“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.
“The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934/1956)–Two versions of Hitchcock’s espionage classic, first with Leslie Banks, Edna Best and Peter Lorre, and updated with James Stewart and Doris Day. Both build to a clash of cymbals in an Albert Hall assassination.
“The Man Who Never Was” (1956)–This is the most famous true-life spy story of WWII. Pulsating with suspense, it’s my all-time fave. Starring Clifton Webb, Josephine Griffin, Robert Flemyng and Gloria Grahame, with a truly sinister Stephen Boyd. The peak.
“Morituri” (1965)–Marlon Brando, as a profligate anti-Nazi, is coerced by the Brits into sabotaging a German cargo ship captained by Yul Brynner. Striking black-and-white cinematography. With Trevor Howard, Wally Cox and Janet Margolin. Searing suspense.
“North by Northwest” (1959)–A cross-country Hitchcock thriller starting with an assassination at the United Nations in New York and ending atop Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason are at the top of their games.
“Operation Crossbow” (1965)–A sizzling story of volunteers attempting to short-circuit Hitler’s missile program and the “New York rocket.” Great work by George Peppard, Jeremy Kemp, Lili Palmer, Tom Courtenay, Anthony Quayle and Sophia Loren.
“Saboteur” (1942)–Heart-pounding Hitchcock as innocent dupe Robert Cummings battles Nazi spies. With Priscilla Lane, Otto Kruger, Alan Baxter and Norman Lloyd, who falls from atop the Statue of Liberty in memorable finale. Simply not to be missed.
“Stalag 17” (1953)–An Oscar was awarded to William Holden for the best WWII prison camp film, with Peter Graves as a sly German spy. The Billy Wilder-directed gem co-stars Don Taylor, Robert Strauss, Sig Rumann, Harvey Lembeck and Otto Preminger. Funny and great.
“The 39 Steps” (1935)–In a Hitchcock grand chase, Robert Donat is framed for murder and pursued in Scotland. Featuring Madeleine Carroll, Peggy Ashcroft and John Laurie. Explains Mr. Memory at London Palladium: “The 39 Steps is an organization of spies…”
“13 Rue Madeleine” (1946)”–James Cagney effectively sheds his gangster persona as a doomed Secret Service agent dispatched to WWII France. Supported by Walter Abel, Annabella, Frank Latimore, Sam Jaffe and a terrifying Richard Conte. Startling ending.
“Triple Cross” (1966)–British safecracker-turned-double agent Christopher Plummer spars with Nazis–including Yul Brynner and Gert Frobe–in a scorching true story. Seductive Romy Schneider co-stars. Did he work for the Brits or the Germans?
There they are, my A-No.-1, top-of-the-heap spy flicks. In a genre replete with an embarrassment of cinematic riches, there will be more to come.