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.
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 …