Skip to content

The 25 Best Spy Movies of All Time

18 September 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Kevin Stewart

best spy movies

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

Goldfinger

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

The-Spy-Who-Came-In-From-the-Cold

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

The Quiller Memorandum

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

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

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

Marathon Man (1976)

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_Presidents_Men

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

salvador-1986

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

The Hunt for Red October

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.

 

 

Pages: 1 2 3


   

Other Brilliant Movie Posts On The Web
   

Like Our Facebook Page and Get Daily Updates
   
  • Ted Wolf

    maybe great spy movies from the cold war era on? 13 rue madeline is missing as is 5 Fingers, ministry of fear and the 39 steps.

  • Jeffrey Westhoff

    “The Saint” TV show and “Dr. No” premiered within days of each other, so Simon Templar’s television exploits would have existed without Bond, though later episodes that veered into espionage were influenced by the Bond films, and the two-part “The Fiction Makers” was a Bond spoof.

    In Adam Hall’s Quiller novels, Quiller is most definitely a British operative, and the casting of American George Segal in “The Quiller Memorandum” has soured fans of the character on the film. The author hated it, though acknowledges it wasn’t as bad as the British TV show of the 1970s.

    Any list of great spy films must include Carol Reed’s “Our Man in Havana.”

    • dannyR

      I never pay any attention whatsoever to what an author wrote; or how they received a movie version. It becomes the brainchild of the screenwriter and director. It’s its own thing.

      • Jagi

        Why are you on this website then?

  • vance9281

    In #`18, this expression occurs:”It is spy-orientated…” This is a usage blunder that would not happen with a good writer and a decent editor would have caught & removed it. The correct way to say this is “..spy-oriented.”

    “Orientated” is not a word, it is a back formation from the word orientation. To find one’s bearings, one can orient himself. One does not orientate.

  • Daniel Krone

    I’ve never thought of “All the President’s Men” or “The Girl with the Dragoon Tatoo” as spy movies. I like the films on this list but some I don’t feel fit this category well. That’s just me but I dig the list over all.

  • vance9281

    The list has major flaws. The Bond films are not spy stories, they are frothy entertainment with beautiful women and lots of explosions. All The President’s Men does not belong on the list. It is a political thriller but not about espionage. JFK is a joke and an indicator that the author has a poor grasp of what makes a good movie and what makes a spy movie a spy movie. It is also an indicator that Oliver Stone is a moron.

    The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a mystery, not a spy story. Please learn the difference.

    Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is OK, but not a “need to watch” movie. The BBC television series with Alec Guinness, however, is must see TV.

    Films that should have been on the list:

    The Manchurian Candidate
    Notorious
    The Third Man
    The Lives Of Others
    The Good Shepherd
    39 Steps (a movie that real spies & ex-spies love)

    • Kevin Stewart

      While I appreciates your grammatical points below, I take exception to your characterizing Bond films as “not spy stories”. Indeed we share the sentiments that they dwindled to becoming side-show like entertainments and I so much as stated that above. However, your labeling Oliver Stone a moron, strikes me as a straw-man fallacy. What opinion you hold of man should have little bearing on what you think of the genre of the movie JFK. Oftentimes elaborate tales like this become attacked and dismissed as “conspiracy theories”. Hence, I find it very befitting as a spy movie.

    • Kevin Stewart

      The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fits because of it reliance on technology and adept investigative techniques. Film and genres are not static. They evolve. Granted I did not see the remake and base my review on the original. I knew it would be perceived as a stretch but because I feel spies pose as journalist and journalist often encounter spies who try to thwart their efforts to unearth government secrets, I also list SALVADOR AND ALL THE KINGS MEN. These are thrillers, yet thrillers are multi-faceted. I dare say, your sensibilities may become out of step with history as the genre continues to evolve.

    • LH

      Well, according to you there aren’t many pure spy films out there so that makes Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy a MUST WATCH spy movie.

    • Stephus

      You’re absolutely right and those movies you chose on your list are better than some of the spy movies on the list

  • Andrés Borda

    What happened to The Lives of Others?

