Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Indispensibles: The Best 30 Spy Films of All Time


By Wesley Britton

The directory below is not an annotated list of my favorite spy films nor a compilation of the movies that have earned the best reviews and revenues at the box office. Instead, I pulled together what I believe are the most significant spy films based on two things: were they important in some way to the history of the spy genre and are they still enjoyable in today's market?

The movies below are listed in chronological order to avoid any appearance of "ranking."

If readers wish to point out sins of omission or emphasis, I'll gladly add other views as updates to this file. If one of your favorites isn't in this list, check out "VERY HONORABLE MENTIONS: MORE CLASSIC SPY MOVIES" and "NEGLECTED NUGGETS AND OBSCURE CLASICS: COLLECTING RARE SPY FILMS" files also posted at this website.


The 39 Steps (1935)
Notorious (1946)
North by Northwest (1959)

Without question, much of Alfred Hitchcock's canon shaped the entire genre of spy films. He was keenly interested in espionage and drew from important writers like Eric Ambler, W. Somerset Maugham, and John Buchan.

Few would contest The 39 Steps as being the best of his British black-and-white films as it established many of the templates and formulas for spy movies ever afterward. Taking some of his cues from Buchan's 1915 novel, Hitchcock gave us the reluctant amateur drawn into undercover investigations. Robert Donet is Richard Hannay, a loner on the run unable to trust law enforcement and criminals alike. Hitchcock added the character of Pamela Stewart (Madeline Carroll) who is the equally reluctant love interest who strikes early blows for female equality. All these aspects were re-worked in films from Three Days of the Condor to The Bourne Identity. On top of this, the script, style, and dialogue make this film still enjoyable and watchable for any movie fan who doesn't need classics colorized.

Later, Hitchcok's highly-regarded Notorious was considered the best film to come out of the Nazi Spy Cycle of films that ran from 1940 to 1950. The cycle included such films as The Whip Hand (1952) and Orson Welles's The Stranger (1946), a film worthy of an "Honorable Mention" in its own right. For Notorious, Ben Heck's screenplay was a character study of a love affair between a stoic American agent (Cary Grant) and a disreputable daughter of an American Nazi (Ingrid Bergman). The film played on the "patriotic spy" motif with Bergman's Alishia Sebastion claiming such spies wave the flag with one hand while picking pockets with the other. Still, Sebastion worked for her country despite mixed motives and nearly died for her efforts, forced to marry a German agent in Brazil seeking secrets to build an atomic bomb.

Hitchcock worked for simplicity and "reasonable evil" in his story, and his "Macguffan" of uranium ore hidden in wine bottles was a precursor to so many films dealing with atomic menaces. In addition, the themes of changing gender roles and the darkness of the plot were early examples of what would become film noir.

Hitchcock's North By Northwest remains classic cinema beyond any genre description. It's another film with a "Everyman" hero (Cary Grant again) pulled into strange business who becomes enlivened by his experiences. The film features some of the best set pieces in movie history, and some have said the Bond series is but a parody of what Hitchcock created in this contribution to his "Golden Period."

For more Hitch titles, see “Very Honorable Mentions” posted at this website.

The Mask of Dimitrious (1944)

For many, this film based on an Eric Ambler book remains a classic. In particular, Peter Lorre is praised for his role as an author of mystery novels who becomes obsessed with tracking down information on the career of arch-criminal, Dimitrios. Part of Dimitrios' long list of criminal activities includes political assassination for hire. Victor Francen plays master spy Grodek. Excellent script, acting, and direction. (For more on this film, see "From Madman to Icon: A Spy-ography of Peter Lorre" posted at this website.)


House on 92nd Street (1945)

When producers got to work on the quasi-biographical I Was A Communist for the FBI in 1951, they had to admit their far fetched and heavily melodramatic project wouldn't be in the same league as House on 92nd Street. At the time, House was held up as the best documentary style spy movie ever filmed, including newsreel footage inserted to augment the movie's realism. Taking the title from the address of a German spy leader, the story centered on a Federal investigator named George Briggs (Lloyd Nolan) who aids a German student contacted by Nazis. A precursor to similar outings in the 1950s, an atomic bom scientist was a Nazi agent, merging concerns of a war winding down and one about to begin. The production was clearly intended to reassure the American public that J. Edgar Hoover's agents were ready to stop the nefarious hidden threats to America, both those recently past and now beginning to seep up from under the woodwork. Hoover himself made an appearance. Nothing fanciful here, but rather a transitional film that reveals much about a key period in undercover history.


pickup on South Street (1953)

While most spy films of the 1950s were marked by Hollywood's mood of appeasement to the blacklisters in Washington D.C., occasional projects rose above the moralistic propaganda of the era. Director Samuel Fullers Pickup was well above the pack and retains much of its style and watchability for modern DVD viewers.

