As with most genres, any attempt to define the spy movie falls apart pretty quickly. Maybe more quickly than most, given that the term can encompass films featuring everything from evil supervillains plotting to take over the world with futuristic weapons to grounded-in-fact stories of those who trade secrets behind enemy lines. (At least Westerns take place in the Old West. Except those that don’t. See, genre definitions are hard!) For this list of the best spy movies ever made, Vulture opted for a big-tent approach in an attempt to create a selection that captured the full breadth of the spy film. If it features espionage of some form as a key element, in other words, it’s a spy movie for our purposes.
A few dominant types of spy movies do help provide a little definition, however. It’s useful to remember the terms “Martini” and “stale beer,” two categories often used to define spy stories, in movies and elsewhere. Martini stories operate in a glamorous world where bad guys live in lairs, femmes fatales wait at every backgammon table, and our hero drives fast cars and seldom takes off a tuxedo. If that puts you in mind of James Bond, there’s a reason. Stale-beer stories take place in the shadows, where dull-looking operatives plot and probe, it’s never clear who’s a friend and who’s an enemy, and moral compasses tend to get warped. Stale-beer stories often tend to be informed by the actual practices of spying, and sometimes written by those with some experience in the world of espionage, e.g. the quintessential stale-beer writer John le Carré.
Even these groupings are less firm categories than the two poles between which most spy movies fall. The Bond series, for instance, has a habit of inching toward the stale-beer end every time it gets too fixated on gadgets and world-destroying plots. Then there are categories within categories, like spy-fi, stories set at the intersection of espionage and cutting-edge technology.
We tried to include a little from every corner of the spy-film world in this list without favoring one sort of spy movie over another. And while it would be easy enough to fill out a whole list with nothing but le Carré adaptations, Bourne movies, Bond movies, and Hitchcock films, we tried to look more broadly. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a lot of le Carré, Hitchcock, Bourne, and Bond on this list. And, as for the latter, we tried to include some representative samples from each Bond era. So, if your favorite Roger Moore movie didn’t make the cut, just assume that the one we chose is representing it as well. (Unless your favorite Moore movie is Moonraker, because that one is terrible.)
With that said, let’s begin with a pair of spies at the beginning of their careers then work our way toward more shadowy terrain.
The perfect My First Spy Movie, Robert Rodriguez’s charmingly handcrafted kids’ film follows a couple of second-generation spies (Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara) compelled to follow in their parents’ footsteps thanks to the scheme of a dastardly supervillain/children’s show host played by Alan Cumming (one of many stars clearly having a blast in supporting roles). The wild designs and not-exactly-state-of-the-art special effects are all part of the charm. Three sequels and an animated series followed, but the original remains the most memorable.
49. Hopscotch (1980) (available on The Criterion Channel)
If James Bond resides at one end of the spectrum when it comes to glamour, you can find Miles Kendig at the other. Played by Walter Matthau in this fun send-up of Cold War intrigue, he looks disheveled, acts impatient, and appears always on the verge of packing it all in and going home. And, in fact, that’s what he’s trying to do for much of Hopscotch by way of publishing a scorching memoir and calling it a day. Only the powers that be within the CIA, including a boss played by Ned Beatty, don’t want him to leave or, more importantly, his secrets to get out. But, unglamorous as he is, Kendig’s also an extremely good spy, and much of the fun of this Ronald Neame–directed comedy comes from watching such an unlikely secret agent outwit every trap American intelligence can throw his way.
Casting MMA fighter Gina Carano as the lead in an action-driven spy movie might have seemed like a gimmick were it not for two things: (1) The action’s just one standout element in Steven Soderbergh’s film, an unpredictable thriller scripted by Lem Dobbs, and (2) Carano’s quite good, whether or not a scene requires her to beat up her co-stars. Carano plays a former U.S. Marine/current black ops specialist who’s drawn into a network of deception that requires her to meet, and often beat up, one big-name male star after another. (The cast includes Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, and others.) And, as for those fight scenes, Carano’s presence forces everyone else to up their game, throwing themselves wholeheartedly into entanglements that get as twisty and ugly as the film’s plot.
Robert Redford’s history with the spy movie has made casting him a kind of shortcut for anyone wishing to channel a particular vein of paranoid, post-Watergate thrillers (more on this below). That’s why he was so effective in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and why he works so well as Nathan Muir, the mentor to Brad Pitt’s Tom Bishop in this Tony Scott–directed thriller, which opens during Muir’s last day on the job then flashes back to various points in the Cold War. Scott’s slick direction is sometimes at odds with a story that tries to capture the uglier aspects of spycraft, but Redford and Pitt’s raw, nervy performances anchor it.
