The Ipcress File (1965)
“Harry Palmer made a valuable point when he said I’ll do it my way and get it right. A rebel.” So said the great Sir Michael Caine during an interview with Esquire, and we’d have to agree that he’s on to something. For Palmer, service in the MOD is a penance of sorts for his criminal exploits while in the British Army, rather than a career plan. Released in the same year as Sean Connery’s fourth Bond outing, Thunderball, Caine’s Harry Palmer is the anti-007. He shops in supermarkets like cooking (omelets are a specialty) and wants a pay-rise so that he can upgrade his kitchen utensils. Tasked with investigating the brainwashing of sixteen British scientists, Palmer is kidnapped and subjected to the IPCRESS conditioning method, in an attempt to turn him into a double agent. Resisting the process, Palmer purposefully subjects himself to pain while chanting one of Caine’s most iconic quotes, “My. Name. Is. Harry. Palmer!”
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2014)
No one literally no one can match Gary Oldman when he decides to be the devil spymaster. The set-up is simple: “There’s a mole, right at the top of the Circus,” John Hurt’s MI6 spymaster Control tells Gary Oldman’s George Smiley as he tasks him with catching traitor leaking secrets to the Soviets. All the key le Carré themes are here in this stripped-down but unhurried take on the novel – loneliness, frailty, decline – and Oldman’s vast armory of tiny facial flinches and tics make him stand out even in an ensemble of Britain’s more cerebral leading men: alongside Hurt, there’s Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, and Mark Strong. The grimy, grotty, shambling Britain of the 1970s is brilliantly evoked, the tailoring is impeccable, and the final montage, set to Julio Iglesias’ version of Somewhere Beyond the Sea, is as satisfyingly elegant a cinematic conclusion as you’ll see.
The 39 Steps (1935)
What if I told you that this film was a major training film used by the Special Operations Executive, the predecessor of MI6, and OSS the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of CIA during the Second World War. Now we have to admit that Hitchcock was a genius of a director to make this forget about Rear Window and Vertigo for a moment. British film of the 20th century by the BFI is one. In only Hitchcock’s second spy film, released a year after The Man Who Knew Too Much, Robert Donat plays Richard Hannay, an innocent man accused of murder who can only clear his name by uncovering an evil cabal called the 39 Steps. Stylish, relentlessly pacey, and revolutionary in its time, Hitchcock soups up John Buchan’s novel with daring set pieces most famously Hannay’s scramble along the outside of the Flying Scotsman and escape onto the Forth Bridge and adds an erotic charge by shackling the hero to the director’s first icy but irresistible blonde female lead, played by Madeleine Carroll. Hitchcock’s first great thriller introducers the key ingredients of all that were to come: an honorable man caught in a shadowy behemoth’s web; the McGuffin of what the 39 Steps are to keep the action sprinting along; and, most of all, a playful manifestation of the claustrophobic, obsessive relationship with sex he’d return to later in Psycho, Frenzy, Marnie and Vertigo.
North By Northwest (1959)
Tied with Vertigo for the title of ‘Hitchcock’s greatest film’, North By Northwest is the original anti-spy spy film. It’s an espionage tale told from the perspective of the innocent as Cary Grant’s advertising executive Roger Thornhill goes on the run from a shadowy organization in a case of mistaken identity. There are lots to get excited about here, from Thornhill’s devotion to a good suit to the epic finale atop a soundstage Mount Rushmore, not to mention to film’s fantastically hard-boiled dialogue: “I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself ‘slightly’ killed”.Most conversations about the film tend to focus on the now-iconic crop-duster scene (in which Thornhill finds himself in the middle of cornfields, with nowhere to hide as a belligerent pilot swoops down on him) and with good reason – it’s testament to Hitchcock’s ingenuity that a scene so simple – one that eschews the piranha-filled pits, laser beam vasectomies and exotic locals of Bond for a mid-western farmer’s field – still holds up as one of the most menacing chase sequences in film history. All told, North By Northwest remains an iconic film from one of history’s most iconic directors.
Bridge of Spies (2015)
After the none-more-gritty Munich, Steven Spielberg returned to Cold War politicking – but this time he took Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance with him, the latter on the career-high form. Hanks is James B Donovan, an insurance lawyer who is drafted in as a patsy to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance), but sticks to his principles and helps him avoid the death sentence. A few years later, US airman Gary Powers’s U2 spy plane is shot down over Russia, and Donovan is tapped up by the Soviets to help with a possible prisoner swap for Abel. It’s more a character study in the patiently constructed Le Carré mold than it is a no-holds-barred set-piece-driven adventure, which gives Rylance room to quietly and drily earn your sympathy. It looks absolutely glorious too, and with Joel and Ethan Coen helping out on script duties, there are a lot more laughs than in most spy thrillers set in the GDR.
The Third Man (1949)
Touted as “the first great picture of 1950” and selected by the BFI as the “best British film of the 20th century”, this tale of murder and smuggling in Allied-occupied Vienna remains one of the most stylish thrillers of all time. From the famous “cuckoo clock speech” scene on the Wiener Riesenrad big wheel to Orson Welles’ supposedly dead black marketer Harry Lime emerging from a shadowy doorway to the final chase through the city’s cavernous sewers, The Third Man is a film that has often been imitated but never bettered. Much to its producer’s disdain, director Carol Reed insisted on shooting the majority of the film on location in post-war Vienna, and the piles of rubble and bomb craters that help define the film’s almost apocalyptic appeal are real. Scripted by Graham Greene (who occasionally worked as a spy for the British government) the dialogue is to kill for, with a character named Major Calloway warning the film’s inquisitive protagonist to “Leave death to the professionals”. All of these elements combine to make The Third Man without a doubt the best spy movie of all time, and according to many, including Roger Ebert, one of cinema’s greatest accomplishments, “Of all the movies I have seen, this one most completely embodies the romance of going to the movies.”
In the sub-genre of ‘spy films where normal people have to do some spying’, Argo stands apart. Ben Affleck shares top billing with Ben Affleck’s Magnificent Beard in this one, based on the true story of a film crew who had to help bust some American hostages out of Tehran. They didn’t use dead drops or jetpacks or a watch with a laser in it. They pretended to make a fake sci-fi fantasy adventure Star Wars rip-off called Argo and smuggled in some Canadian passports. While it’s a consummate spy thriller, it manages to bend toward being a heist caper too, with some top turns from John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, and particularly Alan Arkin as the cantankerous, veteran film producer Lester Siegel. Don’t like the fact that it beat Lincoln to the best picture well there’s some point you know.