Top 20 Spy movies

The release of Ben Affleck’s smart historical satire Argo, based loosely on the true extraction by the CIA and Canadian officials of six American Embassy staff members out of Tehran in 1980, made me reflect on the spy genre as a whole. The penumbral world of international double and triple agents, where there’s a poison-tipped umbrella in every cafe and a micro-dotted envelope in every office, is often the stuff of great movies. As a genre it peaked in the 1960s thanks to the exploits of superspy James Bond and the more down-to-earth escapades created by Adam Hall, Len Deighton and John le Carré. Despite the end of the Cold War the spy genre has flourished but changed to keep up with the shifts in the political landscape post 9/11.

So here, submitted for Todd Mason’s Overlooked Movies meme over at his Sweet Freedom blog, is my list of favourites, and the reasons why, in chronological order, focusing mostly on the Cold War period …

Dick Gordon: National Security Agency.
Martin Bishop: Ah. You’re the guys I hear breathing on the other end of my phone.
Dick Gordon: No, that’s the FBI. We’re not chartered for domestic surveillance.
Martin Bishop: Oh, I see. You just overthrow governments. Set up friendly dictators.
Dick Gordon: No, that’s the CIA. We protect our government’s communications, we try to break the other fella’s codes. We’re the good guys, Marty.
Martin Bishop: Gee, I can’t tell you what a relief that is… Dick.
- dialogue from SNEAKERS (1992)

I love spy stories, topical and historical, whether at the cinema or on TV, radio and in print for their unrivalled ability in the mystery genre to reflect the existential malaise of their times and just for the sheer possibilities for excitement, atmosphere and surprise in the plots. The genre has attracted many serious writers (from Conrad to Greene to Banville to Pynchon) and many of my choices below are adaptations derived from previously published works. I have included three films by Hitchcock, which is a lot, but they all seem sufficiently different to merit inclusion (he made a great many spy thrillers) but it does mean that I have not included some quirky titles just because I ran out of space.

In putting my selection together I have tried to be fairly narrow to try and keep the list contained. So for instance I have avoided titles that include surveillance but that do not involve espionage in the traditional sense of government agents and so on, thus excluding the wonderful The Conversation (1974) for instance and also the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others (2006), which although more clearly in the Cold War mould, is not really thought of as a spy movie – well, at least not by me … I have also excluded parodies and spoofs, though I do enjoy them – so you will look in vain here for films featuring Matt Helm, Derek Flint, Charles Vine, the Carry On team etc. The Man from UNCLE has been excluded for that reason but also because the cinema releases it generated were just TV episodes re-packaged and I plan on doing a top 20 TV list of my favourite spy shows soon.

1. THE 39 STEPS (1935)
The Hitchcock version, adapted in collaboration with writer Charles Bennett, was merely the first of several takes on the John Buchan novel and far from being the most faithful. But it pretty much set up the template for the director’s celebrated innocent man on the run movies (see North By Northwest below for the US equivalent) and is full of humour and surprise. The unmasking of the villain, who has only been described by his missing half finger, is a classic moment of movie cinema and the sequence with the protagonists handcuffed together is a classic all its own, combining Hitch’s trademark erotic perversity with black humour. Copied endlessly, never truly equalled. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

2. CONTRABAND (1940)
After the success of The Spy in Black the year before, the new writer-director team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made another spy movie starring Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson and in typical fashion, the hero is a German! The two make a smashing pair as they travel through London to stop a group of Nazis loose on British soil one night during the blackout (which is why it was released in the US as ‘Blackout’), trading barbed witticisms as they go. Available on DVD under its US title.

3. FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (1943)
Billy Wilder combines wartime news grabbed from the headlines (Rommel in the desert) to craft a superb tale of espionage, derring-do and hidden treasure. Erich Von Stroheim is Rommel, top-billed Franchot Tone is passable as a British soldier masquerading as a club-footed waiter and Anne Baxter is the plucky and self-sacrificing waitress. Overlooked in comparison with the writer-director’s later and better-known classics, this one is particularly unjustly neglected in my view for its well-drawn characters and well-crafted plot. Available on DVD.

4. MASK OF DIMITRIOS (1944)
This adaptation of the classic Eric Ambler novel, sadly AWOL on DVD at present, offers a stunning rogue’s gallery of character actors (including Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet) and is meticulously structured as a series of interlocking flashbacks, all handled with great style by debut director Jean Negulesco. Ambler after Maugham and more or less concurrent with Graham Greene probably did more than anyone to make the spy genre respectable in literary circles and also to make it topical and realistic. But he also told some great stories. Orson Welles’ production of Journey Into Fear from Ambler’s book is sadly chaotic in the version that was released by RKO but almost made this list none the less – at least you can get that one on DVD without trying too hard …

5. NOTORIOUS (1946)
One of Hitchcock’s finest movies, with Cary Grant as the CIA controller falling in love with his agent Ingrid Bergman, who has gone undercover to find out what Claude Rains and other neo-Nazis are up to in South America. A sexy and suspenseful picture, its plot was shamelessly stolen without credit for Mission impossible 2. The original is infinitely preferable and also has one of the director’s best MacGuffins too. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

6. THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS (1956)
‘Operation Mincemeat’ really happened and this film, scripted by Nigel Balchin, is comparatively faithful to the facts as they were known at the time. It was an attempt by the Allies to fool the Nazis into believing that they were not going to invade Sicily in 1943 but land in Greece and Sardinia instead. Clifton Webb gives a highly restrained performance as the intelligence officer who comes up with the ghoulish plan of dropping a recently dead body with fake documentation int he hope that the Nazis will pick it up. Stephen Boyd is the Irish agent who comes to London to check the story which provides plenty of irony and excitement (and is the part fo the script that is the most clearly fictional). A fascinating true story now available on DVD and Blu-ray too (in the UK).

7. NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)
Clever script concocted by Ernest Lehman – the hunt for a spy in which as executive Cary Grant gets mistaken for a spy, who doesn’t exists – great set-pieces (the crop duster sequence, the chase across Mount Rushmore, the assassination at the UN), a wonderful music score by Bernard Herrmann and a great henchman in Martin Landau – its wonderful stuff. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

8. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)
Adapted from the book by Richard Condon, this story of brainwashing and political assassination is a true cinema classic. Angela Lansbury plays the scariest screen mother ever and director John Frankenheimer was never better – a cruel, nightmarish movie with a wicked satirical edge. Simply one of the best films ever made – not to be confused with the disappointing remake starring Denzel Washington. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

9. FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963)
Not my favourite Bond movie but probably the best plotted of the early films and the most successful in terms of combining action, intrigue and espionage. Len Deighton worked on an early draft of the script and John Barry provides a pounding score while the fabulous supporting cast includes Lotte Lenya, Pedro Armendariz and Robert Shaw. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

10. THE IPCRESS FILE (1965)
Len Deighton combined the private eye hardboiled style with the modern spy story with brilliant results – the movie, wonderfully scored by John Barry and directed in a fussy, febrile and dynamic Film Noir fashion by Sidney J. Furie, changed the book quite a bit but Michael Caine is brilliant as the protagonist (here named ‘Harry Palmer’) and this may be the greatest of all 60s spy movies for its clever story, brilliant acting and high style. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

11. THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1965)
The le Carré anti-Bond par-excellence, shot in contrasty black and white, this has enough twists for two movies but is anchored in a quartet of excellent performances led by Richard Burton as the disillusioned protagonist, Oskar Werner as his cold opposite number, Cyril Cusack as the devious head of British Intelligence and Claire Bloom as the innocent caught in between. Unforgettable. Available on DVD.

12. THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM (1966)
An almost fairy tale atmosphere permeates this classic story of neo-Nazis in 1960s Berlin. George Segal is much too young as Quiller but is otherwise very good in the role and Max von Sydow is, as always, a fine villain (he even got to play Blofeld once). Senta Berger is the gorgeous damsel in distress and the memorable score is by John Barry, who truly provided the soundtrack to 1960s espionage cinema. I reviewed the film separately here. Available on DVD.

13. WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968)
War movie-cum-spy thriller in this men on a mission movie written by Alistair MacLean and starring Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood and the late Ingrid Pitt. Utterly preposterous and remembered mainly for its huge action scenes, it also has a wonderfully convoluted spy plot in the middle and has a nice twist at the end too – and a classic score by Ron Goodwin – what’s not to like? Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

14. THE THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975)
This low-key piece of espionage, a kind of 39 Steps (see above) brought up to date, inadvertently caught the post-Watergate zeitgeist with its cynical view of government and the intelligence community. Redford is the low level CIA operative on the run from he known not whom, Faye Dunaway the girl he meets and Max von Sydow the cool killer for hire. Meticulously directed by the late Sidney Pollack, this is a thriller that still works extremely well, its central distrust of large organisations continuing to chime with the times … Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

15. NO WAY OUT (1987)
This very clever adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock is relocated to the Pentagon with Kevin Costner set to unmask a mole by murderous politician Gene Hackman. Highly suspenseful and with a humdinger of a final twist. I previously reviewed the film here. Available on DVD.

16. THE RUSSIA HOUSE (1991)
Adapted by Tom Stoppard from the novel by John le Carre, this is one of the last, great Cold War thrillers made just as the East-West thaw was settling. The supporting cast is wonderfully – especially Roy Scheider as the scabrous CIA chief, along with the likes of JT Walsh, John Mahoney, James Fox, Michael Kitchen and the great Klaus Maria Brandauer, all serving the unlikely but ultimately winning star team of Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer. Shot on location in Moscow this film also has a wonderful music score by Jerry Goldsmith, played by Branford Marsalis. Available on DVD and Blu-ray (in France at least).

17. SNEAKERS (1992)
Branford Marsalis is also the soloist for this film (scored by James Horner), which was originally designed as a sequel to the 1983 Matthew Broderick cyber thriller Wargames. What ultimately emerged however was perhaps more caper movie than espionage, a film that affects a light tone but knows how to interject real jeopardy at the halfway mark to up the stakes in the search for the ultimate secret encryption decoding machine. Beautifully played by a great cast of new and old faces, with Redford and Poitier holding up the rear while the likes of River Phoenix and Dan Aykroyd steal all the scenes, which delight in building one paradox after another (a blind man drives a getaway car, a theft has to undertaken as slowly as possibly, an empty box that proves to have all the answers and so on). Really worth rediscovering. Available on DVD.

18. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996)
I love Brian De Palma and his take on the 1960s and 70s TV series was typically subversive, wiping out the team in the opening sequence and turning heroes into outcasts. Of the four Tom Cruise movies made in this series (so far) this is the only one that really stands up as a spy movie. Along with the celebrated Langley break-in (with Cruise hanging on wires) there are spectacular and small bits of business that prove endlessly intriguing, such as the revelation of the second IMF team at the restaurant and the sequences in which one character relates how he escaped death and the visualisation by the hero in his mind that directly contradicts it – all much cleverer than your average Summer movie. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

19. THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004)
Having found the original underwhelming, this sequel was much more impressive with director Paul Greengrass’ kinetic style immediately impressing to create a truly breathless story of cross and double cross and Bourne tries to outwit various intelligence agencies and discover his real identity. Only the exit of the leading lady seems misjudged – for me the best of the Bourne series, by far. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

20. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011)
A movie that stands on its own without ignoring both its literary origins in the le Carré novel and the 1979 BBC TV mini-series starring Alec Guinness as spymaster George Smiley. Most of the people I know who claim to have not been able to follow this movie properly were those that did not know the story from previous incarnations, and I can see how the final revelation of the mole in British intelligence is perhaps a little bit too oblique – and the final death a bit too convenient-seeming (unless you’re read the book, where it is made clear that the parties in question had a pre-arranged rendezvous). This may be considered a bit of a failing from a story-telling standpoint and the subplot involving Tom hardy’s Ricky Tarr is perhaps made too prominent at the expense of clarity. Additionally one could argue that Oldman is perhaps too beholden at times to Alec Guinness’ TV portrayal but this movie has virtues all its own, especially in its masterly use of flashback. And the 70s atmosphere is brilliantly caught, the final use of a Julio Iglesias recording brilliantly judged in my view. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

21?

With the exception of the Bourne film I have deliberately excluded the many, many films dealing with international terrorism since the World Trade Center Attack, purely for reasons of space. This means that really fine films like David Mamet’s Spartan (2004) have been omitted though it is well worth looking for. The same goes for Traitor (2008), a fascinating little movie starring Don Cheadle based on a story by comedian Steve Martin, though the best of them so far may well be Syriana (2005) starring George Clooney. But there are plenty more I have left out – do let me know what you think …

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This entry was posted in 'Best of' lists, Adam Hall, Alfred Hitchcock, Amnesia, Billy Wilder, Brian de Palma, Cold War, Elleston Trevor, Eric Ambler, Espionage, Film Noir, George Smiley, Ian Fleming, James Bond, John Frankenheimer, John le Carre, Len Deighton, London, Michael Powell, New York, Paris, Quiller, San Francisco, Scene of the crime, Spy movies. Bookmark the permalink.

76 Responses to Top 20 Spy movies

  1. TracyK says:

    Oh my goodness. I am very excited to see this. I can’t do it justice right now, but I will be coming back soon to read it in detail. But, quickly, I will say that North by Northwest and Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate are among my favorites. And we just watched From Russia with Love for the umpteenth time this weekend… a Thanksgiving treat.

    • Thanks very much TracyK – I had lots of fun putting this together and even enjoyed the agonising over what not to include …

      • TracyK says:

        Finally got a chance to go through the whole list more carefully. I am also a big fan of Notorious, Where Eagles Dare, and Mission Impossible. I liked all the Bourne movies with Matt Damon. There are some on your list that I haven’t heard of before, some I am aware of and haven’t seen. Lots of opportunities to watch new (to me) movies, if I can find them. Really want to see Mask of Dimitrios someday. My husband also went through the list and he is more knowledgeable on movies, so none were new to him, I am sure. We are definitely going to get Contraband. He is a fan of Powell and Pressburger.

        • So glad this was of interest TracyK – Contraband, like the P&P film the preceded it, The Spy in Black, is very witty and wonderfully cast – you won’t be disappointed! I’m sure Dimitrios will turn up as part of the Warner Archive on-demand library eventually but until then I’m making do with my 20-year-old VHS recording from TCM!

  2. idawson says:

    I think the best decades for spy films was the 1940s and 1970s (the 70s I am thinking about isolation and paranoia mostly).
    And I LOVE Sneakers! TTSS is in my DVR queue.

    LOVE your choices!

    • Thanks Iba – oh, I agree, the spy films and TV shows of 70s in particular probably chime really well with the disillusionment of the era – the 60s seemed to be the peak of popular success in the genre I originally said and then for some reason shortened the sentence … glad you’re a fan of Sneakers too. I re-watched it the other day and it still holds up beautifully – I’ll probably just do a post on that movie shortly!

  3. le0pard13 says:

    Wonderful set of spy film, Sergio. I join in the celebration of ‘Sneakers’ — a film that’s in long need of a high-def release. Much like the one of another Redford film, ‘Three Days of the Condor’ (one of the few adaptations that is actually better than its source novel). ‘The Man Who Never Was’ offered a real story, without some of the obvious trappings of this movie genre, that is something I wish more fans would catch up to. I appreciate all of the films you’ve mentioned (including those post-9/11). I’d only add something I recently re-screened, John Frankenheimer’s ‘Ronin’. And I think ‘Eye of the Needle’ and the late-Tony Scott’s ‘Enemy of the State’ are highly underrated. Fine post.

