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Ten Romantic Spy Thrillers

Ten Romantic Spy Thrillers

It’s probably escaped your attention, as the film’s essentially being buried by all involved, but the Angelina Jolie/Johnny Depp spy flick “The Tourist” hits theaters tomorrow. Early reviews have been poisonous (and we certainly were not impressed) but it’s not entirely surprising — the film’s genre, that of the romantic espionage thriller, is not the easiest one to get right, requiring a fiendishly difficult juggling of tone.

When it works, as with many of the films on this list, it seems effortless. But it’s so easy to get it wrong, and filmmaking greats from William Goldman to Jonathan Demme have come unstuck trying to ape Hitchcock & co. Below, we’ve picked out 10 films of note in the genre. Not everyone’s a classic, and most of them are souffle-light, but they’re all worth discussing and much more worth your time than “The Tourist” (yeah, even “Duplicity“).

“The 39 Steps” (1935)
Perhaps the seed of the romantic spy thriller as a whole, and the birth of the ‘innocent on the run’ idea that Alfred Hitchcock would constantly return to, the director’s 1935 film is easily the best of the countless adaptations of John Buchan’s classic thriller. It differs significantly from the novel, most notably by introducing Pamela, the stranger who becomes embroiled in the adventures of Richard Hannay, as he’s wrongly accused of murdering a spy. The relationship between Hannay (the great Robert Donat) and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), handcuffed together, is at the heart of the film, and the sparkling banter would feel at home in the best rom-coms. He’d return to the same genre in a more confident manner, but rarely with as much wit.

“Casablanca” (1942)
What’s left to say about “Casablanca?” In the 70-odd years since it was released, it’s been endlessly (mis)quoted, parodied, ripped-off and referenced, but it remains one of the most purely entertaining films ever made — an honestly thrilling thriller, a snappy comedy and a tragic love story rolled into one. Michael Curtiz is at the top of his game, the script is perfect, and the supporting cast, which includes Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet and the Crown Prince of character actors, Claude Rains, are unmatched. But the film lives and dies on its leads, as the fascination with the idea that Ronald Reagan, George Raft and Ann Sheridan might have taken the roles attests to, and Bogie and Bergman were never better. We’re not sure that there’s a soul out there who wouldn’t mark either Rick or Ilsa as their ideal partner, and the ending somehow breaks your heart with a featherlight touch.

“Charade” (1963)
This genre-bender is so Hitchcockian in nature that you almost expect the pudgy, balding genius to make his signature cameo at any moment. But a look at the credits proves that it’s “Singin’ in the Rain” helmer Stanley Donen behind the camera, who adds a fun mix of thrills and giggles to the film. Cary Grant stars as a man who may be in love with Audrey Hepburn’s Regina…or he may be after her dead husband’s money. Mistaken–and confused–identity is key here, as are the dresses by Givenchy, tourism-video-ready shots of Paris, and the fizzy chemistry between Grant and a decades-younger Hepburn. There’s suspense as Regina tries to evade the clutches of three definitely bad guys (James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Ned Glass), and there’s romance as she makes a futile attempt to avoid falling for Grant’s name-changing charmer.

“Duplicity” (2009)
We like Julia Roberts too, but will people please stop casting her as the femme fatale/siren who lures men to their doom with her rapier wit and bombshell sensuality (see also: “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”)? Julia is cute, even spunky sometimes, immensely lovable, but not dangerous. And so this film, a rare recent chance for a witty grown-up caper movie, misses the sexed-up Hepburn/Tracy mark by quite some distance. And it’s not just Julia who’s to blame: Clive Owen, never the most animated performer, gives her almost no help throughout, and the tedious corporate spy hi-jinks wear thin long before the inevitable TWIST! in which the con-ers become the con-ees. Writer/director Tony Gilroy lets what was presumably zingy repartee on the page turn into alternately smug and desperate banter between unlikeable leads and by the end, the only mystery is how this missed opportunity managed to get even the mixed-to-positive reviews it did on release.

