The arrest late last month of a Russian spy ring in suburbia seemed, to breathless reporters and wry bloggers, exciting because cinematic. Analogies were reached for, future casting calls were speculated upon—another twist in pop culture and espionage’s long intertwining, in which true stories, literary and pulp fictions and parody all inform one another, dating back at least to a certain exotic dancer’s fatal dabblings.
Though it boasts globe-trotting locations (Old Europe coffee shops to Dubai high-rises), innovative gadgetry (tape recorders hidden in pens to satellite imagery), historical import and political gossip (Diplomats to Cold Warriors to private corporate spooks), spying is uniquely cinematic because it depends upon performance, and, in a way often related to that assumption of an alternative identity, upon the tension of a volatile truth forever on the verge of discovery. That is, suspense, per the as-good-as-dictionary definition once given by suspense’s Master—the bomb under the table that may go off at any minute.
Hitchcock took espionage as a frequent subject, from his British films of the 30s, breezy thrillers about game amateur spooks—which, like Eric Ambler’s contemporaneous novels of everymen enlisted in intrigue, anticipated a war that would, through the Blitz and Home Guard, Victory Gardens and War Bonds, make every citizen into a combatant—up through his late adaptation of the 60s airport bestseller Topaz. In Notorious, Ingrid Bergman must act the loving wife to Claude Rains’s Nazi agent, the better to infiltrate his circle; besotted handler Cary Grant has to hide his own love away, or else blow her charade’s cover as surely as if caught snooping around the wine cellar.
But every Hitchcock movie, really, is about people who are afraid of being caught—like Lars Thorwald, afraid he’ll be found out as his wife’s murderer, and L.B. Jeffries, afraid of being found, well, spying on his neighbor. That one of these men is a villain and one a hero is no more accidental than the equal sex appeal of the CIA and KGB—Hitch did often let suspense play off its moral leash. Maybe the reason we so frequently feel for the bad guys in Hitchcock’s films—why we root for Marion Crane to make off with her embezzled loot, and then root for her car to sink all the way into the swamp—is because we understand the shame and humiliation of being caught doing something wrong. And maybe the reason we understand this is because to watch a movie is to sit in the dark and peek in on the activities of beautiful people who don’t know we have them under surveillance.