Pickup is a Brutal New York drama starring Richard Widmark as Skip McCoy, a weazely, "shifty as smoke" petty crook who steals a wallet containing microfilm from Candy (Jean Peters), an inadvertent Communist courier. Thelma Ritter, the over-the-hill police informant MO, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the film. By design, Fuller wanted his "anti-social" types to be human even if they weren't the normal sort of heroes audiences "root for." Skip, Candy, and MO were, in his mind, apolitical, not caring about such matters and were not impressed by FBI agents waving the flag. Critically praised, then and now, this film noir nugget is for those who like gritty, hard-boiled characters from the backstreets who are not international jet setters.


The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

As explored in my Beyond Bond, many films gained unexpected publicity boosts when headlines about contemporary events made Hollywood fare seem prophetic or at least in sync with what was going on in actual espionage. When film director John Frankenheimer finished work on his adaptation of the 1950 Richard Condon novel, the process almost worked in reverse.

In a project that did indeed intentionally warn about ill uses of both science and politics, Lawrence Harvey starred as a Korean War POW who'd been brainwashed to assassinate a Presidential Canidate after his release. Frank Sinatra was the company commander who beat his own brainwashing to figure out the plot. But the landmark film was nearly killed by United Artists who feared the movie about such assassins might pollute the air when President Kennedy scheduled a summit with Soviet Secretary Nikita Kruschev in Geneva. According to Sinatra, the movie was saved when he told studio executives he had just met with Kennedy, then a personal friend, who was enthusiastic about the film. Ironically, the tale about an assassination plot against a U.S. president seemed prophetic when Kennedy later lost his life in Dallas.

Now a staple on cable television and available with many extras on a 2004 DVD edition, The Manchurian Canidate remains popular among film critics.


From Russia With Love (1962)
Thunderball (1965)

For any Bond fan, it's impossible not to think of the first four Connery epics as a whole as they define the entire phenomena. For my money, FRWL and Thunderball are the cream of the crop. Both show 007 as one man against a vast criminal conspiracy where we get inside the plans and designs of Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his SPECTRE. Dr. No and Goldfinger, of course, have much to recommend them. In both, Connery takes on a megalomaniac and his henchmen and, er, hench-women. All of these films are closest to what Ian Fleming wrote, and the closest of all was From Russia With Love, arguably Fleming's best novel.


Charade (1963)

In one of the most influential films of the 1960s, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn starred in director Stanley Donin's admitted homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Charade even managed to outdo Hitchcock in an era when the influential director wasn't faring as well as his imitators. In this case, wanting to make a new North by Northwest,Donin said he wanted a scripbased on aman who didn't exist. Writer Peter Stone provided it.

In the Paris set comedy, Hepburn was Regina Lamford, the widow of a murdered thief who stole a fortune he was supposed to split with four Army buddies and they want it back. They included George Kennedy, wearing a metal hand, and James Coburn as "Tex" before his fame as Derek Flint. Walter Matthau was a character claiming to be Bartholomew, a CIA agent. Grant was a character who has many names before revealing he's a treasury agent in the last scene.

According to critic Barry Paris, "the structure and tone were full of smart dialogue, red herrings, single and double bluffs, and Parisian style." Charade was a surprise hit at the box-office, clearly Donin's biggest hit in his career, breaking all records at Radio City in New York. It was the year's fifth most profitable film, grossing $6.15 million dollars and inspiring a flock of comic thriller imitations with similar titles--Mirage, Caprice, Masquerade, Kaleidoscope, Blindfold. In a decade of considerable dross, Charade stood out and it still does.


