile colleague, Hani Salaam (Mark Strong), head of the Jordanian anti-terrorist organisation. The sole woman is Aisha (Golshifteh Farahanian), an Ammani nurse and the love interest for DiCaprio’s injured Ferris.

The International (2009) gets its title from a bank, The International Bank of Business and Commerce (IBBC) that is really a front for illegal money laundering schemes to finance terrorism and overthrow foreign governments. Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) works for Interpol, a non-investigatory body based in Lyon, France, and Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) is an Assistant District Attorney from Manhattan, and somehow they are working together to expose a bank based in Luxembourg. How that works is explained in the film but makes no more sense than the rest of the plot so I’ll take a rain check on that if you don’t mind. Whitman is morally straight up and down, for her there is right and there is wrong, and the line between them is obvious and well defined. The only interesting thing in this film is when that line needs to be examined a little more closely, a task Whitman hands over to Salinger so that she can preserve her naive view of the world.

In Safe House (2012) we have the old corrupt inner sanctum motif being given an extensive work over. Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), is an ex-CIA operative who’s been on the run, or off-grid as it is often called, for several years but seemingly still has his moral compass correctly aligned. When he comes into possession of a data storage device containing files stolen from the CIA, he is forced by his pursuers, led by Vargas (Fares Fares), to hand himself into the US Consulate in Cape Town, South Africa. Taken to a safe house for interrogation and debriefing the safe house is attacked by Vargas and Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), the innocent and naive housekeeper, escapes with Frost as, essentially, his prisoner. Weston calls CIA HQ at Langley to get instructions and is advised by Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga), to lie low and await instructions. Weston manages to figure out that the good guys are not all on the inside and things turn nasty pretty quickly, and nasty gets an interesting twist when it turns out that Vargas is working for the CIA. Ana Moreau (Nora Arnezeder), is the standard pretty girl as love interest thing but Linklater plays the morally correct but oblivious to what’s really going on female agent who gets murdered by her colleague David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), who just happens to be Weston’s supervisor. Nice, twisty-turny plot but the female roles are, as ever in this genre stereotypes.

I should make it clear that I don’t consider, “stereotype,” to be a derogatory term when applied to film. In films, stereotypes serve a useful purpose in providing a visual shorthand that permits the film to move on quickly and get to the meat of the story. In a medium where audience tedium sets in at about an hour and a half there is an obvious advantage to being able to say a lot, quickly. A shot of a man in a trilby hat with a Thompson sub machine gun who says, “you dirty rat,” establishes that the film is set in America during the prohibition era and that he is a gangster, which is a lot of information to get over with a hat, a gun and three words of dialogue.

By comparison, a shot of a college aged boy standing on the side of the road with his thumb out and a guitar over his shoulder could be a remake of Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), or it could be a musical biography like Walk The Line (2005), or it could even be the start of something weird like My Own Private Idaho (1991); it doesn’t tell you enough and risks telling you nothing at all.

In prose, though, stereotypes see us run into what I’m going to refer to as the Johnathan Franzen complex. Johnathan Franzen is an author who is known for referring to literary fiction as, “cliche free writing.” He is neither the first nor the only writer to use that standard, and I don’t disagree with him. But what would in film be regarded as the convenient shorthand of a stereotype would in prose fiction be considered cliche writing. Cliche is something that has been said many times before, and stereotype becomes a shorthand precisely because the audience has seen them before and understands the conventions.

The difficulty, then, is to take advantage of the shorthand that stereotyping allows whilst steering clear of repeating a stale cliche. In a film with a fast moving and dynamic plot the stereotype is a useful introduction to a character who may not have a deep or interesting back story but who fulfills some narrative function and keeps the story on track for a jump to the next action sequence. For example, quite why Inge Lindt is a Nazi sympathiser is never explained or explored, the viewer is just asked to accept that she is so that we can move on to the denouement and unless you watch The Quiller Memorandum a couple of times it might never occur to you that there is a big hole at the heart of the story, so for a film intended to be watched at the cinema this is obviously not a problem. Since much of the plot turns on her advice to Quiller, in a novel she would have to become a fully formed character with motivations, ideals and a back story to properly explain who she is.

In short stories characters are drawn with broad brush strokes that, like the pictures in comics, ask the reader to fill in some of the details. In a novel there is more room for character development and the blank back story and lack of characterisation sticks out like a termite hill on the savannah and readers will want to know what is going on inside that warren of dark and hidden passageways. So from the realisation that in espionage movies female roles are largely stereotyped according to the formula Women good: Men bad, we have arrived at the equally stereotypical position that stereotypes themselves are fine in film but poor in prose.

One other realisation to emerge from this study is that if you truly want to break the mould and write something utterly original, create an espionage story in which the main protagonist is a woman. It might be a while before we see a female Jason Bourne but there is no real reason why Harry Lime, Peter Miller, Frank Horrigan, Douglas Freeman, Roger Ferris or Tobin Frost should be considered exclusively male roles. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) faced down the Alien in 1979 but we have not yet seen agent 007 Jeanette Bond gracing our screens so maybe it’s time for storytellers to start getting creative with their role play.

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