Perhaps you’ve noticed — 2015 is truly the year of the spy movie. Guy Ritchie‘s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” (our review here) opens this week, but it is only one of many secret agent-themed films to be popping up: “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” is still in theaters; Paul Feig‘s “Spy” is barely gone; onetime Ritchie cohort Matthew Vaughn had his own “Kingsman: The Secret Service” open earlier in the year; still to come is Steven Spielberg‘s “Bridge of Spies,” which will play the New York Film Festival; “Hitman: Agent 47” which strangely didn’t secure a festival berth; maybe we’ll see Brit TV spinoff movie “Spooks: the Greater Good“; and … and… hmm, what are we forgetting? There’s definitely another little under-the-radar spy flick happening, something low-key that no one expects much of… oh yeah… “Spectre.” Sam Mendes‘ second Bond film arrives in November to break a bunch of records prior to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” breaking them all over again come December.
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It’s an unusually populous slate, but with the genre as massive as it is, and experiencing an upsurge in popularity in recent years (it has waxed and waned like the phases of the moon), perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised. And if spy films are having a moment, then it’s high time we brought you this collection of genre essentials. Our only rules were that we wanted to keep it as close to the spirit of international governmental espionage as possible (as opposed to corporate espionage, counter terrorism, Nazi-hunting etc), and that where franchises are involved, we’d confine ourselves to a single entry per series. So, like a good grappling hook, a poison-tipped cane, a tuxedo and a working knowledge of parkour, here are 30 spy films, old and new that feel, to us, like de rigueur kit for the modern aficionado. “13 Rue Madeleine” (1947)
“The years of decency and honest living? Forget all about them.” James Cagney‘s Bob Sharkey doesn’t beat around the bush with his new class of secret O77 operatives, right before he learns that one of them is an undercover German agent whom he must suss out. He does so pretty quickly, realizing that Richard Conte‘s Bill O’Connell is a little too good to be a beginner, and formulates a plan to feed him false information in lieu of arresting him on the spot. Big mistake. Henry Hathaway helms “13 Rue Madeleine” (address of the Gestapo offices in France, FYI) as only an expert genre director of Westerns and War films knows how. Reinforced with a punchy script by John Monks Jr. and Sy Bartlett, and a newsreel narrator who imbues the entire picture in semi-doc realism, the actors — as much as the screen loves Cagney and Conte — take a backseat to the plot mechanics. Obstinately bleak right down to the frantic climax, “13 Rue Madeleine” is a spy oldie that still keeps the pulse racing with an impressively realistic take on how grave mistakes can lead to a high body count.
“The 39 Steps” (1935)
Probably the first truly great Hitchcock picture, “The 39 Steps” is a gripping, enormously entertaining chase thriller that feels like it could have been made yesterday. Adapted from the seminal 1915 spy novel by John Buchan, the film sees ordinary Canadian Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) embroiled in an espionage ring after watching a performance at a music hall in London, England. Wrongly identified as a spy and a murderer, he flees London for Scotland, pursued by various agents of the law and the underworld…cue the Hitchcock Icy Blonde, played by Madeleine Carroll. More playful than some of the director’s other films of the period, it’s filled with sight-gags (including Carroll being handcuffed to Donat and dragged every-which-way) that mix nicely with the spy-chase-suspense-thriller narrative, establishing a formula that would serve Hitch well over the decades to come. Donat makes a perfectly dapper, physically impressive lead, who meets mortal peril with debonair quips and self-deprecating charm — it’s a shame it’s his only work with Hitchcock — while Carroll is the template for the Hitchcock female lead, sexy, smart and strong-willed.
“The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007) — Jason Bourne
In 2002, the same year Bond reached his nadir of implausibility while driving around in an invisible car in “Die Another Day,” Doug Liman‘s “The Bourne Identity” opened, and blew the tired tropes of the smarmy, weightless, gadget-driven 007 franchise out of the water; when it returned it wouldn’t look anything like that again. Liman’s film paved the way, but it was arguably subsequent Bourne director Paul Greengrass who really consolidated the new action aesthetic of docu-influenced hand-held camerawork that lent a nervy, realist immediacy to even the most tortuous of plot turns. In “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” Greengrass achieved a rare symbiosis with the material and with lead Matt Damon as the amnesiac spy, and delivered some brilliantly tense filmmaking, particularly in ‘Ultimatum,’ with its brilliant, back-to-basics footchase scenes marking a high watermark for you-are-there action stakes in a blockbuster. And the actual spying malarkey is twistily compelling too, with Tony Gilroy‘s taut, intelligent scripts bringing Robert Ludlum‘s books thrashing and kicking into the 21st century.