46. True Lies (1994) (available on Amazon Video)
If you can ignore the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger is probably the last person who should be cast as a guy so ordinary-seeming that even his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) doesn’t know he’s actually a secret agent, there’s a lot of fun to be had in James Cameron’s lighthearted and explosion-heavy thriller. Sandwiched between Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Titanic, it can’t help but feel a bit minor by Cameron’s standards, bringing little new to the genre beyond a sense of excessiveness. But Cameron has as few equals as an action director as Schwarzenegger has as an action star, so the pairing works, even if their ambitions don’t stretch much further than blowing up whole chunks of the Florida Keys.
45. The Bourne Identity (2002) (available on Hulu)
When Paul Greengrass assumed control of the Bourne franchise with 2007’s The Bourne Supremacy, he helped redefine what 21st-century action scenes looked like. But that’s no reason to underrate the Doug Liman–directed The Bourne Identity, which introduced Matt Damon as Robert Ludlum’s amnesia-suffering CIA agent Jason Bourne. Damon brings a haunted intensity to the role, and Liman, who struggled with the studio throughout production, directs with style and grit.
44. M. Butterfly (1993) (available to rent on Amazon)
David Cronenberg found a different angle on his career-long exploration of how bodies shape identity (and vice versa) by adapting David Henry Hwang’s fact-based play about a French diplomat (Jeremy Irons) who conducts a years-long affair with Peking opera singer Song Liling (John Lone) without seeming to recognize that Song was spying on him — or that Song was a man. One of Cronenberg’s most intimate films, M. Butterfly uses espionage as means to explore what we keep to ourselves, what we give away, and what we refuse to see when we fall in love.
43. The Fourth Protocol (1987) (available to purchase on Amazon)
Few Cold War betrayals stung as sharply as that of Kim Philby, a British intelligence officer who worked as a double agent for the Soviets for decades, then defected after being found out. Philby died in 1988, by all reports a disillusioned man, but he’d already been killed off onscreen the year before in the opening moments of this Frederick Forsyth adaptation, in which a rogue branch of the KGB plots to build and detonate a bomb on British soil. Future James Bond Pierce Brosnan plays the steely eyed agent sent to do the deed, and Michael Caine (whom we’ll meet again elsewhere on this list) stars as the wild card MI5 agent who stands in his way. It’s a fantastic plot, but Caine’s tough, smart performance and the no-nonsense direction from John MacKenzie (The Long Good Friday) keep the film tense and believable.
Robert Redford (yes, him again) heads an all-star cast in a fun, fleet thriller in which he plays a former radical whose activities in the 1960s — as a Stone Age computer hacker — have forced him to reinvent himself under another name as an independent security expert. Redford heads a team of eccentric misfits that includes a former CIA Agent (Sidney Poitier), a conspiracy theorist (Dan Aykroyd), an awkward geek (River Phoenix), and a blind man (David Strathairn) who get in over their heads when tasked with finding a device capable of breaking any code. Both very much a product of the early ʼ90s and years ahead of its time, the Phil Alden Robinson–directed film is set at a moment when the former Soviet Union no longer seemed like much of a threat, but predicts a future in which information would be a kind of currency and a single keystroke could bring down a government.
41. Lust, Caution (2007) (available on Netflix)
Ang Lee’s follow-up to Brokeback Mountain garnered mixed reviews and vanished quickly from American theaters, mostly attracting attention for the explicit sex scenes that earned it an NC-17 rating. That’s too bad for several reasons, including Lee’s meticulous reconstruction of Hong Kong and Shanghai under Japanese occupation, paranoid, perilous places in which anyone could be working with the occupying forces or conspiring against them. Even more memorable, however, is the film’s intense focus on the toll taken on Wong (Tang Wei), a student who joins an acting troupe that decides to assassinate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a cruel higher-up in the Japanese-run puppet government. The sex scenes are just part of the film’s depiction of how much of herself Wong gives away in the course of an undercover operation instigated by passionate amateurs who have no idea what they’re doing — up to and including the person she once thought she was.
40. Our Man Flint (1966) (available on HBO Max)
As with film noir, it sometimes seem like parodies of spy movies outnumber proper spy movies. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. In Our Man Flint, James Coburn plays a former agent of Z.O.W.I.E. whose carefree lifestyle — he happily lives with four women — gets interrupted when he has to take out some mad scientists. Coburn’s a lot of fun in a film that never for a moment takes itself seriously yet doesn’t feel that far removed from the ’60s James Bond films it’s sending up. Coburn returned for the sequel In Like Flint the following year, and anyone who enjoys this nonsense would also do well to check out the Dean Martin–starring Matt Helm series, which kicked off with The Silencers the same year. (But go deeper into the subgenre at your own peril. There’s a reason many low-budget, tongue-in-cheek Bond knockoffs like The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World have been forgotten.)
