While the spy film has been around since the earliest days of cinema, with notable examples appearing from the likes of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock in the 1920s and 30s respectively, it wasn’t until the outbreak of the Second World War that the genre really took hold on the silver screen.
It’s a genre with close ties to contemporary political climates, its literary and cinematic peaks unsurprisingly coming with the outbreak of the world wars and in the years of the Cold War. The latter provided the fertile ground for both the escapist adventures of Ian Fleming’s James Bond and the unglamorous antitheses of John le Carré and Len Deighton.
Whether we’re in the shadows of occupied Europe, trapped behind the Iron Curtain or under the blazing sun of exotic locales, the espionage film comes with the promise of intrigue and suspense, uncertain allegiances and moral ambiguity. It’s adaptable enough to be played as comedy, action-adventure or political thriller.
With the new James Bond film currently left out in the cold while the COVID-19 crisis plays out, we’ve decoded this mission from BFI Control to bring you 10 of the best from the cinematic spy racket.
Director Fritz Lang
While we could fill at least half of this list with Fritz Lang crackers alone, it’s Spione, his penultimate silent feature, that stands as the granddaddy of the espionage thriller. It was made at a greatly reduced budget after the studio tried to cancel his contract following the commercial disaster of Metropolis (1927). Lang himself wasn’t especially enamoured with the project, dismissing it as “a small film, but with a lot of action”. But while budgetary restrictions are evident in the close-range shooting schemes, the greatest set-piece here – a third act train crash – belies the fact it was shot almost a century ago.
The opening sequence alone – detailing the theft of documents from the French embassy in Shanghai and assassination of the trade minister – is a marvel of narrative economy in montage. If Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s villain, Haghi, can’t top his previous turns for Lang as the malevolent Dr Mabuse, with its tools of the trade (miniature cameras, disappearing ink) and relentless run of double-crosses and disguises, Spione cast the genre template in stone.
Director Josef von Sternberg
In 1931, two of the biggest female stars of the day went undercover on the silver screen. Greta Garbo may have won the box office crown for her title role in the forgettable Mata Hari, but it was Marlene Dietrich’s loose take on the same character, the third of her seven collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg, that delivered the masterpiece.
Dishonored saw Dietrich cast as X-27, the piano-playing prostitute – real name: Marie Kolverer – tasked by the Austrian secret service with stealing secrets from Victor McLaglen’s Russian colonel. It’s the most complex and multifaceted of the roles von Sternberg fashioned for his star, lover and muse: a parade of guises and disguises that both demonstrate the actor’s remarkable range, while rendering invisible – or at least indistinguishable – the true character buried beneath an endless procession of self-preserving performances.
“I’ve had an inglorious life. It may become my good fortune to have a glorious death,” she declares, and it’s in a barely perceptible gestural flash that the real Marie finally, and briefly, emerges to claim an elusive dignity in martyrdom.
Director Michael Powell
Just the second collaboration between British director Michael Powell and Hungarian screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, Contraband followed the filmmaking duo’s Orkney-set The Spy in Black from the previous year, re-uniting co-stars Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson. Lighter on its feet and funnier than the earlier film, Contraband sees Veidt cast as a Danish seaman whose ship is held up for cargo inspection off the Kent coast. When his shore pass is stolen, he goes after Hobson’s thief, into the London blackout where he uncovers a Nazi spy ring.
Powell filters Hitchcock and, in an expressionist dream sequence for Veidt, Lang through his own distinct, eccentric sensibilities, and would later share details of a cameo that didn’t make the cut in his 1986 autobiography: “There was an adorable little cigarette girl … all lovely liquid eyes and nice long legs, who had a tiny scene with Conrad Veidt that ended up on the cutting-room floor. Pity I didn’t keep the clipping, because it was Deborah Kerr’s first appearance on any screen.”
North by Northwest (1959)
Director Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock turned to the spy genre time and again throughout his career, and any from The 39 Steps (1935) to Notorious (1946) to Torn Curtain (1966) could have taken a spot on this list. Is North by Northwest (1959) the best of the lot? There’s certainly a case for it being his most virtuosic, its cross-country tale of mistaken identity stitching set-piece to barnstorming set-piece from Manhattan to Mount Rushmore.
A telephone call for a certain George Kaplan sees Cary Grant’s Madison Avenue ad-man kidnapped by James Mason’s spy ring, setting the wrong-man yarn in motion. Negotiating the twists and turns of Ernest Lehman’s screenplay, Hitch gives his best Hitchcock impression, reconfiguring sequences from his earlier films into one greatest hits package. He may have ditched the dark psychodrama of the previous year’s Vertigo for more light-hearted thrills, but there’s nothing frivolous in witnessing a master and his key collaborators play the hits like this.
Our Man in Havana (1959)
Director Carol Reed
Graham Greene knew a thing or two about the espionage racket, having been recruited into MI6 – where he served under the notorious Soviet agent Kim Philby – by his sister. While he was generally dismissive of his spy fiction, he lent a generous hand in bringing some of his most notable adaptations to the screen.
