Love spy movies? Looking for something new to watch? We’ve put together a list of our favorites. There are old classics as well as modern masterpieces (in our opinion anyway)!
Have you ever gone to the movie theater and seen something that keeps you thinking long after the credits have rolled? In fact, while the movie was on, you were so involved in the spectacle that you had no idea when you finished the extra size popcorn you bought? Well, today we’ve put together a list of some of these movies. Like good books, good movies never really fade out even after the curtains fall.
This is a list of eight of the best spy movies of all time. Our list is sure to stir opinion in what is a very subjective topic. Anyway, we’d love to know what you think down in the comments section at the bottom of the page.
8. North by Northwest
North by Northwest is an American thriller made in 1959, directed and produced by the infamous Alfred Hitchcock. James Mason, Cary Grant, and Eva Marie Saint star in the film. Ernest Lehman wrote the screenplay, stating that it was the film “to end all Hitchcock pictures.”
The movie is about a New York advertising executive who is mistaken for an agent by foreign spies. He is pursued across the U.S. by unknown, foreign agents of some unknown organization. This group seeks to smuggle government secrets out of the country via microfilm, and he is in their path. The executive seeks ways to fight back and survive as he avoids this unknown group.
It was actually selected by the US Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry back in 1995. Movies that make the cut are selected because they are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. They are stored here to “ensure the survival, conservation, and increased public availability of America’s film heritage”.
If that’s not reason enough to see North by Northwest, it’s also commonly found on lists of the greatest movies of all time. This is one of the classics that can’t be missed!
7. From Russia With Love
It’s not unusual to find a James Bond movie on lists that have anything to do with spying and action. From Russia with Love is an old one that has stood the tests of time. It was actually made in Britain way back in 1963. Produced by Eon Productions’ Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, it is also Sean Connery’s second role as MI6 agent James Bond. Johanna Harwood and Richard Maibaun wrote the film based on a novel of the same name written by Ian Fleming in 1957. In addition, Terence Young was the director.
Check out the video below to see one of the most famous scenes from the movie.
In the film, James Bond battles an unknown organization called SPECTRE, run by Russians Kronsteen and Rosa Klebb, who are hunting for a decoding device called Lektor. They use the beautiful and sexy Tatiana (Daniela Bianchi) as a bait in order to get Bond to help them. Bond meets up with Tatiana in Istanbul as he was to assist a Soviet clerk in their defection. SPECTRE had already made plans to kill Bond in order to avenge Dr. No’s death and for destroying their organization’s assets in the Caribbean.
It took $78 million in box office money, which was a huge amount of cash for a movie back in the 60s. It may not be the most artistic piece of filmmaking ever, but it sure is fun! A list of the top spy movies of all time wouldn’t be complete without at least one appearance by Bond.
6. The Bourne Identity
This movie is an action spy thriller movie based on the book of the same name by Robert Lundum. It is a 2002 action thriller directed by Doug Liman.
It is about Jason Bourne (played by Matt Damon), a CIA assassin who suffers from extreme memory loss. Bourne is discovered floating on the Mediterranean with two injuries to his back from a gunshot, and a number for a Swiss safety deposit box implanted in his hip. While he doesn’t remember his true name, he adopts the name of Jason Bourne after finding the name on a passport in the box alongside a large number of different currencies, a gun, and additional foreign passports. In a bid to find out who he is, he realizes that he is the target of a professional assassin.
Bourne cuts off any connections to the CIA while uniting with the rebellious Marie Kreutz (Franka Potente), a woman who tries to help him figure out how he lost his memory. Bourne is the master of stealth and he uses some pretty ingenious ideas to avoid detection.
This movie reinvented modern spy movies and harks back to classic Bond movies of the past. It’s fast paced, full of intrigue, and really suspenseful. A modern classic!
