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Photo: Best Spy Thrillers
Few figures are more ingrained in the zeitgeist of film than that of the shadowy secret agent pitted against a seemingly unknowable evil with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Be it James Bond or George Smiley, Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt, Cinema has maintained the unique ability to preserve a bygone era of international espionage and conspiratorial intrigue for nearly 100 years, leading to some of the most influential tropes, characters, and storylines in the history of film.
This list seeks to highlight just a few of the very best spy films of all time, be they hair-raising thrillers, mesmerizing action extravaganzas, or rich and introspective dissections of bureaucracy. One important area of clarification for the list is that just because a film is political does not mean it is a spy film (such as Alan J. Pakula’s ‘The Parallax View’ (1974) or Costa-Gavras’ ‘Z`’ (1969)) and vice-versa (like Pierre Morel’s ‘Taken’ (2008)). While this may disqualify some heavy-hitters, those that remain represent not only some of the greatest films in their own genre, but additionally some of the greatest cinematic achievements to ever grace the silver screen.
Best Spy Thrillers
10.) ‘The Bourne Identity’ (Doug Liman, 2002)
Quite possibly the platonic ideal for a digital age spy caper, Doug Liman’s expertly crafted ‘The Bourne Identity’ (2002) just edges out Brian De Palma’s ‘Mission: Impossible’ (1996) as the “American Bond” franchise debut to appear on this list. An adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s 1980 novel of the same name stuck in various forms of pre-production for six years, the film took the world by storm upon its release, emerging as instantly essential iconography for the genre and miraculously grossing nearly four times its costly $60 million budget. The film centered on Matt Damon’s amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne, marking the beginning of a new chapter for the ‘Good Will Hunting’ (1997) actor as one of Hollywood’s most reliable leading men.
After being pulled from the Mediterranean Sea with no memory of who he is or how he got there, Bourne is forced to embark on a perilous journey to reconstruct his identity, understand why he possesses world-class reflexes and combat skills, and figure out what mysterious organization is trying to make sure he stays in the dark – permanently. Joining him on his quest is an unwitting civilian dragged way in over their head (a genre trademark sure to pop up a few times on this list) in the form of ‘Run Lola Run’ (1998) actress Franka Potente. They’re joined by familiar faces like Brian Cox, Chris Cooper, Clive Owen, and Julia Stiles, culminating in one of the most electric and inventive films of the 21st century as well as one of the most rewatchable spy movies of all time.
9.) ‘Notorious’ (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)
A cornerstone of the small yet consequential film movement dubbed “spy-noir”, Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Notorious’ (1946) represents the culmination of the director’s early filmic fascination with international espionage. With outings like ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ (1934), ‘The 39 Steps’ (1935), ‘Secret Agent’ (1936), and ‘Foreign Correspondent’ (1940), Hitchcock dipped his toes in some of the murkier waters of pre-war geopolitics, but with ‘Notorious’ the director decided to throw caution to the wind and dive-in head first.
Cary Grant portrays a U.S. operative named T.R. Delvin who is tasked with enlisting the daughter of a high-ranking Nazi beneficiary, Ingmar Bergman’s Alicia Huberman (with Claude Rains serving as her loathsome father), to help infiltrate a nefarious secret organization and uncover vital secrets that may change the course of World War II. The plot is complicated by the fact that Delvin begins to fall hopelessly in love with Huberman, a trapping that may have turned into the film’s greatest downfall actually serving as one of its biggest strengths due to the sincerity with which the director weaves the two star-crossed lovers into the larger narrative of the Allies’ secretive front during the final days of the war.
8.) ‘The Conformist’ (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)
To put it simply, Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic examination of fascism and those who blindly fought, killed, and died for it is, as its poster suggests, “a dazzling movie”. Photographed by Vittorio Storaro, the legendary maestro responsible for the likes of ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) and ‘The Last Emperor’ (1987), the film is amongst the beautiful ever shot, each frame a work of art that wouldn’t be out of place in the Louvre. Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as Marcello Clerici, an upper-crust bureaucrat working in Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy circa 1940. He is tasked by the secret police to assassinate his former college professor and personal mentor, now a vocal anti-fascist exiled to Paris.
Time and time again, Clerici is forced to choose between his own morals and conformity to whatever socio-political movement currently rules the day in the hopes of maintaining a fleeting appearance of normality. Bertolucci spins a far different spy tale than many may be anticipating, actively challenging its characters and their various misgivings rather than lionizing their pursuits in the name of truth and justice, culminating in what can only truly be described as a completely dazzling film.
