Film Review: Ring of Spies (1964)

This is the story of the Portland Spy Ring, the last of the three great cases from what one author has called: “The Golden Age of Treachery” (the other two being the Cambridge Spies and George Blake). Although the movie was given a cinematic release in 1964, it is so close to the actual facts of the case that today we would call it a drama documentary. This movie’s interest for historians of espionage lies in the fact that it was made very close to the actual events when it was still fresh in the memory, that it was filmed when the urban landscape and manners of the time were still current and that it uses some of the actual locations where events occurred (including the site of the arrest of the participants outside the Old Vic theatre in London).

From a movie enthusiast’s point of view, it is fascinating to see the actor Bernard Lee (‘M’ from the Bond films franchise) playing the bad guy. There is even one scene at the start of the film where he is carpeted by his exasperated boss in a manner almost identical to similar scenes in the Bond films where James is chastised by ‘M’ for his latest misdemeanour. There are also other scenes that stir a sense of curiosity: the spies hold one meeting during a band concert in Hyde Park just as they do in the spy movie “The Ipcress File.” Did all spies meet in public parks? There is a rather touching moment when the Soviet spies join the rest of the audience in standing for the National Anthem. Also, Houghton, the main character in the case, lives in a rather dodgy caravan when he returns to the UK to take up his spying career (this is accurate – it was all Houghton could afford). But the use of the caravan is strongly reminiscent of the arrival by caravan of the spy Jim Prideaux at the opening of Le Carré’s novel “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” The novel was written ten years after these events, but was Cornwell’s imagination stirred by this case in some way? We will almost certainly never know, but the comparison is interesting.

From the espionage historian’s point of view the movie has much to commend it although, of course, one always has to remember that this is a drama and therefore certain corners may have been cut. Harry Houghton (Lee) is a former Chief Petty Officer, now a civil servant attached to the Naval Attaché’s office in Warsaw. He is sent back in disgrace and given a dull job in the Records Room of an underwater weapons research establishment at Portland on the south coast of England. He is a drunk and a bachelor with a roving eye. (In reality Houghton was married and it was the breakdown of his marriage as well as his drinking that led to his removal). In Warsaw, Houghton had dabbled in the Black Market and also with some of the local Polish Secret Service honey traps. When he writes to one of these women and lets her know where he is working, the KGB gets in touch with him and so his spying career begins.

The motivations for Houghton’s betrayal are fairly well done and they will be familiar to any intelligence service targeting officer: the drinking indicates unhappiness and a weak mind; the dallying with women demonstrates a conveniently flexible morality and the dabbling in the Black Market indicates a love of money. Furthermore, Houghton confesses to one of the honey traps his feeling of resentment at the British class system. He tells her that he joined the Navy at 15 and risked his life during the war, but he could never rise higher than Chief Petty Officer (the highest NCO rank) because he “did not go to the right school.” But he also knows that with money one can buy anything in the UK, including influence. To him, money represents the way to success and social standing. To a targeting officer all these elements practically scream: “Recruit me!”

But all this promising biodata is not enough for the KGB (or Polish Secret Service, it is never made clear). At their first meeting, the recruiting officer appeals to Houghton’s venality, but also threatens him with blackmail for his past activities. For many recruiters this would be a no-no; you never threaten your target because they may turn on you one day. The idea is to become their friend, that is how you get best performance from your assets. But this approach is accurate in terms of the Eastern Bloc intelligence services of the day. They always felt that they needed that extra little bit of control that blackmail brings. This is one reason why the honey trap was always one of their favourite ploys (and to some extent still is).

The old tradecraft tricks are all here including recognition signals and pass phrases. Houghton is told to identify himself to his contact by being at a certain place and time and carrying an issue of the satirical magazine, “Punch.” His contact will approach and ask: “Where can I catch the 406 bus?” to which he must reply “That goes to Epsom I think.” That should stir some training course memories for the professionals. The movie is also good on mobile surveillance, illustrating the sheer number of footmen and vehicles needed for a real operation. On the other hand, I’m not so sure about the car Houghton passes containing two Carmelite nuns (surely a bit showy?), nor the fact that one says: “Don’t let the bastard get too far ahead, Doris!”. On this point, the movie was rather ahead of reality: there were hardly any female officers in the A4 section of MI5 at this time. The footmen also wear wired earpieces which means that they all have to pretend to be deaf whenever they are close to the target (e.g. in a lift in a department store). In fact, wireless induction earpieces were already in use by MI5 at this time.

The portrayal of Gordon Lonsdale (actually a KGB officer named Molody) is also accurate for this type of officer. A good agent runner is attractive, friendly and he or she does not use threats. In contrast to the first contact from the embassy, Lonsdale (who accurately uses yet another layer of cover by claiming that his name is Alex Johnson and that he is Canadian) is laid back, affable and helpful. When Houghton worries that he may not be able to get secret intelligence, Lonsdale tells him not to worry, to take his time and then helps him to work out how it might be done.