5. Casino Royale
Another James Bond movie, Casino Royale was released in 2006. Furthermore, it’s the 21st in Eon Productions’ James Bond movies. It’s also the 3rd adaptation made for the screen, based on the 1953 Ian Fleming novel. Martin Campbell directed the film, and it was written by Paul Haggis, Robert Wade, and Neal Purvis. Furthermore, it’s the first film starring Daniel Craig in the role of James Bond.
The film takes place at the beginning of Bond’s spy career. Bond obtains his 00-agent status as well as a license to kill after he assassinates the chief of MI6, Dryden in Prague at the British Embassy (he was thought to be a traitor). In addition, he also kills Dryden’s terrorist contact, Fisher, in Pakistan as part of a contract.
Terrorist financier Le Chiffre uses the money entrusted to him to help African warlord Obanno, to bet on the aerospace company Skyfleet’s failure. Bond chases down Mollaka, a bomb maker to an African Embassy in Madagascar, where Bond kills him and causes the building to blow up. Following clues from Mollaka, Bond tracks down a corrupt Greek official in the Bahamas and follows him to the airport where the Skyfleet airliner is set for launch. Bond thwarts the bombing which resulted in Le Chiffre losing the investment.
To gain additional funds, Le Chiffre sets up a Texas Hold-Em tournament with high stakes at Casino Royale in Montenegro. Using his MI6 influence, Bond gets into the tournament with a mind to force Le Chiffre into a corner and make him seek safety from the British government, who plan to help him in exchange for important information about his clients.
Casino Royale is a far departure from classic Bond movies of the past. It shows Bond as a vulnerable and inexperienced spy who isn’t invincible. This is very different to the Bonds portrayed before who were pretty much untouchable.
4. Dr. No
This is the spy/thriller movie that really kick-started the James Bond saga. It starred Sean Connery, Ursula Andress as Honey Rider and Joseph Wiseman as Julius No. It was released in 1962.
In this action-packed movie, Agent 007 (Sean Connery) engages a mysterious scientific genius by the name of Dr. No, who plans to destroy the United States space program. To thwart the disaster, Bond goes to Jamaica and as the countdown to the disaster starts, he meets the beautiful Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress). He proceeds to confront the megalomaniacal villain, Dr. No, on his gigantic island headquarters and destroy his criminal plot.
This one really kicked off the Bond empire and invented the classic Bond agent that we all remember. It’s a far cry from modern 007 movies like Casino Royale, but this is where it all started.
3. Zero Dark Thirty
When it was released in 2013, Zero Dark Thirty quickly became one of the best spy movies of all time.
Zero Dark Thirty is a must-see spy movie because it is based on one of the biggest real-life thrillers in the world. Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of how Osama Bin Laden was caught in 2011. The full tale, from beginning to bloody end.
An intense and gritty behind the scenes look at the ten-year hunt for the world’s most wanted, Zero Dark Thirty is an insight into something that affected us all. Just like the main character we too are watching, learning and waiting.
We understand the stakes, but director Katherine Bigelow shows us the cost of the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden after the September the 11th attack.
Zero Dark Thirty gives us a raw insight into the tensest of situations. Its success is to reveal the inner workings of the U.S. military and intelligence, at a deeper level than we have seen before.
The transparent look at CIA operations has us hooked from the start. However, the film’s level of realism landed the CIA and the Obama administration in serious trouble when the film was released, for revealing too much.
Each of the main characters can be traced back to the real people involved in the mission. Further, the film’s exposure of torture, detention and other undercover military tactics added to the controversy.
Jessica Chastain plays the main character, Maya, a CIA intelligence analyst. The rest of the all-star cast includes Jennifer Ehle, who plays an agent (widely accepted to be based on CIA agent Jennifer Matthews), as well as Joel Edgerton as squadron team leader.
We all know how the story ends, but until Zero Dark Thirty we didn’t know the precise details of how U.S. intelligence got to that point.
