Spy Films – TOP 25 Spy Movies

Spy film is now a strongly codified genre that has a loyal fan base. It already has a long history, a certain plot structure and type of protagonist. Great films are still being made that can be categorized as part of this convention. We will present a selection of the best spy films.

Spy films – a brief history

Spy cinema is a sub-genre that was formed as a variation of thriller and sensation. The origins of this convention can be traced back to World War I, and more specifically to pictures such as Paul Scardon’s Submarine Hero. In 1927, Fritz Lang’s Spy was made, which can be considered the first conscious realization of the genre. However, the characteristic features of the spy film were only codified by Alfred Hitchcock in his British productions, such as “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934) or “The 39 Steps” (1935). Over the decades, the convention has not actually evolved.

Thus, the main characteristics of a classic spy film include the presence of a plot to fight evil, understood in a political context, an exotic landscape and a certain profile of the protagonist. Namely, it is someone accidentally entangled in intrigue, who is looking for a way out of a difficult situation. However, a separate variety of spy film was established by the series of James Bond films, starting with “Dr. No” from 1962. There were elements of fantasy, adventure and political fiction. In the 1980s, the genre gained a new face with screen adaptations of prose by widely read writers such as Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum.

Best spy movies

1. “Notorious”, 1946

spy films - notorious

A 1940s spy film classic, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” featured Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and Claude Rains in leading roles. Alicia Huberman is the daughter of a man convicted of betraying the country. The girl gets an offer from agent T. R. Devlin to go to Brazil, where she is to penetrate the milieu of Nazis in hiding. In Rio de Janeiro, she marries a former acquaintance of her father, Alexander Sebastian, which is supposed to make it easier for her to get important information. At the same time, however, Alicia begins to have a growing affection for agent Devlin, and her situation becomes very dangerous.

“Notorious” is a directorial display by Hitchcock, who showed in this film all the strengths that belong to his trademarks. An interesting plot, expressive yet complex characters with unclear motivations, numerous close-ups or the use of the camera as a filter to interpret the world – these are the main features of this picture. “Notorious” is also not free of irony in portraying espionage activities, which are exposed in their ruthlessness and devastating impact on the personal lives of the people caught up in them.

2. ”The Third Man”, 1949

spy movies - the third man

Carol Reed’s 1949 film is an exemplary realization of the spy genre. “The Third Man” tells the story of an American writer of crime novels who comes to Vienna to visit a friend. On the spot, it turns out that the man with whom the protagonist was going to meet has died under mysterious circumstances. Holly Martins wants to solve the mystery of his friend’s death. Joseph Cotten played the lead role, and Orson Welles also starred in the picture.

“The Third Man” won an Oscar in the category of best cinematography, as well as a BAFTA statuette for best British film. The picture is considered the best work in the oeuvre of Carol Reed. Of particular note here is the image of post-war Vienna, divided into three occupation zones. The cinematography was created in natural urban settings, which was a novelty in British cinema at the time. We are dealing here with an expressionist aesthetic. It’s a picture of a world destroyed by war in physical terms, but also in terms of the destruction of the human moral construct. Of particular importance are the Cold War context and the spy plot.

3. “Dr. No”, 1962

best spy films - Dr No

No list of spy films can miss the now legendary “Dr. No”, directed by Terence Young, opening the series of James Bond pictures. The role of the first British agent 007 in the history of cinema was played by Sean Connery. Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate a double murder. The clues lead to Dr. No, a mad scientist intent on destroying American space rockets. The role of the agent’s beautiful partner was played by Ursula Andress, who won a Golden Globe Award for her performance.

“Dr. No” was based on a novel by journalist Ian Fleming, who worked in British intelligence during World War II. On the one hand, the film was a reflection of Cold War anxieties, while on the other hand it showed the world of big politics and possible conflicts as extremely distant and unreal. The Americans joined in the realization of the adventures of Her Majesty’s agent, and soon the next parts began to be made.

4. “North by Northwest”, 1959

best spy movies - North by Northwest

Hitchcock’s famous masterpiece “North by Northwest” tells the story of an ordinary man unexpectedly caught up in a spy affair. Roger Thornhill, an ordinary employee of an advertising agency, is kidnapped by the services of communist intelligence, due to his mistaken identification with a CIA agent. The man manages to escape, but is drawn into a deadly pursuit by paid assassins and police. The film starred Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.

The famous scene when the main character is shot from an airplane in a cornfield has gone down in cinema history. In turn, he eventually lands on Mount Rushmore, where he has to fight the most important battle among the rock-carved faces of American presidents. An important character in Hitchcock’s film is a woman who helps the hero in the most difficult circumstances, becoming his guide in a world full of chaos and lies.

