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The Top 6 Spy Movies of All Time

posted by Kevin Lannister

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Colonel Blake: [blows whistle] Alright, men! we’re not here to sell lemonade, we’re here to practice. But first, I’d like to officially welcome Spearchucker to our team. It is okay to call you that?

Spearchucker: Call me whatever you want to.

Colonel Blake: Good. Well, I just want you to know that we’re all the same here on the playing field. Officers and men alike.”

-Quote from M.A.S.H

Günther Bachmann: Our sources don’t come to us, we find them. We become their friends, their brothers, their fathers, their lovers, if we have to. When they’re ours, and only then, we direct them at bigger targets. It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark.”

-Quote from A Most Wanted Man

“I’m a Spy”, as Jim Morrison would say. But these spies are not spies in the house of love, but rather in the house of war and hate. I’d rather be the preceding, but life sometimes does not let us choose.

Let’s now investigate together the top 6 spy movies of all time:


6. A Most Wanted Man

This was the last movie where Philip Seymour Hoffman appeared before his tragic death. He was found in his apartment with a drug overdose. Rest in Peace, Philip.

The movie, in fact, was directed by the extra cool Anton Corbijn who is actually responsible for the visual appearance of the most wanted music bands of the world as a music video director and a photographer since the eighties. He began to direct feature films relatively late but due to his visual proficiency and knowledge, he was able to prepare beautifully designed movies.

A Most Wanted Man represents the cynic European anti-terrorist conspiracies between different agencies. The cast is impeccable: Willem Dafoe, Robin Wrighs and Rachel McAdams assists routinely and reliably talent to the main actor,

Hoffman, who offers one of the best actings of his life, and leaves no doubt about his perfect suitability for the role. Hoffman was the perfect choice for the role: his paunchy nature makes him a typical le Carré character. Thanks to Hoffman and the atmosphere of Berlin locations, the movie becomes a gripping thriller.


5. Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

There is a thin border between the thriller and the spy movie genres, therefore it is no surprise that many works of Alfred Hitchcock -who is respected as the Godfather of suspense- can be classified as spy movies. In fact, the master experimented with movies about persecution, such as The 39 steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Spy Movie 5Hitchcock always remained faithful to his chosen genre, Notorious from 1946 is, in fact, one of his most successful movies. This movie is about the denouncement of the nazis, who are hiding in South-America. The fragile Ingrid Bergman and the charming Cary Grant are the protagonists: Bergman plays the role of the disillusioned Alicia, whose father is condemned with war crimes.

But she gets to chance to make amends for the sins of his father: she only has to help in the detection of the Nazis lurking in Brazil. She accepts the offer and she has to incorporate in the aristocratic circles, she has to marry the main conspirator. And as we know, things are always getting more and more complicated: she falls in love with her liaison officer.

Hitchcock made a perfect blend of romantic sentimentalism and the tension of spy movies here: this movie never seems to grow old. It is a real delicacy for film freaks and proves that age can easily be a secondary consideration. Some artworks are just ageless.


4. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

This movie has an apocalyptic atmosphere, which is no wonder, since the location is the ruined after-war Vienna, with many cavernous, unhealed wounds. Some consider The Third Man the best English movie ever.  The scenario is based on the book written by Graham Greene, and it is full of exciting dialogues and persecutions, while the performances of the actors are unforgettable.

Orson Welles is really doing a great job here, even though at that time he was already ostracized from Hollywood, despite his fascinatingly sassy giant-baby face. The interesting fact is that he was expelled by reason of Citizen Kane’s failure, while later this movie became one of the most appreciated movies of film history. Anyway, people do not really like critics, that is certain.

Holly Martins mostly writes pulp-fiction. He arrives in Vienna after the war and their city is divided into different zones. His friend, Harry Lime invited him, but at his arrival, a sad surprise awaits him: his friend is no longer living because of a car accident.

The whole case is suspicious and when further details occur it becomes even more suspicious. As it turns out, Lime was a phoney of the black trade, and he had cases with the police too. Martins flings himself into the case better and better, befriended by the cynic cops and the fink spies of the ruined city.


3. Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, 1975)

The sixties and seventies were one of the most disappointing period in American history: the failures and the pointless bloodshed of the Vietnam War, the murder of the Kennedy brothers and Malcolm X and finally the Watergate scandal led to a serious social disillusionment. Obviously, these events were followed by a dozen of Hollywood movies depicting the paranoid and pressing atmosphere of the period.

But as it seems -and this may sound a bit intense- Hollywood benefits from political scandals and crises, when it comes to thrillers. This was, in fact, the golden age of thrillers and paranoia movies. With such cynic and merciless film classics as M.A.S.H., the Parallax view or All the President’s Men, Sydney Pollack‘s spy movie is in the same category.

CIA analyst Joe Turner (Robert Redford) one day wakes up on a sullen autumn morning and finds his colleagues dead. Being the only survivor he slowly realizes to the fact that his own organization may be behind the events. Three Days of the Condor is a good and quick reaction to the Watergate scandal, a thriller which is spread-eagled with tension, uncertainty, and paranoia.


2. The Hunt for Red October (John McTiernan, 1990)

John McTiernan became famous of his action classics presented in the eighties like Die Hard and Predator. The atmosphere of this heroic epos festooned with Russian military choirs just doesn’t let us go, we tend to entirely forget about the outworld while watching it.

Spy Movie 2This movie is a mix of genres again. It is cleverly combining the effects of spy movies, action films and submarine movies. Marko Ramius is an experienced submarine captain who gets fed up with the Soviet Union. He tries to defect to the USA with his whole crew and a high-tech superweapon on board.

The Soviet leadership obviously does not really favor the idea, thus they send a whole fleet to follow them with the purpose of extermination. Before things would turn fatal, an American CIA analyst, Jack Ryan (famous by reason of Tom Clancy novels) goes to Ramius’s relief, even at the cost of counteracting the disbelief of the US military staff.

Russian officers are also played by American actors and Tim Curry undertook the role of a Russian medical officer. After the Cold War the relation between the nations softened and this movie is one of the first reflections on this important historical era, and again this neither do this act like outmoded.


1. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

Contemporary spy movies are mostly investigating the conflicts of the Middle-East since it is the powder keg, the epicenter of the tensions in the world. These movies try to process the struggle against terrorism, which sometimes seems to be endless and hopeless. In turn, we can be sure that in most cases this phenomenon is more complicated than a chess party between black and white, good and bad.

Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty was able to present this excitingly complex spy war in recent times. The story is about a workaholic, enthusiastic hero whose mission is questionable in many ways. Maya has to catch the terrorist Osama Bin-Laden who is considered to be responsible for 9/11.

The movie is not narrow-minded, does not want to over-idealize the work of the spies, which lasted over decades and seems to be more and more insipid and exhaustive, a work of Sisyphus. The film remains interesting until the end and serves up adeptly the delicate and actual topic.

Thank you for reading our article about the top six spy movies of film history. We hope that you enjoyed it a lot. Do not forget to read our next writing which will examine the top 6 movies in relation to fine arts.

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Kevin Lannister (see all articles)

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