A Hitchcock movie in all respects except it wasn’t actually made by Hitchcock, Stanley Donen’s sexy, funny trifle “Charade” is a deeply pleasurable confection that might have almost no substance to it, but would still sit happily in the canon for pure charm. Audrey Hepburn’s lead, Reggie, discovers her husband Charles has been murdered in Paris, with only a charming, mercurial stranger (Cary Grant, taking on four different aliases) who can save her from — or maybe betray her to — the three threatening men chasing her, in the shape of James Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass. The story (based on a novel originally written as a screenplay, a move that feels like it could have come from the film itself) goes through a ridiculous number of twists and turns, but the energy and lightness of touch that Donen brings make the silliness of the story slip down like ice cream — it’s a film built entirely on chemistry, and despite a quarter-century age difference, Grant and Hepburn have it in spades. It’s the rare example of a film that’s more than the sum of its parts, as Jonathan Demme discovered with his leaden remake “The Trouble With Charlie,” which equates to considerably less.
“The Deadly Affair” (1966)
Sadly more stodgy than deadly, compared to the previous year’s “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold,” Sidney Lumet‘s “The Deadly Affair” is an adaptation of John Le Carré‘s first novel that tends to drag with its domesticated subplot but still serves as essential espionage viewing for a number of reasons. We get to enjoy a debonair James Mason playing a role he was born for, British intelligence man Charles Dobbs (a.k.a. Le Carré’s notorious George Smiley, renamed for holding-rights reasons), as he unravels the mystery of the apparent suicide of a man he thought he understood. There’s nothing quite like watching the cogs of an experienced spy’s mind turning in calculated silence, and Mason nails it with considerable panache. He almost gets upstaged, however, by Simone Signoret who gives an unforgettable turn as the dead man’s mysterious widow. Her monologue on the game of espionage, as she sips her tea in beaten acquiescence, is as much a highlight as the climax in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Also worthy of note is Quincy Jones‘ jazzy score, which is unlike anything else you’ll hear in the genre.
“Enemy Of The State” (1998)
If one needs a primer on the Tony Scott handbook, look no further than “Enemy of the State,” his frenzied, fabulously entertaining 1998 thriller that marks a career highlight for leading man Will Smith, as well as one of the legendary Gene Hackman’s last memorable performances. The film opens as many spy pictures before it have, with frowning bureaucrats discussing shadowy secrets in a public park somewhere in Washington D.C. A couple dead bodies and a case of mistaken identity later, and we are rolling, baby. Many spy flicks like to take their time, operating at a leisurely pace so that the audience can properly absorb the procedural elements of the plot. Scott didn’t believe in leisure. He also didn’t believe in restraint, subtlety or boredom, apparently. “Enemy of the State” moves at such a blistering pace, rip-roaring through its kinetic set pieces (including one of the more memorable car chases this side of “Ronin”) that at times, it’s hard to keep up. The two lead performances keep us grounded, though, and Scott’s superb, stylish eye keeps us captivated, even when the plot doesn’t make a lick of sense.
“Eye Of The Needle” (1981)
In Richard Marquand‘s taut espionage thriller, Donald Sutherland is Heinrich “Needle” Faber, a German spy who is deep undercover on British soil in the twilight months of WWII, on the verge of providing the Nazis with invaluable D-Day intel. He’s also, fascinatingly enough, the film’s leading man. Faber makes good on his nickname and skewers about a dozen men (and one woman) with the pointy end before capsizing on the shores of a remote British island. He crawls to the doorstep of an unhappily married couple, where lonely wife, Lucy (Kate Nelligan), and embittered paraplegic husband, David (Christopher Cazenove), take him in. At this point the oddly-paced first half becomes a gripping domestic thriller, with Sutherland all malice and no remorse, as the stony-eyed spook who is extremely good at what he does, but who genuinely seems to fall for Lucy. Supported by 007 cinematographer Alan Hume and a couple of unnerving performances from Sutherland and Nelligan, Marquand directs “Eye of the Needle” with gathering briskness, till it’s an edge-of-your-seat spy picture — it’s often overlooked, but only by those who’ve never seen it.
