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Spy movies have excited film fans for many years

Richard Carter | 8/24/2011, 3:40 p.m.
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"Last night I dreamed a deadly dream, beyond the Isle of Skye. I saw a dead man win a fight, and I think that man was I ..."--Prologue, "The Man Who Never Was" (1956)

Since movies were in their infancy, no genre has been more exciting than spy stories. Taut tales of stealthy undercover agents from the Civil War through the Cold War have provided some of the big screen's biggest thrills.

Indeed, a finely layered, well-crafted film about daring, covert operatives never fails to satisfy. There's just nothing like the cinematic ins and outs of spies and counterspies. So, in alphabetical order, here's 20 tantalizing spy movies. They are the best.

"The Adventures of Tartu" (1943)--A crackerjack World War II story of a British plan to blow up German poison gas works in a Czechoslovakian mountain, with a narrow escape via huge closing doors at end. Fine work by Robert Donat, Valerie Hobson and Glynis Johns.

"Eye of the Needle" (1981)--Donald Sutherland as a German spy coldly knifes a dozen adversaries one by one. Stranded on a British coastal island, he uncovers Allied D-Day subterfuge. Strong support by Kate Nelligan, Christopher Cazenove and Ian Bannen.

"First Yank Into Tokyo" (1945)--With his features and skin color altered by plastic surgery, an American poses as a Japanese soldier to help capture an atomic scientist. Tom Neal, Richard Loo, Barbara Hale and Keye Luke bring realism to an unusual, exciting story.

"5 Fingers" (1952)--A stunning true account of WWII's Cicero, the valet to the British ambassador in Turkey. James Mason, hot for femme fatale Danielle Darrieux, sells secrets to the Germans. With Michael Rennie, Oscar Karlweis and Walter Hampden.

"Foreign Correspondent" (1940)--Among Alfred Hitchcock's best, with fine flourishes including umbrellas and windmills. Joel McCrea is an American reporter caught in a German spy ring in Holland. With Larraine Day, George Sanders and Robert Benchley.

"The House on 92nd Street" (1945)--A fact-based drama of WWII German spies in a Manhattan brownstone infiltrated by the FBI. Stark realism by cunning Signe Hasso, William Eythe, Lloyd Nolan, Leo G. Carroll and Gene Lockhart. A jolting surprise at the end.

"The Ipcress File" (1965)--Michael Caine stars in the first of a scintillating series as an unemotional cockney crook turned agent, Harry Palmer. Features a grueling mental torture caper and eerie musical score. Understated cast includes Guy Doleman and Nigel Green.

"I Was a Communist for the FBI" (1951)--The grim, true account of Cold War counterspy Matt Cvetic (Frank Lovejoy), who risked his family and reputation by infiltrating a Soviet cell in Pittsburgh. With Dorothy Hart, Philip Carey and James Millican.

"The Lady Vanishes" (1938)--A taut tale of an elderly British spy who disappears on a train is top early Hitchcock. Witty work by Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood, Paul Lukas, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, with Dame May Whitty as the lady in question.

"The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)--John Frankenheimer's diabolical original is far superior to the 2004 remake. Chilling acting by Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh, Henry Silva, James Edwards and Khigh Deigh. Truly shattering.