The Ipcress File (1965)

The first of the "Harry Palmer" films starring Michael Caine was intended to be very different from the Bond pictures even though its producer, Harry Saltzman, was co-producer of the most popular franchise in movie history. He looked to the Len Deighton novels about an unnamed agent and the results were three movies that all contributed to fictional espionage for various reasons. Funeral in Berlin (1965) emphasized script over special effects, with the final moments pulling together two plotlines leading to the unlikely scene of a thief trying to get into East Berlin instead of the other way around. Billion Dollar Brain (1967) showed how times had changed from the 1950s. Once, the idealistic American general who wanted to instigate World War III would have been praised as a patriot out to blast the Reds. In the more cynical '60s, he was defeated by both British Intelligence and the KGB together as both wanted a contained, limited Cold War.

But Ipcress remains the best of the trilogy as it established Harry Palmer as the antithesis to Bond, an irreverent, ironic, working-class agent who is coerced into government service because of his criminal skills. He'd prefer cooking to spying, doesn't want to spy on weekends, and would prefer not to carry a gun. Director Sidney Furie used experimental techniques to illustrate the eavesdropping nature of espionage including camera angles from under cars and through lampshades. In addition, the scene in which Palmer thinks he's being brain-washed in Albania while actually still being in London set the stage for the formula for mission: Impossible. MI creator Bruce Geller admitted this influence and shaped the concept for sting operations based on what he liked in Ipcress. Beyond all this, the fact the film is character driven with a good script makes it classic viewing even after the end of the Cold War. (For more details, see “From Harry Palmer to Austin Powers: A Spy-ography of Michael Caine” posted at this website.)


Our Man Flint (1965)

During the 1960s, the Americans tried their best to outdo 007. Would-be heroes included Frankie Avalon, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis, Jr. None of them came close to challenging Sean Connery with the possible exception of James Coburn as Derek Flint.

OMF was a lucky blend of factors including the still-beloved music by Jerry Goldsmith, the perfect tone of straight-faced parody in the script, production, and supporting cast, as well as the male ruggedness of the lead. The combination didn't really jell in the sequel, In Like Flint, but the original still makes later efforts like Austin Powers and Spyhard seem like exercises in the redundant.


The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1966)

For nearly forty years, the novels of John Le Carre' have been adapted for the screen, and the results have been uneven at best. When two of his George Smiley books were adapted into scripts, Le Carre' chose to have them turned into TV miniseries. He felt Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People were too complex for a two-hour retelling.

Not so for Spy. When it debuted during the 007 heyday, the film was praised as a gritty anti-dote to the fantasies dominating drive-ins and Saturday afternoon matinees. Uniquely, Spy was a member of a rare breed, a movie that retained the flavor, tone, and spirit of the original novel. In this case, it's difficult to say which is better, the 1962 book or the Richard Burton, Claire Bloom drama about the costs paid by individuals caught up in the plans of bureaucracies that value secrets more than humanity.


On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

I don't know who coined the phrase, but Australian-born George Lazenby was dubbed "the human Bond" for his one contribution to the 007 saga. The unknown actor was helped by a script that was the last attempt to keep close to an Ian Fleming story. In a sense, OHMSS was sandwiched between the two most Moore-like of the Connery vehicles, You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever. Lazenby also benefited from a story that was the only true attempt at giving 007 a human relationship with his female lead, and its hard to imagine a better casting choice than ex-Avenger Diana Rigg. In fact, this film would have been an excellent action-drama no matter what the name of the main character might have been.


The Day of the Jackal (1973)

When it first appeared, director Fred Zinneman's adaptation of the 1971 Frederick Forsythe novel was praised for being a film that kept to the spirit, suspense, and intentions of a book many consider a landmark in espionage fiction. Kenneth Ross's screenplay starred Edward Fox as the "Jackal," a killer out to get French President Charles De Gualle. This cipher, a man of disguise and deception, was tracked by Michel Lonsdale as Detective Claude Lebel who had to work outside of legal constraints and a French cabinet secretly hoping for the "Jackal"s success. Supported by an international cast and location shoots throughout England, France, and Italy, this film brought the assassination thriller into the mainstream. It's remembered for the clever gun "The Jackal" smuggles into France and the duel between two equal opponents, a formula often repeated but rarely, as it were, equaled.


Three Days of the Condor (1975)

director Sidney Pollack's adaptation of James Grady's novel, Six Days of the Condor (1974), can be seen as The 39 Steps of the 1970s. In this case, Robert Redford starred as an enthusiastic, if naïve, CIA researcher. His job was to read adventure literature and journals to find new ideas and uncover possible leaks. Inadvertently, he stumbled across a conspiracy and found himself on the run in an obvious homage to themes from Alfred Hitchcock. Another Hitchcock twist was Redford's pulling an even more reluctant innocent, Faye Dunaway, into his chase, the two becoming partners after Redford convinced the fearful Dunaway about the truth of his circumstances. the story is typical of the '70s in that the hero flees his own agency rather than any international or independent adversary. While the style of the film is clearly dated, Condor is one of the best examples of a shift in movie making, that of looking for the enemy within rather than threats from evil madmen or ruthless Reds.


Marathon Man (1976)

MM was a case where a novel and screenplay were as close as a writer could make them, especially since novelist William Goldman wrote them both. Both projects were seen as setting a new trend in spy fiction, that of a secret agent-turned-vigilante where heroes must act on their own when their organizations refuse to provide justice and retribution in the name of secrecy or agendas they view as more important. The dark, tense film starred Dustin Hoffman as a graduate student preparing for an Olympic marathon. He's haunted by memories of his father who was unfairly hounded into drink and suicide by Congressional hearings during the McCarthy era. Roy Scheider played Hoffman's secret agent brother, "Doc," who worked for a unit called the "Division" which took on jobs "in the gap between what the FBI can't do and what the CIA won't." After Doc's murder, Hoffman was chased and tortured by a Nazi fugitive (Laurence Oliver) who, in the end, left behind a trail of destruction simply to ensure he could safely collect diamonds from a bank without being robbed.

Co-starring Marthe Keller, directed by John Schlesinger, the film is remembered for its clever series of accidents and a notable torture scene in Olivier's dentist chair. The film won the year's Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor (Olivier) who was also nominated for an Academy Award.

Eye of the Needle (1981)

Another Hitchcockian drama--in the sense of suspense and not dark humor. This major motion picture, based on a Ken Follett novel, involved Nazi spy Faber (Donald Sutherland) shipwrecked on a remote English island. Lonely and violent, Faber became involved with Kate Melligan who discovers she's alone with the murderer of her husband and must rely on herself to stop Faber's mission. For most reviewers, Sutherland was chilling in this underrated, Old-fashioned adventure. (For more details, see “Snarling and Skulking: A Spy-ography of Donald Sutherland” also posted at this website.)


Hunt for Red October (1990)
Patriot Games (1992)
Sum of All Fears (2002)

It's well known that one spy-writer who doesn't like Tom Clancy films is Tom Clancy. Of course, his main beef is that Hollywood finds it difficult to streamline his complex novels into workable scripts. That is, if one expects literal adaptations.

Still, three of the Clancy films to date are very decent cinema for different reasons. Director John McTiernan's Hunt for Red October didn't do much for the character of Jack Ryan as played by Alec Baldwin. By all accounts, he was outshined by Sean Connery as
Soviet skipper Marko Ramius. in the film, Connery's sub commander had chosen to defect to preserve the balance of power while Ryan, a CIA annalist, finds his job is to persuade his American bosses not to overreact to what they perceive. At the time, reviewers felt this was a nod to the peace overtures from Russian Premier Gorbochov. The film can be seen as suggesting a promise of healthy revolution in the Soviet Union, the peaceful co-existence between East and West, and a shift in Hollywood as a Russian is the dominant hero in the film. Hunt stands as a significant artifact of its times, and few films with Sean Connery in a strong role loose value as the years pass.

Director Philip Noyce's version of Patriot Games was not on the same level, but was rather a condensed adaptation of the novel becoming essentially a duel between Ryan (Harrison Ford) and vengeful terrorist Sean Miller (Sean Bean). While Clancy thought Ford was too old for the part, audiences liked the Ford version of Ryan, a mature hero concerned with family matters as he protected his pregnant wife, his daughter, and their waterfront home from terrorists. Spies in the Ryan mold were no longer loners out for sexual conquest but were now "Everymen" with responsibilities grounding their purposes and adventures. Still, Ford’s 1994 return in Clear and Present Danger was uneven in audience response as Ryan battled Colombian drug cartels, outsmarted Oval Office conspirators, and told off the president of the United States. The original 1990 novel was one of Clancy’s more layered and complex outings, which made for great literature but not a two-hour drama.