“The Fourth Protocol” (1987)
Starring future Bond Pierce Brosnan and former Harry Palmer Michael Caine, based on a Frederick Forsythe novel, this film is a super-spy team-up even before you discover it was directed by John Mackenzie, who had “The Long Good Friday” and Graham Greene‘s “The Honorary Consul,” also with Caine, already under his belt. That pedigree is undoubtedly there, but the story, of Brosnan’s KGB agent attempting to assemble an atomic bomb on British soil so as to blow up a US base, while Caine’s dogged MI5 agent tries to intercept him, is delivered with such restraint as to dally with dullness at times. Joanna Cassidy enlivens things briefly as another Russian spy, while the opposite-number spymasters (the snooty Ian Richardson and Julian Glover for the Brits, Ned Beatty and Ray McAnally for the Soviets) spark a little behind-the curtain intrigue, but what was maybe a refreshingly gritty and plausible corrective to the slicker, more fantasy-based spy thrillers of the day, feels a little bogged-down by today’s standards.
A shaggy, amiable, low-key comedy starring Walter Matthau as Kendig, a spy so charming we overlook the fact that the whole film is him blowing the whistle on all his covert operations due to pique at being sidelined by his CIA boss (human baby oil bottle Ned Beatty), “Hopscotch” is a breezy delight. Directed by the underrated Ronald Neame (“The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie“), and co starring Glenda Jackson as the widow and ex-British agent with whom Kendig has an ongoing “thing,” the film is less an international espionage story than a one-last-job caper movie, in which we get the genuine pleasure of watching Matthau outwit everyone and remain several steps ahead of the bumbling and/or reluctant agents sent to stop him. Beatty is reliably terrific, and Jackson a strong, self-sufficient foil, but even better is Sam Waterston‘s lovely, amused turn as Kendig’s CIA protege, who despite being sent to find and ultimately kill his old mentor, simply cannot bring himself to dislike him.
“The Hunt For Red October” (1990) — Jack Ryan
An unusual franchise in that Jack Ryan has been played by four actors in five films (only Harrison Ford pulled a double, on series second-best “Patriot Games” and the inferior “Clear and Present Danger”), for our money the best of the Tom Clancy adaptations is still the first, “The Hunt for Red October.” Starring Alec Baldwin as Ryan and Sean Connery as a defecting Soviet submarine captain, the film’s tension and excitement is undoubtedly down to its director, John McTiernan, who made this film immediately after “Predator” and “Die Hard,” so it completes the action fan’s equivalent of Bergman’s “Silence of God” trilogy. That said, it’s more thoughtful and talky than action-based, and showed that McTiernan knew how to bring cat-and-mouse dialogue to life too, and that cinematographer Jan De Bont had a great command of ratcheting up the tension in enclosed spaces. It may fall some way short of the 70s paranoia thrillers that its low-key approach emulates, but it’s about a hundred times better than the turgid “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” that was the last go-round.
“The Ipcress File” (1965)/“Funeral In Berlin” (1966)/“The Billion Dollar Brain” (1967) — Harry Palmer
Known as the “anti-007,” a darker, less suave anti-hero spy, the Harry Palmer of the Len Deighton spy novels, adapted over the course of three films by original Bond producer Harry Saltzman, was immortalized by Michael Caine as a roguish insubordinate, but one who got the job done nonetheless. Sidney J. Furie’s “The Ipcress File” is criminally underseen even by spy film aficionados, perhaps because its slight ending robs it of A+ status, but it has evocative style to spare. Shot by Otto Herller (“The Ladykillers” “Peeping Tom”), it is one of the best-looking spy films ever; one could dedicate an entire One. Perfect. Shot. twitter account simply to frames from this film, and the exotica score by John Barry is an overlooked classic. Directed by 4-time Bond director Guy Hamilton (“Goldfinger”), “Funeral In Berlin” is stylistically joyless in comparison thanks to the oppressively grim post-Wall mood of East/West tension, but it was groundbreaking at the time for its darker, paranoid tone compared to fluffier spy movies. Finally, surprisingly helmed by maverick Ken Russell (his only studio gig) ‘Billion Dollar Brain’ is the least successful of the bunch, but that’s more to do with the janky plot, featuring a supercomputer as the villain and a jingoistic Texas tycoon pulling the strings. Russell certainly gives the film moments of vivid pleasure, from its super-stylish opening credits to its orchestral score with outre psychedelic elements. Bonus tidbit: the movie’s femme fatale, a first for the series, was played by Françoise Dorléac, the older sister of Catherine Deneuve.
