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I spy: How Tenet infiltrated cinema’s rich history of espionage films

Whether it’s slow character studies or picaresque escapism, the spy genre has given cinema some of its finest moments, writes Geoffrey Macnab. With Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending blockbuster finally hitting screens, it’s clear it has a lot to live up to

From Bond to Le Carre: Nolan's 'Tenet' is the latest in a distinguished line of espionage thrillers
From Bond to Le Carre: Nolan's 'Tenet' is the latest in a distinguished line of espionage thrillers

There is a revealing moment early on in Christopher Nolan’s epic, mind-bending new feature, Tenet. The “Protagonist” (John David Washington) meets a dapper and supercilious English spymaster (Michael Caine) in the dining room of a gentlemen’s club. The Protagonist (whose name is never given) doesn’t quite look the part. He is a young black man surrounded by fogeyish white establishment types. It is one of the few scenes in the film in which class, race and appearance are foregrounded. The Protagonist’s contempt for his host is self-evident. “You British don’t have a monopoly on snobbery,” he sneers. “Just a controlling interest,” Caine replies with the kind of deadpan, sarcastic wit you expect.

It is one of the few scenes in Tenet that you might also find in a John Le Carré adaptation or during a more class-conscious moment in a James Bond movie.

As all Bond aficionados will remember, in From Russia with Love (1963), Sean Connery’s 007 realises that Robert Shaw’s character Red Grant is not to be trusted because Grant orders red wine with the fish. That is an offence against etiquette that no self-respecting British gentleman spy would ever commit, not even one as rough-hewn as Connery’s Bond.

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