Best Spy Films

Is Michael Caine really the greatest spy of all time…?

What is the allure with espionage? Where does the public fascination come from? Is it the admiration of the lone man (or woman) who, using his (or her) advanced tactical survival skills, against all odds, manages to find the right combination of intelligence tidbits, which added up, end the evil machinations of runaway discretionary programs of the CIA’s leader elite? That’s the gist of the Bourne Trilogy (the film versions anyway): if you awakened and realized you were a straight up CIA-trained ninja, would you continue to assassinate just anyone for the clandestine wing of your country’s not-so-clandestine intelligence agency? Or would you go rogue and become the rugged individualist we all pretend to admire and aspire to be? Because at the heart of it, that’s what it’s all about: Survival & Individualism. The eschewing of the Social Contract for the greater good. Usually anyway. Patriotism tends to get convoluted and mired in bureaucratic red tape.

So did the CIA's longterm planning foresee such a cause and effect? Is there unbiased longterm planning at all? Click To Tweet

Best Spy Films

The Art of Intelligence – Even the cover is intelligent…

Henry A. Crumpton, in The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, reveals the human side of the clandestine service. His title is taken from two books: The Art of War by Sun Tzu and The Craft of Intelligence by longtime CIA Director Allen Dulles. His thesis, that the heart of intelligence is “human espionage,” is not so much anti-techno-bureaucracy as it is revelatory of the importance of human emotion. “Emotion, of course, can undermine and destroy human relationships and lives, especially in the espionage world.” He goes on, “At its most elemental, spying is about understanding and influencing the scope of behavior, from evil to exalted, and maneuvering through this emotional labyrinth in pursuit of valuable information otherwise unavailable.” Espionage is access. And wherever you go, depending on whom it’s directed, it’s illegal as hell.

Look at what happens when the tables are turned on the establishment, from Wikileaks’ Julian Assange (designated as an “enemy of state” by the U.S. government) and Chelsea Manning to U.S. authorities charging Edward Snowden with “theft of U.S. government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person…”, the latter two charges falling under the U.S. Espionage Act. And now there is Edward Snowden.

It is naive to say that we don’t need a clandestine service, but how much and to what end? Is it not our obsession with espionage that necessitates it? The CIA-trained Mujahideen fought a proxy war against the USSR and were then split up in a grueling civil war for twelve years when the Cold War ended and financing the American spy state dwindled as discretionary budgets dried up and U.S. dollars and infrastructure failed to follow up our initial mission. The Taliban eventually rose to power, thus enabling a terrorist state that gave shelter to Al-Qaeda. This, according to the Obama-commissioned report produced by the CIA on how arming rebels does not work, is the greatest success story. So did the CIA’s longterm planning foresee such a cause and effect? Is there unbiased longterm planning at all? With all the taxpayer money spent abroad, shouldn’t there be? Does the innate fear that the American people, and people in general, are not sufficiently mentally equipped to handle the hard truths of how the world really works, still function? Has it ever? Whence this real-world apathy on the one hand and this film spy-mania on the other?

In his recent book Sincerity, R. Jay Magill Jr. talks about how “sincerity has a lot to do with our religious traditions. America was founded on the church…they were these wacky Puritans who wanted to create an absolutely transparent society. (They believed) there should be no secrets, personality should be transparent, we should reveal all motives at all times to all members of the community — because that’s what God wants. And that led to a miserably crushing and horrible society where everyone was afraid. They were afraid not only of being spied on, but also that they were not of the elect.”

Best Spy Films

Best Spy FIlms

Harry Caul is about to discover the worst thing ever in the toilet…

While today it is a combination of Thriller and Action genres, its roots as a mixture of Film Noir to Suspense and Murder Mystery, the Espionage genre too has been taken to its penultimate in story-telling before anyone else got a chance, by the director most obsessed with the subtle twisting of human emotions under duress: Alfred Hitchcock. A good portion of his filmography reads like a spy-lover’s guidebook on how to inadvertently get into the spy game. Beyond the genius of 39 Steps and whether it’s faking your own death as in Secret Agent (1936), uncovering a terrorist plot as in Sabotage (1936), vacationing Africa with your family as in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1939, remade in 1956), being accused of a terrorist plot as in Saboteur (1942) or a case of mistaken identity in North By Northwest (1959), Hitchcock used the espionage trope as a means of exploring the myriad persona of human emotion we embody, often simultaneously, to the extent that we actually come to embody the mask we are given. i.e. we are all actually some measure of the spy.

...we couldn't survive with the popular impression of this agency being formed by the last Will Smith movie Click To Tweet

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), filmed during the Watergate era, centers around a sound surveillance expert named Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) with his own mind-boggling privacy issues, who discovers more than he bargains when his recording of a conversation in a crowded public square makes Caul think twice about what he’s involved in. The ultimate depiction of the conflicted American techno-pro who finally discovers what it means to be human, including arriving late to the party.

