Top 10 Greatest Spy Films of All Time

Top 10 Spy Films
Ben Affleck stars in and directs ‘Argo’ – Photo © Warner Bros Pictures

With the release of Pierce Brosnan’s spy thriller The November Man, it’s the perfect time for this critic to list my picks for the top 10 best spy films ever made.

10. FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940) – Starring Joel McRae and George Sanders

Directed by the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock back before he’d even received that title, Foreign Correspondent focuses on a young American journalist, Johnny Jones (Joel McRae). Jones is assigned to the London desk from New York and while working on a story about a secret treaty agreement between two European countries on the eve of WWII, he ends up being hunted by Nazi spies. The film has an excellent cast with a stand-out performance by George Sanders as ffolliott, another reporter who ends up saving Jones time and time again due to his knowledge of the spy world. With a vivid assassination scene in the rain, a fight to the death in a windmill, and a breathtaking plane crash – especially for the 1940s movie-going audience – Hitchcock had made the first action-packed spy thriller that set the tone for the films that would follow in subsequent decades.

Top 10 Spy Films

9. THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007) – Starring Matt Damon and Julia Stiles

The third entry in the Bourne series is arguably the best with Matt Damon really owning the role of the spy on the run who’s still trying to discover his real identity and how he became such a lethal killer. The Bourne Ultimatum also shows more of his past than any of the first two films and has the most thrilling chase-on-foot sequence, with Bourne trying to catch up to an assassin before he murders Nicky Parsons (Stiles). Stiles returns as Nicky, Bourne’s ally and travel companion as well as the love from his past. The film boasts a stand-out cast that includes Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, and Albert Finney.

8. CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER (1994) – Starring Harrison Ford and Willem Dafoe

The third film based on author Tom Clancy’s spy novels focuses on Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) being promoted to Deputy Director of the CIA after his boss, Admiral Greer (James Earl Jones), becomes terminally ill. When one of the President’s closest friends and his family are murdered by drug smugglers, the White House decides to begin a secret and illegal war against the drug cartels in Columbia without Congress or Ryan knowing. Things get even more complicated for Ryan when after a few months the President and his advisers change their minds and decide to abruptly end the war, leaving the Special Ops team with no support and at the mercy of the enemy. It falls to Ryan to not only get proof and reveal the truth, but to risk both his career and his life to go down to Colombia, make contact with John Clark (Willem Dafoe), and find a way to save the rest of the Special Ops survivors/prisoners.

With tight pacing, a well written script, two stand-out performances by both Ford and Dafoe as two men who don’t trust each other but have to learn to work together to save their men, Clear and Present Danger is a suspenseful, fast-paced and dramatic espionage film.

7. THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975) – Starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway

Joe Turner (Robert Redford) is a bookworm/researcher for the CIA who comes back from getting lunch for everyone to find all his co-workers assassinated. Shocked, scared, and out of his element, Condor (Turner’s code name) must struggle to avoid the hit team who are still hunting for him while attempting to figure out who ordered the hit and who he can trust inside the agency to bring him in from the cold.

With a stellar cast led by Redford and including Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, John Houseman, and Max von Sydow, plus an extremely strong script and excellent direction from Sydney Pollack, Three Days of the Condor is a realistic and suspenseful spy movie that captures the paranoia and fear of being disconnected and alone in the world of espionage.

Top 10 Spy Films

6. THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990) – Starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin

In the mid 1980s Russia’s best submarine captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) violates his orders, takes the newest Russian sub off course, and heads to the United States. Is he trying to defect or launch a missile attack on his homeland? One CIA analyst, Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin), who has studied the captain for years and actually met him realizes that Ramius is trying to defect. With the Russians telling the US Government Ramius is a rogue captain trying to start a war and hardly anyone except his boss believing his theory, Ryan is forced to go out into the middle of the hunt and try to find Ramius and make contact with him before it’s too late.

Directed by John McTiernan (Die Hard), The Hunt for Red October is a thrilling action-packed sea adventure with a spy thrown in the middle of the action. Connery delivers a wonderful performance as Ramius, the cunning Soviet Captain who has had enough of communism and yearns for a new life in America. A very young Alec Baldwin is solid as the CIA analyst who gets unwillingly promoted to agent to go and find Ramius and prove his theory before the Russians find him and sink him. The action scenes and the look of the submarines and ships are breathtaking, making The Hunt for Red October one of the best spy action films of all time.

5. FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963) – Starring Sean Connery and Robert Shaw

James Bond 007 (Sean Connery) is on assignment to find and bring back to London a Russian decoding machine known as the Lektor. 007 needs to get to the machine before SPECTRE, the evil organization that’s also after the Lektor, gets to it first. What Bond doesn’t know is that SPECTRE has created the opportunity for 007 to get close to the Lektor so that he will unknowingly steal it for them so they can kill him and sell the Lektor back to the Russians for a big price.

