Model philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not. They're just a action of seedy, squalid bastards like me […] civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten up their rotten little lives. The last stretch of Alfred Hitchcock's run of British-made films up to returned again and again to the spy thriller. The 39 StepsSecret Agent and Sabotage are all varying degrees of spy — especially the magnificent The 39 Stepson which more below — and very few films in any genre can top North by Northwestbut none of them are as breezily charming and psychologically twisty as The Lady Vanishes.
Somewhere in film Europe, a young bride-to-be called Iris takes a plant pot to the head and meets an old lady called Miss Froy and a young, annoying man called Gilbert before jumping on a train. Iris and Miss Froy get friendly, but then suddenly she's nowhere to be found. Was she ever there? And if so, who wanted to get rid of her?
9 great spy movies you can stream right now
Espionage, nuns, a whistled musical motif and a train-based shootout ensue. And, in the cricket-mad Charters and Caldicott, it minted the ultimate in doddering comic relief duos.
They tend, though, to crystallise a particularly Cold War froideur : the 'good' guys defending the West and its grubby morality against monsters beyond the Iron Curtain who looked disconcertingly like themselves. At the same time, a hardline duo called Mohr and Sullivan are on the tail of a potentially useful source. Famous for his surveillance expertise, Harry Caul is the go-to guy for corporations who want to spy on their rivals and, if necessary, their own employees. In contrast to director Francis Ford Coppola epics, The Godfather and Apocalypse Nowthe tone is pared back, tightly edited and claustrophobic.
In other words, the perfect spy movie atmosphere. Coppola stated that the parallels with the contemporary Watergate scandal were coincidental.
Yes, the one about the train. You've seen the bit where Buster Keaton bonks a railway sleeper out of the way with another railway sleeper; watch the whole thing, though, and you'll see it's a proto-spy film. The spy just happens to be being played by the most gifted comic actor who ever lived. But then his other beloved, the locomotive The General, is stolen by Union spies.
The 26 greatest spy films of all time
He gives chase in another loco, and a series of increasingly spectacular stunts and set pieces ensues. The General might be a comedy, but the way that it pitches an ordinary man into a dangerous political intrigue is pure spy thriller material, and Keaton's commitment to his own wildly dangerous stunts echoes in Tom Cruise's eye-boggling latter-day Mission: Impossible work. Keaton reflected toward the end of his life that he "was more proud of that picture than any I ever made. Charlize Theron is MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, who on the eve spy the fall of the Berlin Wall in is roped into the office to explain her recent work in the city.
A microfilm containing the names of every agent on either side of the Iron Curtain at work in Berlin has been stolen, and she's dispatched to bring it back. Atomic Blonde isn't particularly film, but its pulpy, splenetically violent action sequences and the cantankerous buddy-up spy Theron and James McAvoy make it more than worth your time. The kingpin of an international crime organisation has to be brought down by the secret services, but this kingpin sets his own spying operation into motion. Fritz Lang didn't think much of Spione — "a small film, but with a lot of action," as he said at its inception — but you'd not know it by the barrelling opening sequence, which manages to swiftly set up everything the next two and a half hours action unravel.
The rest of Lang's penultimate silent film is jammed with action too, from an exhilaratingly staged train crash to a finale in which a spy is trapped between pursuers and a cackling action hall audience. You can see a young Hitchcock taking notes on the way Lang swirls together death and danger with popular entertainment — compare and contrast the finale of The 39 Steps — and slyly suggests that we're voyeurs for watching along.
A thoroughly modern spy movie.
Filmmaker Laura Poitras serves as director and confidant as she interviews whistleblower Edward Snowdon over eight days in a Hong Kong hotel room, work that would lead to the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. An under-appreciated Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker movie that does for the spy genre what Airplane! That is, send it up with unhinged relish. The plot, such as it is, concerns American rock star Nick Rivers a superbly blank Val Kilmer being dispatched to East Germany during the second world war to perform at a festival, only to find himself caught up in an underground resistance movement.
The silliness is infectious.
When it came out the audience voted with their feet and went to see Gremlins instead. It flopped spectacularly.
A rebel. For Palmer, service in the MOD is a penance of sorts for his criminal exploits while in the British Army, rather than a film plan. He shops in supermarkets, likes cooking omelettes are a speciality and wants a pay-rise so that he can upgrade his kitchen utensils. Tasked with investigating the brainwashing of sixteen British scientists, Palmer is kidnapped and subjected to the IPCRESS conditioning method, in an attempt to turn him into a double agent.
Resisting the process, Palmer purposefully subjects himself to pain while chanting one of Caine's most iconic quotes, "My. The voice-over in the trailer for Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman's thriller about a US Naval officer investigating a murder is pure eighties overkill. The plot, however, still stands up as one of the best spy films committed to film, with Gene Hackman turning in an on-the-money performance as the Secretary Of Defence trying to shift the action for his promiscuous wife's murder away from himself and on to a rumoured Soviet sleeper agent named Yuri, while tasking Costner — the other man in the affair — to investigate.
Called "truly labyrinthine and ingenious" and a " superior example of the action " in the late, great movie critic Roger Ebert's original review, it's Hackman and Costner's performances that elevate this to a classic. For anyone disappointed with the lacklustre Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruitthis is the film to watch to see Costner playing the spy game properly. After the none-more-gritty Munich, Steven Spielberg returned to Cold War politicking — but this time he took Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance spy him, the latter on career-high form.
