Top 10 Spy Films

By Barry Forshaw

Inspired by the release of The Kremlin Letter, we delve into the murky world of spying.

Like their battered protagonists, spy films are relatively few in number. A rarefied breed, they combine the darkness and ambiguous morality of film noir with the gunplay of the action thriller. Of course, Bond is the most visible agent of the genre, but he wasn’t the first and, though he’s recently had some introspective moments, others go far deeper into their heroes’ troubled psyche. Here we present ten of the best, with video clips.

NB. We've limited ourselves to choosing from titles currently available in the UK

The Films

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Countdown, with clips

10. The Bourne Identity

Forget about the workaday Richard Chamberlain adaptation; this pared-to the bone and kinetic piece reinvented Robert Ludlum’s novel (with a low-key Matt Damon as the tough-as-nails, cut-adrift agent). The film launched a barnstorming new franchise (a franchise, moreover, that has made its mark on an older series, via the harder edge of Daniel Craig’s Bond debut, Casino Royale). It’s now widely accepted that Doug Liman’s movie and its follow-ups were better that Ludlum’s formulaic novels. Here's its highly impressive car chase sequence:

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9. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Le Carré’s ‘Karla’ trilogy was a key literary document of the Cold War, and its apogee is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - one the greatest espionage novels of the last century. Tinker, Tailor was subsequently transformed into one of the glories of modern television when it was adapted for the medium with Alec Guinness as Smiley. Here's the memorable opening sequence:

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8. The Kremlin Letter

John Huston lamented the commercial failure at the time of its release of this unique, bizarre film, but it’s now crammed with cult interest, not least for its quite astonishing cast, including (among the spies) Bergman’s actor Max Von Sydow (with another Bergman alumnus, Bibi Andersson, as his wife, whose taste for sadomasochistic sex is her undoing), along with the terrifyingly avuncular Richard Boone, a menacing Orson Welles, and even George Sanders in drag. Noel Behn’s classic novel becomes a truly unique movie – one that, for years, was impossible to see. 

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7. The Deadly Affair

George Smiley is here played impeccably by James Mason – but the character is called Charles Dobbs, for rights reasons. Helping the renamed Smiley is retired police inspector Albert Mendel (Harry Andrews, every inch as exemplary as Mason). Dobbs is the ultimate real-life spy, low key and inconspicuous.  As in The Spy who Came in From the cold, the moral quicksands of modern espionage have rarely been so persuasively conjured on film, with direction (Sidney Lumet) and playing perfectly dovetailed into a film in which human betrayal lays waste to a variety of lives.  Quincy Jones' cool bossa nova theme:

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6. Spione (Masters of Cinema)

The menacing and dark world of espionage has rarely been so memorably created on film as in this consummate piece of cinema, with Fritz Lang’s mastery of expressionist technique at the service of a murky and complex tale of deception and death. The sinister masterspy Haghi is memorably incarnated by Rudolf Klein-Rogge. 

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5. The Ipcress File

Although Sidney J Furie’s direction may look mannered today, this is still a striking reworking of Len Deighton’s groundbreaking novel, with Michael Caine perfectly cast as the bolshie (but haute-cuisine loving) agent, here called Harry Palmer.  With sets by Ken Adam and Bond composer John Barry also doing duty, top quality is assured. But perhaps the key ingredient in a film rich in invention is the late Nigel Green as Palmer’s fussy and unyielding military boss.

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4. Army of Shadows

Time has not dimmed the visceral power of Jean-Pierre Melville’s uncompromising and minatory classic about the high price paid by undercover Resistance agents in Nazi-occupied France.  With strikingly etched performances, the film is as disturbing as the day it was released, notably for the controversial refusal to paint all the members of the Resistance in heroic colours. Perhaps the most persuasive performance in the film is that of Simone Signoret – only one of her impressive gallery of such achievements.

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3. Notorious

Praise for Notorious, one of Hitchock's key masterpieces, is of course unnecessary. But there are always compelling reasons for revisiting Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in this morally queasy espionage classic. Claude Rains is impeccable as ever as the enemy agent that Grant's spy forces Bergman into a relationship with. 