The second film in the Bond series is perhaps the closest to actual espionage of all the Bond films, being inspired by a real British Intelligence mission during WWII. Sean Connery is perfect as James Bond Agent 007, the best Her Majesty’s Secret Service has to offer. In this film Connery shows both sides of his character: the suave, charming gentleman, and the precise, extremely effective killer who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. The fight on the Orient Express between Bond and SPECTRE’s number one assassin, Grant (Robert Shaw), is one of the best, most realistic fights in the film franchise.

Top 10 Spy Films

4. 13 RUE MADELEINE (1947) – Starring James Cagney and Richard Conte

Set during WWII, 13 Rue Madeleine tells the story of the OSS – the precursor to the CIA. Focusing on spy chief Bob Sharkey (James Cagney), the spy chief discovers while training his new agents to get ready for missions over in Europe that one of his agents, Bill O’ Connell (Richard Conte), is really a Nazi spy trying to get information on the Allied invasion. Hoping to fool the Germans, Sharkey gives false information to the Nazi spy but, unfortunately, he realizes it and makes his way back to occupied France. Knowing every agent who trained with O’Connell is in jeopardy while O’ Connell is still alive, Sharkey heads to occupied France to both complete the original mission of finding a secret V-2 rocket depot and find and kill O’ Connell.

Shot in documentary style and telling the origin of the real OSS and how they both selected and trained their agents, 13 Rue Madeleine is the most realistic spy movie ever made. In fact, it was so realistic and accurate the real OSS chief “Wild Bill” Donovan objected to both showing a traitor in the OSS ranks and Cagney’s character being too similar to himself. Thus the OSS in the film was changed to 077 and Cagney’s character revamped to not be so close to Donovan.

It’s a tight, riveting war thriller that captures the dangers and sacrifices these agents made for their country during the war.

3. ARGO (2012) – Starring Ben Affleck and Bryan Cranston

On November 4, 1979, the Iranian revolution escalates as militants storm the U.S. Embassy in Tehran taking 52 American hostages. During the chaos six Americans escape and find temporary refuge in the home of the Canadian Ambassador. The White House, along with the CIA, know it’s only a matter of time before the revolutionaries find the six and most likely execute them, so they reluctantly greenlight Tony Mendez’s risky plan to get them out. Mendez (Ben Affleck), along with his contact and friend in the movie business, make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), set out to create the most outrageous cover story in spy history: that Mendez and the six Americans are a Canadian film crew scouting countries for a new science fiction movie. In order to sell the cover story and make it seem real to the world, Chambers and Mendez have to convince a big Hollywood producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), to help them by putting his name on the fake film which is now complete with a real script, storyboards, and a publicity campaign.
With everything in place, Mendez heads off to Iran with the forged papers, passports, credentials and script. His goal: to meet up with the six Americans and try to get them through the Iranian rebels and on a plane headed to home.

Based on a true story and directed by Affleck, Argo is a suspenseful, dramatic, historical thriller that had audiences on the edge of their seats up to the very end. This is a riveting film that’s flawlessly directed by Affleck, who captures the look, tension, feel and emotions of the 1979 Iran revolution perfectly.

Argo is full of stunning performances, including a wonderful stand-out performance by Alan Arkin as the big-time movie producer who without his help the rescue cover story would never have gotten off the ground. He adds humor and a real sense of morals to a compelling film. Bryan Cranston delivers one of his best performances as Jack O’Donnell, Mendez’s boss who goes above and beyond trying to protect and cover his friend and colleague when things quickly begin to unravel.

2. NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) – Starring Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint

Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a New York advertising executive, finds himself mixed up with foreign spies when he’s mistaken for a government agent named George Kaplan and is chased across the country by both the spy organization trying to kill him and the police who believe he committed a murder. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, North by Northwest is the crowning masterpiece of all the spy films Hitchcock made. Cary Grant is perfectly cast as the charming Thornhill who gets thrust into the spy world and struggles to both stay alive and clear his name. Eve Marie Saint gives a flawless performance as Eve Kendall, the beautiful and mysterious woman who will either be Thornhill’s salvation or undoing. Both Grant and Saint have wonderful chemistry together. James Mason is a gentleman’s villain in the film as the head of the foreign spy ring, and the scenes in which he and Cary Grant play off each other are some of the best in the film. Plus, the classic and exciting chase on top of the Washington Monument in the climax of the film is pure cinematic magic.

Top 10 Spy Films

1. GOLDFINGER (1964) – Starring Sean Connery and Gert Frobe

Bond (Sean Connery) is back to investigate international jeweler Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) who’s suspected of illegally smuggling gold from country to country. 007 soon discovers he’s dealing with a master criminal who plans on raiding Fort Knox to obliterate the world’s economy and increase the value of his gold 10 times over.

The quintessential Bond film, Goldfinger sets the structure and tone for almost all the Bond films to follow. It has it all, a villain who is smarter than Bond; beautiful and dangerous woman; and gadgets including the most popular and best known 007 car the Aston Martin DB5 which includes machine guns, bullet proof windows, rear bullet deflector and the passenger ejector seat. The action scenes are first rate, in particular the battle at Fort Knox and the final showdown between Bond and Goldfinger on board a small private jet plane. No spy film to date has been able to surpass this classic 007 adventure.

– By Kevin Finnerty

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