“Foreign Correspondent” (1940)
Alfred Hitchcock’s second Hollywood film, “Foreign Correspondent,” is a blueprint for the whirlwind spy adventure movie, and the trailer for “The Tourist” shows the film liberally cribbing from Hitchcock’s reporter-in-pursuit-of-spies romp (see: Johnny Depp escaping from his hotel room in pajamas). The dashing Joel McCrea (seriously, this guy could give Cary Grant a run for his money in charm school) plays American reporter Johnny Jones, aka Huntley Haverstock, who finds himself embroiled in a continent-spanning spy mystery after witnessing an assassination while on assignment. His adventure leads him into the arms of British aristocrat Carol Fisher (the angelic Laraine Day), who is just a little too connected to the action, as Johnny and the audience come to find out. He also picks up sidekick Scott ffolliott (yes, that’s how it’s spelled, the lowercase f in honor of a deceased ancestor in just one of the film’s absurd touches of humor) played by the inimitable, impeccable, king of scene-thievery George Sanders. The engine of the plot is relentless, charging from location to location, throwing in twists and turns and ocean plane crashes until it’s all just a giant MacGuffin anyway, but wasn’t it a fun ride? Nevermind “The Tourist,” stay home and rent “Correspondent” this weekend.

“No Way Out” (1987)
It’s perhaps hard to call “No Way Out” a romantic spy thriller, considering that the love interest, played by Sean Young, is *spoiler* killed off fairly early on. But, while it may not be the film on the list most likely to make you sigh and hug yourself a little tighter, it works like gangbusters as a thriller. The plot twists and turns in genuinely unexpected ways (with a genuinely shocking final revelation, although one that arguably is a little bit of a cheat), but it rarely feels forced or convoluted. And as brief as the romance between Young and Kevin Costner is, it’s a properly sexy one. Costner’s terrific too, a more complex role than the All-American Boy he often plays, and he’s backed up with great support, most notably from Will Patton and George Dzunda.

“North by Northwest” (1959)
Better-respected critics than ourselves have written weighty treatises on the color of Cary Grant’s socks in the crop duster scene from “North by Northwest”, so it’s difficult to know what our little entry here can possibly say that hasn’t already been said. But while there are many Alfred Hitchcock movies to which we film bores like to append the word “essential,” in no other case can we do it with quite so light a heart. It may not have the disturbing psychodrama of “Vertigo” or even the formal perfection of “Rear Window” or “Notorious”, but what it does have is romance, humor, spies, chases, red herrings, suave villains, sleeper cars and a level of sheer kinetic fun rarely seen before or since. And on a personal note, a late-night viewing of this particular movie at age 7 will always be credited with about 30% of the reason this writer loves film, and at least 90% of the reason that my vote for Greatest Movie Star of All Time will always go to Cary Grant.

“Notorious” (1946)
Often overlooked in favor of the more popular “North by Northwest” when it comes to Alfred Hitchcock-Cary Grant pairings, “Notorious” is a brooding, sometimes brutal romantic thriller about love, betrayal, deception…and uranium. Grant’s American agent Devlin recruits Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia to spy on a group of Nazis in post-WWII Brazil, by seducing and ultimately marrying Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains). Since we’re talking Bergman and Grant, their mission is complicated by the inevitable love between Devlin and Alicia, which reaches a heady climax in a minute-spanning kissing scene. Hitchcock got around the production code’s criteria for kiss length by breaking up their kisses with whispers and touching far sexier than any single, lengthy kiss would’ve been. There’s a fun MacGuffin, but we’re far less concerned with the plot device than we are with the complex characters and their heated interactions.

“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969)
It’s ironic that this most untypical of Bond movies is one of the most satisfying in stand-alone film terms. Of course it’s a perennial Trival Pursuit answer — George Lazenby’s only performance as 007 — but that isn’t the only thing that sets it apart. It’s also the only one Peter Hunt directed, it was the first time the female lead was the more famous (something not repeated until the Brosnan era), it features Bond’s only marriage, and it foreshadows recent developments in the series by showing Bond scared and hurt (emotionally if not physically). Lazenby does a better job than history credits him with — he’s no Connery, but he’s not as campy as Roger Moore or as humourless as Timothy Dalton either. And there are enough familiar elements: exotic snowy locales, gadgets, ludicrous world domination plots involving beautiful women (among them Rigg’s ‘Avengers’ successor Joanna Lumley) and arch-villain Blofeld (here played by Telly Savalas), to provide all the continuity we need. It may be the cuckoo in the 007 nest, but it’s worth checking out anyway.