    • Thanks very much Michael, much appreciated. It looks like Condor is available in the US and Europe on Blu while Man Who Never Was is currently only available on Blu-ray in Europe though I don’t know if it is region locked. Ronin is great fun, a great late movie by a veteran director. I have seen Enemy of the State several times and always enjoy it but I suppose I am too fond of the Cold War era to include it in my top 20 though it’s one of the better Bruckheimer adventures (and Hackman plays a nice riff on his character from The Coversation – but as I felt I couldn’t include the Coppola then the Scott also got left behind – them’s the daft rules I invented …)

  4. Sergio, I’m not going to start off with the usual platitudes but it goes without saying that this is a terrific list and I enjoyed reading your brief summation of each of the 20 films. I haven’t seen CONTRABAND, FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO, MASK OF DIMITRIOS, THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM, THE THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, and SNEAKERS, mainly because I’d never heard of them before. So these are films I’ll be looking out for.

    Like you I love spy stories, especially Cold War stories, in books and films. I was delighted to see that three films based on le Carré’s novels made it to your Top 20. He remains one of my favourite spy novelists along with Jack Higgins, Craig Thomas, and Len Deighton. I agree that these authors (though I haven’t read Adam Hall yet) created “more down-to-earth escapades” unlike Tom Clancy’s more glamourised and rather over-the-top scenarios. I didn’t miss him in your list or any of the other JB films.

    Your inclusion of WHERE EAGLES DARE based on Alistair MacLean’s novel reminds me of the other war movie-cum-spy thriller THE EAGLE HAS LANDED adapted from Jack Higgins’ famous novel, though I’ll take his Liam devlin-centered book any day over the film version (I could never get used to Donald Sutherland as Devlin or Michael Caine as Colonel Steiner, a role I’d have given to someone like Kurt Russell).

    Not all film adaptations of spy novels live up to the books, another case in point being THE TAILOR OF PANAMA by le Carré. I liked the novel more in spite of the Geoffrey Rush-Pierce Brosnan combo. On the other hand, most of MacLean’s novels were made into highly successful war-and-spy films that included the classic THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and I still watch them whenever I can. They were so realistic.

    Thank you, Sergio…

    • Thanks very much Prashant, you are very kind as always. I must admit, I was sorely tempted to include The Hunt for Red October, which I think is a sensational movie, but I decided No Way Out was more within the espionage grnre – I think I should have made it my top 25 and stop stressing! I agree that adaptatiuons from the work of such writers like Jach Higgins/Harry Patterson, Gerald Seymour, Brian Freemantle, Anthony Price and so many others needs to be reflected somehow and I was sorry to not include them – thanks again for mentioning them here though. I fel that Where Eagles dare, with its multiple spies and moles within British intelligence, made is more of a spy movie and less of an adventure movie in the usual MacLean mould, but I realise I am probably splitting hairs a bit …

      • Thanks for your reply, Sergio. I’m glad you didn’t give in to the temptation of including THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER in spite of it being a very good book and movie. NO WAY OUT is in keeping with the flavour of the other films on your list. Tom Clancy towers over his books, if you know what I mean. On the couple of occasions I have compiled lists, I didn’t know where to stop, so 20 is a good number. I agree that many of the films based on Higgins’ and MacLean’s novels fall under the “spy movie” category. WHERE EAGLES DARE, in spite of having WWII as a backdrop, is more espionage and less war because a lot of it is played out undercover, as does Higgins’ NIGHT OF THE FOX with George Peppard in the lead.

        And yes, I must remember to refer to Jack Higgins as Harry Patterson, which I attribute to having read all of his books under the former’s authorship. Colin is right when he says authors like MacLean and Higgins write “tight little tales with lots to recommend them.” I continue to hold several candles to Higgins and at any point of time you’ll find no less than five of his books in my collection.

        • It’s been ages since I read anothing by Higgins and in fact I haven’t seen Night of the Fox – thanks for the reminder as I should look that one up, especially as it co-starred Deborah Raffin who I was always very fond of and who died only a few days ago. Might be able to include that in my TV list – I was also tempted to include some Ken Follet but Eye of the Needle just got edged out and the rest are mainly TV movies (my favourite was Key to Rebecca). Thanks for all the great feedback Prashant.

  5. Colin says:

    Excellent selection there Sergio, not a bad one among them. Bond movies have to be included in lists like these and I agree on your choice of From Russia With Love; it’s not my favourite either but it is arguably the one which has the most real spying.

    Five Graves to Cairo, which I reviewed myself ages ago, is a real forgotten movie. I guess the lack of general availability for so long led to it’s being neglected but it’s Wilder, and what more needs to be said.

    I’m glad you included films adapted from MacLean and Ambler books – the former often gets credited a purveyor of cheap formulaic thrills but his early books (and those of Jack Higgins too by the way) are tight little tales with lots to recommend them. The latter is a shamefully forgotten man these days.

    I thought I was the only one to get a kick out of the excellent use of the Iglesias song to wrap things up in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

    • Thanks very much – and you’re dead right about 5 Graves Colin. I fell in love with it from a Channel 4 screening decades ago and kept my VHS handy until I got a copy of the Wilder on DVD from Australia (though it’s now out from TCM I think), which is the same you referenced in your excellent review of Graves of course. I will definitely be doing some Ambler-related posts next year as I really am surprised how little known he is these days. The more I think about it, the ore I like the movie version of Tinker Tailor – I was initially a bit frustrated by Oldman’s performance but it has definitely grown on me …

      • Colin says:

        I have no issues with Oldman’s take on Smiley, but I agree with your assertion that the film as a whole is likely to prove problematic for anyone not already familiar with the story.