Hanks is James B Donovan, an insurance lawyer who is drafted in as a patsy to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel Rylancebut films to his principles and helps him avoid the spy sentence. A few years later, US airman Gary Powers's U2 spy plane is shot down over Russia and Donovan is tapped up by the Soviets to help with a possible prisoner swap for Abel. It looks absolutely glorious too, and with Joel and Ethan Coen helping out on script duties, there are a lot more laughs than in most spy thrillers set in the GDR. Spy parodies tend to send-up the slickness of secret agents, the vanity of super villains and other Bond-inspired movie tropes.
Meanwhile, in a bid to secretly begin divorce proceedings, his wife Katie Tilda Swinton downlo his financial records onto a disc to give to her lawyer — but accidentally copies his memoir draft over too. What follows is a tangled web of blackmail, sex, subterfuge, murder and boundless stupidity. The only good decision in the entire film is George Clooney's beard.
The M:I series pivoted from being a trilogy with one great film to an all-conquering action juggernaut over the course of the s, but it's easy to forget while you're watching Tom Cruise fling himself about on the Bhurj Khalifa that he's supposed to be a spy. He's a spy though, and a spy for the IMF at that.
In probably the action of all the Mission: Impossible films, he has to stop terrorists cobbling together nuclear bombs with stolen plutonium. That's not the point, though. The point is that Cruise is very obviously film all the staggering stunts himself, including the much-vaunted HALO jump sequence. He actually jumped out of a plane times to get the freefall shots, and Fallout finds new ways to channel that visceral rush brilliantly. Angela Bassett, Vanessa Spy and Henry Cavill's Moustache Cruise alongside a roll call of stars from impossible missions. This update of those post-Watergate Robert Redford political thrillers — films which question whether you can trust the organisations that are meant to be looking out for us — places it squarely in the mass surveillance era.
The National Security Agency has murdered a prickly congressman who's being a big nerd about their plan to spy on everyone, but the whole thing's caught on video.
So, in the classic Hitchcockian mode, he's got to clear his action and work out spy the hell's going on. It's less subtle than those mid-Seventies films, but it barrels along and has the enormous draw of a particularly splenetic late-period Gene Hackman, who spends much of his screen time screaming at Smith while looking out for his beloved cat.
In the sub-genre of 'spy films where normal people have to do some spying', Argo stands apart. Ben Affleck shares top billing with Ben Affleck's Magnificent Beard in this one, based on the true story of a film crew who had to help bust some Spy hostages out of Tehran. They didn't use dead drops or jetpacks or a watch with a laser in it.
They pretended to make a fake sci-fi film adventure Star Wars rip-off called Argo and smuggled in some Canadian passports. While it's a consummate spy thriller, it manages to bend toward being a heist caper too, with some top turns from John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, and particularly Alan Arkin as the cantankerous, veteran film producer Lester Siegel. Don't like the fact that it beat Lincoln to the Best Picture Oscar?
Argo fuck yourself. Loosely based on Robert Ludlum's story of an amnesiac spy, Doug Liman's Bourne Identity pressed the re-set button on the entire genre, with Daniel Craig 's Bond films and even Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy taking inspiration from Bourne's brutal, close-quarter's combat style and gritty, rain-soaked locations. It was also the film that made us take Matt Damon — the angry kid from Good Will Hunting and the stoner-angel from Dogma — seriously as a fully-fledged Hollywood leading man. Alfred Hitchcock at his most hard-boiled, this Cary Grant -Ingrid Bergman double bill about the daughter of a Nazi war criminal recruited to infiltrate a ring of Nazis in Brazil became famous for the scene in which Hitchcock slipped around Hollywood's ban on kissing scenes over three seconds by having the actors break the kiss every few seconds before continuing.
However, it's Grant's wardrobe that we're most interested in, particularly his flawless dinner jacket, preceding a film spy with a penchant for bow ties and tuxedos by almost 20 years. Few films made Orson Welles action, "Oh my God, what a masterpiece.
In only Hitchcock's second spy film, released a year after The Man Who Knew Too MuchRobert Donat plays Richard Hannay, an innocent man accused of murder who can only clear his name by uncovering an evil cabal called the 39 Steps.
Spy action & adventure
Stylish, relentlessly pacey and revolutionary in its time, Hitchcock soups up John Buchan's novel with daring set pieces — most famously Hannay's scramble along the outside of the Flying Scotsman and escape onto the Forth Bridge — and adds an erotic charge by shackling the hero to the director's first icy but irresistible blonde female lead, played by Madeleine Carroll.
Hitchcock's first great thriller introducers the key ingredients of all that were to come: an honourable man caught in a shadowy behemoth's web; the McGuffin of what the 39 Steps are to keep the action sprinting along; and, most of all, a playful manifestation of the claustrophobic, obsessive relationship with sex he'd return to later in PsychoFr enzyMarnie and Vertigo. Almost deserving of its film on this list because of its style alone those suits, that knitwear, that peacoat Sydney Pollack's thriller about a CIA researcher who comes back to find his unit dead is quite possibly Robert Redford 's best role.
Out of his comfort zone as the cockey leading man, Redford turns in a stellar performance as he runs from both the CIA and a string of mysterious killers, with Max Von Sydow ticking the 'evil assassin in tan trenchcoat' box. Of course we're not action Connery's second outing is the best Bond film of all time although there's a strong case to be made for it but, in terms of good old fashioned espionage, you'd be hard-pushed to beat Bond's exploits with SMERSH and super Soviet assassin Red Grant a stone cold Robert Spy.