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7.) ‘The Conversation’ (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
The oft-neglected middle child between ‘The Godfather’ (1972) and ‘The Godfather Part II’ (1974), Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’ (1974) remains a feverish descent into an entirely different world of spying than the rest of the entries on this list. Gene Hackman stars as lonesome San Franciscan surveillance expert Harry Caul (yes, the name is purposefully ironic), who tails a young couple and records their cryptic conversation at the behest of a mysterious client. Caul becomes infatuated with the tape, obsessing over every fell breath as he begins to suspect the pair may be in actual danger.
With John Cazale offering a terrific supporting performance as Caul’s loyal associate and a remarkably early appearance from Harrison Ford as the brusque assistant to the enigmatic client known as “The Director’” (Robert Duvall), the film is a tour-de-force on all conceivable fronts. The film would go on to win the 1974 Palme d’Or and score three Oscar nominations, though it never managed to accrue the prestige of Coppola’s other 70s productions. Nonetheless, ‘The Conversation’ has only grown in estimation over the years, becoming one of the most cherished “70s Paranoia” classics of the era as well as one of Coppola’s most underrated masterworks.
6.) ‘From Russia With Love’ (Terrence Young, 1963)
No self-respecting ranking of classic spy flicks would be complete without at least entry in the 007 saga from the original man with the license to kill; Sir Sean Connery. While ‘Goldfinger’ (1964), ‘Dr. No’ (1962), ‘Thunderball’ (1965), and ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967) may harbor their own merit (and legions of die-hard supporters), no film in Connery’s inaugural quintilogy matched debonair charm with jaw-dropping set pieces better than Terence Young’s sophomore effort ‘From Russia With Love’ (1963). Though ‘Dr. No’ certainly succeeded in concocting a spectacular entrance for the MI-6 super-spy, ‘From Russia With Love’ does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to forming the tropes and gags recurrent throughout the rest of the ongoing franchise.
The film is the first to feature a titular theme song, the first to feature Bond’s biggest baddie Blofeld, and the first to transport Bond into a sprawling international galavant across numerous nations and exotic locales. The film centers on the plot of the criminal organization SPECTRE, who seeks to heat up the Cold War by means of none other than British secret agent James Bond. His mission takes him across Europe to Istanbul, where he forms a fateful connection with Daniela Bianchi’s slippery double agent Tatiana Romanova.
5.) ‘Three Days of the Condor’ (Sydney Pollack, 1975)
What Connery did for the British spy in the 60s, Robert Redford did for the American spy in the 70s, and as such, it’d be remiss not to mention his greatest foray into the world of counterintelligence; Sydney Pollack’s ‘Three Days of the Condor’ (1975). Redford stars as Joseph Turner (codename: Condor), a bookish CIA agent who comes back from a lunch break to find all of his coworkers brutally murdered, forced into a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with those responsible. Turner becomes unsure of who he can trust after reporting the incident to his employers in the U.S. government only to be fired upon at their agreed-upon meeting point.
Desperate for somewhere to hide, Turner forces a random passerby (Faye Dunaway’s Kathy Hale) to escort him to her home and hide him there until further notice. After he explains who he is and who is after him, she agrees to help him figure out why his team was executed in the first place before it’s too late. Featuring a truly devilish Max von Sydow as the sadistic killer with surprising moral fortitude Joubert, ‘Three Days of the Condor’ is a relentless and thoroughly gripping tale of a lone spy forced up against the organization he dedicated his entire life to.
4.) ‘North By Northwest’ (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
The second Hitchcock flick to appear on this list, the director’s quintessential spy caper ‘North By Northwest’ (1959) is among the most treasured of his entire career. Quite possibly the best usage of Hitchcock’s prototypical “everyman thrust into the world of the extraordinary” conceit, the film tells the story of Grant’s advertising executive Roger Thornhill after he is mistaken for an American super-spy named George Kaplan and kidnapped by a band of ill-defined Cold War enemies. Thornhill manages to escape by the skin of his teeth, embarking on a deadly cross-country chase that pairs him with Eva Marie Saint’s Eve Kendall and pits him against James Mason and Martin Landau’s dastardly villains.
