Alfred Hitchcock brought to the screen iconic spy characters that inspired the creation of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Robert Ludlum’s James Bourne and the novels of John Le Carre. But by the 1960s, Hitchcock had tired of that character, feeling that the Bond films had become a “comic book” version of his original idea.
It has been rumored that Hitchcock was the first person to be approached to direct the first movie in the Bond series, Casino Royale (1967). However, according to Gary Giblin's book Hitchcock's London, he wrote a letter to Ian Fleming's biographer stating that he'd never been offered, nor had he declined, the opportunity to film Bond.
As the movies rolled out, it irked Hitch to see the 007 franchise plundering his films for ideas. For example, the helicopter duel in From Russia with Love blatantly apes the crop duster scene in NxNW. In the final analysis, From Russia is more a pastiche of Hitchcock's films than it is an original work.
Regardless of all that, though, Hitch felt that the original character, Richard Hannay of The 39 Steps, needed updating. According to Hitchcock biographer Patrick McGilligan, the only way to compete with these films was to “make a more ‘realistic Bond.’ After all, he had been making spy thrillers [for years]... he had this branch of his reputation to uphold.” (Alfred Hitchcock — A Life in Lightness and Dark, page 657.)
Typically, the women Bond sleeps with offer little more than a hint of the possibility of a real relationship, thwarted as the pair are by Cold War exigencies. Hitch wanted to delve deeper into the implications of such stressed-out relationships.
The result? Torn Curtain (1966), which emphasizes, in Hitch’s words, “the problem of the woman who is associated, either by marriage or engagement, to a defector.” Hitch originally wanted Cary Grant for the role, which would have brought it much more in line with a typical Bond character. Instead, He was forced to accept Paul Newman, who, though capable as an actor, didn’t resonate for Hitch, to put it mildly.
As this scene from Torn Curtain shows, murder isn't as easy as James Bond and others would make it look. For a treat, catch the scene here on YouTube, which features Bernard Herrman's original score.
Topaz (1969) follows a similar train of thought. It follows spies and double agents in Cuba, France and the United States, chronicling how their political intrigues become tangled in their personal and romantic lives. Hitch hired Leon Uris, author of the original novel, to write the screenplay. As part of the story development, he screened Notorious for the author, in order to convey his intention that Topaz should also be a story of “espionage with an emotional relationship.”
In this poignant scene, Cuban revolutionary leader Rico Parra (John Vernon) must kill his lover (Karen Dor) when it is revealed that she has been giving state secrets to the West.
In these years, he actually gave thought to resurrecting Richard Hannay of The 39 Steps, adapting his short story, “The Three Hostages.” Though the project didn’t go far beyond some research and discussions, Hitch was thinking deeply about the past and future of the spy movie — and how he could shape it.
Whereas Agent 007 coolly executed scores of faceless enemy agents, Hitchcock, in these later films, foregrounded the personal devastation that results from such killings. What's more, he moved far beyond the good guys vs. bad guys scenario of his earlier spy films to a more nuanced depiction of all players -- regardless of their political loyalties.
Though Torn Curtain and Topaz aren’t Hitch’s best work, they definitely point up the possibilities that the director had in mind. Sadly, it seems, most movie spies still follow the old Hannay/Bond pattern. To be sure, these characters endure. Still, I wonder what spy movies would be like now, if time, age and Lew Wasserman's tentacles hadn’t been closing in on Hitch's powers.