The Spook Who Sat by the Door  (1973)

PopGap #04: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)

 
By dorrk, April 13th 2015
Cleaning out the queues: #04 of 20

By sheer coincidence here's another movie this month that I thought would be standard campy blaxploitation but turned out to be far more serious and thoughtful. I enjoyed The Spook Who Sat by the Door more overall than I did Ganja and Hess, but it also feels like a movie that never quite capitalizes on its surprisingly subversive content.

The Spook Who Sat by the Door sounds like farce: the CIA, under political pressure, hires its first African-American agent, the quiet and serious Dan Freeman. After five years at the agency, Freeman resigns and moves to Chicago to become a social worker in the community where he grew up. Although Freeman lives an upper-class lifestyle, he's secretly using what he learned at the CIA to train an army of insurgents to spark a revolution in the ghettoes.

Based on the novel by Sam Greenlee, it seems at first that The Spook Who Sat by the Door is aiming for broad comedy. the first couple of scenes serve up some red herrings in that direction, and the initial premise that the CIA had never recruited a black agent prior to 1973 suggests either satirical fantasy or ideologically-blindness. However, the movie rather quickly settles into a sober docudrama about racial expectations, assumptions and the purpose of armed revolution. In the hands of a skilled director, this might have really paid off. Sadly, director Ivan Dixon lays it all out in a series of flat, TV-style scenes that do nothing to build on the potentially explosive concept. the acting from Lawrence Cook as Freeman and the supporting cast is also very competent in the vein of 1970s TV dramas. Nothing bad, but also nothing special. It's not surprising that Dixon went on to direct episodes for a number of bland TV series over following two decades.

As it is, The Spook Who Sat by the Door is always interesting and mildly provocative, but never digs in as deep as I'd like for a movie with such subversive subject matter. Part of my failure to respond to The Spook Who Sat by the Door is no doubt in part due to my being removed both racially and temporally from the living conditions of African-Americans in the 1970s. I'm sure to many, the nerve of this movie to even broach its subject matter, with studied seriousness, just 5 years after the Chicago riots, was like a charge of electricity, but from the safe distance of the white middle-class in the 2010s, The Spook Who Sat By the Door feels a bit sterile and lacking punch.

Trailer for The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)



The Top 20 Movies of All-Time

#1: The Godfather Part II (1974)

#1: The Godfather Part II (1974)

Dir: Francis Ford Coppola
#2: The Godfather (1972)

#2: The Godfather (1972)

Dir: Francis Ford Coppola
#3: West Side Story (1961)

#3: West Side Story (1961)

Dir: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
#4: Manhattan (1979)

#4: Manhattan (1979)

Dir: Woody Allen
#5: The Graduate (1967)

#5: The Graduate (1967)

Dir: Mike Nichols
#6: Tootsie (1982)

#6: Tootsie (1982)

Dir: Sydney Pollack
#7: Apocalypse Now (1979)

#7: Apocalypse Now (1979)

Dir: Francis Ford Coppola
#8: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

#8: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Dir: Irvin Kershner
#9: Star Wars (1977)

#9: Star Wars (1977)

Dir: George Lucas
#10: The Exorcist (1973)

#10: The Exorcist (1973)

Dir: William Friedkin
#11: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

#11: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Dir: Peter Jackson
#12: Taxi Driver (1976)

#12: Taxi Driver (1976)

Dir: Martin Scorsese
#13: Annie Hall (1977)

#13: Annie Hall (1977)

Dir: Woody Allen
#14: Vertigo (1958)

#14: Vertigo (1958)

Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
#15: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

#15: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Dir: Steven Spielberg
#16: Boogie Nights (1997)

#16: Boogie Nights (1997)

Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson
#17: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

#17: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Dir: Tobe Hooper
#18: It's a Wonderful Life (1944)

#18: It's a Wonderful Life (1944)

Dir: Frank Capra
#19: Singin' in the Rain (1952)

#19: Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Dir: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
#20: Zodiac (2007)

#20: Zodiac (2007)

Dir: David Fincher