With another appearance for 007 coming soon in Sam Mendes’ Spectre and a host of other new releases including Kingsman: The Secret Service and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, there wouldn’t seem to be a pressing need for any other secret-agent movies. But the film industry clearly sees things differently: 2015 is the year of the Bond wannabes, with espionage capers coming along almost as regularly as superhero blockbusters. Perhaps the producers assume that we are so excited by the prospect of another official Bond outing that we’ll pay to see anything vaguely spy related…
Or, perhaps it’s because – remedies for current, real-world concerns about surveillance – spy films are an exciting and rarefied breed, combining the darkness and moral ambiguity of film noir with the gunplay of the action thriller – double-crosses and dead drops thrown in for good measure. Of course, Bond is the most visible agent of the genre, but he wasn’t the first – and he probably won’t be the last. From the dark intrigue of Le Carré to the farce of Austin Powers, we reveal our top twenty list of espionage capers that everyone needs to watch.
North by Northwest (1959)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Finding Cary Grant as one of the original Mad Men, pursued by spies after he’s mistaken for a government agent, he ends up joining forces with Eva Marie Saint’s mysterious character up until the henchmen close in on him, resulting in the climax on Mount Rushmore with a sequence of nail-biting events. If you haven’t seen North by Northwest, you’re in for an amazing ride. It’s Hitchcock at his slickest, playing on the fear of having nowhere to hide. Grant is a leading man so assured he makes James Bond look insecure, Saint a love interest with unbeatable charisma, and Bernard Hermann’s wild score the icing on the ’50s cake.
True Lies (1994)
Director: James Cameron
James Cameron re-invented Arnie as a tango-ing schizoid spymaster, boring Jamie Lee Curtis by day and James-Bonding with Tom Arnold by night. Simultaneously, Cameron re-invented the action movie, slotting cringe-worthy domestic farce among the relentless mayhem. Nuclear bombs have never been so fun.
Casino Royale (2006)
Director: Martin Campbell
After receiving a license to kill, Bond heads to Madagascar to topple Le Chiffre’s terrorist organization. Easily the best Bond since Connery, Craig was inspired casting. He brings a serious actor’s ability to an unserious part and brings out the playfulness, yet never sends it up. Casino Royale is ridiculously enjoyable because the smirking and the gadgets have been cut back – and the emotion and wholesome sado-masochism have been pumped up.
The Lives of Others (2006)
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
In 1983 East Berlin, Stasi officer Wiesler receives approval to spy on one man and his lover. Wiesler becomes sympathetic to the couple, but faces conflicting loyalties when his boss takes a liking to Christa-Maria. The flick takes us back to a repressive state of mind with clear-cut accuracy. The authenticity of von Donnersmarck’s world never feels anything other than real; oppressive architecture looms in the background, Ulrich Mühe is cast perfectly as Wiesler, and the beautiful tale of humanity reminds us that a human mind can only be controlled for a finite amount of time.
Director: Steven Spielberg
After the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and their coach at the 1972 Olympics, the Israeli government secretly assigns Avner Kaufman to carry out a series of strategic retaliations. With the help of a driver, a forger, a bomb-maker and a former soldier, the assassinations pile up, and Avner begins to doubt the morality of his actions. Munich is more classy than Spielberg’s action-adventures. It refuses to pick sides, resonating in unsettling ways, with Spielberg excellently conveying the toll taken on his subjects’ souls.
Eye of the Needle (1981)
Director: Richard Marquand
Set during wartime, a German spy named Faber is trying to get out of Britain with vital information about D-Day, and must spend time with a young woman who soon discovers she’s alone with the murderer of her crippled husband. In other words, it’s the Donald-Sutherland-as-Nazi-spy-stiletto-stabbing-sociopath we always needed but never knew existed. An oft-neglected minor classic from a hugely gifted director, Eye of the Needle epitomizes the spy-versus-spy battles that take place every day without the public’s knowledge. It’s a Hitchcockian drama in terms of suspense, loneliness, and violence – and Sutherland is chilling to the bone.
Director: John Frankenheimer
A briefcase with undisclosed contents makes its way into criminals’ hands and an Irish squad of mercenaries are employed to recover the case. But the team – Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Stellan Skarsgard and Sean Bean – mistrusts one another. De Niro has made some stinkers near the twilight of his career. This, however, is up there behind Casino, Goodfellas and Heat as the best thing he did in the nineties, proving he still has what it takes when given the proper material to work with. Frankenheimer’s use of the camera is stylish and incredible.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
Director: Jay Roach
A world-class playboy and part-time special agent, Powers is defrosted after 30 years in a cryogenic freeze to match wits with his nemesis, Dr. Evil. An affectionate spoof, it’s a funny movie that only gets funnier the more familiar you are with the Bond movies, all the Bond clones and countless other 1960s films. The joke is that both Powers and Dr. Evil are creatures of the ’60s, and time has passed them by. It’s pretty groovy.
The Bourne Identity (2002)
Director: Doug Liman
When he recuperates from near death, Bourne suffers from amnesia and all that remains is his range of awesome talents in fighting that speak of a dangerous past. He sets out on a search to discover who he really is and why there’s a bounty on his head. One thing author Robert Ludlum was good at was keeping the action moving, and the film version of his novel would doubtless make him proud; there’s no point in the flick where we actually care much who Bourne was before he lost his memory, we’re just interested in finding out how he’s going to punch himself out of each sticky situation. With this comes some leap-out-of-your-seat suspense scenes.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
Director: Martin Ritt
British Cold War spy Alec Leamas poses as a drunken, disgraced former MI5 agent in East Germany and gets information about colleagues who have been captured. When he’s thrown in jail and interrogated, Leamas finds himself caught in a sinister labyrinth of plots and counter-plots. John Le Carré’s novel about betrayal and disillusionment in the world of East/West espionage is treated by Ritt with great intelligence, while Richard Burton gives one of his best screen performances as the spy out to get even with an East German counterpart. What impresses most is the seediness of the film, with characters, buildings, and landscapes lent a convincingly grubby life by Oswald Morris’ excellent camera skills.