39. Undercover Brother (2002) (available to rent on Amazon)
An even richer and more rewarding parody, Undercover Brother folds some sharp commentary into a story of the eponymous Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin), a hero straight out of a blaxploitation movie who hooks up with the B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., a mostly black underground spy organization — Neil Patrick Harris plays a diversity hire — who does battle with the Man and his attempts to drain the world of soulfulness. Dave Chappelle and Chi McBride are among the other B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. operatives and the film, directed by Malcolm Lee and based on characters created by co-writer John Ridley, mixes easy jokes with smart, barbed gags about the insidious persistence of racism.
38. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015) (available to rent on Amazon)
The influence of the James Bond films wasn’t limited to movies, inspiring several attempts to bring the world of globe-trotting spies to television via shows like The Avengers and Mission: Impossible. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. ran for four seasons in the mid-’60s, but wasn’t widely remembered by the time the 21st-century rolled around. That might be why Guy Ritchie’s 2015 adaptation struggled at the box office, which is a shame. Set in the 1960s, it’s a terrifically entertaining spy movie that teams the American agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, who’s more fun here than he’s ever been anywhere else) with the Russian Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) to stop a former Nazi from executing a deadly scheme. (Alicia Vikander holds her own nicely in the middle of their over-the-top machismo.) The film stays light, but Ritchie brings excitement and flair to the action scenes. The only disappointment: We’ll likely never see the potentially charming sequel set up in the film’s final moments.
Not all spies work for governments. Some decide to make real money in the private sector like the ex-spies played by Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in this clever thriller written and directed by Tony Gilroy. Gilroy brings in some of the skills he picked up writing the Bourne series, but it’s the film’s contentiously romantic spirit, to say nothing of the chemistry generated by Roberts and Owen, that makes it stand out. Why so few showed up to see it at the time remains a mystery, but it deserves to find a second life.
Shot at the height of World War II, this Alfred Hitchcock thriller sends one of the director’s trademark falsely accused men on a cross-country journey after he’s wrongly believed to be a spy, a journey that climaxes atop a national landmark. If that sounds a lot like another, even more famous Hitchcock film (and there will be more about that one, and Hitchcock, below) just chalk it up to further support for the auteur theory. Yet Saboteur never plays like a dry run for North by Northwest. Its wartime atmosphere gives it a sense of dread all its own and its set pieces are all doozies, especially the Statue of Liberty climax. Hitchcock’s fixation on the falsely accused found a natural home in the spy genre, as did his technical gifts as a crafter of suspense sequences, which explains why his name turns up on this list more than any other director’s.
35. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) (available on HBO Max)
Speaking to Francois Truffaut in the series of conversations that would become the indispensable book Hitchcock/Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock referred to his 1934 film as the work of a “talented amateur” when compared to his 1956 remake. Maybe … but where the ’56 version has some great set pieces, it also features Doris Day singing “Que Sera Sera” approximately 500 times and much looser narrative than the lean original, which forces a married couple (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) to pretend nothing is wrong after a nefarious organization (that includes Peter Lorre) kidnaps their daughter. It also features a memorable trip into the London underworld and the best imaginable payoff of an early scene that sets up Best’s character as an expert skeet shooter. In this case, it’s talented amateurism for the win.
34. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) (available on HBO Max)
The sequels and endlessly repeated catchphrases eventually threatened to make the unfrozen, Über-English superspy Austin Powers unbearable, but this first outing in Mike Myers’s affectionate send-up of ’60s spy movies (and ’60s culture in general) remains terrific fun. Myers’s script draws on a deep knowledge of a bygone era and builds to a heartfelt consideration of what’s been lost as we moved away from the ideas that fueled that decade — if not the outmoded, deeply sexist realities of the actual ’60s.
33. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) (available on Hulu)
After taking over for Sean Connery with the 1973 film Live and Let Die, Roger Moore became the longest-serving but least-respected James Bond. Moore gets a bit of a bad rap. He’s cheekily charming even when dropped in the most ridiculous situations — he even mostly keeps his dignity while wearing clown makeup in Octopussy — and though the Moore years’ lows are very low, their highs are considerable. By 1977, Moore had made the part his own. Gone were the early attempts to set himself apart by smoking cigars and drinking bourbon. Here, Moore skillfully employs an arched eyebrow in the midst of some of the series’s best action scenes. Ups (For Your Eyes Only) and downs (Moonraker) would follow, but with this film Moore established his Bond legitimacy once and for all.