        Great to hear you have plans to feature Ambler in the future. Frankly, it’s a bit of a disgrace that one of the finest spy/thriller writers has been allowed to fade into relative obscurity so fast.

        • I like Oldman generally – it was the adherence to the Alec Guinness ‘template’ shall we say that I found occasionally irksome, especially as Simon Russell beale did such a splendid and very individual reading of the character for BBC radio
          BBC Smiley

          • Colin says:

            Actually, I forgot to mention before, but I fully concur with your decision to concentrate on WWII and Cold War stories. I know more recent events have provided opportunities for the spy thriller to go in other directions, but the whole thing feels too nebulous to work properly for me.

            I’m reading Alan Furst’s Kingdom of Shadows right now and I’m surprised his work has never been adapted for TV or the movies – very Ambler-like to me.

          • Well, I was trying to make it a bit easier to make a coherent list -a s you say, things have gone well beyonf the cynicism and double-dealing of the Cold War era (sadly). Very Interesting about Furst as I keep hearing good things about his stuff but have yet to indulge. Just been perusing his homepage (http://www.alanfurst.net/) – one is tempted but it’s Crimbo soon …

          • Colin says:

            I tried reading Furst ages ago but wasn’t in the right mood or something and gave up. However, I’m really enjoying the book this time. I’d certainly recommend giving his stuff a go.

          • Cheers mate – I’m a fan of Anthony Price of old and his work sounds quite similar. Should the books be read in order?

          • Colin says:

            Generally, I don’t believe so. The World at Night has a sequel Red Gold, but the others are self-contained.

  6. Jeff Flugel says:

    Only time for a brief comment, Sergio, but another excellent post, and a fun idea for a list! I see why you tried to limit your scope a bit, as otherwise it might prove a bit hard to formulate with all the permutations in the spy thriller genre. As it is, you covered all the bases…I know there are a few titles percolating in the back of my mind that I might have included, but they’re remaining elusive at the moment, which proves how well-judged your list is.

    Interesting that you mention SNEAKERS, I remember catching it in theaters when it first premiered, and really enjoying it all the way up until its (for me) too jokey, odd ending, which fizzled things out for me to such an extent that I’ve never watched it since.. Need to revisit it to see if my earlier judgement was too harsh.

    • Hey Jeff, good to hear from you mate – hope things are going well with Kenji.

      The definition of what constitues a spy movie is actually (or even predictably) slippery – does The Third Man count for instance? The original prose treatment by Graham Greene pushes it more in the espionage area but the finished film feels more like a story about smugglers. The Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File should count and yet somehow to me they are manhunt films rathr than tales of espionage. I dodged jokier films like True Lies, Burn After Reading and Knight & Day for instance while I thought more recent examples like Spy Game and Body of Lies by the Scott brothers were OK but not great. Hanna and this whole host of female superspy movies post Nikita such as Haywire and the ludicrous Salt have become a new subgenre but none impressed me much I’m sorry to say. I was far sorrier to loose De Niro’s The Good Shepherd though …

      I do know what you mean about Sneakers as the ending is a little ‘soft’, which is more in keeping with the caper genre than espionage and since people really do get killed in the story the comedic approach can be tonally awkward. Having said that, our heroes were always underground types so in a sense knowing that they continue to work as black hatters makes sense. What I mean to say is that I think it just about gets away with it in my view but it is probably not the best part of the movie as you rightly point out.

      • Jeff Flugel says:

        Thanks for the kind words re: Kenji, Sergio – much appreciated! I agree that it is a rather slippery proposition to narrow the spy genre field down. I think you did a commendable job. My own personal prediliction for more light-hearted 60s spy fare (such as ARABESQUE, DEADLIER THAN THE MALE and the like), not to mention more Bond films and a strong fondness for FUNERAL IN BERLIN, might lead me down a slightly different path, but you’re doubtless right to stick to more serious, pure espionage tales.

        I see what you mean re: the ending of SNEAKERS and you’ve made enough of a case for the film for me to want to give it another chance. As I said, I really enjoyed 90% of it anyway, so rewatching it after all these years won’t be a chore.

        • Cheers mate – I suspect we are fundamentally in agreement about Sneakers and it is only a question of degree. I do love lighter spy movies too such as Charade and Arabesque and that sadly neglected Dirk Bogarde gem, Sebastian – I just somehow couldn’t finesse a list that covered both – that’s me being overly rigid as usual …

  7. Patti Abbott says:

    All of the ones I have seen, perhaps 12 of them, were excellent. My favorites being the last and Three Days of the Condor, which I can watch over and over, especially the first 20 minutes.

  8. Sergio – I couldn’t agree more about The 39 Steps, North by Northwest (can you tell I’m a Hitchcock fan?) and The Manchurian Candidate. I liked …Condor too. Yes, you’ve definitely chosen some good ‘uns!

    • Thanks very much Margot – I know what you mean, a top 10 Hitchcock spy movies list is certainly perfectly feasible! I hated not to include The Man Who Knew Too Much (either version but preferably the British original), The Lady Vanishes, Secret Agent, Sabotage, Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur too – even Torn Curtain and Topaz have their virtues – what a great filmmaker he was!

  9. vinnieh says:

    Great list, glad you included a Bond movie on it.

