Wesley Britton’s Beyond Bond: Spies in Fiction and Film (2005) is sorta recommended and sorta not. On the yeah side is that it’s a pretty speedy and wide-ranging survey of a topic that I’ve never seen covered all in one place. On the nay side is that it has pretty much no depth and isn’t very reliable. Which really means there’s more on the nay side.
For example, Britton devotes a page to Pickup on South Street but credits a source for his plot synopsis. Did he not watch the film? Even when stating “the film maintains its value for new audiences” he inexplicably sources a DVD review. This may be the typical academic’s weakness for sourcing everything, not because there’s an inherent value to it—after all you can’t copyright an idea—but because that’s how the economy of academic scholarship works. Here it’s just sad, like a timid boy afraid to offend the grown-ups. There also appears to be an error when he claims the film is “based on the book Blaze of Glory by Dwight Taylor.” All the sources I can find indicate that “Blaze of Glory” was the title of the story not a book and in fact the Library of Congress doesn’t list such a book, neither is there one for sale on Bookfinder and nothing comes up on a Web search except more references to the film.
In any case, Britton’s discussion of Pickup is actually one of the more substantial bits here. He claims to have been reading spy novels and watching spy films for years but there’s very little feeling that the book comes from first-hand experience. Even discounting the sourcing obsession, he often just unfurls lists of titles or extremely brief (a sentence or less often) plot synopses. There’s nothing remotely like, say, Greil Marcus’ essay on Eric Ambler that not only makes you want to read (or re-read) the books but passes along their flavor.
p60 – “Actress Joan Crawford, in Charles Higham’s opinion, starred in two films with less obvious intentions….” Meaning that it’s only Higham’s opinion that Crawford was the star? The following page has a clumsy paragraph about Spy Smasher but incorrectly states that Spy Smasher Returns was released the same year as the serial, 1942, when in fact it was done over two decades later in 1966 as a television feature. Something similar appears on p204 with “Another such effort, in the eyes of reviewer Steve Simmels, was the film Bad Company….” It’s Simmels’ opinion that this is a comic spy film?
p63 – About Dive Bomber’s final cut having “Flynn’s own camerawork around Pearl Harbor.” Is that supposed to mean what it says: that Flynn himself filmed shots? Or does it mean scenes with Flynn acting?
He implies that the Comics Code was the result of fears about Communism but that actually had almost nothing to do with it. His very brief survey of comics omits a lot. He gets the backstory for Iron Man foe/supporting character Crimson Dynamo a bit confused; the character wasn’t really the Soviets’ attempt at a superhero arms race since the first one was a defected scientist the Russians tried to kill, another an unaffiliated Russian agent who was trying to attack Russia, etc. There is some support for the claim that Spider-Man’s parents were SHIELD agents but it’s generally considered not true, certainly not definitive. (Britton misspells “Spider-Man.”)
p116 – Says that Mission: Impossible was “renewed again for several Tom Cruise vehicles in the 1990s” though so far there have only been two such films (not “several”) and only one was in the 1990s. Even his later discussion contradicts this statement.
There’s no real bibliography, only a few pages of “Works Cited.” So, for instance, what’s the publication info on The Zakhov Mission, a Russian novel where a Soviet agent defeats Bond? One reason this matters is because Britton may have been confusing two different books by the same author, at least according to the Wikipedia entry and other sources. Or actually he wasn’t confusing them so much as pulling info from a secondary source and not checking it. Any survey such as this should have a full bibliography of all works mentioned in the text including films and TV shows.
When he gets to the flood of 60s spy films it becomes just unconnected paragraphs. And though he mentions the numerous Italian ones (oddly claiming that UA threatened copyright infringement, possibly true but certainly not a legitimate claim from UA) but somehow avoids mentioning almost any of them. Well, Danger: Diabolik (here probably misspelled as Danger! Diabolik, not an alternate I see listed anywhere but you never know completely with these films) does get namechecked but it’s not a spy film. That doesn’t stop Britton from incorrectly assigning Diabolik’s lead actor John Phillip Law to Danger Death Ray when he appears nowhere in it.
Assorted errors: The film Telefon is consistently misspelled as Telephon. He confidently lists a film that doesn’t exist: Under Siege III. On p185 he discusses a 1983 Man from UNCLE film but doesn’t give the title until deep in another paragraph about a different TV show. On p196 “digial incriptions” probably means “encryptions” or less likely “inscriptions”. On p198 “Jack Woo” instead of the correct John Woo. p202 incorrectly IDs Men in Black (as in the movie of the title) as from an actual NSA “team of commandos” when it’s really from mysterious unaffiliated agents of UFO legend. On p209 he claims that Spy Game’s “Vietnam sequences were edited to look black and white with a green tint” though obviously editing has nothing to do with that. And why would B&W be “the style of the times” for Vietnam? On p215 Britton gives the wrong actor for the role of Maria in The Bourne Identity.
Britton doesn’t always clearly indicate whether he’s talking about a film or novel. Most of the time I already know which is what anyway but readers unfamiliar with the subject won’t and there are still times with regards to adaptations that it takes re-reading to figure out which one. This is even more disorienting when he starts jumping time periods.
Why is 24 mentioned only in passing?