Featuring a bottomless wealth of iconic set-pieces (two particular scenes involving a dive-bombing crop duster and duel on the top of Mount Rushmore number among the most recognizable in film history), ‘North By Northwest’ may just be the most unabashedly fun spy movie ever made. The characters slink about as if they don’t have a care in the world (even though they are in fact tasked with caring for the fate of the world), inspiring the audience to leave their worries at the door and instead embark on a brisk galavant across the United States sure to leave a goofy grin on their face by the time the film is over.
3.) ‘Army of Shadows’ (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)
An all but forgotten French New Wave opus, Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘Army of Shadows’ (1969) didn’t even make its way out of France until 2006. Released during the Algerian War and deemed taboo by most critics, the brutal portrait of the French Resistance during the Nazi’s occupation of the country sat collecting dust at a handful of antique film shops until it was suddenly announced that the film would be restored and redistributed via a collaboration between the BFI and the Criterion Collection. ‘Army of Shadows’ was given a rare second chance, cementing itself as many critics’ favorite film distributed that year and an essential stepping stone in French filmmaking. The film follows a ragtag collection of Resistance operatives making their way between different safe houses and attempting to fight back against the Third Reich from the shadows. The film is excessively cruel and remarkably callous but at its core is a masterful depiction of hope in the face of insurmountable evil, hope for a new tomorrow even when today may spell death.
2.) ‘Skyfall’ (Sam Mendes, 2012)
No matter how many films they inevitably make, Sam Mendes’ bombastic masterpiece ‘Skyfall’ (2012) will always remain the ultimate James Bond film. Much in the same way ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008) (a noted inspirative for Mendes) serves as a pitch-perfect culmination of the Batman mythos, so too does ‘Skyfall’ neatly wrap up forty years of Bond in an unbelievably cogent and emotionally satisfying way. Daniel Craig has never been better as his more snide and cynical 00 agent, Judi Dench delivers an all-time great final performance as the remorseful M, and never before has Bond been contrasted by a better villain than Javier Bardem’s haunting phantasm Silva.
The action is additionally some of the best ever seen before, each set piece not only wowing its audience, but leaving them scratching their heads as to how each stunt was made possible in the first place. On top of all that, Roger Deakins puts on a remarkable show from the cinematographer’s chair, offering what may be a contender for the best shot films of all time. Altogether, ‘Skyfall’ stacks up as a breathtaking triumph of filmmaking that has circled all the way around critically, now firmly rooted in the canon of underrated masterpieces.
1.) ‘The Third Man’ (Carol Reed, 1949)
When it comes to spy movies (just as it does with pretty much all other movies), Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’ (1949) reigns above them all. Set amongst the desolate ruins of post-war Vienna, the film centers on Joseph Cotten’s Holly Martins, a destitute American western novelist who ventures to the city after being offered a job by his childhood friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). When Martins arrives in the city he discovers Lime has died suddenly in a seemingly random traffic accident. Believing there to be far more than meets the eye, Martins stays in Vienna and begins to investigate Lime’s death, uncovering reports of a mysterious unaccounted-for third man present on the scene.
Martin’s pursuits lead him down a rabbit hole of conspiracy and treachery that threatens to exhume vengeful phantoms and give way to an arching web of international intrigue far bigger than even Martins could imagine. Championed by a near-constant stream of spine-tingling twists, a wickedly sharp screenplay, and unmatched black-and-white cinematography even Deakins could only dream about, ‘The Third Man’ has cemented itself as one of Cinema’s greatest mysteries and the absolute ideal for the spy thriller formula.
Honorable Mentions: ‘Spies’ (1928), ‘The 39 Steps’ (1935), ‘Pickup on South Street’ (1953), ‘Dr. No’ (1962), ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ (1962), ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ (1965), ‘Mission: Impossible’ (1996), ‘The Lives of Others’ (2006), ‘Lust, Caution’ (2007)
By Andrew Valianti
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Andrew Valianti is a writer and an aspiring producer-director, and all-around film lover. While writing both features and reviews for the Hollywood Insider, Andrew has focused on the intersection of cinema and politics as they relate to empowering diverse stories and viewpoints. Through both study and practice, Andrew has seen first hand the many ways in which film and media can have a positive and meaningful impact on everyday lives. His personal views align with the Hollywood Insider, as he views journalism as a means to empower and mobilize positive change rather than spread gossip or negativity. He believes that art ignites action and has sought to pursue stories that further this goal.