25 best spy movies ever

We've hidden our list of the top sneaky spy films in plain sight. Or have we?

The best spy movies, in no particular order, are

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Roger Moore’s third Bond flick was absurd, camp and utterly brilliant. The Spy Who Loved Me had exotic locations, gadgetry, women (notably Barbara Bach) and one of the greatest movie cars of all time – an amphibious Lotus Esprit.

The film’s apéritif, in which Bond makes his daring escape by skiing off a cliff before unfurling a Union Jack parachute, had 1977 cinemagoers on their feet with applause. And then Carly Simon broke into the title theme: Nobody Does It Better. Superb.

Mission: Impossible (1996)

Hi-tech gadgets, exploding aquariums and cryptic biblical references: is there nothing Mission: Impossible doesn't have?

Tom Cruise plays agent Ethan Hunt, framed for the murder of his entire team. His fight to be exonerated takes him into the depths of the CIA headquarters and across most of europe, before unlikely face masks and chewing gum explosions save the day.

Still the best of the series, largely because of its twisty-turny plot and for actually forcing Cruise to act as part of a team. Still, fans of the TV series still haven't forgiven the producers for recasting Peter Graves – and for what they did to his character.

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

Matt Damon stars as anti-Bond Jason Bourne in this spy thriller on steroids. The second instalment of the Bourne series – and the first to be directed by Paul Greengrass – sees the hero out for revenge following the murder of his girlfriend.

As a rogue operative, Bourne is attacked from every side, fighting conspiracy, the Russians and the CIA alike. But it's the mystery surrounding Bourne's personal history that really keeps up the suspense.

The 39 Steps (1935)

If you’ve ever read John Buchan’s 1915 novel, you too might wonder why it’s spawned four major film adaptations. Hitchtook abandoned Buchan’s odd plot and took his hero, Richard Hannay, on a pacy Scottish adventure with more twists than a cocktail convention.

Ignore the book and the other three films – The 39 Steps is a spy story that genuinely ought to belong to Hitchcock.

The Recruit (2003)

That staple of the spy movie genre – the double-cross – is tripled, squared and multiplied by 10 to the power of six in The Recruit.

Despite the knotty role-switching involved in the plot, a small core cast – led by Al Pacino, Colin Farrell and Briget Moynahan – means this action spy thriller’s not as hard on the grey matter as it sounds.

Charade (1963)

Audrey Hepburn plays Reggie, a widow who's pursued through Paris by a gang of ex-OSS agents trying to track down her husband's ill-gotten fortune. Cary Grant is Peter, a charming stranger who helps her – but is he all he seems?

Everyone's wearing a mask in this frothy, fun escapade – it's as cool as… well, as Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn running around 1960s Paris in a comedy adventure caper.

The Tailor of Panama (2001)

Pierce Brosnan makes it into our list of spy movies not with his run of forgettable 1990s Bond films, but via the more measured gait of The Tailor of Panama.

Geoffrey Rush plays the eponymous suitmaker in this adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel, thought in turn to be based on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. That’s spy pedigree right there.

Eye of the Needle (1981)

Typical. Donald Sutherland's spent the first four years of WWII in England, tapping Morse Code messages back to Germany with his nasty Nazi fingers, and when he finally gets something juicy – the D-Day landing locations – he gets shipwrecked before he can Morse it all up.

And that's where this Ken Follett-penned suspense thriller gets thrilling and suspenseful – when the filthy spy washes up on a remote British island and becomes embroiled in a love triangle with Kate Nelligan and her crippled husband, while still trying to contact his Aryan brethren.

The real suspense, of course, in is finding out whether a Canadian playing a German pretending to be an Englishman can possibly keep his accent together until the big finale.

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006)

Starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, and directed by Michel Hazanavicius – the trio behind this year's Oscar-baiting The Artist – OSS 117 is an equally loving homage to a bygone era of film-making. On this occasion, they're tackling the Eurospy films of the 60s, which sprang up in the wake of James Bond's success.

Dujardin plays Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, aka self-important, culturally-insensitive secret agent OSS 117. He's assigned to investigate the murder of a colleague in Cairo, which he does in the manner of Inspector Clouseau parachuted into a Connery-era Bond film. Splendidly daft.

The Fourth Protocol (1987)

It's Harry Palmer versus James Bond in this Cold War thriller, with Michael Caine starring as discredited MI5 agent John Preston opposite a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan as a Russian sleeper agent.

Steeped in Cold War-era nuclear paranoia, it mixes a le Carre-esque hero with the gloss and preposterous blockbuster plot of a 007 flick. Best of both worlds, really.

Body of Lies (2008)

Leonardo Dicaprio stars as CIA agent Roger Ferris, a case officer who's trying to track down a terrorist mastermind in Jordan using all his street contacts and local knowledge.

Meanwhile, his superior, a doughy Russell Crowe, takes an "end justifies the means" approach, shielded from the situation on the ground by distance and technology. Naturally, the pair rub each other up the wrong way, making for an interesting look at the clash between different branches of the intelligence service.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Alfred Hitchcock directs as Dr. Ben McKenna's family holiday in Africa takes a nasty turn for the worst when someone they know is murdered on a bus – but not before he divulges details of an assassination plot in London. The assassins fear that their plan may be foiled and kidnap McKenna's son as leverage. Not even Cliff Richard could sing this holiday into a merry affair.