For my money, Sum of All Fears is one of the most under-rated films in the genre and is in some ways the best Clancy film to date. Purists complain that Ryan was deputy director of the CIA in the 1991 book, but in the movie Ben Affleck took Ryan back to being a neophyte CIA analyst. Maybe so, but no film tried as hard to retain the core of Clancy's themes and approaches. In addition, times had changed after 9/11. The plot of terrorists to explode a nuclear bomb at the Super Bowl now had cautionary overtones. While Clancy again grumbled the film was not the same as his book, he sat with director Phil Alden Robinson to share his commentary for the DVD version and grudgingly admitted the film was a good piece of work. It is.


True Lies (1994)

One above average Bondian blend of action-adventure, comedy, and big-budget special effects was director James Cameron's 1994 True Lies. Special agent Harry Tasker (Arnold Swartzeneger)worked for the ultra-secret, heavily technological Omega Sector headed by eye-patch wearing Charlton Heston. Tasker's wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) thinks her husband is a boring computer salesman. While he's infiltrating the "Crimson Jihad," she's being pursued by a car salesman pretending to be a secret agent. Trying to teach her a lesson, Harry inadvertently pulls her into his dangerous world where she proves almost as adept as the 15 year veteran in deceit. By film's end, they've turned into Scarecrow and Mrs. King as both are now an undercover team. Good, clean fun.


Men in Black (1996)

Throughout the history of espionage stories, the importance of science-fiction has been so prevalent that it's often hard to determine what genre to classify certain books, films, and TV shows. As discussed in other files at this website, script-writer Danny Beiderman coined the term, "Spy-Fi," to describe television shows from The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, to the Wild Wild West. Very arguably, the best Roger Moore Bond outing, Moonraker (1979), was an obvious reflection of then popular movies like
Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

MIB, in fact, has many connections to the espionage genre. The film's title came from an actual NSA team of commandos who dress in black paramilitary uniforms and wear special headgear equipped with potent weapons. Film director Barry Sonnenfeld cast Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as “MIB” agents of a shadow organization merging the NSA, CIA, and Immigration and Naturalization Services. In some reviews, the film was seen as using deadpan humor to parody Cold War melodramas like The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide where Secret Agents fought against apocalyptic nuclear war. The writers claimed they had their agents wearing suits and ties as a reference to the television series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. There are plenty of other parodies to choose from and spy-comedy seems a bottomless pit of interest. Few films are as clever, innovative, and entertaining as Men in Black.


Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Careful readers will already have noticed I didn't include either of the Timothy Dalton Bond entries, The Living Daylights (1987) or License to Kill (1989). For the record, I thought Dalton was a very worthy actor to pick up the mantle, and his desire to bring back Flemingesque aspects to the series was more than welcome. But the scripts seemed, to me, missed opportunities. Well, this is a discussion for another place.

Pierce Brosnon's debut in Goldeneye (1995) justly brought with it renewed excitement for the franchise. For my tastes, this new energy was best manifested in TND largely because Jonathan Price's Elliott Carver was a bad guy in the best Bond tradition. But he was a modern villain, a man who sought world domination in the form of profit and media control. Because of this new twist, the film had a touch of prophecy. In April 2001, a Red Chinese jet hit an American Navy spy plane working for the NSA over the China Sea, an incident reminiscent of the opening scenes in Tomorrow Never Dies. Elliott Carver had wanted to start a war between China and the U.S. by staging just such a confrontation to boost the ratings of his new CNN-like network.

In TND, we saw more of the new female "M" (Judy Dench), Bond operating in a terrorist weapons camp, and we saw poor Q witnessing first hand the destruction of one of his cherished special cars. In fact, the film was packed with everything any fan of Bond adventures love. Die Another Day (2002) tried to top it, and I imagine there are those who think it did. Very well, add DAD to your list. Bond girls, guns, and gadgets are forever.


Enemy of the State (1998)

Director Tony Scott's prophetic 1998 film resonates with contemporary themes now even more than when it was originally released. Written by David Marconi and starring Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, and Lisa Bonet, the film opens with legislation being
Proposed to expand governmental surveillance powers. The NSA has a rogue element willing to kill those who seek to block these plans, and Smith becomes the film's "innocent" civilian drawn into the schemes with bugging devices planted in his house, phone, and clothes. Gene Hackman plays an independent electronics expert who helps Smith fight fire with fire.

