Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Espionage Filmography, A Review

I recently picked up The Espionage Filmography: United States Releases, 1989-1999 during an online sale at the McFarland Publishers website since I had seen the book before, but hadn’t purchased it. Written by Paul Mavis, the oversized book has two indexes: cast list (70 pages) and crew list (40 pages), plus a two-page bibliography. There are 1,760 entries laid out alphabetically, starting with The Abductors (1957) and ending with Zotz! (1962). Each movie includes year of release, alternate titles, running time, format, cast and crew, distributor, brief synopsis, and comments by the author, which might include a quote of a review at the time of the release. While the book’s title indicates releases for the United States only, if a foreign film had a release in the US, it was included. For example, we tend to forget that the Bond films are foreign, but all of them are given their due in Mavis’ book. It also accounts for why there are so few Eurospy films included in the book. Seasoned with a light hand are good quality black and white photographs of movie posters, lobby cards and stills.

According to his bibliography, Mavis relied on the American Film Institute’s catalogue for much of his list, which accounts for some gaps in the movies listed. For instance, prolific director Doris Wishman’s Double Agent 73 starring is one such gap. And in one review comment on Amazon, early films that films shorter than five reels (the pre-1920 films) would have not been in the AFI catalogue, so consequently are not in this book. I think a chronological listing would have been helpful for connecting trends in the genre and general comparative studies. Also, since Mavis cast a wide net for films – he included some unexpected agencies such as the Post Master, Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Justice – a list of films by agency portrayed would have been fascinating. Hence, a real missed opportunity to dissect the genre in a new way.

I found the comments were helpful when they included reviews and/or analysis at the time of the release, mostly because the quotes provide a quick glimpse of historical context. I think this is the book’s strength, well, if that is where your research and interest takes you. The author’s personal comments were interesting from an anecdotal standpoint, but at times, they were too brief and of no substance. For example, the 1970 Sabra explored an Arab investigator’s unorthodox torturous relationship with an Israeli spy sounds fascinating and unique, but Mavis’ comment is too brisk and dismissive.

Keeping a book current is very difficult when it is a filmography. However, at the risk of dating the book with ever changing availability (I’m thinking grind house movies making a comeback from obscurity after the release of Planet Terror), missing from each entry was whether the movie was readily available on DVD, VHS, or via streaming. This is a feature that Blake and Deal included in their book The Eurospy Guide (2004, Luminary Press) and they included comments on the format quality, which was helpful when I was trying to find copies of particular films.

Of course, those items aside, it does come down to deciding whether to spend forty bucks on materials that you can find through searches on IMDB, Wikipedia or the American Film Institute. For the spy and espionage enthusiast (or completionist), this book belongs in your personal library, but if you are counting your pennies and you have the extra time, do the research online.

1 comment:

  1. Not having the Double Agent 76 Doris Wishman film ommitted from this book is an unforgivable crime. It's got everything! Cameras in boobs. Feet. Spy action. Feet. Guns. Feet. Relucant agent. Feet. Exploitation score. Feet.

    Did I mention feet?


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