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The Third Man, Argo, & Bond: A Brief History of Espionage In Film
February 8, 2013 | 9:00AM

All words: Alan Pyke // All photos: Farrah Skeiky

The chilling buckets were dry and empty at L2 Lounge, probably not a typical sight at the Georgetown club, but its bare mortar and catacomb layout made it the perfect setting for a spy party. Or a fake-spy party at least, peppered with the genuine article.

The International Spy Museum joined forces with the Austrian Embassy to throw a party in celebration of the Orson Welles classic The Third Man on Wednesday night. The 1949 film, among the best (spy) movies ever, was playing silently on screens in two rooms as a healthy but unencumbering crowd swilled themed cocktails and mingled. The movie is set in Vienna just after World War II, when the city was divided into quarters controlled separately by the Allied powers. It belongs somewhere in the middle of the Venn diagram of spy fiction, at once romanticized and rooted. (Think Bond and Bourne on one side, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on the other.) That bifurcation in pop culture espionage tales had been the main thread of my conversation with Argo inspiration Tony Mendez earlier in the week.

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“Filmmakers and authors are all over the place,” Mendez told me. “Think of the characters of James Bond and George Smiley.  They couldn’t be more different, but both were written by former spies, Ian Fleming and John Le Carre, two men who actually knew their subject.” There was no formal poll of Wednesday’s audience, but most of the folks I talked to were in the Bond camp. A heated round of “did Tim Dalton suck or rule,” an always-satisfying argument, broke out at a nearby table, with indignation on both sides. But if anyone was chatting about the George Smileys of the fictional spyverse, they did so too quietly to be heard — only appropriate.

“Bond is grounded in reality,” Mendez continued, “but the entertainment factor trumps everything else. Le Carre is also grounded in truth, but more cynical and pessimistic. His works seem real to real spies.” And what of the Welles classic playing all around us, penned by the non-spy, cynical – at times romantic – novelist Graham Greene? The movie’s most famous moment comes alongside a ferris wheel. Welles’ character makes the case for turmoil, deceit, and near-anarchy, arguing that bloody chaos in Medici-era Italy gave us the Renaissance, while Switzerland “had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” How much, I asked the genuine CIA operative with 25 years’ clandestine service experience, do actual spies bat around such big ideas? How romantic is it, really?

“We have always said that you have to be a romantic to join the profession,” Mendez said. “There is a good amount of ‘Big Ideas’ talk among spooks. How to bring the information to the President and the policy-makers. How to win the hearts and minds of the foreign targets who we recruit and who provide us with this lifeblood – information of the highest order. About how to protect that citizen, and his family. About information obtained under duress and its reliability. About a human being’s ability to rationalize almost anything, including betraying his own country.”

Soon it was time for the speeches, and for Spy Museum Executive Director Peter Earnest to introduce the real spies in our midst. Former KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin was first, with Earnest relating an exchange from early in their friendship about the spy’s work among our Austrian co-hosts.

“I was in and out of Vienna several times,” Kalugin had told him.

“Doing what?”

“I was in and out of Vienna several times.” Cue chuckles. But the former Soviet spymaster wasn’t the only person lending weight to the air of authenticity the hosts had conjured. Mendez was in the room as well, and Earnest cajoled him into coming forward.

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Kalugin and Mendez were also the most unassuming characters present. They might hit 11 feet tall if you stacked them. Kalugin, trim and with a weary complexion, wore a simple dark suit. His lined, bemused face and bright eyes were the only thing about him that might invite a second glance without the Spy Museum board member calling him to the podium. Mendez was all white beard and glasses, peaking out above a leather bomber and an unbuttoned black polo. He shared stories, when we talked later, about how the Iranian’s are preparing their own, true version of Argo, and of the time he took Ben Affleck to Langley only to have their car get surrounded by rifle-wielding guards. (With Affleck’s famous face in the front seat, things didn’t calm down until Mendez’s beard appeared out a rear window.) But affable as he was, he seemed to miss his anonymity.

In a room full of people eager to be seen, or at least seen as Serious Espionage Enthusiasts, Kalugin and Mendez blended. They might’ve disappeared entirely save for the crush to speak with the guests of honor after their introduction.

Looking around the room, it was suddenly obvious how much everyone else in attendance was play-acting. The audacious habberdashery count was much lower than it might’ve been, with just 5 aggressive hat choices out of well over a hundred heads. (The hats evoked spy fantasy, but with a clear generational break: two dusty homburgs on two older men, and three narrow snap-brim fedoras topping far younger pates.)

I couldn’t help ascribing Bond movie roles to the dapper strangers around me. The woman in the scarlet fedora? She’s your contact who later betrays you, perhaps after a seduction (directionality of seduction unclear). The swarthy bespectacled heron of a man in beaten down loafers and sweater? Nuclear physicist weighing a defection. The leggy server who seems to keep noticing you through her bangs each time you round a corner? Surely an enemy agent.

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But the kindly woman apologetically interrupting you to ask what is your favorite place to visit? When you tell her “Vienna, to hear the music of Mozart,” she turns out to be your match in the game the Spy Museum folks had set up to lace the night together. It was my first attempt at the codeword exchange, but Deirdre, who had just helped me win a copy of “You Only Live Twice,” was on her seventh try at finding her pair. Her tradecraft was far more polished than my own. There were 70 pairs of “paroles” and “counter-paroles,” prompts and responses, and by 8:15 when Deirdre finds me they’ve had 16 matches. By the time I’m done talking to them about the game, that number’s up to 20.

I never got a chance to ask Mendez or Kalugin about the notion of all of us playing for paperback stakes at a game they’d likely each experienced dozens of times with their lives at risk. But in our previous exchange, Mendez had seemed to see the value of such watered-down stuff, at least on movie screens: “People like to think they are peeking into a secret world, populated with heroes and villains, that is meant to be private. And in fact, it is. But through pop culture they are made to feel that they are seeing the real thing.”

The mish-mash of reality and dress-up at Wednesday’s event was a good match to the ostensible theme. The Third Man is more of a noir mystery than an espionage tale, truth told, but it mixes the two quite well. The museum and embassy staffs pulled off a similar feat of blending on Wednesday, with everyone aware they’d come for artifice but able to feel comfortable about rubbing elbows with their fellow spy dorks. Judging by how well everyone seemed to enjoy themselves long after Mendez departed, the games are even better than the real thing.

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