The ostensible sequel to The Conversation, Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998) is better than his own Spy Game (2001), but not by much. And mostly due to Gene Hackman’s energetic portrayal of retired NSA agent-gone-underground Edward Lyle. So true to life is Enemy that Former NSA Director Gen. Michael Hayden “was appalled” by the portrayal of the NSA and responded with a PR campaign (ostensibly the worst PR campaign ever), as written in State of War: The Secret History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration by James Risen (2006). “I made the judgment that we couldn’t survive with the popular impression of this agency being formed by the last Will Smith movie,” he told CNN in a 2001 segment “Inside the NSA: The Secret World of Electronic Spying”.

To wit: a tense Hollywood spy thriller depicting rogue NSA agents reading emails, intercepting phone calls, and persecuting innocent citizens. The then-director of the NSA categorically denies this depiction in the Sunday morning talk circuit of the mainstream media. The NSA then creates (a) program(s) that more or less does this exact type of thing (minus Jason Robards killing senators). As Oscar Wilde wrote in his 1889 essay, The Decay of Lying, “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Indeed. The more realistic spy thrillers become the higher the expectations of the viewer. Showing the NSA bugging peoples’ lives at will in 1998 doesn’t work in 2013. What’s next? Independent para-military contractors deployed as NGO workers in disaster areas? Computerized drone strikes occur at random on American soil blamed on terrorist militia cells? Brad Pitt as zombie infiltrator to help fight armies of the undead? Or do we go back to zero and show how the boring and bureaucratic the system really is?

Best Spy Films

The spies populating John le Carre’s novels are every quiet man you pass on the street

“When I first began writing,” the realistic spy-thriller author John le Carré relates, “Ian Fleming was riding high and the picture of the spy was that of a character who could have affairs with women, drive a fast car, who used gadgetry and gimmickry to escape.” Le Carré, the creator of George Smiley – super-schlub rather than super-spy, opts for the methodical and the mundane — believability over design. Among the number of his novels which have been filmed, the most recent (although A Most Wanted Man is set for release this year) is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) directed by Tomas Alfredson (Låt Den Rätte Komma In– 2008). Though what may have projected the spy novel as billion dollar film goer fanfare would be The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, le Carré’s 1963 Cold War era novel (he wrote the screenplay as well) that starred Richard Burton as the troubled Alec Leamas on one last mission. If you know le Carré’s style and have chanced to have seen other lone hero films directed by Martin Ritt (Hud – 1963, Norma Rae – 1979), you know how this one ends. Other films include The Deadly Affair (1966), The Looking Glass War (1969), The Little Drummer Girl (1984), The Russia House (1990), The Tailor of Panama (2001), The Constant Gardener (2005).

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What about Michael Caine as the ultimate anti-Bond archetype? It seems that before he began starring in films about World War II and the criminal underworld (Play Dirty, The Italian Job, Get Carter), he was a notoriously effective spy (although gauche by today’s high tech standards), he embodied a nice mix of both Sean Connery’s blue-collar ruggedness and Roger Moore’s professional effeteness (he does his own shopping at the grocery store, but he buys imported items). If you can find them, the entire Harry Palmer Series (based partially on Len Deighton’s novels), especially The Ipcress File, deserves note, as does Don Siegel’s The Black Windmill (1974), originally the Clive Egleton novel Seven Days to a Killing, with Caine as MI-5 operative John Tarrant. John MacKenzie’s action-spy thriller The Fourth Protocol (1987), by Frederick Forsyth, featured Caine as British intelligence agent John Preston and Pierce Brosnan as bad-guy Russian agent Major Valeri Petrofsky.

It seems the 60s and 70s were particularly pregnant with overly-long and circuitous spy thrillers. And mining the Nazis for proportionate enemies remained a particular goldmine up through the Indiana Jones series. The Quiller Memorandum (1966) directed by Michael Anderson (Logan’s Run) situates itself in 1960s Cold War-era West Berlin, where Quiller (George Segal) is sent by controller Alec Guinness to investigate a neo-Nazi organisation, yet everyone seems to be aware of what is happening except for him. The prolific author Fredrick Forsyth figures heavily in the military-politico-espionage realm, having penned director Fred Zinnemann’s political thriller The Day of the Jackal (1973), about an attempt by the assassin named “Jackal” on the life of French President Charles DeGaulle. Forsyth also wrote the political thriller The Odessa File (1974), with Jon Voight as a German reporter searching for missing Nazi war criminals who have incorporated in 1963 Hamburg, to continue their plan for the downfall of the Israeli people, with Maximilian Schell as the evil villain. Marathon Man with a young Dustin Hoffman who plays a paranoid runner to perfection is a great example of using ex-Nazis as narrative expedients. Tough to get through Laurence Olivier’s gruelling dental work, but great shots of Central Park in New York make this more than worth watching.

