Salt opened this past weekend to middling reviews and middling box office; the consensus appears to be that people are more or less in the middle on it. But it does do one thing well; it features a female secret agent who can handle herself. She's not used to seduce male bad guys, nor is she made to slip behind enemy lines. And she definitely, definitely does not need to be rescued by a male spy. (This is probably because the project was originally conceived for a male star, but nonetheless, it's a step in the right direction.) Here are seven of the best female spies and secret agents before Salt.
1. Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) in Notorious (1946)
Alicia is a reluctant spy. After her father is accused of being a traitor and commits suicide, Alicia is called in to help make up for this smudge on the family name. She is asked to woo and marry Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), who may be running a Nazi group in South America and dealing in uranium. Unfortunately, before all this can take place, Alicia falls madly in love with her contact man, Devlin (Cary Grant). A better spy might notice when someone tries to poison her, but Alicia can be forgiven for being distracted. Screenwriter Robert Towne loosely borrowed this scenario for Tom Cruise and Thandie Newton in Mission: Impossible II (2000).
2. Mata Hari (Greta Garbo) in Mata Hari (1931)
The real-life spy Mata Hari (1876-1917) was a Dutch-born exotic dancer and courtesan; if you were a red-blooded male and happened to have some war secrets, and she was assigned to get them from you, then you were a goner. Who but Greta Garbo could ever have played her? Of course Garbo accidentally and tragically falls in love with a lieutenant (Ramon Novarro), and everything goes south. But before it does, a weird kind of blow was struck for powerful women everywhere.
3. Rachel Stein / Ellis de Vries (Carice van Houten) in Black Book (2006)
In what could be Paul Verhoeven's masterpiece (aside from, you know, Showgirls), a former Jewish singer Rachel Stein joins the resistance, turns herself into a blonde, slips behind enemy lines and seduces an SS officer. She's initially after revenge, but eventually she finds herself in a sticky spot, and unable to prove her true identity. It looks as if Verhoeven intended this to be his career-topping award contender, especially after a career of violent genre films, but fortunately he remembered to make a really good, very taut thriller.
4. Anya Amasova / Agent XXX (Barbara Bach) in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
The James Bond movies are filled with girl spies and secret agents. Sadly, hardly any of them are truly badass, and most of them eventually need Bond to rescue them from some precarious situation. But at least Barbara Bach actually gets mentioned in the title. Together she and Bond (Roger Moore) must stop a maniac called Stromberg from trying to take over the world by blowing it up. (Another genius plan.)
5. Jane Smith (Angelina Jolie) Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005)
Of course, Angelina had to be here. Her Salt may not be much fun, but her Jane Smith sure is. This movie is much slicker and funnier than her latest outing, although she sadly, slowly becomes painted as the bad guy; in any martial spat the female of the species is deadlier and therefore the audience sympathizes with the male underdog. Regardless, she is one of the good guys, and you couldn't ask for a more formidable ally.
6. Princess Sun (Zhao Wei) in Red Cliff (2009)
Princess Sun is just one subplot of John Woo's massive and masterful epic; make sure to see the full-length 288-minute version, since her character suffers the most vicious cuts in the 148-minute American version. Like many of our girl spies, she slips behind enemy lines disguised as one of them, but this time she disguises herself as a boy! She's pissed off about her brother trying to impose an arranged marriage upon her, and she has no intention of romancing or seducing anyone. Nevertheless, she strikes up a sweet friendship with a tough, but slightly dim soldier.
7. Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) in Get Smart (2008)
Though Barbara Feldon played her on the original TV show (1965-1970), Anne Hathaway is more than capable enough for this big budget movie adaptation. As in the show, Agent 99 is far more competent than Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell), though she still needs rescuing from time to time. It's an uneven film, and a bit too long, but I like it. (See photo above.)