Part 3.0: Cold War Adventurers (The First Spy Cycle)


   Projected rather than inspired by the post-war climate of the uneasy peace between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the Cold War events from 1947 to 1950 (with the coming to power of Communist leader Mao Zedong in China, the arrest of Russian spies Klaus Fuchs, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the Alger Hiss case, the start of the conflict in Korea, and the rise of Red-baiter Senator Joseph McCarthy) were instrumental in starting the first television Spy cycle.

   A wholly American television genre, UK television (only BBC at the time) stayed well away from any “Red Menace” overtures.

   Unlike the full headlong rush into espionage adventure during the following decade, the steady stream of spy stories during the first half of the 1950s were thinly-veiled attacks on the perceived encroachment of Communist influence into various parts of the world. The protagonists of these series were as varied as their assignments, which included government agents, military agents, roving journalists, and simply hot-blooded adventurers.


   These series were often filmed as co-production ventures in Europe and Scandinavia. Among them, they featured the American correspondent hero of Foreign Intrigue (synd., 1951-55) and freelance writer of Crusader (CBS, 1955-56).

   The government agents of Dangerous Assignment (synd., 1952), Doorway to Danger (NBC/ABC, 1951-53), Secret File U.S.A. (synd., 1954) and The Man Called X (synd., 1956).

   The diplomat courier of Passport to Danger (synd., 1954-56) and the omnipotent, globe-trotting adventurers of The Hunter (CBS/NBC, 1952-54), China Smith (synd., 1952-54) and Biff Baker U.S.A. (CBS, 1952-53).

   All engaged in dirty tricks against an even dirtier and trickier enemy.

   It was all too clear that the villains represented agents of Iron Curtain countries in the west or elements of the Red Chinese threat in the east, but it was never stated or the countries named outright.


   Of distinction, but no less shamelessly propagandistic in its relentless Communist infiltration hunting, was the double-agent series I Led Three Lives (synd., 1953-56). It was set in Boston for the most part but some stories took our hero Herbert Philbrick (a suitably nervous, twitchy Richard Carlson) overseas.

   Apparently, the series was based on the real-life experiences of advertising executive Philbrick who, during the 1940s, acted as a volunteer undercover agent for the FBI. The modestly popular series displayed all the customary excitement associated with this type of concealed-identity drama (imminent danger of discovery, walking the shadowy path between the authorities and the enemy) while maintaining the hard and belligerent attitude found in other, more direct anti-Communist TV series.


   During this period of hysterical Commie-bashing, more mainstream Secret Service exploits began to surface. Utilizing case histories (“from the files of…”) alongside original screen stories (ranging in historical scope from the First World War to contemporary times), the anthologies Pentagon U.S.A. (CBS, 1953), Top Secret (synd., 1954-55), I Spy (hosted by Raymond Massey; synd., 1955-56) and Behind Closed Doors (NBC, 1958-59) — even the frontier assignments of two Secret Service agents in the post-Civil War west, Cowboy G-Men (synd., 1952-53) — drew on stories involving political corruption, attempted kidnapping or assassination of government figures, private armies, and the general thwarting of the “enemy’s” skilled craft of deception and duplicity.

   Arriving on the home screen just a year after April 1953 publication, it was inevitable that Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, would show up during this period (as a 1954 CBS presentation of the anthology series Climax!).


   However, only the bare bones of the novel’s plot were used (the high-stakes baccarat game and, unexpectedly, the infamous torture scene; although the latter was changed to an equally grisly pliers-and-toes ordeal), with the hero now a U.S. Intelligence agent (Barry Nelson as agent Jimmy Bond) and the villain (Peter Lorre’s Le Chiffre) the head of a Soviet spy ring.

   The “based on the files…” fad soon became a TV genre fashion after the popularity of Jack Webb’s 1952-59 Dragnet soared. These pseudo-documentary series (such as The Line-Up, State Trooper, Highway Patrol and others) will be among my next observations.

   But before that, there will be something of a footnote to this Part 3, looking at the 1950s TV adventurer sub-genre.

Note:   The introduction to this series of columns by Tise Vahimagi on TV mysteries and crime shows may be found here, followed by:

Part 1: Basic Characteristics (A Swift Overview)
Part 2.0: Evolution of the TV Genre (UK)
Part 2.1: Evolution of the TV Genre (US)