5. “The Hunt for Red October”, 1990

top 25 spy films - the hunt for red october

This is a classic among spy films. “The Hunt for Red October”, directed by John McTiernan, is the fascinating story of a Soviet submarine that goes on its first voyage during the Cold War. The ship is commanded by the experienced Marko Ramus (Sean Connery). Soon the captain announces his intention to desert and sets course for areas within NATO’s reach. Desperate, the Soviets deliver a message to the Americans that the ship is about to attack them. To clarify the tense situation, an American CIA agent, Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin), is sent aboard the Red October.

The movie won an Oscar statuette for best sound editing. The picture is based on the novel by Tom Clancy. The film operates with numerous references to Soviet symbols, such as the red, already exposed in the promotional posters, but also the main musical theme by Basil Poledouris referring to the Soviet anthem. These elements emphasize the moral rift of the main character. Great acting and well-constructed intrigue keep the screening gripping until the last moment.

6. “The Long Kiss Goodnight”, 1996

top 25 spy movies - the long kiss goodnight

Another spy film in our ranking is “The Long Kiss Goodnight”, directed by Renny Harlin. The main character of the story is a quiet teacher who has been suffering from amnesia for several years. One day the woman is involved in a car accident, which causes scraps of memories to start coming back to her. Soon she is attacked by an armed man and, to her own surprise, manages to overpower her opponent. Samantha begins to suspect that her past may have something to do with the special forces. So she decides, with the help of private investigator Mitch Henessey, to find out the truth.

Starring Geena Davis and Samuel. L. Jackson. “The Long Kiss Goodnight” is primarily a good entertainment with interesting creations, fast-paced action and special effects. Elements of thriller comedy are present in the film, but also a pastiche of classic action cinema. Thus, a conscious play with familiar conventions appears.

7. “True Lies”, 1994

the 25 greatest spy films of all time - true lies

James Cameron’s picture “True Lies” also belongs to spy films. It tells the story of a man who leads a double life. Harry Tasker works as a computer salesman, but this is only a cover for his agential activities. One day the protagonist begins to suspect his wife of infidelity and decides to use his influence to find out her intentions. Unexpectedly, they both fall into the hands of terrorists and must fight for survival. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis, who won a Golden Globe for her role. The film combines features of action cinema and comedy.

8. “Mission Impossible”, 1996

the 25 greatest spy movies of all time - mission impossible

This is a whole series of spy films starring Tom Cruise. The first part was shot by Biran De Palma in 1996. The main character of the film is Ethan Hunt, an agent of the American secret service, who is falsely accused of treason. The man must prove his innocence and discover the identity of the real spy of a foreign intelligence service.

“Mission Impossible” is a famous blockbuster that follows the traditional pattern of masculinity. The main character is a man for whom the most important values are family and homeland. In their defense he must take very radical and courageous actions. The film is rich in special effects and sudden plot twists. The famous soundtrack with a recognizable leitmotif, still derived from the 1960s TV series of the same title, has gone down in cinema history. The author of the musical theme was Lalo Schifrin, and it was adapted by two musicians from the U2 group Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton.

9. “Air Force One”, 1997

the best spy movies ever made - air force one

Wolfgang Petersen’s film “Air Force One” is a political fiction spy story. A plane carrying US President James Marshall (played by Harison Ford), his wife (Wendy Crewson) and daughter (Liesel Matthews) takes off from a Russian airport. Unexpectedly, it turns out that there are terrorists on board. The group is led by the ruthless Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman). The hijackers, in exchange for the life of the US head of state, demand the release of the leader of Russian nationalists. The attempt to control the critical situation is made by President Marshall himself, hidden in the cargo hold.

Here we have an interesting procedure, involving the acion male hero in the role of the president himself. A brave man takes up the fight to defend his family and the nation. The film belongs to the mainstream cinema of the late 1990s, which expressed the fears of the end of the century and the desire to consolidate the patterns of strong heroes for difficult times.

10. ”The Bourne Identity”, 2002

the 25 best spy films ever made - the bourne identity

This movie contributed to the renaissance of spy films in the early 21st century. Doug Liman made a box office hit based on Robert Ludlum’s popular 1980 novel of the same name. Fished out of the Mediterranean Sea, a wounded castaway completely loses his memory and has no idea who he is. All indications are that the man was connected with the CIA secret service, as evidenced by the documents and weapons he found. The hero discovers that his name is Jason Bourne. Analyzing the traces of his identity, he goes to Switzerland, where he hopes to find answers to his questions. In the process, he meets the beautiful Maria Helena Kreutz, who helps him get to the truth and hide from the police.