“The Lives Of Others” (2006)
A melancholy, thoroughly unglamorous take on the genre, Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck’s film saw German cinema cast a look back at its own recent history when the country was divided and spying on itself. Set in 1984 in East Berlin, it sees Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe, who sadly died just as the film was reaching international audiences) assigned to surveil playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), because a party official is in love with the writer’s girlfriend, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). The film’s plotted like a thriller but rarely feels like one, with a lyrical, novelistic tone that gives all of its characters, even the villainous Stasi superiors, an interior life, and mostly underplays any potential sentiment (though it sometimes over-eggs the ‘redemptive power of art’ pudding). Koch and Gedeck are both terrific, but it’s Mühe’s performance, sad-eyed and desperately lonely as his sole conviction — in the Party — begins to crumble, that still haunts nearly a decade on. Von Donnersmarck sadly hasn’t lived up to his promise (lousy Angelina Jolie/Johnny Depp vehicle “The Tourist” is his only film since), but if you’re going to be remembered for something, be remembered for this.
“The MacKintosh Man” (1973)
If duplicity, deceits and double-crosses mark the spy film, then writer Walter Hill and director John Huston certainly took those ideas to heart in the elaborate spy thriller, “The MacKintosh Man,” which stars Paul Newman as British spy Joseph Rearden, posing as an Australian in England (with maybe the worst half-assed Aussie accent of all time). In order to infiltrate a group of jewel thieves, Rearden is directed by his MI6 boss (Harry Andrews) to get himself imprisoned so he can get on the radar of the real criminals. But he’s being played — it’s all a ruse to gather intel on an English politician (James Mason) who is actually a Russian spy. As overly complex and sometimes overfamiliar as the plotting is, ‘MacKintosh’ benefits from Huston’s crisp, solid direction, a Euro-flavored score by Maurice Jarre and the insouciant charms of Paul Newman. Plus it’s shot by Oswald Morris, who also shot the superior “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold,” so visually, it has great texture, making good use of shadow and drab color. Certainly the talents of Hill, Huston and Newman do suggest something more classic, but ‘Mackintosh’ is still adequately entertaining within the genre.
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“The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)
The brainwashing/sleeper agent/paranoia movie by which all other brainwashing/sleeper agent/paranoia movies are judged, John Frankenheimer‘s deliriously fun but also eerily unheimlich “The Manchurian Candidate” is a stone-cold classic for a reason. Actually, for many reasons, among them Angela Lansbury‘s brilliant turn as the cunning, quasi-incestuous anti-mother, the vivid black and white photography from Lionel Lindon, and the astringency of its satire, which felt shockingly prescient at the time, especially as the film was released less than a month before the Kennedy assassination. Also starring Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra as the shellshocked Major who gradually pieces together the conspiracy to place a communist puppet in the White House, the film’s real strength, however, is its story: a deliciously convoluted, morally murky tale from Richard Condon‘s novel that both preys upon and lampoons the fear climate of post-McCarthy Cold War politics. Along with “Seven Days in May,” “Seconds,” “The Train” and “Birdman of Alcatraz,” ‘Candidate’ proves Frankenheimer’s is one of the greatest 1960s filmmaking resumes of them all.
“Mata Hari” (1931)
Completely ludicrous and bearing no relation to historical fact (bar that exotic dancer Mata Hari was convicted of spying for the Germans in WWI and executed), this wildly OTT melodrama is still terrifically watchable thanks to a defining Greta Garbo performance, Cedric Gibbons‘ art direction, and the astounding costumes by genius designer Adrian. Clad turban-to-toe in sequins and sparkles and garments with odd, suddenly revealing slits, Garbo basically creates and perpetuates the myth of Mata Hari here, stretching pre-Code morals to their limit by playing her as an unrepentant arch manipulator and seductress, whose only downfall is falling for the callow, pining Russian pilot (Ramon Navarro) from whom she steals secrets. George Fitzmaurice‘s direction is never more than adequate, but by the time the exquisite absurdity of the finale rolls around (in which death row wardens conspire to make Navarro’s temporarily blind pilot believe the prison is a hospital and Mata is going to an operation rather than her execution), you’re so dazzled by Garbo that it doesn’t really matter.