32. The Hunt for Red October (1990) (available to rent on Amazon)
Though later entries starring a series of other actors (Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Chris Pine) would turn Tom Clancy’s long-serving CIA analyst Jack Ryan into a more traditional action hero, none would make him as appealing as in this first outing. Alec Baldwin plays Ryan as a man who’s more brain than brawn, and who’s frequently terrified and faking it as he attempts to avert catastrophe by convincing others that a rogue Soviet general (Sean Connery) in command of a state-of-the-art submarine is attempting to defect to America, not start a nuclear war by blowing up the East Coast. On a hot streak, Predator and Die Hard director John McTiernan keeps ratcheting up the tension as his two leads get closer to each other, building to a climax that, at the time at least, played like a farewell to American and Russian enmity.
Daniel Craig’s third entry as Bond, after helping to bring the character back to his two-fisted roots in Casino Royale, is one of the series’s best thanks to a combination of elements: sharp direction by Sam Mendes, a script that doesn’t feel like a bunch of action scenes strung together by the thinnest of narratives, jaw-dropping photography by Roger Deakins, a top-tier theme by Adele, Craig’s ownership of the role, Javier Bardem as a truly menacing villain with a personal connection to Bond, and an all-star supporting cast that by this point had expanded to include Judi Dench, Ben Whishaw, Ralph Fiennes, and Naomie Harris as a tough Moneypenny. Like Casino Royale, it confirmed that, with the right tools, Craig could fully reinvent the venerable spy for contemporary times. (Mendes’s 2015 follow-up, Spectre, on the other hand, proved that a similar combination of elements could fall apart.)
30. The Tailor of Panama (2001) (available to rent on Amazon)
Pierce Brosnan didn’t always get the best material as Bond, but the shadow of Bond helped make him a more compelling presence. In this John le Carré adaptation, Brosnan plays Andy Osnard, a disgraced, unscrupulous, but unfailingly charming MI6 agent who sees a new assignment in an ultracorrupt Panama as a chance to accumulate money and power. To that end, he attempts to manipulate Geoffrey Rush’s Harry Pendel, a con man turned tailor who’s not as helpless Osnard might hope. It’s a battle of wits that John Boorman directs with a palpable sense of danger, building tension by letting his characters sweat in the tropical heat.
29. Top Secret! (1984) (available on CBS All Access)
Between 1980’s Airplane! And 1988’s The Naked Gun, the team of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker made this similarly molded spy spoof starring Val Kilmer as a rock star, famous for songs about skeet shooting, who’s enlisted to go behind the Iron Curtain. The film’s jokes range from the broad (a ballet sequence in which the male dancers have bulging genitalia) to the subtle (at some point its Cold War plot segues into a struggle against World War II–era Nazis) to the borderline avant-garde (an underwater saloon fight), and they arrive so quickly that if one doesn’t work the next three will be strong enough to make you forget the misfires.
28. Eye of the Needle (1981) (available to rent on Amazon)
Donald Sutherland has a gift for dropping flashes of malevolence into his performances even when he’s playing nice guys, so he’s particularly well-suited to play a character whose genial surface masks a vicious heart. In this 1981 thriller directed by Richard Marquand (whose fine work here would him secure a job directing Return of the Jedi a few years later), Sutherland plays “the Needle,” a deep-cover Nazi spy working in World War II England. His methods: charm everyone he meets and stab everyone who figures him out. An adaptation of a Ken Follett novel, the film follows the Needle on a bloody cross-country journey to escape back to Germany with some vital secrets in hand, then slows down the action when he washes up on a sparsely populated island and seduces the unsuspecting (at first) Lucy (Kate Nelligan), a neglected wife. Sutherland’s equally convincing as a seducer and a brutal operative in a performance that emphasizes that both sides of her personality are tools of the same trade.
27. Mission: Impossible — Fallout (2018) (available on Amazon Video)
The sixth entry in the Mission: Impossible series (and the second in a row to be directed by Christopher McQuarrie), Fallout attempts to up the stakes in every way. It both takes baby steps into exploring the emotional life of Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt (which doesn’t really go anywhere) and ups the stakes of previous films’ action set pieces (including thrillingly extended chase scenes in London and Paris and a how-did-they-do-that helicopter chase) while introducing varieties of action scenes untouched by previous entries, like a brutal fight in a nightclub bathroom. McQuarrie did excellent work with the previous entry, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, but this tops it, in part because it’s designed to top it.
Steven Spielberg explores the psychic toll of living in the moral murk of espionage via the story of a group of Mossad agents charged with finding and killing the Palestinian terrorists behind the massacre of members of the Israeli team at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Their cause may be righteous, but the group, headed by Eric Bana, quickly discovers it’s sometimes impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys in the midst of crossed wires, twisted loyalties, and mission drift. Spielberg has trouble landing the film in its closing scenes, but the director’s technical skills and empathetic command of characters combine to make it an extraordinary feel-bad spy thriller.