The film stars Matt Damon in the lead role, and he is partnered on screen by Franka Potente. The film lived to see sequels – “The Bourne Supremacy” (2004), “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007), “The Bourne Legacy” (2012) and “Jason Bourne” (2016) depicting the further fate of the character. The series is very popular and further installments are planned.

11. “The Lives of Others” (“Das Leben der Anderen”, 2006)

list of spy films - the lives of others

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s movie is an excellent spy drama that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The picture was based on a true story. The film is set in East Germany, in the 1980s, and Stasi agent Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is given the task of eavesdropping on well-known writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his partner Christa (Martina Gedeck). Over time, the man begins to approach his “charges” with great empathy. Moved by the experiences of the people under surveillance, he decides to falsify reports about them.

“The Lives of Others” is a great film that combines the conventions of spy cinema with existential drama. Here we have a poignant picture of an individual enslaved by an authoritarian system, whose every activity is subject to scrutiny. However, it turns out that despite the deep social breakdown and even degeneration, there is still a place for making decisions and maintaining one’s dignity.

12. ”The Departed”, 2006

list of spy movies - the departed

Another picture on our list of the best spy films – “The Departed”, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. The action takes place in Boston. The police are trying to unravel the structures of the local mafia, so they place their spy – a young agent Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) – in the criminal environment. The goal of the operation is to arrest Mafia boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). However, the inspector working to apprehend the criminal, Colin Sullivan (Damon), simultaneously acts as a gangster informant. When the Mafia and the police realize they have a hostile snitch in their midst, a battle begins between the agents over which of them will be the first to decipher the identity of the enemy.

Awarded with four Oscars, “The Departed” is a great action movie that keeps you in suspense until the last moment. What’s more, there’s a surprise ending, quite unusual for Hollywood shows, that doesn’t fit into the standards of a happy-end. Scorsese serves up elaborate psychological tidbits here. Personality- and age-approximate characters, for example, give the impression of almost one character with two faces – like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

13. “RED” 2010

top spy movies - red

Robert Schwentke’s spy movie is realized in a comedy convention and features a whole plethora of Hollywood stars. These include Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovitch and Helen Miren. A retired CIA agent leading an idyllic life one day is attacked in his own home by paid assassins. He quickly defeats his opponents, but realizes that this is only the beginning of trouble, so he renews his old professional contacts. That’s how RED – Radical Retired Degenerates – is formed, namely Frank, Joe, Marvin and Victoria, who will join forces to find out who wants to frame them for the attack and why all roads lead to the agency.

A humorous dose of good action in addition with great acting. The old guard shows that they can still afford a lot. Particularly phenomenal is the role of Helen Miren, who proves on the big screen that women of her age do not have to play only aunts and grandmothers, but still have a lot to offer, and in a masterful way.

14. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, 2011

cold war spy movies - tinker tailor soldier spy

An interesting movie by Tomas Alfredson in a retro style. The plot of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is set during the Cold War. When a Soviet spy begins to operate inside the British intelligence service, only the most trusted man can expose him. For this reason, retired agent George Smiley is brought back into service. The leading role in the film was played by Gary Oldman, nominated for an Oscar for his performance. The film was based on the novel by John le Carre. It won two BAFTA statuettes in the categories of best film and best adapted screenplay.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is not only a fascinating story with a brilliantly conceived drama, but also an aesthetically sophisticated work that captures the atmosphere of the 1970s. However, lurking in the background are deeper questions about the price people have to pay for working in the secret services. And it is high: an individual’s private life and personal happiness are at stake.

15. ”Zero Dark Thirty”, 2012

top spy films - zero dark thirty

Kathryn Bigelow proves that “masculine” spy cinema can also be successfully made by women. What’s more, she places a female protagonist at the center of events. Maya (played by the sensational Jessica Chastain) is a CIA agent who works in a group pursuing the biggest al-Qaeda terrorist responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Osama bin Laden. As we know, the plot will be successful, but the clue of the story is the very process of the difficult and extremely brutal pursuit of America’s number one enemy.

Bigelow shows her heroine in an unconventional way. Despite the fact that she is on the front line of the fight against international terrorism, she does not lose her feminine qualities and does not become an imitation of tough male superheroes. Maya combines a feminine perspective of vision, delicacy of beauty with intelligence, but also practicality of action. She can be brutal and obsessively pursues her goal. The film also maintains an unprecedented objectivity – it does not glorify the actions of the Americans, but neither does it demonize their nevertheless cruel methods. The director leaves the viewer full freedom of moral judgment.