Like The West Wing, Homeland and 24, Zero Dark Thirty is fascinating because we get to see and hear the things that usually occur behind closed, classified doors. It is two and a half hours into the world of the CIA, in all of its dirty glory.
There is no holding back from the unsavory aspects of the department, with torture, CIA Black Sites, and dead agents in full throttle.
Some of the finer details of the exact things that were said and done by the real people depicted in the movie have been disputed. However, overall this is a real account of the 10-year manhunt for Osama Bin Laden.
The sheer effort to condense 10 years of the world’s biggest manhunt into two and a half hours of film, is achievement enough. For all of the gloss that we are used to, this film is gutsy, spellbinding and refreshing.
Met with widespread critical acclaim, Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, as well as four Golden Globes. Jessica Chastain went on to win the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture- Drama for her portrayal of Maya.
Without a doubt, Zero Dark Thirty is one of the greatest tales of espionage ever.
2. Mission Impossible
At the other end of the scale, Mission Impossible is one of our favorite spy tales in the world not so much for the storyline but for the action-packed scenes that never seem to end. All of our wildest dreams rolled into a couple of hours of completely impossible, but totally enthralling film.
Mission Impossible, much in the way the Bond films do, allows us to live out our fantasies on screen – at high speed. It is everything that we want from a film. The modern equivalent of James Bond, Mission Impossible is crazy, sexy, cool – on a big budget.
Everything is bold, brash and fast. The formula means that we know how it begins and ends, so we can relax and enjoy the mission. Better still, when it is finished, we know that there will be another along soon. And there certainly have been plenty more.
We have had:
- Mission Impossible, 1996
- Mission Impossible 2, 2000
- Mission Impossible III, 2006
- Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, 2011
- Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, 2015
- Mission Impossible: Fallout, 2018
And we know there will be more.
With our Peter Pan-esque Tom Cruise at the helm, we can also rest assured that we won’t have to worry about a change to the lead role either. The pure escapism is that we don’t need to believe any of it – we can just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Tom Cruise plays agent Ethan Hunt, a special operative for the Impossible Mission Force. In charge of a small team, Ethan’s fast-paced, action-packed mission is always impossibly dangerous. But we know he will do it.
High-octane from the opening seconds, all the way to the end, we are fascinated to see how Ethan will get out of each impossible situation.
We watch spy movies to escape, and the Mission Impossible films give us that ramped up to the max. For that reason, the Mission Impossible films are some of the best espionage movies ever.
1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has all of the basic ingredients that a great spy movie needs. A tale of cold war espionage, treachery, and leaks within the MI6, this film is sophisticated, sharp, realistic and satisfying.
Set in the 1970s, we get an old-school style spy film with all of the twists and turns that we want. On the edge of our seat, we are gripped as we wait to find out who the mole in the MI6 is.
In sharp contrast to the gloss of today, we go back to a time when things were rough around the edges and espionage was at its most menacing.
Based on the 1974 book, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre, the story had already been made into a mini-series that was shown on the BBC in 1979.
Thus, director Tomas Alfredson had his work cut out with the 2011 film. However, he didn’t disappoint, after releasing the tale of seventies espionage to critical acclaim in 2011, it won BAFTAs for Best British Film and Best Adapted Screenplay in 2012.
Dark and brooding, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy requires our full attention, as we soak up every detail. Agent Smiley is forced back into the world of cold war espionage to find the Russian mole in the MI6.
With a cast that is nothing short of the best of British, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy stars: Gary Oldman as George Smiley, John Hurt as Control, and Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth and Mark Strong in supporting roles.
The complex plot and ‘who-dunnit’ nature of the 2011 film, are the reasons that this is one of the top spy movies we’ve encountered.
We’d love to know what you think of our list of the best spy movies. Have something to say? Let us know in the comments section down below!
Ever wondered how to make some of the spy gadgets made famous in these movies? Check out our guide to making a parabolic microphone.
By Copyrighted by Loew’s, Incorporated. Incorporates artwork by Saul Bass [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons