Perhaps you’ve noticed — 2015 is truly the year of the spy movie. Guy Ritchie‘s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” (our review here) opens this week, but it is only one of many secret agent-themed films to be popping up: “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” is still in theaters; Paul Feig‘s “Spy” is barely gone; onetime Ritchie cohort Matthew Vaughn had his own “Kingsman: The Secret Service” open earlier in the year; still to come is Steven Spielberg‘s “Bridge of Spies,” which will play the New York Film Festival; “Hitman: Agent 47” which strangely didn’t secure a festival berth; maybe we’ll see Brit TV spinoff movie “Spooks: the Greater Good“; and … and… hmm, what are we forgetting? There’s definitely another little under-the-radar spy flick happening, something low-key that no one expects much of… oh yeah… “Spectre.” Sam Mendes‘ second Bond film arrives in November to break a bunch of records prior to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” breaking them all over again come December.
READ MORE: For Your Eyes Only: Watch This 3-Minute Supercut Of Spy Movies
It’s an unusually populous slate, but with the genre as massive as it is, and experiencing an upsurge in popularity in recent years (it has waxed and waned like the phases of the moon), perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised. And if spy films are having a moment, then it’s high time we brought you this collection of genre essentials. Our only rules were that we wanted to keep it as close to the spirit of international governmental espionage as possible (as opposed to corporate espionage, counter terrorism, Nazi-hunting etc), and that where franchises are involved, we’d confine ourselves to a single entry per series. So, like a good grappling hook, a poison-tipped cane, a tuxedo and a working knowledge of parkour, here are 30 spy films, old and new that feel, to us, like de rigueur kit for the modern aficionado. “13 Rue Madeleine” (1947)
“The years of decency and honest living? Forget all about them.” James Cagney‘s Bob Sharkey doesn’t beat around the bush with his new class of secret O77 operatives, right before he learns that one of them is an undercover German agent whom he must suss out. He does so pretty quickly, realizing that Richard Conte‘s Bill O’Connell is a little too good to be a beginner, and formulates a plan to feed him false information in lieu of arresting him on the spot. Big mistake. Henry Hathaway helms “13 Rue Madeleine” (address of the Gestapo offices in France, FYI) as only an expert genre director of Westerns and War films knows how. Reinforced with a punchy script by John Monks Jr. and Sy Bartlett, and a newsreel narrator who imbues the entire picture in semi-doc realism, the actors — as much as the screen loves Cagney and Conte — take a backseat to the plot mechanics. Obstinately bleak right down to the frantic climax, “13 Rue Madeleine” is a spy oldie that still keeps the pulse racing with an impressively realistic take on how grave mistakes can lead to a high body count.
“The 39 Steps” (1935)
Probably the first truly great Hitchcock picture, “The 39 Steps” is a gripping, enormously entertaining chase thriller that feels like it could have been made yesterday. Adapted from the seminal 1915 spy novel by John Buchan, the film sees ordinary Canadian Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) embroiled in an espionage ring after watching a performance at a music hall in London, England. Wrongly identified as a spy and a murderer, he flees London for Scotland, pursued by various agents of the law and the underworld…cue the Hitchcock Icy Blonde, played by Madeleine Carroll. More playful than some of the director’s other films of the period, it’s filled with sight-gags (including Carroll being handcuffed to Donat and dragged every-which-way) that mix nicely with the spy-chase-suspense-thriller narrative, establishing a formula that would serve Hitch well over the decades to come. Donat makes a perfectly dapper, physically impressive lead, who meets mortal peril with debonair quips and self-deprecating charm — it’s a shame it’s his only work with Hitchcock — while Carroll is the template for the Hitchcock female lead, sexy, smart and strong-willed.
“The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007) — Jason Bourne
In 2002, the same year Bond reached his nadir of implausibility while driving around in an invisible car in “Die Another Day,” Doug Liman‘s “The Bourne Identity” opened, and blew the tired tropes of the smarmy, weightless, gadget-driven 007 franchise out of the water; when it returned it wouldn’t look anything like that again. Liman’s film paved the way, but it was arguably subsequent Bourne director Paul Greengrass who really consolidated the new action aesthetic of docu-influenced hand-held camerawork that lent a nervy, realist immediacy to even the most tortuous of plot turns. In “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” Greengrass achieved a rare symbiosis with the material and with lead Matt Damon as the amnesiac spy, and delivered some brilliantly tense filmmaking, particularly in ‘Ultimatum,’ with its brilliant, back-to-basics footchase scenes marking a high watermark for you-are-there action stakes in a blockbuster. And the actual spying malarkey is twistily compelling too, with Tony Gilroy‘s taut, intelligent scripts bringing Robert Ludlum‘s books thrashing and kicking into the 21st century.
A Hitchcock movie in all respects except it wasn’t actually made by Hitchcock, Stanley Donen’s sexy, funny trifle “Charade” is a deeply pleasurable confection that might have almost no substance to it, but would still sit happily in the canon for pure charm. Audrey Hepburn’s lead, Reggie, discovers her husband Charles has been murdered in Paris, with only a charming, mercurial stranger (Cary Grant, taking on four different aliases) who can save her from — or maybe betray her to — the three threatening men chasing her, in the shape of James Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass. The story (based on a novel originally written as a screenplay, a move that feels like it could have come from the film itself) goes through a ridiculous number of twists and turns, but the energy and lightness of touch that Donen brings make the silliness of the story slip down like ice cream — it’s a film built entirely on chemistry, and despite a quarter-century age difference, Grant and Hepburn have it in spades. It’s the rare example of a film that’s more than the sum of its parts, as Jonathan Demme discovered with his leaden remake “The Trouble With Charlie,” which equates to considerably less.
“The Deadly Affair” (1966)
Sadly more stodgy than deadly, compared to the previous year’s “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold,” Sidney Lumet‘s “The Deadly Affair” is an adaptation of John Le Carré‘s first novel that tends to drag with its domesticated subplot but still serves as essential espionage viewing for a number of reasons. We get to enjoy a debonair James Mason playing a role he was born for, British intelligence man Charles Dobbs (a.k.a. Le Carré’s notorious George Smiley, renamed for holding-rights reasons), as he unravels the mystery of the apparent suicide of a man he thought he understood. There’s nothing quite like watching the cogs of an experienced spy’s mind turning in calculated silence, and Mason nails it with considerable panache. He almost gets upstaged, however, by Simone Signoret who gives an unforgettable turn as the dead man’s mysterious widow. Her monologue on the game of espionage, as she sips her tea in beaten acquiescence, is as much a highlight as the climax in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Also worthy of note is Quincy Jones‘ jazzy score, which is unlike anything else you’ll hear in the genre.