16. “Kingsman: The Secret Service”, 2014

secret agent movies - kingsman

“Kingsman” is a great crime comedy with a spy plot. The plot is set in the environment of the British secret service. Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is an experienced agent who must simultaneously deal with a dangerous opponent (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and prepare his successor to carry out this not easy profession. The latter task, in turn, is all the more difficult because the young candidate “Eggsy” (Taorn Egerton) is sometimes at odds with the style of an English gentleman. Matthew Vaughan’s film is brisk action, great dialogues and even better portrayals of the characters.

“Kingsman” is a thoroughly British work, with a distinctive British sense of humor full of irony and self-irony. The film also highlights the typically English class conflict between the snobbish elite and the lower classes. Between the lines it smuggles reflections on the code of the well-bred gentleman, which, as it turns out, has little to do with birth and wealth.

17. “Casino Royale”, 2006

secret agent films - casino royale

“Casino Royale” belongs to the classic spy series about Her Majesty’s agent. The film is the first part of the series with Daniel Craig in the role of handsome James Bond. His beautiful partner is played here by Eva Green. The film presents Bond’s beginnings in M16. Thus, he does not yet possess almost superhuman powers. He has to work out the activities of the terrorist Mollak (Sebastien Foucan). To do this, he makes contact with the criminal banker Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), residing in the Bahamas, with whom he will sit down for a poker game at the titular Casino Royale. And the stakes in it will be life and death.

Daniel Craig won the hearts of the public as the new James Bond. The audience liked the rejuvenated and natural 007 agent, and the role opened the door to a great career for the actor, as it showed all the star’s strengths. Characteristically, the new Bond no longer uses unusual inventions native to science-fiction cinema. Thus, the film refers to the classics of the genre, at the center of which are the personality and skills of the spy that determine the success or failure of the mission.

18. “Inglourious Basterds”, 2009

new spy movies - inglorious basterds

Quentin Tarantino’s film “Inglourious Basterds” is another item that can be categorized as a spy movie. The picture is set during World War II, in German-occupied France. Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) ruthlessly tracks down Jews in hiding. When he discovers a Jewish family in one of the village houses, he orders their execution without hesitation. However, a young girl Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) manages to escape from the pogrom, making her way to Paris and assuming a false identity. The heroine becomes the owner of a movie theater, where she plans to exact revenge on the killers of her family. At the same time, a squad of Jewish secret agents led by Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) arrives in Paris. They, too, aim to assassinate high-ranking officials of the Third Reich.

The role of Christoph Waltz, who was awarded an Oscar, was considered the best performance in the film. Tarantino’s film is in keeping with the director’s frequent themes of systemic extermination of excluded groups. Racism – whether it means anti-Semitism or slavery of America’s black population – is, as it were, another facet of the issue of violence that is important in this work. In turn, the spy plot here has a humorous and grotesque dimension, giving the whole a pastiche character.

19. “Unknown”, 2011

best cia movies - unknown

“Unknown”, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, is also a great example of a spy film. The main character of the picture is Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson), who along with his wife Liz (January Jones) arrives in Berlin to attend a biotechnology conference. On the spot, the man gets into a car accident, and when he wakes up in the hospital, he finds that his own wife does not recognize him. Soon Dr. Harris discovers that someone has stolen his identity, and he must flee from imminent danger. With the help of a former Stasi agent (Bruno Ganz) and the woman who saved his life (Diane Kruger), he tries to find out what happened.

“Unknown” is based on the novel Hors de moi by Didier Van Cauwelaert. The movie offers the viewer not only an engaging plot, but also a charming retro atmosphere. Together with the protagonist, we get to know the “underground” layer of Berlin, the entanglement of the city in the communist past, the world of secret ciphers, hidden rooms and unknown passages between the official and undercover face of the metropolis. The film is certainly worth seeing for its European atmosphere, allowing you to break away from Hollywood schemes.

20. ”Jack Strong”, 2014

cold war spy films - Jack Strong

The Polish spy film “Jack Strong”, directed by Wladyslaw Pasikowski, is a good entry, made on the American model. Based on a factual story of Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, it is a thrilling tale of his actions in the very center of Cold War events. A high-ranking soldier of the People’s Army of Poland decides to cooperate with the CIA. Under the code name Jack Strong, he smuggles secret information to the West about the Warsaw Pact and the Soviets’ planned activities. When the command realizes that there is a foreign intelligence spy in their ranks, the lives of the colonel and his family are in danger.