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2. From Russia With Love

Clubland hero Richard Hannay's direct descendant was, of course, Ian Fleming's James Bond, whose second film outing cemented the perfect formula for a series as indestructible as its hero, interpolating colourful locales, highly diverting sex, violence and gracious living into the pulse-accelerating action.  The Hitchcockian elements of this film (including a North by Northwest–inspired aerial strafing for 007) are a piquant reminder that Hitch was once talked about as director for the series.

Buy the DVD for £7.99 / Buy the Blu-ray for £18.99

1. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

John le Carré had reason to be grateful for this perfectly judged film of his novel. Martin Ritt's utterly persuasive adaptation channelled all the key ingredients of the original, aided immeasurably by Paul Dehn’s impeccable screenplay, in which all the equivocations of the espionage world are played out to a devastating conclusion.  The success of the film, of course, rested on the shoulders of Richard Burton as spy Alex Leamas, and he delivered one of his most truthful performances. Here's Burton in full swing:

Buy the DVD for £5.99

Film Listing

Martin Ritt, 1965

£5.99

Recommended Star

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

This adaptation from John le Carre’s novel perfectly captures the rather seedy, d...

DVD

Sidney Lumet, 1966

£5.99

The Deadly Affair

Two inspectors investigate the killing of an ex-Communist government official in this thriller fe...

DVD

John Irvin, 1979

£5.99

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Le Carre's classic spy thriller adapted into an absolutely enthralling piece of t...

DVD

Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969

£11.49

Army of Shadows

Melville's gripping and atmospheric adaptation of Joseph Kessel's seminal wartime novel has been ...

DVD

Alfred Hitchcock, 1946

£5.99

Notorious

A morally ambiguous espionage classic which finds Cary Grant’s spy forcing the daughter of a Nazi...

DVD

Fritz Lang, 1928

£11.99

Recommended Star

Spione (Masters of Cinema)

Newly restored to its original length, Lang's penultimate silent film is a flawle...

DVD

Simon Langton, 1982

£6.99

Recommended Star

Smiley's People

Smiley, a retired spymaster is once again called in to help the 'Circus' when an emigre Soviet Ge...

DVD

Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969

£12.99

Army of Shadows (Studio Canal Collection)

Melville's gripping and atmospheric adaptation of Joseph Kessel's seminal wartime...

Blu-ray

Sidney J. Furie, 1965

£8.99

The Ipcress File

A stylishly laconic Cold War thriller set in seedy 1960s London, The Ipcress File features a qui...

DVD

John Huston, 1970

£6.99

Recommended Star

The Kremlin Letter

Described by legendary French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville as 'magisterial', and featuring an a...

DVD

Sidney J. Furie, 1965

£10.99

The Ipcress File

A stylishly laconic Cold War thriller set in seedy 1960s London, The Ipcress File features a qui...

Blu-ray

Terence Young, 1963

£7.99

From Russia with Love

Sean Connery returns as Secret Service agent James Bond in the second of the series, which sees h...

DVD

Doug Liman, 2002

£8.99

The Bourne Identity

A man is found floating in the Mediterranean Sea and is hauled onto a fishing boat. When the ship...

Blu-ray

Doug Liman, 2002

£5.99

The Bourne Identity (Ultimatum Edition)

A man is found floating in the Mediterranean Sea and is hauled onto a fishing boa...

DVD

Terence Young, 1963

£18.99

From Russia With Love

Sean Connery returns as Secret Service agent James Bond in the second of the series, which sees h...

Blu-ray

Terence Young, 1963

£11.99

From Russia with Love

Sean Connery returns as Secret Service agent James Bond in the second of the series, which sees h...

Blu-ray

Terence Young, 1963

£5.99

From Russia With Love

Sean Connery returns as Secret Service agent James Bond in the second of the series, which sees h...

DVD

Terence Young, 1963

£13.49

From Russia with Love

Sean Connery returns as Secret Service agent James Bond in the second of the series, which sees h...

DVD