Best Spy Films

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others

What happens on the other side of the curtain? The debut from German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006), focuses in on the monitoring of East Berlin citizens by agents of the Stasi. The Stasi, the GDR’s secret police, one of the largest “clandestine” forces ever, rivals China’s MSS (Ministry for State Security) for employing one half of the population to spy on the other half. The Spy (Шпион, 2011) is a Russian thriller starring Fyodor Bondarchuk based on Boris Akunin’s spy novel set in an unbelievably beautiful 1941 Moscow. In one of the most expensive Russian films ever made, the lead up to the outbreak of WWII is reimagined as part futuristic fantasy and part historical reenactment with high production value. Steven Spielberg’s Munich tells of a contemplative Mossad agent played by the appreciably low-key and astute Eric Bana leads a team to hunt down and kill the Black September terrorists responsible for the slaughter of the Israeli Olympic team in 1972 Munich games. The terrorists think they’ve gotten away with it, and the disavowed Mossad agents have no idea what kind of emotional torture they will be in for. Spielberg proves that he still has some talent left with suitable pacing, decent action sequences and a less than heavy handed and overly-sentimental approach to depicting such a horrible ordeal, at least through the first hour anyway.

Enter Cold War military industrial espionage writer Robert Ludlum, famous for The Bourne Identity brought to the big screen by Doug Liman, who decided to forgo the Cold War era plot by updating the retrograde amnesiac super-seal-team assassin Jason Bourne to modern-day CIA infiltration warfare and guilt-plagued hand-wringing. With a good soundtrack and interesting POV cinematography (often handheld by the director himself), Liman manages to pull off a coup. The sequels, directed by Paul Greengrass, are notable for their flash-cut fight scenes and Matt Damon brooding over the mystery of his identity and the death of his German kidnap victim-turned-lover. Not, as most of these 10 Best Spy Movies sites claim, the best of the genre, but not bad for nursing a rainy Sunday morning hangover with bloody marys. However, one of Ludlum’s novels-turned-film worth watching — the plot-twisting CIA-centric The Osterman Weekend (1983) — despite the fact that Sam Peckinpah hated the script to his final film so much, he made it almost nonsensical, leaving gaping holes in the story. Still, like sex and pizza, bad Peckinpah is pretty good.

Sydney Pollack’s box-office hit Three Days of the Condor (1975) — based on James Grady’s novel Six Days of the Condor (apparently they couldn’t afford to film the three extra days…) — starred Robert Redford as a targeted US CIA-intelligence researcher on the run from the always creepy Max Von Sydow. Notable for Redford’s character kidnapping an innocent woman and holding her hostage in order to survive, and eventually coming to love her (Jason Bourne anyone?). This portrayal could have opened the door for Redford to star alongside Sydney Poitier in the Phil Alden Robinson thriller Sneakers (1992), which details a ragtag olio of ex-intelligence professionals trying to obtain a code-breaking machine that could penetrate any computer system on Earth.

Best Spy Films

David Mamet’s Spartan

The best, should a few have to be lifted above a solid selection of cerebral action thrillers, would have to be David Mamet’s Spartan. Though the film is fast-paced and intelligently written — in typical Mamet fashion — and offers what may be one of Val Kilmer’s best roles ever in his portrayal of Delta Force Gunnery Sergeant Bobby Scott, the film feels almost purposefully flawed. The ending is a touch too cliche and neat for Mamet, who later went on to write and produce the outstanding television series, The Unit, based on similar clandestine army ranger activities as Spartan: One Riot, One Ranger. Mamet is the ultimate in paradoxical writer/director in that he is so good at cutting out the unnecessary bits, yet requires at least four seasons of a television show (unfortunately, it was cancelled by the idiots at CBS) to develop something up to his own standard.

Also written by David Mamet is Ronin, the final film from John Frankenheimer worth watching. Starring Robert Deniro in an understated role as CIA agent-turned-mercenary leading a team of unknown quantities into a job that has nothing to do with the real target, the action is taut and well-paced. This should have been Mission Impossible, but alas the Hollywood experiment has failed us all. Frankenheimer also directed The Manchurian Candidate (1962), the ultimate in mind-bending double-agent morality plays, which works so well because of the impeccable acting from Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey and even Frank Sinatra. Terence Young’s The Triple Cross (1967), based on a true story, ups the ante on the double-agent genre, starred Christopher Plummer as Eddie Chapman, a safe-cracker who joined with the Germans during the war, and then became a British double-agent. Double agents are not typically thought of in the sense that the Hong Kong crime-thriller Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak (2002) creates where the police have infiltrated a large local crime syndicate and the same crime syndicate has infiltrated the police. This stand out trilogy was remade as The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006).

Notable for their staggering amount of pure technical information (making the State Department somewhat nervous) and their popularity with middle America, need we mention the 1990s? Must-not-sees are Tom Clancy’s techno-thriller novels centering on all-American hero and CIA agent Jack Ryan: in The Hunt for Red October (1990) with Alec Baldwin, Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994) with Harrison Ford, and The Sum of All Fears (2002) with Ben Affleck. Watch Argo and encrypt your email instead.

One must decide in what kind of world one wants to live. A world of verdant growth, trust amongst the people and in governmental and corporate institutions, and justice or a protracted world of mistrust, double-dealing and living behind any number of masks? Does our obsession with espionage have anything to do with anything other than advancing and protecting American Business Interests, i.e. securing the world of free radicals so that free markets may reign? In the end is it just good, clean (or rather, dirty) entertainment? Does it matter that we seem to be projecting a secretive and mistrustful psyche onto the world? Rather than who is a spy, should we be asking who isn’t?