Melissa McCarthy plays a desk-bound, overlooked CIA agent who unexpectedly gets the call-up after the apparent death of her flashy partner (Jude Law). McCarthy’s terrific fun as a shy woman who stands up to the bad guys and institutional sexism in a film written and directed by her frequent collaborator Paul Feig. (Possible alternate title: The Spy Who Came Out of Her Shell.) She also has help from a gifted supporting cast whose standouts include Rose Byrne and Jason Statham, in a pitiless spoof of the sort of macho tough-guy roles he normally takes.
24. Foreign Correspondent (1940) (available on HBO Max)
Though it eventually went all-in in supporting the war effort, Hollywood was shy about calling out Nazi Germany until the U.S. entered the war. Germans, after all, went to the movies, too. Isolationist senators even held a Senate subcommittee to investigate the presence of pro-war sentiment in Hollywood movies as late as September of 1941. Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent is one of the exceptions, casting Joel McCrea as an American reporter drawn into foreign intrigue on the eve of World War II. This was Hitchcock’s second Hollywood movie, and he earned some criticism in Britain for remaining abroad rather than returning to support the war effort. That stung, but there’s no shortage of concern for his native land to be found in a film that essentially ends with a call for America to join the war. Whatever its effectiveness as propaganda, it’s as fine a thriller as Hitchcock ever crafted, one highlighted by a stunning plane-crash sequence.
23. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) (available on Amazon Video)
If the stars had aligned just a little differently, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service might have been the greatest James Bond film ever made. Consider this: It features one of the film’s most memorable locales (a lair high atop the Swiss Alps), Telly Savalas as Bond’s archnemesis Blofeld, an uncharacteristically moody tone, and Diana Rigg as a love interest who effortlessly holds her own opposite Bond — a woman he seems capable of truly loving, for once. The only problem: Connery left the series after the previous film, leading the merely adequate George Lazenby to take over. He might have grown into the part — and the film doesn’t help by saddling him with some winking nods to the camera about being the new guy — but Lazenby comes off as a bit of a lightweight in the midst of an otherwise superior entry. When Connery came back a few years later after Lazenby walked away, he was stuck with the so-so Diamonds Are Forever, making it that much harder not to ponder what might have been.
22. Ronin (1998) (available on Amazon Video)
In a late triumph for John Frankenheimer, Robert De Niro stars as a mysterious operative working for initially unclear purposes in Paris, Nice, and Cannes. The film whisks through various plot convolutions, but the real attraction is the sharp dialogue (David Mamet co-writes the script), the tense scenes of spycraft in practice, and action sequences that Frankenheimer must have been waiting his whole career to shoot.
21. Goldfinger (1964) (available on Amazon Video)
With its third entry, the James Bond series found the formula it would repeat without really topping for years to come. Trading in the relative realism of From Russia With Love, Goldfinger brings in gadgets and flashy cars galore as Bond matches wits with a gold-obsessed supervillain with a colorful henchman and plans for Fort Knox. Everything about Goldfinger is bigger and flashier than in previous entries. Down the road, that would be for worse, as the franchise’s obsession with topping itself pushed it in some silly directions. But it all works here, and the scene pitting Bond against a laser almost single-handedly launched the spy-fi subgenre. It’s a Martini in which every ingredient is perfectly balanced (even if Bond’s anti-Beatles joke makes him sound more out of touch now than ever).
20. The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973) (available to purchase on DVD on Amazon)
Part spy movie, part blaxploitation film, part call to arms, this adaptation of a 1969 novel by Chicago writer Sam Greenlee follows Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) as he’s selected to be the first black CIA officer, trained in a variety of espionage techniques, then given little to do. Without warning, he quits the agency and returns to Chicago, where he starts converting gang members into freedom fighters to foment an uprising. Directed by Ivan Dixon (best known as Sergeant Kinchloe on Hogan’s Heroes), the film casts no judgment on Freeman’s militancy, and its depiction of entrenched racism provides many suggestions that Freeman might have the right idea, leading to a suggestively open-ended finale.
19. Mission: Impossible (1996) (available to rent on Amazon)
Brian De Palma kicked off this long-running, Tom Cruise–starring big-screen adaptation of the ’60s spy show with a Hitchcockian adventure that finds Cruise’s Ethan Hunt wrongly accused of treason and forced to take extreme measure to prove his innocence. Set in a post–Cold War climate in which the dissolution of old allegiances has led to corruption and confusion, it’s justly famous for a long, mostly silent mid-film heist sequence. But, apart from some janky-looking special effects in the climactic sequence, the whole movie hangs together brilliantly, setting a high standard for the sequels.
