The 25 Best Spy Movies of All Time
A film fan’s love of adventurous cinematic spies is a continuation of man’s love for adventure. Spies unearthing untold similarities of methods—where governmental secrecy serves as the raw material of fiction—also separates the mystery of persuasion from the guesswork of brainwashing.
Indeed, all movie genres adapted from literature rely on screenplays to focus on select aspects of an author’s work (perhaps even his style) and embellish those parts ripe for cinema’s visual storytelling. The travels of real spies across enemies lines (while fanciful), and often downright outlandish, are accomplished not by the simply “man out for adventure” but by government emissaries.
Partly because of the spy genre, today’s western audience, like its military personnel, have become more adjusted to deliberated truths about world affairs.
American spy movies are wonderful sources of entertainment. Their subject-matter initially originated from a simpler time when American power assumed its place as number one. Though spy novels borrow heavily form the crime dramas, they are often more complex while engaging in international hopscotch.
Yet, no review of American spy novels, and their respective adaptations, is complete without first extolling the genre’s indebtedness to a British writer, Ian Fleming—more on Fleming later. Fleming’s James Bond is that quintessential genteel knight who is a suave and daring protagonist. He engages with various sundries of foreigners/enemies (often stereotyped maniacal fiends determined to rule the world), and he exudes an unquenchable appetite for sex.
His type of villain was ideal for a world fixated on Hitler and Stalin. Fleming’s James Bond, however, eventually becomes too formulaic for a more advanced viewing audience. Moreover, audiences build cultural memories on repetition, and too much repetition can render a characteristic laughable.
What is, then, the criteria for a spy movie? While some lists include spoofs on the genre—such as the wonderful Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)—those types are excluded in the list below. Movies such as The Spy Who Shagged Me greatly demonized what happened when the production code of the Bond films became too traditional. Predictability becomes the stuff of comedy. Although well done as a spoof, The Spy Who Shagged Me deserves a treatment not afforded here.
1. Goldfinger (1964), dir. Guy Hamilton
Let’s take a detour toward JAMES BOND, as no spy film list is ever complete without including this legendary spy.
Ian Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, is obviously not the first James Bond movie made. Thus, it is noteworthy that the the development of the Bond character should be credited to Hollywood rather than London.
While every Bond film is based on a novel written by Ian Fleming—a former intelligence officer in the British Navel—the screenplays of all the Bond movies include the involvement of Richard Maibaum, an American who also spent the war years shouting “action” rather than seeing it on the battlefield.
Maibaum served with the army’s film division, but the production company responsible for all the Bond movies was started and owned by Americans. Thus, it is arguable that the framework for creating sensationalism in the James Bond spy films rests on the shoulders of Hollywood. Eon Productions received financing from United Artists to make the first Bond movie: Dr. No (1962).
Nonetheless, the James Bond phenomenon led to several televisions shows that became the fanfare of millions: THE MAN FROM UNCLE, THE SAINT IT, THE AVENGERS, and TAKES A THIEF. Others may have had the cinematic exploits of James Bond, but through television, here were the equivalent characters who takes the audience into flights of fantasy.
2. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), dir. Martin Ritt
Once espionage became an integral part of American foreign policy, all Hollywood needed was a formula, which could create a source of realistic entertainment that fed off the Cold War fears of the audiences. Yet, fear is of something that exists “over there.”
During the 1960s, the Berlin Wall became a fixed point in spy movies. Richard Burton’s portrayal of Alec Leamas established the archetype of the spy who was anything but a James Bond. Instead of wielding fanciful weapons, he wields guile. He is not suave nor debonair. He either hates his enemy or has come to hate what he does. In either case, his manner reflects the ugly business of spying. Bravo to the brutish Oskar Werner who offers a supporting role as Fiedler—a double-agent.
3. The Quiller Memorandum (1966), dir. Michael Anderson
A film that is a bit off the radar screen for most spy film lovers, The Quiller Memorandum is a gem for the genre. Filmed in Berlin, the movie stars George Segal as Quiller. The film was adapted from a series of books written by another British born author, Trevor Dudley Smith, who captures a spy more like Alec Lemaus.
While the Quiller character may be American in this film, he is actually a British in the written series. In the movie, Quiller reveals, “Carrying a gun means you are more likely to be shot.” Quiller relies on his guile to outwit his opponents. His nemesis, Oktober, is played by a younger Max Von Sydow.
This film’s importance should not be missed because it effectively demonstrates what espionage can do to a person while behind enemy lines. Quiller constantly engages in deception, and he trusts no one—even the lovely school teacher with whom he is beguiled (see Senta Berger as Inge Lindt). Finally, Alec Guinness in his role as Pol (the British Station chief) exhibits his disdain for Americanism.
4. Where Eagles Dare (1968), Brian G. Hutton
This movie is noticeably absent on most spy movie lists. It is based on a book by Alistair MacLean who wrote adventure novels. MacLean fought during WWII and enjoyed developing simple characters caught in extraordinary circumstances.
The film stars a very young Clint Eastwood paired with Richard Burton. They pose as German officers deep behind enemy lines. Their mission is to rescue and sabotage, which is definitely not alien fanfare for a spy movie.
The movie is a masterpiece, despite the fact that Germans speak English during the height of the war. Yet that noticeable flaw is overshadowed by the stealthy pair who use every second to advance their mission. The film is fast-paced, yet detailed enough to render any critic surprised at how the filmmakers thwart suspicious eyes of a dignified cast with immaculate costumes.
5. Marathon Man (1976), dir. John Schlesinger
The subject matter of the Marathon Man warrants a treatment for it as a part of the spy genre. Many filmmakers often dismiss the scenario of the hunt for Nazi war criminals and lengths to which those Nazis go for their freedom—some are granted asylum and become Americans, or others work for the CIA in its fight against communism.
Dustin Hoffman’s innocence is part and parcel the viewer’s innocence. The noteworthy dental/torture scene establishes a precedence in as much as it touches on the inhuman medical procedures conducted on Jews in concentration camps.
6. All the President’s Men (1976), dir. Alan J. Pakula
All the President’s Men fits into two main filmic categories: spy and investigative reporting.
Though the film is not always considered a spy movie, the investigative reporting centers around the Watergate scandal that leads to the eventual resignation of President Nixon. The two journalists responsible for the break in the case are portrayed by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford.
7. Salvador (1986), dir. Oliver Stone
A film by Oliver Stone, starring James Woods as Richard Boyle, a freelance photographer who travels to a South American country to cover a civil war. It too is taken from the pages of history.
It is gritty in its portrayal of a war correspondent who gets too close to the action. Heroism has no friend in this type movie. Yet it weaves a yarn that puts it at the forefront of investigative reporting and covert operations.
8. The Hunt for Red October (1990), dir. John McTiernan
In The Hunt for Red October, Alec Baldwin is Jack Ryan. Here Baldwin faces off against a Russian naval officer, Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), who wishes to defect to America while powering a nuclear submarine.
Like all Tom Clancy missions, the story calls for someone with brains and diplomacy, and Ryan is a technologically wise. The character represents the geek generation of spy movies, yet he is not the befuddled Maxwell Smart.
The character Jack Ryan, however, possesses a flippancy in the texts not properly translated into the films. Many fans of Clancy’s novels know that the author was displeased with some of the screen writers’ changes in the latter productions.