Our Man in Havana was his third collaboration with director Carol Reed, shot on location not long after the fall of the Batista regime (in beautiful widescreen by Oswald Morris), and is a much lighter proposition than their earlier masterpiece The Third Man (1949). Greene leans into the comedy with his screenplay, indulging Alec Guinness as the vacuum salesman and newly recruited agent selling fantastical tales of hi-tech weaponry to fund his increasingly lavish lifestyle.
Guinness is a hoot as the fabricator in varying stages of inebriation, but it’s the supporting turns from Noël Coward and Ralph Richardson as the Caribbean network chief and London controller that best serve the dry, comic ironies of Greene’s script.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Director John Frankenheimer
At once a forerunner to the paranoid conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s and a descendent from the 1950s canon of ‘the enemy is among us’ sci-fi pictures, John Frankenheimer’s Cold War classic sees a troop of US soldiers kidnapped in Korea and brainwashed into serving as political assassins.
“They discovered a technique to descend into the unconscious mind, part light-induced, part drug,” and this set-up plays out in the recurring nightmares of Frank Sinatra’s traumatised army major. The details of this Sino-Soviet scheme come early, leaving only the endgame for Laurence Harvey’s conditioned commander in question. It’s a strange narrative approach for a thriller to take, but strangeness proves The Manchurian Candidate’s ace card (or rather, its queen of diamonds).
From his off-kilter framing to the focus shifts and suitably hypnotic performances, Frankenheimer maintains an unsettling and uncanny sense of paranoia, punctuating the unease with sudden outbursts of violence. Sinatra and Harvey are superb as the suffering candidates, but it’s a truly terrifying Angela Lansbury who delivers one of cinema’s great monsters.
From Russia with Love (1963)
Director Terence Young
Every spy film deserves a good train sequence, something this second outing for 007 knows only too well. It’s the first time James Bond (Sean Connery) and undercover SPECTRE henchman Donald Grant (Robert Shaw) – “homicidal paranoiac, superb material” – have come face to face, settling in to the dining car ahead of some lethal fisticuffs over a stolen cipher machine. “Red wine with fish. Well that should have told me something,” says Bond.
The Cold War manoeuvres of From Russia with Love mark both a darkening and a ripening of the soon-to-be ubiquitous motifs established under the Jamaican sun of Dr. No (1962), establishing SPECTRE, an off-screen Blofeld and Desmond Llewelyn’s Q branch. Shaw’s Grant makes for an excellent moral and physical foil to Bond, while SMERSH head of operations, the dagger-toed Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), introduces the series’ villainous kink.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
Director Martin Ritt
“What do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not. They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me.” No writer undermined the James Bond fantasies of the espionage game quite like John le Carré. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was his third novel, and this the first screen adaptation of his work: a chronicle of “a foul, foul operation” to take down an East German operative.
Richard Burton is Alec Leamas, “an operational man” and head of Berlin station. He’s soon undercover as an embittered drunk, bashing up a grocer (Bond’s M, Bernard Lee, in a nice touch) to get a spell inside, bait to the Germans luring him to defection. With Claire Bloom the collateral damage as an idealistic communist librarian, it’s a grim business, starkly shot once again by spy flick stalwart Oswald Morris, who’d go on to lens The Mackintosh Man (1973) and The Odessa File (1974).
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Director Brian De Palma
A spy franchise now six films in (seven and eight are on the way), the Mission: Impossible films continue to yield strong returns, even as their budgetary waistline expands. But the original 1996 film remains the series high point, and for one reason alone: Mission: Impossible may be many things, a Tom Cruise studio vehicle among them, but first and foremost it’s a Brian De Palma picture.
Take the first three minutes alone. An operative watches an interrogation on a video monitor, a television set filling the screen, testifying to the film’s roots as a 60s TV series. The conversation ends, the target is sedated as his interviewer rips off his face, unmasking Cruise’s operative Ethan Hunt, while the room is revealed to be a set, broken down and wheeled off by the IMF team, as a dead girl (Emmanuelle Béart) is brought back to life.
False faces and false fronts, double agents and don’t-believe-what-you-see are the order of the day. The De Palma mode of interrogating the image is the MO, all within the remit of an A-grade studio blockbuster of the highest order. All this before we even get to the credits, let alone the vault.
Director Steven Spielberg
2005 was one helluva year for Steven Spielberg. If War of the Worlds, his first picture in those 12 months, was a 9/11 allegory about the inability to control or defeat catastrophe, then Munich is a film about dealing with the aftermath of a trauma. Not for nothing does the film close with a shot of the World Trade Center.
It’s a breathtaking technical achievement, and one of Spielberg’s most brilliantly edited films, despite a running time knocking on three hours. It’s also his most morally tortured and haunted, charting the revenge assassinations of a black ops team in the years following the Black September attacks on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
The parade of set-pieces astounds, none more so than a telephone bombing that emphasises Spielberg’s mastery of sequence design: establishing the geography and orientation of a space through character and camera blocking, elucidating the stakes and proposed sequence of events, then throwing in an obstruction – in this case, the target’s young daughter.