  • HayHay66

    Very week script, should have been listed as political thrillers, not spy movies. Less than half the films listed include a spy, Devil’s Own ?

    • Kevin Stewart

      Whereas I took a degree of liberty in my definition of spying, I went only so far as that of espionage. Since Brad Pitt plays the role of a member of the IRA where he travels to America to secure weapons, I consider him a spy or at least to be engaged in espionage. He is gathering infromation and it is in a very clandestine manner. Not only does he reside with an unsuspecting police officer (who SYMBOLIZES THE STATE OR GOVERNMENT) but he is being pursued by a killer posing as law enforcement. These attributes make it a political thriller (yes) however it segues into spy waters as does the various characters.

  • michael1968

    Sneakers, Three Days Of The Condor, The Lives Of Others in place of all the Bond films.

  • Arbait Arbaits

    The list is made ​​by an incompetent and a poorly read person, it is impossible to trust his judgments.
    Examples: Everywhere in the article the name The Mossad (Hebrew: [ha moˈsad]; Arabic: al-Mōsād, , short for HaMossad leModiʿin uleTafkidim Meyuḥadim (meaning “Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations” is misspelled. We have „Massoud” (17 Munich (2005), Massad (23 The Debt (2010)…
    We also find that „The state Israel usually has the position of the victim, and agents are typically mercenaries sent to seek revenge for a wrong done to the Jews.” WHAT?! Mossad strength is precisely that it does not rely on mercenaries!
    Kevin, dear, immediately go to the library and read a book, at least…

    • Kevin Stewart

      How many ways can you spell Muammear Gaddifi (Kadafi? )? Often those of us in the west are left at how so-called authorities spell names and words that originate in foreign lands. My variables on the spelling Mossad is a series of editing errs and does not negate my premise. Your comment seems to speak from the inside as an authority. How would you know the “strengths of Mossad unless you have direct knowledge?
      My lists is speculative however it advances rather than stifles interpretation. Recently the Presbyterian Church USA has published a catalog reexamining Israel’s activities in Gaza. It has become the first denomination in USA history to engage in disinvestment from companies that do business with Israel. I doubt that very many fans of movies that focus on matters of state (fictitious and real on Israel) bother to read as much as I have. I read into both THE DEBT and MUNICH revenge plots. These fictitious accounts borrow from a political history that is rather indicative of a nation that maintains victimization status at the expensive of its more nefarious past on the international scene.

    • dannyR

      This is a typographical shambles.

  • Big Ulf

    These film are all way too new.

  • Fernando Arenas

    I disagree with Mr. Stewart´s rationale of the genre´s evolution to justify the inclusion of films that are not about spies but rather other kinds of mysteries or thrillers. The Lives of Others, as pointed out, is one which should have been here. In any case, I´m glad this list is here. If you were going to add TV series, I´d suggest two British ones: The Sandbaggers (1978-80) and Secret Army (1977-1979), in addition to th one vance9281 suggests.

    • Michelle Clark

      Ahhh….the Sandbaggers, definitely not for everyone, but it is gold, in its own nature.

  • Kevin Stewart
  • Jeffrey Wilsey

    They could do a “Top 10 Hitchcock Spy Films” list if so inclined

  • Matthew Benbenek

    Harry Palmer films are missing, especally the The Ipcress Files

  • Emre Ozkoca

    Enemy of the state was directed by Tony Scott not David Marconi

  • Mark Spencer

    Poor list. Some of these movies are not spy movies. Where is ‘The Lives of Others’, ‘Breach’ etc?

  • Brian Lussier

    What the fuck?!! A bunch of these aren’t spy films at all, but some elements about them qualify. But come on! JFK?!?! What the hell was that about?! Just because the film deals with paranoia does not make it a spy film in the least! It’s a biopic!

    • Dave Anderson

      JFK is NOT a biopic. But I do agree That some of these choices are not spy films.

  • Alex Simpson

    Poor and very badly written list. Various films don’t belong and Mr Stewart’s exhortations that they belong because he is engaging in some sort of ground-breaking genre realignment and that others holding alternative views are somehow less visionary than he is, quite simply, vapid.