The intelligent script clearly reflected its agenda of warning in the dialogue, situations, and "Mission: Impossible"-like use of electronic gadgetry. Enemy works as an above-average cinematic thriller, but its depth makes it a film for the 21st Century when debates over civil liberties vs. intelligence gathering remain fresh in news headlines. This one should have a long shelf life.


Spy Game (2001)

Tony Scott returned to the spy biz with Spy Game starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. By any standard, this is one of the best espionage films ever made and certainly the best at trying to capture the history of the CIA--far better than 2006's The Good Shepard. The film is grounded in realism, human relationships, and a scope far beyond what most other films even attempt. On top of all this, the art direction in Spy Game was innovative as Scott filmed flashbacks in the style of movies from different time periods. For example, the Vietnam sequences were edited to look black-and-white with a green tint. The Berlin of the 1980s was filmed with the enhanced colors characteristic of movies of the era.

In his DVD commentary, Scott pointed to the father-son relationship of the Redford-Pitt characters as the central theme of the movie, a very different spin on the learned mentor-wise-ass novice motif in other films. In this story, Redford sacrificed his life savings to go around the agency on his last day of work to get Pitt out of prison. On another level, Spy Game was one of the first espionage films to feel the impact of 9/11. Spy Game's climactic moment involved a suicide bomber bringing down a building in Beirut, so Scott found he needed to make the scene "less operatic" and mor linear. Screenings 10 days after 9/11 showed audience response even more favorable than before, although Scott speculated for a few seconds, audiences would be out of the movie, thinking on its parallels to recent events. For a brief time, Universal held off release of the film, but all Hollywood quickly saw audiences were quickly rebounding from the images of the Trade Towers collapse. But the thought that went into the production on all levels paid off in a film that is artistic, fast-paced, and very human.


The Bourne Identity (2002)
The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

Like many movies based on popular novels, director Doug Liman's version of the Robert Ludlum classic suffered most criticism from purists who don't like Hollywood taking liberties with sacred texts. In many cases, keepers of literary flames have a point. In this situation, former independent producer Liman took on the project for his own love of the book and gained support from Ludlum, taking five years to make the Matt Damon vehicle a reality. He kept the premise of Ludlum's book, that of a secret agent with amnesia, but added many details based on his knowledge of the Iran-Contra affairs of the Reagan administration.

Liman must be credited with a screenplay emphasizing character development and drama first, action second. While the director doesn't like the term "thinking man's spy," he stressed the fights in the film were character driven, as Damon's Jason Bourne had to discover his skills even though he didn't know where they came from. To demonstrate mind over fists, Damon tore a map off a wall and consulted it before a getaway. In promotions for the film, Damon pointed to this as an example of the quality of the script--most secret agents just jump in a car and race off as if they know where they're going. Filmed in seven countries, including Hungary, Italy, and France, the attention to detail gave the film's series of settings a level of realism unneeded in other blockbusters where explosions and allegedly witty dialogue are the point. But, of course, connections to past masters remain obvious. Bourne and Maria (Adewale Akinnuoye-Adbeje) are but the newest pair in the tradition of The 39 Steps, a reluctant couple pulled into matters far removed from ordinary life.

In various interviews publicizing the 2004 The Bourne Supremacy, Damon claimed there had been no plans for a sequel after the release of the first Bourne film. However, he liked the script for the follow-up saying the first movie was a story of "Who am I" and the second, "How did all this begin?" Shot in Moscow, Berlin, and Italy, Supremacy had nothing to do with the Ludlum book beyond the title and lead character. But critics still praised it as one of the best action-adventure releases of the summer. In this version, Bourne seeks to find out why his wife, Maria, was killed while the CIA tracked him down, believing he'd killed two agents in Berlin. In the end, Bourne and the agency alike learned he'd been framed and Bourne discovered the origins of his clandestine identity. Earning $53 million its first weekend, the film was said to be the highest-grossing spy film ever in its first week.


Spartan (2003)

The highly-praised, if under watched Spartan deserves special recognition for writer-director David Mammet's script and the thoughtful character portrayals by Val Kilmer and the rest of this well-chosen cast. In this story of a President's daughter kidnapped and sent into white slavery, "nameless agents in nameless organizations" are called on to do the nation's business and are often on their own knowing their missions are unsanctioned and their orders only inferred and not stated. This theme was underlined in the unspecified situations in the film. For example, it's never stated the missing girl is the President's daughter but only hinted at in the discussion over her missing Secret Service protection and the cover-up that results.