Marcin Dorocinski played the role of Kuklinski, and his wife was played by Maja Ostaszewska. The film very well captures the reality of the People’s Republic of Poland and the climate of the time. The backstory of the military officer’s decision to cooperate with foreign intelligence and his ethical doubts are also interestingly presented. Indeed, to this day Kuklinski is called a modern-day Konrad Wallenrod, acting on the borderline between loyalty to an idea and national betrayal.

21. “Eastern Promises”, 2007

25 greatest spy films - eastern promises

Among the best spy movies, David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” is certainly worth mentioning. One night while on duty as a midwife Anna, a young Russian woman with an advanced pregnancy reports to the hospital. The battered woman dies in childbirth, and Anna decides to find out something about the deceased. She comes across traces of a Russian mafia human trafficking ring. Anna, trying to explain the mysterious death, inadvertently becomes entangled in a dangerous world in which not everyone is who they seem….

In the movie, a sensational performance was created by Viggo Mortenssen. On the screen we can also admire the outstanding abilities of Naomi Watts and Vincent Cassel. The spy plot was designed very ingeniously and, as it happens in Cronenberg’s cinema, it is not reduced to a stiff convention, but provokes deeper questions about the nature of evil and whether the end always justifies the means. Also noteworthy is the evocative depiction of the Russian mafia, with its structure, ornamentation and complex ritual sphere.

22. ”The Imitation Game”, 2014

spy movies based on true stories - the imitation game

“The Imitation Game” is a screen adaptation of the biography of British genius Alan Turing. The mathematician had an episode of espionage to his credit. During World War II, based on the work of Polish scientists, he broke the German cipher – Enigma. This was a significant breakthrough in the war effort. Turing then achieved further successes, successfully working on the first ever computer. However, the moral scandal that erupted in connection with the disclosure of his homosexual orientation led to tragic consequences. Turing committed suicide.

The film is based on the book Enigma. The Life and Death of Alan Turing written by Andrew Hodges. The lead role was played by Benedict Cumberbatch. A very good performance was also created by Keira Knightley, who played a talented and at the same time very underestimated mathematician.

23. “Snowden”, 2016

new spy films - snowden

Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” is the movie version of one of the most notorious spy scandals of recent times. A former CIA and NSA agent revealed secret materials of the US secret service. The intelligence operative made public information about the US mass eavesdropping on several million people, including key figures from the world of big politics. The role of Edward Snowden was played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The movie is not Stone’s outstanding achievement, but it deserves attention due to its carrying and popular theme. The director depicts the motivations of the main character – both those that lead him to cooperate with the intelligence service and those that make him begin to doubt the validity of the case.

24. “Official Secrets”, 2019

best secret agent films official secrets

“Official Secrets” is one of the newer spy stories in cinema. The story is set in the environment of British intelligence. A young civilian employee of the analytical department of the intelligence services, Katharine Gun, falls on the trail of illegal activities. She discovers that members of the UN are being wiretapped to gather compromising material. The plot is intended to serve the US and Britain to push through a resolution against Iraq that is convenient for them. The girl decides to publicize the procedure, which draws her and her family into mortal danger.

Gavin Hood’s film stars Keira Knightley in the lead role. The picture was based on a true story. In 2003, Katharine Gun, a whistleblower and linguist, came into possession of a secret memo from NSA employee Frank Kozy, in which the official demanded assistance in a plot to illegally surveil the UN offices of six countries.

25. ”Tenet”, 2020

modern spy movies - tenet

Christopher Nolan’s film based on an elaborate spy axis entitled “Tenet” is certainly a work worth watching. The plot is very complicated, as it usually is with Nolan. One may even get the impression that it is a “multi-season” film that requires at least two viewings to understand the various threads of the story. But this is what Nolan has managed to get his viewers used to. The main character, called Protagonist (John David Washington), is a secret service agent who is given a special mission. His task is to gain knowledge of what the title “Tenet” is – a key word that, as he is informed, can open many doors, but can also bring unpredictable consequences. As it soon turns out, the fate of the entire world depends on the exploration of this mystery.

“Tenet” is a movie that, because of its complex and difficult form, has been classified as “over-the-top,” and wrongly so. Nolan, contrary to the tendency to repeat simple Hollywood schemes, continues to create cinema of authorship and forces his viewer to scientific and philosophical exploration. This time, the nature of time and the age-old human dream of creating a vehicle with the power to transport humans into the past is in the foreground. But let’s consider whether we would really want to return to what is past, and what consequences this could have for us, Nolan seems to be seriously asking.

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