“Ministry Of Fear” (1944)
Graham Greene didn’t mince words about his dissatisfaction with Fritz Lang‘s take on his “Ministry Of Fear,” and Lang himself supposedly apologized to the author for making it, but on closer inspection, this adaptation is a similar case to Stephen King‘s misplaced complaints about “The Shining.” Lang had an ingrained understanding of the cinematic art form, and is perhaps first among all directors in knowing how to mold palpable atmosphere out of space. So, sure, Setton Miller‘s screenplay takes some liberties with Greene’s story and the protagonist Stephen Neale, portrayed with apt anxiety by Ray Milland, who gets released from an asylum and finds himself accidentally embroiled in a Nazi spy ring he feels compelled to stop. But the film’s atmosphere is dense with paranoia, sustained by continuous thematic devices (spooky seances, representations of guilt-riddled consciences) to make it a hypnotic viewing experience. Whether it’s with a “blind man” stealing a cake, or through a Scotland Yard inspector’s silhouette, Lang’s derisive take on Nazism is finely crafted in this much-too-eagerly dismissed tale of delirious espionage.
“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011) — Ethan Hunt
With Christopher McQuarrie‘s latest installment of the Tom Cruise franchise still raking in the cash worldwide, and probably on track to become the biggest earner in the “Mission: Impossible” series to date, it’s maybe a little quaint of us to choose Brad Bird’s last go-round as emblematic of the best of the ‘M:I’ movies. And yet here we are, because despite really enjoying ‘Rogue Nation,’ ‘Ghost Protocol’ remains the cumbersomely-titled installment closest to our hearts. There are reasons: the Burj Khalifa sequence, the sandstorm chase and the various punch-em-ups deliver some truly thrilling action, but mostly it was the first time that Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, whose only discernible personality trait to that point was being much, much better at everything than everyone else, suddenly actually felt like a person, made of flesh and blood and sense of humor. Obviously, he’s still a person who’s better at everything than everyone else, but if Bird wasn’t the first to suggest Hunt could get physically hurt, he was certainly the first to make you care about it.
“A Most Wanted Man” (2014)
Watching Philip Seymour Hoffman’s quietly staggering central performance here as Gunther Bachmann — the hard-living, perpetually frazzled capo of an underground web of Hamburg-based intelligence operatives — is to be reminded of the actor’s gift for mining his character’s humanity from unlikely sources. It’s also an uncomfortable reminder of Hoffman’s bleak exit from this world, as an all-encompassing sense of existential dread practically exudes from him in this sleek, morbid spy picture from Anton Corbijn. Bachmann and his team are on the tail of one Issa Karpov when the film begins, a half-Russian/half Chechen rebel with ties to militant jihadist groups, who’s seen wandering the busy streets and narrow alleyways of Hamburg like a ghost. Brought in to assist in Karpov’s capture are a young female litigator (Rachel McAdams, perhaps miscast) and a sinister banker with a storied family history (a chilly Willem Dafoe). And yet the plot, for all its myriad complications (the source material is by John Le Carre) matters less than the nuanced, stylish manner in which Corbijn and his team go about things. It’s a crackling, absorbing, underrated film, and it’s Hoffman’s last great performance.
To our minds the best of Steven Spielberg’s more recent awards-friendly pictures, or indeed any of his recent pictures, “Munich” is a surprisingly brutal and complex take on real-life spycraft, where vengeance, rather than information, is the name of the game. Based, as they say, on actual events, it’s set in the aftermath of the massacre of eleven Israeli Olympic team members by the Palestinian terror group Black September, focusing on the Mossad response, as Avner Kaufman (a terrific Eric Bana) assembles a team (including Daniel Craig, Mathieu Kassovitz and Ciarán Hinds) to track down and kill Palestinians allegedly involved in the massacre. Spielberg directs some of the most gripping action of his career, but there’s little joy to be taken: like the later, simiilar “Zero Dark Thirty,” this is about the price we pay for obsession and vengeance, and the moral cost of what we do in the name of justice. Tony Kushner’s screenplay juggles the ethical questions while letting the film move like a Le Carré story, and the cast (with Mathieu Amalric, Hinds and Michael Lonsdale as other standouts) give the piece much-needed texture and even humor. It only falters in the closing minutes, but otherwise, it gives us hope that Spielberg’s upcoming “Bridge Of Spies” could be another espionage classic.