  10. John says:

    I’m amazed I’ve seen nearly all of these – only four I haven’t. I’ve never heard of FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO and it’s a Billy Wilder movie. What do you bet that I’ll never be able to find it? I’ll put in a dilligent effort to track it down though. (pause, does quick Googling) Aha! a few clips over at tcm.com. Will have to check those out. Anne Baxter – so young and trying out a French (?) accent!

    I enjoyed SNEAKERS mostly for the great cast and clever writing, but it does feel more like a caper movie to me – especially since it’s so comedic.

    How about THE PARALLAX VIEW with Warren Beatty? That was a great movie. I only remember it being very paranoid and pretty damn scary when I was a teenager. One of those you can’t trust anyone movies in which you really want the hero to be believed. Probably less spy flick and more government conspiracy.

    I have to put in a word for Carol Reed’s NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH which I would include in my personal list of favorite spy movies. Screenplay by Sidney Gilliat, the same man who adapted The Wheel Spins to become THE LADY VANISHES. It’s a little known but exceptional World War 2 era secret service movie. Very smart and very good. Part of the Criterion Library — right there, you know it’s fine cinema.

    • Thanks John – yup, TCM have just put the Wilder movie out as part of a new set, which you can get here. Parallax is a great movie with a famously disturbing finale but like you I thought of it more as a conspiracy film like Pakula’s later All The President’s Men and (cough – splutter- not really in the same breath) The Pelican Brief. Night Train to Munich is a terrific movie and is a kind of follow-up to The Lady Vanishes with the return of the cricket-obsessed duo Charters and Caldicott. Both great movies but regretfully I omitted them as I already had 3 Hitchcocks and it feels in the same mode (as it were) … Actually, there are a couple of other Frank Launder / Sidney Gilliat movies that fall within the genre and are really worth getting hold of if you can, the Deborah Kerr IRA thriller I See A Dark Stranger and State Secret, from a Roy Huggins novel, both fairly Hitcockian I suppose but superbly made and not really well-known at all.

      • Colin says:

        I’d love to get my hands on a release of State Secret. It’s a terrific movie with a fine cast. I think there’s an Italian DVD but I also think the original soundtrack isn’t included.

        • I’ve been making do with an old VHS and I haven’t looked at it in ages … bit scared what I might find as a few turned up mouldy recently. Jack Hawkins is a splendid villain in that. AKA ‘The Great Manhunt’ in the US and it was based on Roy Huggins’ novel Appointment With Fear – I keep meaning to track down some of his books but have never come across any in shops.

  11. I’ve always had a fondness for RONIN. A freelancing former US intelligence agent tries to track down a mysterious package that is wanted by both the Irish and the Russians. And, I liked HANNAH a lot, too.

    • Well, I think we are split 50-50 here – I saw both at the cinema when they came out and RONIN I really liked a lot but HANNAH I just couldn’t get into. I much preferred ALIAS in the genetically engineered killer theme.

  12. Todd Mason says:

    Ha! While I strenuously disagree with a few of these choices, the list as a whole is very sound, never more than when hailing “Harry Palmer” and his best film…to think it was out of the same mill as the Bonds… (ODD MAN OUT would be another one staggering on the border of an espionage film, and I’ll trade you your fondness for BDP and NO WAY OUT for the kind of break I’ll give FAY GRIM, which I think just builds and builds past its early [initially too easy] absurdities into a pretty firm indictment…perhaps because it becomes clear that Grim is improvising as fast as she can to make sure no one is killed, already making it nearly unique among espionage films, and THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, with its occasional clumsy bits still not impeding my enjoyment of it as my favorite explosion movie. Industrial espionage drives the fine SO CLOSE, much in the way THE CONVERSATION really would make my list with the same provisi you make for excluding it.

    Finally saw NORTH BY NORTHWEST in its entirety while recuperating over our long weekend here, and was amused by its various goofy bits…and then I saw MI: GHOST PROTOCOL the other day, and had the example of utter goofiness presented in comparison (though even Eva Marie Saint isn’t quite as breathtaking as Paula Patton…but at least Saint’s character has some blood running in her veins, as opposed to being an utter windup toy…).

    • I have yet to see the Hal Hartley so thanks very much for mentioning Fay Grim – I used to love his stuff! Long Kiss Goodnight is entertaining (and I love amnesia stories of course) but to me it just feels like a whole different genre (like Salt et al).

      • Todd Mason says:

        I’m not sure how it might really be wholly other than the BDP MI film, which also depends on, shall we say, improbable dexterities and ability to survive explosion.

        I remember SNEAKERS as having a sort of juvenile sexism about it, but I haven’t seen it for decades…I might forgive that, if I still felt that way at all.

        • Granted Todd that we are talking about a level of degree only but until the train climax, which while entertaining certainly sticks out, the DePalma M:I keeps things fairly grounded when compared with LONG KISS, which is outlandish and comic book very quickly and so loses any semblance of real jeopardy and connection to the real world very early on – well, to me anyway. SNEAKERS has characters in it that tend to be juvenile but what I like about the film is that it confronts that head-on as the leading lady chastises the other guys more than once about this. It is certainly fairly explicitly laid out at the end that the villain of the piece remains a baddie because he has not been able to outgrow his adolescent emotions.

          • Todd Mason says:

            Fair enough, though you still might be as kind to DePalma as I will not be (and, for similar reasons, perhaps to JJ Abrams in your upcoming list, a man who chronically confuses movement and flash with action). (Recently looked at the second/official pilot for COLUMBO, directed by Abrams’s mentor Spielberg, and it took about two minutes for me to spot the kind of thing I choose to hold against a director, albeit this was a gross example…a Fred Dannay-style novelist is finishing his manuscript when interrupted…and he’s typing it in all caps. Y’know, as if it was in certain formats for screenplays. Which it clearly is not what it’s meant to be.)

