Whether gritty and realistic or slick and campy, spy films have been a favorite genre among filmmakers and audiences. Often set in some international locale, they featured government agents engaged in espionage in secret and at great risk to themselves.
Though numerous spy movies were made prior to World War II, notably by Alfred Hitchcock, it wasn’t until the Cold War that the genre exploded in popularity. Some took the Russian threat seriously, while others like James Bond had more of a devil-may-care attitude toward the free world’s sworn enemies.
In the 1970s, audiences’ paranoia turned inward in the wake of Watergate, which was best exemplified by the likes of Sydney Pollack and Alan J. Pakula. Regardless of historical influences, spy films have always been escapist entertainment for moviegoers seeking action, thrills, and clear-cut heroes and villains.
It’s always tough to choose an Alfred Hitchcock
movie to put on any list, but The 39 Steps
was his first big international hit and still ranks as one of the greatest spy movies ever made. The film starred Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, a Canadian on vacation in England who becomes embroiled in murder and espionage while making the acquaintance of an icy cold blonde (Madeline Carroll) who comes to his aid – classic Hitchcockian elements. After fleeing a theater wear shots ring out, Richard finds himself confronted by a frightened woman (Lucie Mannheim) claiming to be a British spy, only to later find her at his door with a knife in her back, a map in her hand and the words “39 Steps” on her lips. On the run for her murder, Richard struggles to clear his name as he unravels a conspiracy involving a ring of spies. Certainly not the first of its kind, The 39 Steps
was a major breakthrough for both the genre and cinema itself.
The Criterion Collection
Directed by the great Carol Reed, The Third Man
was a Cold War spy classic that focused on Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), a hack pulp writer who arrives in postwar Vienna on the promise of a job offered by old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles
). But upon arrival, he discovers that Lime has been killed in a traffic accident – or was he? As he learns more about his old friend – namely that he was a murderer and thief – Martins finds himself pulled deeper and deeper into a dangerous con game. Strikingly filmed in black and white – cinematographer Robert Crasker won the Oscar for his work – The Third Man
contains a great deal of suspense, several moments of dry British humor, and a fun performance from Cotten as the wide-eyed innocent.
20th Century Fox
Based on the true story of Nazi spy, Elyesa Bazna, who worked as a valet to the British ambassador in Turkey, Joseph L. Mankiewicz
’s 5 Fingers
was a suspenseful thriller that benefited from a quality turn from James Mason as code name Cicero. Cicero risks life and limb photographing top secret documents and turning them over to the Germans, but holds no particular allegiances to anybody and spies only for the money. When he comes across plans for the D-Day Invasion, Cicero manages to sneak them out, only to find them dismissed as absurd. After the war, Cicero finds himself in Rio de Janeiro, where he’s eventually double-crossed by his former employers. Both witty and fast-paced, 5 Fingers
is often forgotten in the pantheon of spy films, but remains one of the genre’s best examples.
Another forgotten spy film, this tense thriller starred William Holden
as Eric Erickson, an American-born Swede forced into spying on the Nazis during World War II after he’s caught trading oil to them. He reluctantly agrees, though posing as a Nazi comes at the cost of being branded a traitor and losing his wife. As he puts on the appearance of building an oil refinery for the Germans, Erickson passes information to his British handler (Hugh Griffith), only to find himself in danger after the Nazis discover his deceit from his involvement with another woman (Lilli Palmer). Based on the true story of the real Eric Erickson, The Counterfeit Traitor
is more straightforward in its approach – no double-crosses that beget more double-crosses – and features a typically strong performance from its lead actor.
MGM Home Entertainment
The movie that started it all, Dr. No
starred Sean Connery
as the world’s most famous spy, James Bond, a British secret agent with a devil-may-care attitude and a license to kill. In this first film of the most successful franchise ever, Bond travels to Jamaica to investigate the death of another British agent, only to confront a number of deadly assassins, a sexy femme fatale and a poisonous tarantula. Along the way, Bond enlists the help of old CIA pal Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) and the bikini-clad Honey Rider (Ursula Andress), as he draws closer to the fanatical Dr. Julius No (Joseph Wiseman), a Chinese scientist and member of the criminal organization SPECTRE hell-bent on world domination. Adapted from Ian Fleming’s popular pulp spy novels, Dr. No
was a watershed moment in movie history, as the film kicked off the longest-running film series in cinema history.
Adapted from the John Le Carre novel and directed by Martin Ritt, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold starred Richard Burton
as Alec Leamas, a British secret agent at the end of his rope who is pulled from the field and given the daunting task of infiltrating East Germany as a defector. But once he’s accomplished the first part of his task, Leamas learns that a much bigger conspiracy is afoot and he’s to be a pawn in its completion. Filmed in stark black and white photography, the grittily realistic film featured a sterling performance from Burton, but turned off audiences for its all-too-complicated plot. But that was then. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
has gained wider acceptance by modern audiences reared on Jason Bourne and has since become a classic in the genre.
Actor Michael Caine made the first of five (and counting) appearances as British spy Harry Palmer, the protagonist from the series of spy novels by Len Deighton. In The Ipcress File
, Palmer was introduced as a man who knows nothing else outside of espionage and has no great love for the life of a spy. He reluctantly takes on a case to look for a missing man (Aubrey Richards), who possesses a file that could bring the free world to its knees, only to find himself the pawn of a superior (Nigel Green) selling him out to win the missing man’s freedom. The complete antithesis of James Bond, The Ipcress File
delves into the dark, gritty world of real-life espionage and has lived on as a spy thriller classic, thanks in large part to Caine’s star-making performance.
Feeding off the paranoia of the 1970s, particularly in light of Watergate, Sydney Pollack’s classic Three Days of the Condor
was filled with non-stop suspense and distrust of anyone in a position of power. The film starred Robert Redford
as a bookish CIA researcher who leaves his office one morning, only to return to find everyone inside shot to death. After managing to escape, he goes on the run and slowly unravels a conspiracy involving a nefarious plan to avoid an oil shortage. Along the way, he enlists the help of a civilian woman (Faye Dunaway) who becomes the only person he can trust. Taut, fast-paced and full of twists, Three Days of the Condor
was a perfect blend of Hitchcockian thriller with New Hollywood minimalism, making for an exciting, but grittily realistic film that has long become a classic.