“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969) — James Bond
It’s perverse to hold up the only George Lazenby outing as representative of the whole Bond franchise, as opposed to a Connery classic “Goldfinger” or billion-dollar Craig entry “Skyfall,” but hey, we’re perverts. And while there’s a case to be made for “From Russia With Love” or “Casino Royale” too, ‘OHMSS’ is definitely one of the best stand-alone Bonds there is. Director Peter Hunt went for a more realist vibe, notwithstanding the plot, which involves Telly Savalas‘ Blofeld contaminating the world’s food supply by, er, brainwashing an international coterie of beautiful women (like Joanna Lumley), all dressed in sexy riffs on national costume. Jettisoning the sci-fi gadgets, delivering some great action (ski chase!), and boasting perhaps the best Bond score ever (Louis Armstrong‘s lovely “We Have All The Time In The World” doesn’t hurt either), the film’s biggest draw, however, is Diana Rigg. As the only woman Bond ever marries, Rigg is an unusually substantial Bond girl, and her fate provides the series with a rare moment of real emotional connection.
“Our Man In Havana” (1959)
Every time English cinema titan Carol Reed decided to make a movie based on Graham Greene material, he struck gold (see “The Third Man,” and “The Fallen Idol”), but for his last feature-length Greene adaptation, Reed decided to take on material that’s much more irreverent, and in a wholly different register. A witty and sly send-up of spy agencies and their sometimes misguided faith in their intel, “Our Man In Havana” is a droll take on the espionage genre that centers on an expatriate Englishman rube (the great Alec Guinness, whose subtle comedic flair is still grotesquely undervalued) living in pre-revolutionary Havana with his teenage daughter, who is roped into working for the British Secret Service. Inept, ineffectual and in over his head, Guinness’ vacuum cleaner salesman character goes to great lengths to fabricate progress, but it backfires, putting his and his daughters lives in grave danger. Its darker last act is a bit tonally dissonant, but the movie’s bone-dry charms and surprising pointedness still make it a delight.
“North By Northwest” (1959)
If Hitchcock invented the ‘wrong man’ sub-genre with “The 39 Steps,” he perfected it with “North By Northwest,” perhaps his most purely entertaining film, if not his very best. Cary Grant plays mild-mannered ad exec Roger Thornhill (surely a touchstone for “Mad Men,”) who finds himself mistaken for a government agent by villainous spy Vandamm (James Mason), and ends up on a wild cross-country chase, much of it with the alluring Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) in pursuit of a microfilm. With the lightest of touches, Hitch (aided by Ernest Lehmann’s witty, airtight screenplay) bounces from memorable set piece to memorable set piece, with each one, from the U.N. assassination to the famous crop duster to the Mount Rushmore conclusion, a classic. It’s flawless filmmaking — the economy of storytelling in the final few shots alone is staggering — and perhaps taken for granted only because the director and peerless cast, especially a definitive Grant, make it look so effortless. After this, Hitchcock mostly abandoned his ‘wrong man’ trope, probably because he was aware it wouldn’t get any better than this — and it really never has.
When Ingrid Bergman‘s undercover agent Alicia visits the American offices in Rio, and tells them that their target wants to marry her, the air is thick with innuendo and unspoken yearnings. Cary Grant’s Agent Devlin storms out as bruised lovers are wont to do, and the supervisor comforts Bergman by telling her that “everything has been handled with great intelligence.” The same can be said of every moment of Alfred Hitchcock’s semi-miraculous “Notorious,” which ended up introducing the world to another one of his mastered techniques long before “Vertigo” and “Rear Window” came along: great passion. Romance is a covert operative in this spy film, until it’s revealed to be the grand orchestrator all along. Grant and the silky smooth but devilish Claude Rains (overly attached to his mother like a certain Mr. Bates would be) vie for Bergman’s affections and all three give indelible turns under the auspices of Hitchcock’s singular talents for suspense and intrigue. The result is one of the master’s most emotionally intricate works, featuring that famous walking/swooning embrace in which Grant and Bergman pepper each other with tiny kisses in a deliriously creative sidestepping of the Hayes Code.