The movie is less good on Lonsdale’s counter surveillance moves. The movie falls into the old trap of using long, meandering routes and jumping on and off trains at the last moment. The film makers simply do not understand that the art of counter surveillance is not to stand out while you are doing it. Once the enemy feels that you are up to something, it doesn’t matter whether you lost them or not , they will never leave you alone ever again. The art of invisibility is to fly under their radar, not smack across the front of it.

We are back on safer ground with the recruitment of Ethel Gee, Houghton’s accomplice. Gee (her real name) was a lonely, middle aged secretary, described by the newspapers of the day as “plain.” Following Lonsdale’s suggestions, Houghton shows her a life of excitement and wealth. She dreams of owning a house and a boat and of buying shares so that she can make money without even trying, “the way that rich people do.” Their romantic dance almost mirrors the classic seven stages of a successful recruitment from initial contact through slight but growing illegality (they go to swingers’ parties) to the penultimate stage of recruitment approach. Even here the movie is bang on. Knowing that Gee would never spy for a Communist country, Houghton tells her that Lonsdale is actually employed by the US Navy and that the papers they are stealing are so that the US can keep a close eye on its NATO partners. She falls for this. Of course, once they have started stealing the papers, it doesn’t matter what she believes – she is trapped. And indeed she proves to have a cooler head for the work than Houghton. (This line mirrors Gee’s defence at her trial. We will never know if it was true or not. Certainly the jury did not believe it). Gee’s recruitment is reminiscent of Markus Wolff’s use of “Romeo Spies” for East Germany in the 1980s and shows just how important the “little people” in an organisation can be as potential recruitment targets.

Despite the weeks of planning, the first time they steal the documents, they are both terrified. It seems that everyone is suspicious of them. Anyone who has done the job for real will sympathise with that feeling.

The brush contacts don’t work too well: they last too long and the use of Gee’s shopping bag as the handover instrument means that Lonsdale looks a little odd after every meeting wearing a three piece suit and carrying a little wicker basket. But this is not really the fault of the film makers who only have limited time to indicate how an agent/officer relationship works. The film also has no understanding of the way that bugging works. In the first place, they use a man under cover as someone from the gas board to place the bugs. This would usually be done by a covert break-in team and you can see why: the “gas man” is almost caught a dozen times. Secondly, the gas man is able to place the bugs anywhere he likes – in the fireplace, behind picture frames etc. In reality, the real problem with bugs is power. Unless you can hard wire them somewhere or put in a decent battery pack, you are only going to get a few hours’ coverage and then you will need to start all over again. (Although the movie gets all this wrong, they can be forgiven. After all they are making a movie, not a instructional film called “How To Be a Spy”). When we meet the professional spies, the Kroegers, the portrayal of the use of one time pads, burst transmissions and microdots is spot on.

In the film, Houghton, Gee and the others are all caught by chance. Houghton’s excessive expenditure (reminiscent of the error committed years later by CIA traitor Aldrich Ames) makes him look suspicious and surveillance does the rest. The identification of the Kroegers (actually two KGB spies called Cohen) by use of their fingerprints on their daily milk bottles is a nice touch. In reality, the Portland spy ring was betrayed by a CIA walk-in, codenamed SNIPER, but none of this was known at the time.

After their trial in 1961, Molody was given twenty-five years in prison and the Cohens twenty years each, but they were soon back in the USSR thanks to two classic spy swaps in 1964 and 1969 respectively. As for Houghton and Gee, they paid the full price: fifteen years each. They served nine, were released in 1970 and lived the rest of their lives in disgrace. Gee died in 1984, Houghton in 1985. But perhaps it is always that way: the case officers escape, but the agents, the people who run the real risks, are, more often than not, left to rot. At least the real case had one silver lining: Houghton married Gee after they were released from prison and they lived together for the rest of their lives. So perhaps she really did find the love that she had been seeking.

One final point: the movie opens with a rather touching little voiceover sequence about the history of spying: “Ever since man first distrusted man, as far back as the book of Genesis, there have been spies.” There then follows a brief resumé of spy tactics and equipment, before it concludes: “Today spying has become a major industry!” With those words, the film was ahead of its time. No one then could have imagined the world of corporate espionage that we have today.

The film is recommended for espionage history enthusiasts or anyone who has a soft spot for old black and white spy thrillers.

[NB Our film reviews are not, primarily, assessments of the cinematic value of the work. They are written by intelligence professionals and are concerned with the film’s accuracy, relevance to the realities of espionage, place in espionage history, etc.]

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