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

One minute you're a mild mannered CIA bookworm popping out for lunch. The next minute you return to find all of your colleagues dead, with you next on the list. Thankfully not a typical day at work is it? Unfortunately, that's the situation that Joe Turner (code name Condor) finds himself in, as he strives to uncover the mystery without meeting the same ugly demise.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)

The first – and arguably best – Austin Powers film sees Mike Meyers artfully play both Austin Powers (a horny 60's spy with questionable dental hygiene) and Dr. Evil, an unimaginatively named super-villain with a rebellious teenage son. Jokes and puns fly thick and fast as the bumbling Meyers and his beautiful Brtish partner Elizabeth Hurley attempt to thwart Dr. Evil's dubious plan.

Gleefully homages/spoofs everything from the 1960s Casino Royale to Adam Adamant Lives! A fourth Austin Powers film is currently in the works – it had better be an improvement on Goldmember.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2003)

Chuck Barris is a successful television show producer who is lured into the shady world of the CIA, turning him in to a contract killer. He balances both worlds with ease at first by chaperoning gameshow winners to cities which conveniently happen to harbour his targets. A double life is never easy though, and both worlds begin to crumble around him. And we thought alternating between a Mac and a PC was tricky.

Black Book (2006)

This Dutch World War II film stars Carice van Houten as Jewish spy Rachel Rosenthal. Working for the Dutch resistance, Ronsenthal seduces a German officer to get inside the local Nazi intelligence organisation – and, promptly falls in love with him. With wartime gadgetry and double agents, Black Book is proof that you don't need hi-tech kit to be a spy.

Director Paul Verhoeven – the man behind Robocop, Starship Troopers and, er, Showgirls – actually lived through the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, lending a touch of versimilitude to Black Book that sets it about as far apart from his earlier work as it's possible to get.

Nikita (1990)

Anne Parillaud stars as the titular femme fatale, a teenage junkie who's taken under the wing of a shadowy government agency after a robbery gone wrong ends with a policeman dead and her in jail. She's given a choice – work as a sleeper assassin or her fake suicide will become all too real.

Nikita's trained up to be a killer in high heels and a little black dress – but when a mission goes awry, Jean Reno's ruthless "Cleaner" (who bears more than a slight resemblence to his later role in Leon) is sent in.

Director Luc Besson lays on the clinical, European gloss with a trowel in this slick and stylish film.

North By Northwest (1959)

Ad executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is the victim of the world's worst case of mistaken identity, when a group of foreign spies get it into their heads that he's a government agent. What follows is the ultimate Hitchcock picture: an innocent man forced on the run through a series of iconic set pieces – including the famous crop duster chase and a thrilling climax atop Mount Rushmore. Oozes Mad Men-era cool.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

There's plenty of melodrama in this John le Carre adaptation – Colin Firth tossing his hair, lots of long moody looks – but apart from that, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a thoroughly modern classic.

Set during the Cold War, everyone is a suspect for being a Soviet spy. As we try to guess who's dobbing the others in, there's some fantastically tense scenes.

And we can't speak for everyone but personally we'd feel safer if Gary Oldman was really agent-hunting quietly at MI6.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

American soldiers brainwashed during the Korean War are at the heart of this black and white political thriller, directed by John Frankenheimer.

Those pesky communists are to blame for making a right-wing Staff Sergeant turn against his own, in this incredible Cold War classic that's almost universally loved by those hard-to-please film critics.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965)

Another film based on the works of the spy fiction master John le Carre, this 60s adaptation stars Richard Burton as the British agent who can't decide which side to stick with during the Cold War.

Jumping about over the Berlin wall, there's plenty of twists and turns as 'seedy, squalid bastard' informants, loyal spies and communist girlfriends meet their fate. Boy, they did have fun back then didn't they?

Munich (2005)

Spielberg tells the story of a group of Israeli assassins tasked with tracking down the people responsible for the 1972 Olympics massacre of athletes. Based on – but not completely true to – accounts of the real-life Operation Wrath of God, Munich mixes standard spy thrills with some of the controversial debate around Israeli intelligence.

It was never going to satisfy everyone but captures the “eye for an eye” mentality with a supremely well-made, international spy chase.


True Lies (1994)

Played – as only he could – by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harry Tasker is an altogether different sort of spy to most of the characters in this list. He shoots before he thinks and does covert, under the radar things like getting into a lift on horseback. Yet despite this he's still somehow managed to convince his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) that he's a mild-mannered salesman.

His web of lies soon begins to unravel when he catches his wife cheating on him – and decides to spice up her life by sending her on a "mission."

It's harmless fun – explosions, plenty of soundbites for Arnie and a nuclear warhead or two.

The Ipcress File (1965)

This Michael Caine vehicle may have been produced by the team behind the Bond films, but its hero Harry Palmer is the antithesis of Ian Fleming's suave super-spy. While Connery's Bond was scoffing at the "noise" of the Beatles, Caine's Palmer was wooing 60s dollybirds by driving them to his place in his Ford Zephyr and rustling up a meal.

Called in to investigate a scientist's disappearance, Palmer's investigation takes a turn for the psychedelic when he's subjected to brainwashing. How very 60s.

Goldfinger (1964)

James Bond 007 is the most useless secret agent in the world.

In his third cinematic outing, Bond does very little spying – he saves the day by being repeatedly knocked out and conveyed by the villains to a new location, where they tell him a bit more of their plans. And he doesn't even manage to disarm the bomb at the end: that job is left to an unnamed scientist.

Nevertheless, we love Goldfinger – it's the quintessential Bond film. When Bond's about to get sliced in half, you could cut the tension in the air with… well, with a laser beam. And who could forget the brilliantly-named Pussy Galore? They don't make them like this anymore.

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