            And LONG KISS is a consistently witty comic book…

          • I do admire DePalma’s wit and cleverness (such as the verbal reconstruction by Jon Voight which clashes with Cruise’s mental visualisation) but condede my partesanship wihtout embarassment! JJ is certainly a frustrating charatcer – I used to love Alias for instance (and it will be in my Top 20 TV Spy Shows, believe me) but his feels like a TV talent that is much too stretched for the cinema (besides which, all his movies end in such a flat way after insane amounts of build-up) – some of his first screenplays like Regarding Henry and Forever Young a pretty execrable … I feel you are nitpicking with that Columbo just a teensy weeknsy bit (and not, me not a Spelberg fan with the major exceptions of said Columbo, Duel, Sugarland Express, Raiders, ET at a pinch and maybe Always.

  13. Yvette says:

    Nope, Sergio, it’s the three Bourne films for me all the way. They’re are films I could watch over and over again and never get tired. I simply love them. Though admittedly, I am NOT a lover of spy thrillers at heart so maybe it’s Matt Damon and the quick-cutting photography which works its magic on me.

    I like most of the films on your list, Sergio. The ones I’ve seen anyway, which aren’t many. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE is on my list as well. A great film, often overlooked featuring one of the greatest villains ever.

    THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS is on my list as well. An often forgotten film that deserves much more recognition. I love Clifton Webb and Stephen Boyd makes such a slimy villain.

    Loved THE 39 STEPS with Robert Donat. That’s on my list as well. HATED Mission Impossible with little Tommy Cruise. UGH! Give me the original television show.

    Haven’t seen TINKER, TINKER, whatever, but I’ve heard good things. It’s on my queue.

    Great list, Sergio. Thought-provoking.

    • Thanks Yvette – it is possible that I have stronger feeling for Franka Potente than Matt Damon :) Sorry you didn’t like the Cruise movie – it is very diffrent from the TV show, but I thought it did it in a sly and witty way for the most part. I’m guessing this means you are not looking forward to the Jack Reacher movie then? If you haven;t seen Sneakers make sure you dig that one out as I think you’d love it.

      • Yvette says:

        I’ll take a look at SNEAKERS if it’s available on Netflix, Sergio. I meant to add to my comments that I loved NO WAY OUT especially the eye-popping ending and of course I did see all those Alaitair MacLean books into films in the sixties, my favorite being GUNS OF NAVARONE – remember that one?

        Also meant to add that of your list, the film that interests me most is CONTRABAND with Conrad Veidt. I am unabashedly in love with Conrad Veidt so I’m off to see if I can find this film somewhere.

        Oh, I thought you meant the newer version of TINKER. That’s the one on my queue. :)

        • Veidt is wonderful in Contraband, one of his last European films as the hero before he started playing villains. Guns of Navarone is great fun, much more serious than Where Eagles Dare (well, in context and by comparison shall we say) – the latter was semi-remade and very entertainingly, as When Eight Bells Toll.

  14. Yvette says:

    Confusion reigns. We’re on the same page with TINKER. I mis-read something. Sorry.

  15. Todd Mason says:

    Ah, well–you don’t have to be in love with Spielberg, since Abrams is. And that’s just it…by me, they are congruent anti-talents, Spielberg and Abrams both preferring the flashy to the substantial, Spielberg going on from that to the essentially sophomoric (and, well, no…even a rushed production should include a number of people who know that a manuscript for prose publication is not written in ALL CAPS, particularly when said ms. is prominently displayed on screen in several shots as it’s being typed…there’s simply no reason to go out of one’s way to make such a mistake, so prominently)…while Abrams is indeed the anti-master of Nothing Else Matters if something is flashy enough…ALIAS was for me too often simply a showcase for the lead’s wigs, even as his immediately previous series FELICITY was devoted rather too much to its lead’s hair, neither series to anything resembling logical development nor convincing fantasy, and I’ve not found much to engage with nor admire in his work since, nor in that earlier work you cite.

    In the US, we were seeing four espionage series in “first run” at the time ALIAS was on, and ALIAS and (after a season, roughly) 24 lost me as a viewer, while the ones I preferred, ONCE A THIEF (a few years after its short Canadian run) and particularly THE COMPANY, disappeared too quickly.

    • I am sure you are right about CAPS, but it’s news to me (are there no depths to my ignorance ..?)

      I do have a soft-spot for Alias (I even contributed to a book about it actually) – you’re right about the obsession with hair and outfits but I did also think it was done in a playful way and often witty – and I did think the basic premise, of every week having a mission and a spoiling counter-mission, was smart. Never saw Once A Thief I’m afraid but I liked The Company – and I wish Rubicon had managed to find more of an audience.

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  17. Sarah says:

    Great post. I love ’3 days of the condor’ and could watch it over and over again. I quite like ‘Deadly Affair’ based on Le Carre’s ‘Call for the Dead’ starring James Mason.

    • Thanks very much Sarah – yes, I’m a big fan of both the underrated le carre debut Call for the Dead (which I previously reviewed here) and the Sidney Lumet / Paul Dehn film version, with George Smiley transmuted into ‘Charles Dobbs’ but brilliantly played by James Mason, I quite agree. There’s an excellent review of the movie version over at Riding the High Country.