Dr. No (1962)
Director: Terence Young
In the film that launched the saga, Connery battles mysterious Dr. No, a scientific genius bent on destroying the U.S. space program. It’s our remarkable first introduction to Bond at the gaming tables, lighting a cigarette and then telling us his name: “Bond, James Bond”. It’s a spy thriller with a tough, charming hero doing his job without all the eye-popping gadgetry. He pursues women, but doesn’t attract them as if he possessed some magical power. He’s confident, not arrogant. And Ken Adam well and truly cements himself as one of the greatest production designers in the history of cinema.
Mission: Impossible II (2000)
Director: John Woo
This time Ethan Hunt leads his IMF team on a mission to capture a deadly German virus before it’s released by terrorists. His mission is made impossible due to the fact that he is not the only person after samples of the disease. A sleek, hugely entertaining update of the vintage TV show, it’s a ludicrous, but mostly fun, sometimes even smart postscript to a genre that went out of fashion with the Cold War. Woo flexes his muscles as a virtuoso puppet-master, pulling the strings taut in a every sequence, switching from scene to scene with Hitchcockian swag, and letting rip with a hell-for-leather climax like no other.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)
Director: Tomas Alfredson
In 1970s England the head of MI6 dispatches an agent to meet with a Hungarian general who knows the identity of a Soviet spy in the organization’s ranks. The mission goes wrong, and the general dies before he can reveal the information. Based on the John Le Carré novel, Tinker Tailor is certainly a treat for the more patient viewers. Something about Gary Oldman just fits the film like a glove. His glasses, suit and hairstyle defines both his character and the overall aesthetic of the film. Either watch this to fall asleep or watch this for the slick cinematography and the engaging yet puzzling plot.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)
Director: Doug Liman
John and Jane (that’s Brangelina to you) live a mundane, married existence. However, each has been hiding a secret from the other: they’re assassins. When they’re both assigned to kill the same target, the truth comes to the surface (as does a lot of explosive sexual tension). It’s a flick that works on almost every level and against all odds. Although not exactly the cosmopolitan comedy we could have expected from director Doug “Swingers” Liman, it’s a great satirical metaphor about the secrets of married life with two very attractive leads.
The Ipcress File (1965)
Director: Sidney J. Furie
Tasked with investigating the kidnappings and brainwashed reappearances of top scientists, British spy Harry Palmer navigates his way through criminals, secret agents, and his superiors until he discovers an ominous piece of evidence. The plot is a mild headache of deceit that glides stylishly; cinematographer Otto Heller summons up Palmer’s disorientation and alienation with weird, oblique angles; Michael Caine’s star-quality in front of the camera is fully formed.
Director: Phillip Noyce
When Evelyn Salt became a CIA officer, she swore an oath to her country. But, when a defector accuses her of being a Russian spy, Salt’s oath is put to the test. Now a fugitive, she must use every skill gained from years of training and experience to evade capture, but the more she tries to prove her innocence, the more guilty she seems. It’s smart, subversive and knocked out with such verve and attack that you’re not in the least bit bothered by how far-fetched it all is. Jolie aces the famously gender-bendered role originally earmarked for Tom Cruise.
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Director: John McTiernan
Based on the Tom Clancy novel, the movie tracks Soviet submarine captain Ramius as he abandons his orders and heads for the east coast of the United States. CIA agent Jack Ryan sets out to determine Ramius’ motives, fearing he may launch an attack on the U.S. Many thrillers set in the Cold War period rely on stereotyping and over-the-top motivations to move their stories along. This one is much more fun by suggesting how easily men can go wrong, how false assumptions can seem seductive, and how enormous consequences can sometimes hang by slender threads.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
Director: Guy Ritchie
A mysterious criminal organization plans to use nuclear weapons and technology to upset the fragile balance of power between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War – Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer must work together to stop the evildoers in their tracks. Who knows if anyone was clamoring for a movie version of the ’60s TV show, but The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a surprisingly entertaining sandbox for director Guy Ritchie to play in. It’s a smart comedy that replaces the dated campiness with effortless cool, and dresses it in slick ’60s period detail.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Director: George Clooney
Game show television producer Chuck Barris is at the height of his career. But what the public and industry big-wigs are unaware of is that Barris is also a covert assassin. Zipping between nearly three decades, fantasy and reality – without ever really deciding how seriously it wants to take itself – the film includes some pretty neat touches, like having Brad Pitt and Matt Damon lose out in “The Dating Game” to a clumsy slob who later shows up as a double agent. Clooney’s directorial debut is a massive success, bouncing around like the smarter and weirder older brother of Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can.
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Director: Sydney Pollack
CIA codebreaker Joe Turner walks into his workplace and finds that all of his co-workers have been murdered, soon learning that his bosses were involved. With a hitman on his tail, he must somehow figure out why his own agency wants him dead. Aside from the cheesy jazz and horrible romantic interlude, this flick is terrific. The movie was perfectly timed in the sense that it was realized right after the Watergate Scandal and – at it’s best moments – it creates that scary sense of isolation within which government agencies can operate with total immunity.
In case you missed it, be sure to check out the best gangster movies of all time.
- Author: Sarah Gibson for Highsnobiety.com