“No Way Out” (1987)
One of those ’80s thrillers that’s been deeply unmodish for a while but deserves to come back into fashion very soon, director Roger Donaldson (“Species,” “The Recruit“) had his finest hour to date with the terrifically suspenseful “No Way Out.” Starring Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman and Sean Young, the film revels in its twisty plot as the US Secretary of Defense (Hackman) brings in a Navy investigator (Costner) to find the other lover of the mistress he’s just passion-killed, so he can frame him as a KGB sleeper agent and accuse him of her murder. He, of course, does not realise that Costner in fact is her other boyfriend, and the plot only thickens from there. Less about international intrigue than about paranoia, moral corruption and betrayal within the walls of the Pentagon, there are some extremely effective set pieces (including a nailbiting dot-matrix printer sequence — seriously), a typically committed Hackman and an ambivalent, charismatic Costner turn that reminds us why he was one of the biggest stars of that era.
“The Quiller Memorandum” (1966)
A rather rote, lumbering plot is injected with pop and fizz by some stunning West Berlin location photography and a brilliant cast in this internationally-flavored spy flick from “Logan’s Run” and “The Dam Busters” director Michael Anderson. George Segal wears the hell out of a suit as Quiller, an American agent tasked by the British Secret Service to investigate a neo-Nazi organisation in 1960s Berlin, but it’s the amazing support that really walk away with the picture. Alec Guinness is the fey but unflappable Pol, who recruits Quiller (they first meet in Berlin’s staggering Olympic Stadium, whose crisp lines are flattered by Erwin Hillier‘s De Luxe cinematography); George Sanders slays in just a couple of scenes as the supercilious puppetmaster back in London; and as the lead neo-Nazi, Max Von Sydow gets to ask Segal “How does it feel to be so sexually attractive?” and pronounces it “seks-ually,” so you know he’s evil as shit. Surprisingly, given how its considerable charms are surface and run no deeper, Harold Pinter adapted the screenplay.
Fritz Lang followed up his sci-fi epic “Metropolis” with this lesser-known silent yarn of surveillance, one that has as much right to be hailed a classic as its predecessor. A disgraced Secret Service agency must find a way to stop Russian spymaster, Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), and his attempts at acquiring national secrets. They employ Agent 326 (Willy Fritch) for the job, and Haghi employs his own secret agent, Sonja (Gerda Maurus), to get closer to 326. But the two get a little too close for Haghi’s liking, and the intricate narrative continues to unravel layer upon layer of compelling intrigue; replete with backstabs, disguises, threats, and lots of chain-smoking. Fritz Lang mastered the crime genre with “M” and his ‘Dr. Mabuse’ series (the criminal mastermind played by the very same, implacable Klein-Rogge), but the fusion of pulpy noir and German expressionism that comes to an exhilarating collision in “Spies” stands right alongside the master’s more recognized works. Exceptional set pieces, staggering art design, and immaculate pacing are buoyed by a way-ahead-of-its-time narrative that continues to put many a modern spy flick to shame.
“The Spy In Black” (1939)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are perhaps the greatest filmmaking team of the 20th century, and their very first outing stands as good-as-any evidence. “The Spy In Black” harks back to a pre-Cold War world of espionage, when Naval warfare held the key to strategic dominance, and U-boats were the most feared weapon of choice. As such, the picture is imbued with a nostalgic, almost romanticized, air — all the more accentuated by Conrad Veidt‘s remarkable performance as the magnetic German commander Hardt, sent to infiltrate Britain and devise a military attack on her fleet. He meets up with (and falls for) undercover liaison Frau Tiel (Valerie Hobson), and an apparent British defector, Royal Navy officer Ashington (Sebastian Shaw), but nothing is what it seems, naturally. The symphonic direction uncovers a bygone era of espionage in balletic strides (Tiel and Hardt’s first meeting is a thing of shadowy beauty), while the quick-witted screenplay (“Oh, you must be a prisoner of war then?” “No, [points gun] You are.”) is stupendously engaging. Easily one of the greatest films of its kind.
