Movies & TV

The 10 Greatest Spy Films of All Time

The espionage movies every man should watch

In the 1965 film The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Richard Burton's disgruntled secret intelligence officer Alec Leamas offers a choice appraisal of his profession: "What the hell do you think spies are? Model philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not. They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me…civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten up their rotten little lives."

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Based on the book by John le Carré, Leamas is one of the many less-than-glamorous spies that populate the author's work and their adaptations, from an out-dated, out-numbered and out of style Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to a haggard Philip Seymour Hoffman, giving one of his final (and greatest) performances as a German intelligence officer in this week's A Most Wanted Man.

Here we've collated our favorite spy films of all time, from le Carré-style gritty realism to the outlandish espionage fantasies of Jason Bourne and (of course) James Bond, meaning there is something there for everyone—wherever your allegiances lie.

10| The Ipcress File (1965)

"Harry Palmer] had my attitude to authority: screw it, I'll do it my way and get it right. A rebel." So said the great Sir Michael Caine during a recent interview with Esquire, and we'd have to agree that he's on to something. For Palmer, service in the MOD is a penance of sorts for his criminal exploits while in the British Army, rather than a career plan. Released in the same year as Sean Connery's fourth Bond outing, Thunderball, Caine's Harry Palmer is the anti-007. 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. Name. Is. Harry. Palmer!"


9| No Way Out (1987)

The voice-over in the trailer for Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman's thriller about a U.S. 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 blame for his promiscuous wife's murder away from himself and on to a rumored 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 genre" 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 this year's lacklustre Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, this is the film to watch to see Costner playing the spy game properly.

8| The Bourne Identity (2002)

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. Jeremy Renner has since taken on the franchise, but with Damon claiming he's willing to return, let's hope it's not long before the original – and best – forgetful secret agent is back in action.

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7| Notorious (1946)

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 certain spy with a penchant for bow ties and tuxedos by almost twenty years.

6| Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Almost deserving of its place on this list because of its style alone (those suits, that knitwear, that peacoat) Sydney Pollack's 1975 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.

5| From Russia With Love (1964)

Of course we're not saying 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 Shaw). From poisoned toe-spikes to taking down a helicopter with a rifle cobbled together from a briefcase, this is the film that set the tone for Bond films to come. The best scene of course is Bond's tense after-dinner fight with Red Grant aboard the Orient Express, followed by Bond's pithy one-liner as he takes in the body of the dead Russian, "Red wine with fish. I should have known."


4| Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar winning exploration of the CIA's obsessive hunt for Osama Bin Laden made a star of Jessica Chastain and was celebrated as one of the most intelligent spy thrillers of all time. Like Homeland turned up to eleven, Zero Dark Thirty brought the reality of torture, military base bombings and al Qaeda to a viewing public that had only previously read about them in broadsheets and limited published accounts. This is a spy film that dispenses with the glamour to show us that spy work is dirty work and the chilling fact that those searching for the truth are often just as clueless as the rest of us.

3| North By Northwest (1959)

Tied with Vertigo for the title of 'Hitchcock's greatest film', North By Northwest is the original anti-spy spy film. It's an espionage tale told from the perspective of the innocent as Cary Grant's advertising executive Roger Thornhill goes on the run from a shadowy organisation in a case of mistaken identity. There's lots to get excited about here, from Thornhill's devotion to a good suit to the epic finale atop a soundstage Mount Rushmore, not to mention to film's fantastically hard-boiled dialogue: "I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself "slightly" killed". Most conversations about the film tend to focus on the now iconic crop-duster scene (in which Thornhill finds himself in the middle of corn fields, with nowhere to hide as a belligerent pilot swoops down on him) and with good reason - it's testament to Hitchcock's ingenuity that a scene so simple - one that eschews the piranha-filled pits, laser beam vasectomies and exotic locals of Bond for a mid-western farmer's field - still holds up as one of the most menacing chase sequences in film history. All told, North By Northwest remains an iconic film from one of history's most iconic directors.


2| The Lives of Others (2006)

Five years before Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy did dreary Cold War drama, The Lives Of Others gave us a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain and over the Berlin Wall into 1980s Soviet-occupied East Berlin in a drama that documented the Big Brother-esque observations carried out by the Stasi (the German Democratic Republic's secret police). The film focuses on the surveillance carried out on a German playwright, Georg Dreyman who writes an anti-government article after his friend commits suicide. Told from the perspective of the Stasi official tasked with monitoring Dreyman, The Lives Of Others offers a truly grim glimpse into what it was like to be a spy during the Cold War, particularly if you didn't necessarily believe in the cause you had devoted your life to. Produced and directed in Germany, the film does away with Hollywood pretences at a happy endings and silver linings—nothing particularly cheerful happens here, from the daily paranoia of both the observers and the observed to the harrowing final scenes involving Dreyman's young actress girlfriend. Nor is any character entirely likeable. Dreyman is free-spirited but a devout communist, while Stasi spy Wiesler attempts to supress evidence on the playwright while condemning countless others to prison or worse. An outstanding film about the grey area lost to the West behind the Berlin wall and the grey moral ground its inhabitants are forced to inhabit in order to survive.

1| The Third Man (1949)

Touted as "the first great picture of 1950" and selected by the BFI as the "best British film of the 20th century", this tale of murder and smuggling in Allied-occupied Vienna remains one of the most stylish thrillers of all time. From the famous "cuckoo clock speech" scene on the Wiener Riesenrad big wheel to Orson Welles' supposedly dead black marketer Harry Lime emerging from a shadowy doorway, to the final chase through the city's cavernous sewers, The Third Man is a film that has often been imitated, but never bettered. Much to its producers distain, director Carol Reed insisted on shooting the majority of the film on location in post-war Vienna, and the piles of rubble and bomb craters that help define the film's almost apocalyptic appeal are real. Scripted by Graham Greene (who occasionaly worked as a spy for the British government) the dialogue is to kill for, with a character named Major Calloway warning the film's inquisitive protagonist to "Leave death to the professionals". All of these elements combine to make The Third Man without a doubt the best spy movie of all time, and according to many, including Roger Ebert, one of cinema's greatest accomplishments, "Of all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies."


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* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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