    The early Bond films would be better represented by From Russia With Love given that it actually involves espionage (and isn’t completely removed from the book as Goldfinger is).

  • Ivan Galić

    This list… I cant believe this list… No Three Days of The Condor, No Way Out, North by Northwest, The Manchurian Candidate, Eye of the Needle, Tailor of Panama, Nikita… I mean… How can you not put these. These are classics…

  • James

    I would argue that photojournalism is not the same as spying, despite its nature to ‘uncover’. Uncovering a certain subject for the good of humanity or the betterment of life for a particular people is not the same as covertly gathering information on a foreign governement, or spying on a population for the sake of maintaining power. For this reason I would swap Salvador for something else, maybe The Lives of Others. I would also swap All the President’s Men for Funeral in Berlin, which is worth watching for its PURE spy content and location – Berlin during the Cold War.

  • eagleye

    The Day of the Jackal

  • Caomh Mc Gillion

    and where’s Goldeneye?

  • redjellydonut

    The brutish spy is Mundt, not Fiedler. Fiedler is the loyal communist, compassionate and reasonable. And Mundt, the actual double agent, is played by Peter van Eyck. Oskar Werner was fantastic though.

  • S&A

    ‘The long standing battle over Irish independence from Great Britain had been often overlooked and left the American public ignorant of the struggles and particulars of the IRA’.

    It’s funny you should talk about ignorance.

    The ‘struggle for Irish independence’ ended in 1922 with the establishment of the Irish Free State, subsequently the Republic of Ireland.

    The Provisional IRA’s campaign from 1969 was fought to unify Northern Ireland with the Republic, despite the fact that the majority within NI wanted to stay in the UK.

    The Provisional IRA’s campaign was opposed not only by the Irish government itself, but also even by a substantial number of Northern Irish Catholics disgusted with its violence.

    It’s attitudes like yours which explains why PIRA’s apologists were able to get a hearing stateside for so long.

  • Ozz Wald

    Mis singular
    The falcon and the snowman
    The jackal

    • Dave Anderson

      Reservoir Dogs??? You don’t know what a spy film is either.

  • Patrick Hill

    Like some obscure choices and while impossible to please everyone, it has the merit of presenting a few less known film.

    As a side note, you should hire more proof-readers, or with better grammar skills, there are so many glaring mistakes, and that unfortunately does not reflect well for such a site, or any site for that matter.

  • JohnDoe5

    The list isn’t bad, except I didn’t like Tinker at all (probably had too high expectations, but may I suggest ‘No Way Out’, a not-so-direct spy movie for consideration?

  • Cygnifier

    Where’s the love for Hitchcock? Notorious, North by Northwest, and The 39 Steps are exceptional spy films — and given that The Man Who Knew Too Much (both of them) starts with a secret agent revealing news of an assassination he has uncovered, it fits well enough. Notorious, North by Northwest, and the 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much are definitely American films (if that is what you are listing — you say so in the introduction, but then include Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which isn’t exactly a spy movie, but then neither is All the President’s Men). Some people have added in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, which while a thriller is actually not a spy film — Harry Lime is not a spy, he is stealing/smuggling pharmaceuticals ( I just saw the 4K restoration of The Third Man — it is stunning and definitely worth seeking out on the big screen, even if it isn’t a spy movie!). More recent spy films of note would include Zero Dark Thirty and Syriana.

  • Arka Roy Chowdhury

    Day of the Jackal…..???

  • acpie360

    Night Flight from Moscow (aka Le Serpent)

  • dannyR

    Quiller scene sticks in my mind:

    Quiller is strapped into a chair (as in the picture above).

    “How do you feel now?”
    Great!!” hollers Segal, and crashes backward in the chair.

  • crackdennumber1

    Let’s face it..A list of spy movies made by someone who doesn’t watch spy movies….

  • Stephus

    Skyfall??? Seriously??

  • I gotta say: I don’t get this list at all. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold—yes—but then you’re just listing drek.

  • what about three days of condor where the hell is three days of condor man ! c;mon !

  • Jacob Kilgannon

    This list is missing 3 Days of Condor. Amazing film, and definitely a classic spy film.