“The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” (1965)
A top-notch adaptation of one of John Le Carré‘s greatest spy novels (indeed, voted greatest ever by Publishers Weekly in 2006) is bolstered even further towards immortal greatness by one of Richard Burton‘s most intoxicatingly disgruntled performances. “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” is directed by “Hud” honcho Martin Ritt with the control and deliberately engineered pace of someone who genuinely understood Le Carré’s sophisticated grasp of the spy genre, exquisitely shot in crisp black-and-white by Oswald Morris. In many ways, it’s the ultimate espionage picture; for almost every scenario Burton’s Alec Leamas finds himself in — whether he’s flirting with Claire Bloom‘s gullible Nan Perry, acting a drunken ass in a convenience store, or getting scrutinized by Fiedler (an excellent Oskar Werner) — is enveloped in an atmosphere of double-handed surveillance. All to ultimately dispel the false romantic myth of spies propagated by James Bond, and to reveal their true natures as “a bunch of seedy squalid bastards” in the film’s classic closing moments. Fans of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” would do well to note that George Smiley does make an appearance here (played by Rupert Davies), and he’s kind of a dick.
“Three Days Of The Condor” (1975)
The 70s were a booming time for conspiracy thrillers thanks to the Watergate scandal, and pictures like “The Parallax View” and “The Conversation” were fashionably toying with people’s heightened sense of everyday paranoia. So Sidney Pollack took this opportunity, and swooped in with A-listers Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, and Swedish legend Max Von Sydow, to turn “Three Days Of The Condor” into one of the most entertaining espionage actioners of its time. Redford plays bookish CIA pencil pusher Joe Turner (codename: “Condor”), who comes back from lunch one day to find his team members murdered. With the help of random civilian Kathy (Dunaway), Turner begins to uncover a deep conspiracy within the CIA while simultaneously fleeing from the cold-hearted assassins who murdered his colleagues (led with distinguished malice by Von Sydow’s mustachioed Joubert). At once an ode to the frenetic urban environment of New York City, and a thrillingly intense Rubik’s Cube of counter-intelligence, “Three Days Of The Condor” still remains one of the better examples of the price the everyman pays when he’s forced into the role of spy.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011)
With one of John Le Carré’s most popular best-selling novels (the first of his “Karla” trilogy) cementing the groundwork, and a dream ensemble cast that includes practically every British actor of high intelligence available at the time (deep breath: Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, *collapses*), the only question left with the screen adaptation of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” was whether Swedish director Tomas Alfredson had the mettle for the task. The answer is a resounding HELL YES. The plot is alarmingly simple as far as spy matters go: it’s the height of the Cold War, there’s a Soviet mole in the Circus, and it’s up to George Smiley (Oldman) to find out who it is before crucial information is leaked. Simple, yet so incredibly intricate in the way it unravels that one almost feels like watching the film in slow motion just so every second can be savored, not unlike sipping vintage port. Every cinematic element — from Alberto Iglesias‘ soft score and Hoyte Van Hoytema‘s lush cinematography, to Oldman’s microcosmic subtleties, and beyond — converges to create what is perhaps the greatest of all John Le Carré’s adaptations, both in spirit and matter, only rivalled by the BBC miniseries adaptation of the same book.
A genre that sprawls this much and that spans almost the entire reaches of film history has literally hundreds more titles we could have included, many of which we really wanted to. The terrific “Zero Dark Thirty” feels more “manhunt” than “spy movie” necessarily, while “Day of the Jackal” is less about a spy than a terrorist assassin, while Coppola’s immaculate “The Conversation” is about a man who surveils for a living, as opposed to a government agent. Others we’d have liked to have made room for: the silly fun of “True Lies“; the knotty brilliance of “Black Book“; based-in-truth yarns “Argo” and “Charlie Wilson’s War“; classics “The Odessa File” and “Falcon and the Snowman“; more sober fare like “Breach” and “The Good Shepherd“; and comedies/spoofs like “Austin Powers,” “Spies Like Us,” “OSS 117” among many, many others. Some of those additional titles we’ll have thought of and excluded for whatever reason, but others we’ve probably forgotten about, and need castigating for overlooking in the comments section. What picks should we be machine gunned in the back on our way to the West for leaving out, and which should we be tossed into the piranha pool for including? Tell us below.
— Jessica Kiang, Nikola Grozdanovich, Oli Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Nicholas Laskin