Presents an exaggerated vision of a potential future that was intended to thrill certain audiences and terrify others.
Prior to spawning James Bond with 1953’s Casino Royale, Ian Fleming spent a long stint in British Naval Intelligence, establishing the cloak-and-dagger bona fides that would help him create a convincing fantasy of the world of international espionage. Influenced less by the slow collapse of the British Empire than by the ephemeral victories of World War II, this experience was ultimately converted toward chauvinistic ends in novels that exploit the atavistic capacities of pulp to consolidate an idealized image of British hegemony abroad, a fictional salve to the realm’s rapid decline.
Sam Greenlee, on the other hand, didn’t develop such a rosy picture of the United States during his time in the foreign service, which spanned some of the most incendiary flashpoints of mid-century global politics. Working to spread propaganda abroad during his time in the now-defunct United States Information Agency, he operated in Iraq, Indonesia and Pakistan, among others, the less-than-savory nature of these missions leaving him jaded, particularly with the prospects of the Civil Rights movement in gaining ground on the home front. The result was The Spook Who Sat by The Door, an agitprop pulp novel with a sharp political bent, which imagines the manifold frustrations of the minority community coalescing into a legitimate separatist movement, taking up arms to demand equal treatment.
In times as dire as ours, it’s useful to remember that things were once worse, at least in terms of the sheer outpouring of violence and desperation. As the optimism of the ‘60s curdled into the bloody upheaval, bombings and extremist action of the ‘70s, Greenlee’s 1969 novel birthed the 1973 film adaptation of the same name, it’s twinned dream/nightmare vision slotting perfectly into the tumultuous climate. Greenlee’s personal progression, taking informational techniques gleaned from his government service and turning them toward anti-establishment ends, finds a mirror in the tale of a black CIA officer who goes rogue, using his training to help foment revolution. Like The Turner Diaries from a radical instead of reactionary perspective, it’s pure entertainment laced with a loaded political message, the excitement of watching the action-packed plotline play out also serving as instructional fodder for those with an interest in resisting the control of a racist regime.
The adaptation of Spook is directed by Hogan’s Heroes star Ivan Dixon, who’d contributed to a previous push for equality by starring in 1964’s fantastic Nothing But a Man. Unfortunately, his directorial effort is a far lesser movie, a curiosity that stands out for its raw ideology and nerve, even within a groundbreaking period of conscious, energetic filmmaking, but doesn’t otherwise coalesce into a satisfying whole. Unlike so many relics of the Blaxploitation era, which have verve and spark but skimp on details, the film feels acutely relevant but also bloodless, nailing the cold and calculating aspects of revolution but skimping on the feeling behind such a response. It’s depiction of process is fascinating, a deep dive into the nuts and bolts of armed uprising, but there’s little else offered in terms of character, conflict and plot, the latter pushing a straight line whose simplicity is the opposite of the developed political text.
Much of this has to do with a fairly flat protagonist. Dan Freeman stars as Lawrence Cook, who battles through a rigorous CIA selection process after the agency is pressured into hiring its first black agent. The word “spook” thus serves as a punning play on both the racial slur and period slang for a spy, although Cook doesn’t get involved in much intrigue, relegated upon hiring to the “Reprographics” department, a token dark face kept “near the door” for outsiders to see. Cook soon defects, claiming to pursue a career in local Chicago charity work while in fact assembling his own underground maquis system, training cells off former gang members to lie in wait until the time is ripe.
It’s never made entirely clear if this was Cook’s intent all along, or if his neglect at agency hands pushed him back into the radical politics of his college years, which are repeatedly referenced. This seems like a minor detail but is actually an important distinction, one that’s never properly dealt with by the movie, which prefers to maintain Cook as a symbolic figurehead rather than a fully realized character. A one-man sleeper cell, he easily outperforms the competition and internalizes the CIA’s methods, flipping their sneaky tactics back on the government they serve. This ties into the film’s main issue, which is that there’s no real conflict, only the steady unfolding of incidents, a puzzle assembly structure that’s compelling but doesn’t make for especially great cinema.
The film’s only real conflict is a dialectical one, between Cook and his old friend Dawson (J.A. Preston), a police officer who argues for slow-and-steady incrementalism, unaware of Cook’s actual status as subversive string-puller. Still, while it never approaches the sustained, ambivalent brilliance of the similar The Battle of Algiers, Spook is an interesting relic from a time when open rebellion was perhaps closer than ever before, or since. Politically incendiary enough that it was supposedly buried by the FBI for years after its limited release, it sits uncomfortably between real revolutionary praxis and the Corman-esque exploitation of something like Wild in the Streets. Thrilling but largely inert, it presents an exaggerated vision of a potential future that was intended to thrill certain audiences and terrify others, pointing to its pulp roots while still offering a fascinating glimpse into the frustration, fear and rage all simmering at the time of its release.