18. Ministry of Fear (1944) (available to purchase on DVD on Amazon)
Graham Greene spent a carer alternating between what he considered serious novels and lighter work he regarded as “entertainments,” some of which involve spies (which makes sense, since Greene himself dabbled in espionage). But time has had a way of blurring such distinctions, revealing depths in his thrillers that Greene himself may not have seen at the time.
He didn’t think much of Fritz Lang’s adaptation of his novel Ministry of Fear, either, and he was wrong about that as well. Released in the midst of World War II, the film stars Ray Milland as a man who leaves an asylum only to find himself roped into a Nazi plot to steal English secrets — simply by guessing the correct weight of a cake at a charity fair. Lang uses the film to explore how paranoia can distort reality, and how living in a state in which no one can be trusted can feel a lot like insanity.
17. Three Days of the Condor (1973) (available to rent on Amazon)
Decades later, Sydney Pollack’s quintessential post-Watergate spy movie would explore a similar mood, casting Robert Redford as a low-level analyst who returns from a lunch run to find that everyone else in his office has been murdered. He calls headquarters only to realize he’s not sure whom, if anyone, he can still trust. Redford delivers a tough, rattled performance as a man who’s learning new skills on the job because his life depends on it. Pollack delivers some standout suspense scenes, but the best moments feature Redford wandering the New York streets and realizing anyone could be a threat. Sometimes paranoia is just another form of self defense.
16. The Bourne Supremacy (2004) (available on Hulu)
Paul Greengrass pioneered a handheld, close-to-the-action shooting style with the 2002 film Bloody Sunday, a re-creation of the 1972 Bloody Sunday incident in Northern Ireland. He took that approach mainstream via this first sequel to The Bourne Identity, proving it could give action movies a different sort of energy. It’s been imitated to death by lesser films in the years that followed, but this first appearance still has a disarming spark. (Greengrass would return to the series twice more, first with The Bourne Ultimatum in 2007, then with Jason Bourne in 2016.)
15. The IPCRESS File (1965) (available to purchase on DVD on Amazon)
A kind of mirror-image Bond, author Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer is the working-class embodiment of everything grubby and unglamorous in the espionage world. In the first of his several outings as Palmer, Michael Caine is put-upon and bogged down with paperwork. When he wants to seduce a woman, he doesn’t take her out to dinner but goes shopping for canned food. London might have been swinging for other residents, but Palmer still lived in a neighborhood filled with post-War deprivation. He wears thick spectacles, has dubious-looking teeth, and has presumably consumed many a stale beer. The down-market thrills are as effective in their own way as Bond’s globe-trotting adventures, and it’s easy to see why it was part of a mid-’60s run of movies that made Caine a star. (He’d return to the part of Palmer in four sequels.)
14. Burn After Reading (2008) (available to rent on Amazon)
A Coen brothers riff on the spy genre, Burn After Reading is filled with self-mythologizing drunks, unskilled opportunists, and borderline morons. Each of them loses track of a CD filled with secrets, and some end up dying in the stupidest possible ways because of their incompetence. The film’s underlying suggestion that spies are just as susceptible to selfishness, prone to mistakes, and likely to lie as anyone lines up nicely with some of the revelations brought to light during the George W. Bush years, and little that’s happened since has made the movie seem less insightful.
13. Army of Shadows (1969) (available to rent on Amazon)
There are films that get overlooked, and there are masterpieces that go unrecognized in their own time. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of the Shadows belongs to the latter camp. Released in France in September of 1969, a few months after Charles de Gaulle stepped down as the country’s president, it was viewed as too sympathetic to de Gaulle by the country’s left, mostly because it dealt with the French Resistance during World War II, commanded by de Gaulle as the country’s leader in exile during the war. What they missed, and what an appreciative audience didn’t miss when a restored print made the art-house rounds in 2006, is a moody, gutting film about wartime sacrifice and the ugly realities of what it takes to practice espionage for even the most noble cause. Drawing from a novel by Joseph Kessel (Belle de Jour) and his own Resistance work, Melville depicts the life of those who worked against the Nazi occupation as one of constant peril and strict rules, an existence in which the fight for French ideals essentially requires those on the right side of history to sever all ties with humanity — and in which every moment of triumph can feel like it’s just forestalling an inevitable defeat down the line.
12. The 39 Steps (1935) and 11. The Lady Vanishes (1938) (both available on Amazon Video and HBO Max)
Between making The Man Who Knew Too Much and leaving for Hollywood at the end of the ’30s, Hitchcock returned repeatedly to the spy thriller. All are worth watching, but The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes deserve special considerations. The former finds Hitchcock coming into his own as the creator of tense, fast-paced, cleverly plotted thrillers, following Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a wrongly accused man (yep, another one of those), as he traipses from London to Scotland and back again while trying to unmask a mysterious organization trying to steal British military secrets. The Lady Vanishes proved Hitchcock could be just as effective in tighter quarters. Set largely aboard a train, it finds Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) facing a sanity-challenging scenario when she discovers that an elderly recent acquaintance has seemingly disappeared as they traveled together on a transcontinental train journey, a disappearance others seem not to have noticed. Both films are breathlessly entertaining, revealing a director seemingly capable of drawing thrills out of any setting (and the years to come would find Hitchcock challenging himself on this front again and again).
10. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011) (available on Amazon Video)
Until Christopher McQuarrie followed Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation with Mission: Impossible — Fallout, the series had worked through a rotating series of high-profile directors, some of whom fared better than others. John Woo struggled to sustain the excitement found in his Hong Kong and early Hollywood work with Mission: Impossible 2, while J.J. Abrams confirmed he could make the leap from television to film with the very good Mission: Impossible III. Brad Bird, too, had something to prove when he signed on to Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. He’d had tremendous success working in animation, but a live-action film, to say nothing of a live-action film on the scale of a globe-trotting Mission: Impossible entry, remained new territory. If anything, Bird over-delivered, transporting a gift for dynamic action scenes from his animated films to create the best action movie of this century, from a film-opening prison break through a nausea-inducing trip to the top of the Burj Khalifa and beyond.
9. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) (available on Amazon Video)
“Staring at the Wall was like staring at frustration itself, and it touched an anger in me,” John le Carré wrote in 1989, reflecting on his 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The author born David Cornwell wasn’t writing as a distant observer. He spent the first decades of the Cold War working in British intelligence, growing increasingly frustrated as the years piled up and channeling that frustration into a novel that depicts espionage as a dehumanizing occupation unfit for anyone with a conscience. Directed by Martin Ritt and starring Richard Burton, the film adaptation opens and closes on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall, and its grimmest suggestion is that both are controlled by amoral forces willing to sell out any principle and sacrifice as many pawns as necessary to secure power. Burton plays Alec Leamas, the spy chief of Britain’s Berlin station who, after losing a defector, is taken off the case. But his demotion is a ruse designed to make him attractive to enemy agents, who see a target vulnerable for recruitment thanks to the drunken, disillusioned pose he’s adopted. But, after a while, even Alec isn’t quite sure where the act ends and his true identity begins. The novel’s success allowed le Carré to embark on a long career depicting his former profession as the domain of gray, defeated men, most of whom have abandoned their consciences out of a sense of professional obligation. His work would be adapted many times over the years, and both Ritt’s chilly direction and Burton’s hollowed-out performance set examples others would strive to match.
8. The Lives of Others (2006) (available to rent on Amazon)
Set in the final years of the Cold War, The Lives of Others has all the political rot of a le Carré thriller without the thrills. That’s not a knock on Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film, however, which finds a different kind of charge from the moral dilemmas of Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), who’s told to surveil a playwright only to discover that the motivations behind the assignment might be more personal than political, and that the time spent watching the playwright has begun to change his own point of view. The film attracted some criticism for its portrayal of a sympathetic Stasi agent, but Mühe’s performance so beautifully captures an awakening conscience that it’s hard to complain too much.
7. Notorious (1946) (currently unavailable)
As entertaining as Hitchcock’s ’30s spy movies are, this Hollywood effort plumbs emotional depths that Hitchcock wasn’t even attempting to explore in the previous decade. Ingrid Bergman stars as Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a Nazi spy coaxed by T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) to join a group of former Nazis living in South America, a group whose leaders include Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), with whom Alicia has a history. Hitchcock keeps the sense of dread high as Alicia embarks on a mission that takes her deeper into Alexander’s world than she imagined she’d have to go, but the film’s drama comes just as much from the tension between her and Devlin, whose love for her is complicated by his professional obligation to put her in danger and push her into the arms of another man.
6. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) (available to rent on Amazon)
Based on a novel by Richard Condon, The Manchurian Candidate takes accounts of American soldiers being brainwashed during the Korean War to a nightmarish extreme via the story of a politically connected war hero (Laurence Harvey) who’s been programmed as an assassin by communist forces. John Frankenheimer fills the film with a Cold War–era sense that anyone could be the enemy — even, thanks to a chilling turn by Angela Lansbury, one’s own mother. But it’s Frank Sinatra, in one of his best performances, who embodies the exhaustion of the times, playing a weary, traumatized soldier who discovers he still has a role to play in a war that never really ended. Also worth seeing: Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake, which revisits the story through a post-9/11 prism.