The values in the film, according to Val Kilmer, are carried by the "nameless agents" who are efficent, poised, mentally and physically tough, and who expect to die in service to their country. True, the story included obligatory scenes as when the younger disciple has information his experienced mentor doesn't. But, in Kilmer's view, the movie showed what spies must act like in today's world, often out in the cold whether they play by the book or act in ways both illegal and not officially sanctioned.


Casino Royale (2006)

How long has it been since a Bond film has been lavished with so many accolades? Audience and critical favor clearly signaled EON hit on something hot--resulting in the historical number of 9 BAFTA nominations.

Daniel Craig was the first Bond nominated for his role followed by:

THE ALEXANDER KORDA AWARD for the Outstanding British Film of the Year
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Neal Purvis/Robert Wade/Paul Haggis
THE ANTHONY ASQUITH AWARD for Achievement in Film Music: David Arnold
EDITING: Stuart Baird
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Peter Lamont/Simon Wakefield
SOUND: Chris Munro/Eddy Joseph/Mike Prestwood Smith/Martin Cantwell/Mark Taylor

These honors are but part of the response to what many feel was the best Bond of all. Simple said—more, please!

To read related articles, check out:


HAL said...

Dr. B.,

With all due respect, I think you missed a few, and it depends on what activities one considers this trade to be comprised of....

Two others might be:

Funeral in Berlin - Harry's best work. And believable, compared to the others.

RONIN - Actual craft. 'Bob' at his best (yes, double/triple meaning intended).

Anyway, for your consideration.


Unknown said...

A true shopping mall movie and a hopeless attempt to inject new life in a long-dead series, Die Hard 4.0 feels as though it began most of its life as a totally unrelated thriller before someone decided to change the main character's name to John McLane at the last minute. Even twenty years on, the original remains the strongest, most exciting action thriller of all time, but this is extremely bland and totally anonymous in comparison, lacking even the character of the flawed second and third instalments.

buy mini sd

matthewmeridian said...

The Conversation
2 more great ones for this awesome list.

Joel T. Hutton said...

I'll second Hal on Ronin. Great plot, acting, action, and Frankenheimer car scenes. All of the beauty of old Europe (hello, Bond fans) for a backdrop with a great international cast has to get this into the top ten, much less the top thirty.

A more recent movie that deserves a nod: Body of Lies. The cold war is over but the war on terror is as hot as ever. Great acting from great actors: DiCaprio and Crowe. If you're going to add Spy Game or Enemy of the State, how can you not add this one.



Summer said...

Great list. I would add Parallax View (1974). The not-so-sublimal branwashing movie they show him is a classic.

Otto said...

Tiki Oasis 12, aka TO0012, is SPY themed
Check it out

check out videos of Tiki Oasis 11 here:

winedoctor said...

Don't forget the George Smiley stuff, starring Alec Guinness. BBC made for TV, but right up there withthe best movies - easily!

Anna said...

A Man Called Intrepid is by far the best spy movie of all time. Mini-series, very hard to find

Anna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr Wombat said...

Lovely list, and I certainly accept that lists of this type cannot be definitive thanks to their innate subjectivity, it is a wonderful starting point.

I think TV mini-series should be included in discussions around espionage films, not least because I agree with Le Carre's view that trying to take the finest espionage fiction to the screen is a tough ask for a 90 minute film.

Certainly the BBC's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a vastly superior iteration of the novel than is the movie.

The genre at a book and film or tv series level is fascinating though, and apart from the BBC's TTSP and Smiley's People, I'd recommend The Polish Officer (David tennant plays the lead role and the series is very good) and a surprise techno-thriller from Australia called The Code (trailer here) which is built around a conspiracy involving Australia's secret agencies, politicians, an autistic computer hacker (superb acting here) and an on-line newspaper reporter.

Unknown said...

Oh spy movies are usually good I have few favorites. Men in Black, Enemy of the State, Spartan, I will also watch some of the older movies. Here is also where to watch movies online 2015 Check the best sites for movie online watching.

rmstock said...

The House on Carroll Street (1988)
by Peter Yates

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