Now pay attention agents
The following films have all added to the spy movie genre in some way or another, either by reinventing how we as an audience view the genre, or by reinforcing just why we love a man of mystery. So memorise them carefully before you grab your grenade pen and shoe-phone and head out into the field.
This list will self-destruct in five seconds…
The Ipcress File (1965)
British scientists are disappearing and then reappearing completely ‘brain-drained’ (hey, it was the ‘60s – if your brain wasn’t drained, you weren’t there, man). It’s up to bespectacled (“except in bed”) spy Harry Palmer, doing a great impression of Michael Caine, to find out who’s behind it.
The Ipcress File was/is the anti-Bond in every way: stripped of glamour and earthed in the mundanity and politics of spying, Harry Palmer’s life is not one of knicker-less women and glamorous locales (unless you count a trip to the shops), but it’s that which makes us respect him all the more.
He gets the job done and expects nothing but a pay-rise from Her Majesty’s government as reward. If you’re tired of flash bastards in tuxedos, Harry Palmer’s your man. Caine reprised his role four more times but The Ipcress File is the spy at his best, and one of the decade’s greatest espionage flicks.
From Russia with Love (1963)
You can’t talk about spies without the booze-stained shadow of Bond, but you also can’t talk about Bond without accidentally missing out someone’s favourite. Why From Russia with Love over, say, Alan Partridge favourite The Spy Who Loved Me?
Because this is where Bond does actual spying rather than knocking on the villain’s volcano lair door or driving around in a pimped-out invisible Aston Martin. Like 2006’s Casino Royale, it has an appealing sense of realism.
Consummate Bond Sean Connery sneaks around Istanbul, fighting off attacks by SPECTRE agents ‘Red’ Grant and brogue-blade assassin Rosa Klebb. Connery’s in his prime, the gadgets are sparse and don’t feel like Q-issued deus ex machinas, and the action sequences like the boat chase or the train fight are gritty and exciting but never overly ambitious.
It’s Bond as Fleming envisaged, and nearly 50 years on, it’s still fantastic.
North by Northwest (1959)
Cary Grant’s ad exec Roger Thornhill (think Don Draper but without the daddy issues) is having a bad day. He’s been mistaken for a US spy who doesn’t actually exist, and now James Mason’s sneering goons are after him. To escape death he’ll have to evade biplanes, climb Lincoln’s nose, and find time to phone his mum.
It’s one of Hitchcock’s best and brightest films, with some wry comedy – especially during Thornhill’s forced intoxication and the auction house scenes – sparkling repartee between Grant, Mason and Eva Marie Saint, and the film-maker’s dictionary definition of a MacGuffin.
Add to that the Saul Bass titles, intelligent cinematography, and a thrilling score by Bernard Herrman, and it makes for one spy film worth breaking your cover for. Mix yourself a three olive Martini and enjoy.
The Bourne Identity (2002)
The start of a great trilogy, and one which gave the spy genre a brutal 21st century makeover that would arguably go on to influence Daniel Craig’s rebooted 007, Bourne wrapped a compelling mystery around a man with the ability to kill you with a biro.
Director Doug Liman brought a kinetic energy to Robert Ludlum’s amnesiac spy reclaiming his identity. Matt Damon’s performance is a confident variation on the usual secret agent, and he keeps a level head as he’s chased across chilly Europe by CIA assassins.
There’s a frenetic car chase that’s the best ad for a Mini since The Italian Job, finely choreographed fights aplenty, and though the actual story is thin it’s made up for with a taught script. Such has been the franchise’s success that there’s a Jason Bourne-less outing, The Bourne Legacy, due this summer.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Packed with more British talent than an open bar at the BAFTAs, TTSS is a fantastic rendition of John Le Carre’s novel to the big screen. There’s a Russian double-agent helping themselves to the tea and biscuits and secret documents at the heart of British Intelligence, and they need to be found.
Each scene sticky with nicotine and distrust, this is Cold War chess and internal espionage at it’s most realistic and paranoid. No girls and gadgets here; TTSS paints the drama of spying as it really is: laborious, fraught with tension, and incredibly isolating, made all the more so by the bleak cinematography.
2012 Oscar-bait Gary Oldman channels Sir Alec Guiness and makes for a compelling George Smiley, while among his co-stars – including Benedict ‘Sherlock’ Cumberbatch, Tom ‘Bane’ Hardy and John ‘gravel-tonsils’ Hurt – there’s not one performance that falters.
What’s your favourite spy movie? Let us know below…