Three Days of the Condor” (1975)
They don’t make romantic spy films like they used to and they certainly don’t make thrillers like they did in the ’70s (though arguably films like “Michael Clayton” and “The American” do tip their caps to that era heavily). Alan J. Pakula (“The Parallax View,” “Klute,” “All The President’s Men“) was arguably the master of this genre (which is really the ’70s political thriller), and Fred Zinnemann‘s “The Day of the Jackal” is another classic, but right up there with those greats is Sydney Pollack‘s 1975 thriller, “Three Days of the Condor” (man, did Pollack have an incredible ’70s run including “Jeremiah Johnson,” The Yakuza,” and “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” at the tail end of the ’60s). Shot on location in New York, Robert Redford — the Pollack leading man of choice, they worked together on seven different films — stars as an Open source intelligence CIA desk plebe whose job is essentially a reader looking for hidden clues or messages in books, magazines and periodicals around the globe. He turns in a report one day on a low-brow thriller novel that his office has read and when he returns from lunch, he watches his entire office get assassinated and realizes his life is in danger. On the run, and using his knowledge of CIA thinking to use counter-tactics to improve his continued escape, he kidnaps a random woman (Faye Dunaway) and forces her to hide him in her Brooklyn apartment. Holding her prisoner, and yet trusting her with his story, she is eventually convinced to believe the CIA-man on the lam and the two implausibly fall in love (or call it Stockholm Syndrome if you like). Admittedly, the romance part of the film is weak, or at least by the time they’re in bed for the first time you don’t entirely buy it, but the picture is such a taut, cat-and-mouser that in the end, it matters little. Full of that wonderful disquiet often utilized in ’70s thrillers (little music, odd stretches without much sound), the ratcheted tension and suspense in ‘Condor’ is top notch, and while Pollack has many things to be proud of in his directorial career (“Tootsie,” “This Property Is Condemned,” “Absence of Malice” to name a few), this lean, paranoid thriller is certainly one of the most engaging pics he ever helmed and is near and dear to our hearts.

Honorable Mentions: Hitchcock‘s the master of the genre, and there’s a few of his entries that we excluded to prevent it from becoming Hitchfest ’10 — “The Man Who Knew Too Much” is a good one, and “To Catch A Thief” falls halfway between the spy genre and the heist picture. Stanley Donen’s another one who tackled the genre more than once, and his “Arabesque,” while undeniably a weaker cousin of “Charade,” is fitfully entertaining. Just stay away from Jonathan Demme’s “Charade” remake, “The Truth About Charlie,” which features Mark Wahlberg, Thandie Newton and Tim Robbins seemingly competing to see who can appear to be the most miscast.

There’s a couple of Cold War romances from the early ’90s which are somewhat underrated — “The Russia House” features a fine script from Tom Stoppard and a good Michelle Pfieffer performance, while “The Innocent” is John Schlesinger’s decent-enough adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel. More recently, some have tried to combine big action fare with romance — starting with James Cameron’s entertaining, albeit politically troubling “True Lies,” and continuing up to 2005’s “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” One of the more effective was “Casino Royale,” in which Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd was one of the great Bond girls, and managed to include a relationship with real heft for the first time since “OHMSS.”

And, of course, there’s more serious fare out there — Godard‘s “Le Petit Soldat,” Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” and Greta Garbo’s fine performance in “Mata Hari.” By all accounts, any of the above are worth checking out rather than heading to the theater for “The Tourist” this weekend…

– Jessica Kiang, Katie Walsh, Kimber Myers, Oli Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez

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The Tourist is fine and just misjudged it fits in as well as any other of these films


Couldn’t the title have just read “Ten Romantic Spy Thrillers”?
Listing them as better than The Tourist says absolutely nothing.


History is more correct than you on the George Lazenby front, his performance makes Dalton and Moore seem Oscar-worthy in comparison. It’s a horrendous job that sticks out and insults all the more because everything and everyone else around him is so good.


Duplicity? really? i didn’t even complete it


How can a movie differ significantly yet be the best adaptation? The 39 Steps is a convoluted silly mess. ? Donat’s mustache alone is worth it to avoid. North by Northwest is a better 39 Steps but even then that’s a farce.

And as has been said, if Duplicity is better, I don’t have a lot of confidence in The Tourist

peter peter pumpkinfarmer

Wow. If Duplicity is better than The Tourist, The Tourist must be really bad.


I was watching North by Northwest last night on TCM. Hitchcock’s must fun film.

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