  18. Alex says:

    Very cool list: I’d only suggest as 21 – but actually somewhere between 1-5 on your list – The Third Man. It is an absolute must given the Greene treatment (and really who would le carre be without Greene?) and the fine score and the cinematography (I don’t think any film has come close), the actual Vienna after the war, and of course Welles’s Lime remains the most ambiguously evil (because what’s a few deaths after a war that cost 6 million?) character in movie history.
    The rest of your list is great and I was really impressed that you had included what I think is one of the great espionage movies and characters – Quiller. I have read all the books and still don’t understand why no-one has ever picked this series up for a Hollywood make over (it was done by British TV, but very poorly alas).
    Anyway thanks! Nice gems and 2 I haven’t seen but will ASAP :)

    • Thanks very much Alex for all the kind words – agreed, The Third Man is a classic. I suppose my omission is purely because I never really think of it as a spy story. The published treatment by Greene actually feels a bit more like a spy story to me with the Russians more involved but otherwise I tend to think of it as a dark romance in the Film Noir style

  19. peppino vallessi says:

    I’m a little late to the discussion. I generally agree with your choices but didn’t like Deadly affair with James Mason, but did like Mason’s The Five Fingers very much. Also enjoyed the Reilly Ace of spies series. An oblique reference, being more murder mystery, was le Carré’s A murder of Quality with Denholm Elliot giving a bang up job as Smiley. Ditto for the le Carré’s series of the Perfect Spy, and the film The Looking Glass War. (I throw in the made for TV dramas for a little spice.) Great List, and good discussion. Thanks

  20. justjack says:

    Contraband/Blackout? Is that the one where the hero finds himself passing through a warehouse stuffed with busts of Neville Chamberlain? If so, that was a great piece of Hitchcockian filmmaking.

    • Yup, that’s the one (it’s probably the highlight) – it does feel very Hitchcockian with its mismatched pair and the various set-pieces and it certainly had a great sense of humour but you can also see, especially with its ‘foreign’ lead how that element of subversion that would become more marked in later Powell and Pressburger films is already emerging. And a great companion piece to their earlier film with Veidt and Hobson, The Spy in Black, which some prefer in fact.
      CONTRABAND

      • justjack says:

        Guffaw! What a great screen capture! I saw this movie in the last 6 months on Turner Classic Movies, during what I think was a Powell & Pressburger retrospective. They also showed Spy In Black, but the copy was so visually and aurally degraded that I found it sadly unwatchable.

        The rest of your list, particularly the titles from the 60′s and earlier, looks very good indeed to me, though I can’t comment on most of the recent-vintage movies because I haven’t seen them. I didn’t care for George Segal in Quiller Memorandum, though I did like everything else about the film. Two that I have yet to see but very much want to are The Ipcress File (Netflix doesn’t carry it, and I haven’t gotten around to just buying my own copy yet) and Dimitrios, which TCM has shown several times in the last couple of years. I’ve put off seeing the latter because I can’t decide if I should see the movie before reading the book, or vice versa.

        • justjack says:

          I forgot to mention also that Where Eagles Dare is a good choice, despite its wartime setting. There’s a scene near the end when Burton keeps trying to lay out the “here’s what’s going on” wrap up, and every time someone new comes into the room, his story changes 180 degrees. It’s hilarious.

          • I loved how convoluted it got at the end as a kid but it is amusing watching it now as you say and seeing how eventually they just give up on the plot entirely and give over to about 40 minutes of solid action! Still, there is a nice sting in the tale right at the end though …

        • Shame about the print of Spy in Black – well worth seeing if you can. Segal is certainly not the character from the book of course and he does play it is a deliberately opaque way (sort of went with the style of the time and genre) but obviously I;m a bigger fan than you! The book series is excellent though, well worth rediscovering. Ipcress File is a classic though – if you can get a decent widescreen version that is the only way to watch it and get the most out of it.

  21. AgentM says:

    Really? “Five Fingers” with James Mason didn’t make the cut and Where Eagles Dare did?

    • Well, I agree that Five Fingers is a terrific movie with James Mason as a great anti-hero but I felt like I had several films in that low key mould whereas I wanted to have somethign a bit more spectacular. Also, not enough epople see Eagles as a spy movie so i thought it was worth making the point – would love to know what your Top 20 looks like! Cheers.

  22. gargoyle says:

    Agree with (ones i know on) your list. Also enjoyed Dirk Bogardes 1968 ‘Sebastian’ codebreaker, and Paul Newman’s 1973 ‘Mackintosh Man’.

    • Thanks for that Sebastian is pretty good as I recall but it’s been ages since I saw it – I do like Mackintosh Man but given its pedigree I just wish it had been a bit better … but I shall have to watch it again, thanks for the reminder!

  23. Happydays132 says:

    It is worth pointing out that the Langley break-in and hanging from the wires scene in the first MI film is a direct rip off from the Peter Ustinov film Topkapi from 1964, as is much other content. Perhaps this is deliberate, since Topkapi was part inspiration for the original tv series.

    • Well, rip-off maybe a bit strong … but it is definitely an ‘hommage’ to Topkapi, which of course was a rethink by Jules Dassin of his earlier classic, Rififi. It would be wrong not to acknowledge Topkapi though, thanks.

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