5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) (available on Netflix)
John le Carré’s densely plotted novels can be tricky to condense into feature-length films, which may explain why they’ve sometimes had better luck on TV than on the big screen (see: The Night Manager, The Little Drummer Girl, and this 1974 novel’s previous adaptation as a 1979 mini-series starring Alec Guinness). This Tomas Alfredson adaptation demands close attention. The film that brilliantly captures the crisscrossed loyalties and hidden agendas of le Carré’s fiction — and the ways they are more likely to play out in the dull, institutional buildings of postwar Britain than in glamorous locales. Also brilliant: Gary Oldman’s performance as George Smiley, le Carré’s signature hero, an unglamorous man in an unhappy marriage who’s become alienated from the job his extraordinary mind allows him to perform better than anyone else.
4. The Conversation (1974) (available on CBS All Access)
If either could let their guards down, le Carré’s Smiley could doubtlessly have long, meaningful conversations about the personal costs of spying with Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), the protagonist of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. A surveillance expert with a particular gift for audio work, Caul takes on the challenging job of recording a couple in an open space. But he soon finds success comes with consequences when the implications of what he’s recorded start haunting him, stirring his own fear of being watched, underscoring his profound alienation, and reminding him that the soul refuses to stay silent. Coppola shot The Conversation in the break between The Godfather and its sequel, a period in which he could seemingly do no wrong. Yet one of The Conversation’s most striking qualities is how little it resembles Coppola’s gangster masterpieces, trading epic sweep and classic grandeur for a tight focus and experimental flourishes — all while exploring the damage done to a man who, in the process of probing others’ lives, has come to realize the profundity of his own loneliness.
3. From Russia With Love (1963) (available on Amazon Video)
The best James Bond film is also something of a dead end. Connery’s second outing as the superspy is more grounded than both its predecessor and the sequels to come, teaming Bond up with a female Russian agent (Italian actress Daniela Bianchi, overdubbed by Barbara Jefford) to outwit the evil SPECTRE in Turkey. It’s similar in tone to Fleming’s early novels, a spy story whose more outrageous elements — dig those switchblade shoes with poison blades! — are kept in check by a tough, bare-knuckled approach and a committed, unwinking performance from Connery. Goldfinger would take the series on a different, and highly entertaining, path just one film later, but From Russia With Love suggests it might have found just as much success staying a little closer to the world we know.
2. Black Book (2006) (available on Amazon Video)
Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s earliest memories involve falling bombs. Born in Amsterdam and raised in the Hague when it served as German headquarters during World War II, Verhoeven grew up in a country torn apart by war. “Because I was so young when war broke out,” he told HuffPost in 2015, “seeing fighting and bombing and ruins and grenades and dead bodies and planes going down in flames seemed like the norm.” It’s not hard to make a connection between that upbringing and a career filled with images of casual brutality, but it’s unfair to suggest that Verhoeven ever depicted violence as normal. The shock of Verhoeven’s films comes less from the graphic violence — though, sure, that can be plenty shocking — than the ways in which violence can be made casual, even acceptable, be it by greed, war, or institutional approval. It’s as if he’d spent a lifetime wondering how the world he grew up in could have been allowed to happen in the first place.
Black Book was Verhoeven’s first Dutch film after a couple of decades in Hollywood, and it’s a less-than-sentimental journey back to the times and place that made him. Carice van Houten stars as Rachel, a Jewish woman who survives a massacre at the hands of the SS that kills the rest of her family. Falling in with the Dutch Resistance, she agrees to go undercover in an attempt to undermine the Nazis. In the confusion of violence and betrayal that follows, Rachel finds some of her assumptions challenged and her life imperiled. As in Notorious, much of the tension comes from Rachel’s fears that she’ll become lost in the cover story, and the acceptance that immoral acts can find their way into even the most righteous cause. It’s a tale of gray shades spattered in red, alternately depicting espionage as thrilling and sexy, and as a harrowing pursuit that puts spies in constant danger of losing their lives and souls. It eschews formula, but it’s the quintessence of a fluid genre that can play host to an astounding variety of stories.
1. North by Northwest (1959) (available on HBO Max)
The platonic ideal that all light-footed spy movies aspire to emulate, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest gave him his biggest canvas yet to explore the theme of an innocent man attempting to outrun wrongful accusations and sinister forces. Here a case of mistaken identity sends an unsuspecting advertising agent, played by Cary Grant, on a journey across the United States (and, eventually, into the arms of Eva Marie Saint). The plot revolves around a classic Hitchcock MacGuffin: a roll of microfilm, a perfunctory narrative device that perfectly illustrates how spy stories are often really about everything but what everyone’s chasing after. The film offers some never-topped set pieces, but Hitchcock makes them serve his interest in what happens when characters find themselves stripped of everything that makes them feel safe and comfortable. More than the terrifying plane, it’s the image of Grant looking dapper and terrified in a sharp gray suit that makes the film’s famous crop-duster scene work so well. This is a master working in top form from start to finish to create a film that’s been much-imitated but never topped.