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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

quick list: five great spy movies

Do you guys like lists? I tried doing a daily list a while back, and it never seemed to connect with you all. Plus it was a lot a work because I tried to be too comprehensive, too definitive. But maybe a quicker hit of a list — and ones that didn’t pretend to be the end of the discussion instead of the beginning — would be a way to jump start some conversation? I’ll try a few of these over the next few days and see how it goes. To begin:

With Salt demonstrating that Russian spies are still hot — even though the Cold War is colder than a corpse — intelligence is confirming that espionage as an excuse for globetrotting action has never really gone out of style. The Director requests that you study these missions to see how it’s done, and further requests that you recommend your own cinematic missions for additional study:
The Bourne Identity
Jason Bourne has forgotten who he is, but he hasn’t forgotten all his superspy superskills. And he will use them if you get in his way.

(whatever your favorite James Bond movie is)
I’m not going to get into the which-Bond-movie-is-best debate. Let’s just leave it at the acknowledgement of 007 as the greatest spy in cinema history.

Three Days of the Condor
Robert Redford’s CIA analyst is forced into the field when all of his coworkers are murdered. I hate when that happens.

The Good Shepherd
This riveting drama of the early days of the CIA will make you even more suspicious of spies. They’re not very nice people, it turns out.

The Conversation
When you spy on people, sometimes you end up getting involved, as Gene Hackman discovers in this harrowing thriller.

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  • Michael

    Does Sneakers count as a spy movie? It’s not big on the globetrotting, but it’s got Russian spies, NSA-types, a secret(ish) criminal orginization (of sorts), and it IS one of my favorite movies in general…

    Plus what other movie is going to have Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, and Dan Ackroyd?

  • Hank Graham

    I’d add:

    The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

    Best Richard Burton performance on film, and great John LeCarre story


    Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

    With a great Alec Guinness performance in another great John LeCarre story.

    An honorable mention for “The Secret Agent,” where John Geilgud pretty well created the unflappable British spy who never loses his umbrella.

  • Kathy A

    I’ll add Alec Baldwin’s Jack Ryan (as opposed to Harrison Ford’s or Ben Affleck’s), because he’s smart, out of his element, and funny as well as gets the bad guy in the end and smuggles a Soviet sub past the entire freakin’ Soviet Navy to hide in a Maine river.

  • Victor Plenty

    Sneakers for sure. Also Spy Game, with Redford and Brad Pitt in the main roles, is another international espionage thriller with amazing performances.

    For more spy style scenery-chewing by Gene Hackman, his role alongside Will Smith in Enemy of the State is a large part of what allows that movie to work at all.

    The spy thriller genre is one that could make for some interesting crossovers with other genres – something like the murder mystery plus historical drama crossover seen in The Name of the Rose.

    For example, if anyone ever gets a chance to film more of Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” novels, that would be a great opportunity to bring out the intriguing aspects of Stephen Maturin’s work as an intelligence agent.

    As I thought about other possible crossovers between the spy movie and other genres, it occurred to me that we may already have a truly staggering work of that nature, in the Harry Potter films, depending on how well the filmmakers end up being able to justly present the harrowing full character arc of Severus Snape.

  • MC

    I like The Man Who Knew Too Little as a parody of genre conventions.

  • Quick thought without any thinking: Could Inception count as a spy film? More specifically, the Extraction. The characters enter stealthily into an environment in order to procure secret information. I’d say that counts as spying, yeah?

    So I’m putting it out there: Inception as one of the best spy films ever made.

  • MaryAnn

    I’d called *Inception* a heist film rather than a spy film. I think one essential element of the spy film is nationalism and the involvement of secret government agencies.

  • I’d called *Inception* a heist film rather than a spy film. I think one essential element of the spy film is nationalism and the involvement of secret government agencies.

    Yeah, you’re right. Cobb and his crew are freelancers for hire, whereas spies work for an organization and an ideology. This why those quick comments without thinking are mostly a bad idea.

    Putting more thought into it this time round, North by Northwest is a great spy film. One of my favorite films, this. Cleverly written with style and wit and a story spanning 3,000 miles with interesting characters tangled together.

  • RogerBW

    I still rate The Ipcress Filem as the prototypical anti-Bond. (And another film that’s much better than the book. Michael Caine tends to do that.) I have a lurking fondness for Operation Crossbow and The Man Who Never Was, too…

  • Karl Morton IV

    Three cheers for giving “The Good Shepherd” some love! And “Three Days of the Condor” features my personal number one ultimate bad-ass that Bond, Bourne, AND Salt would do well to steer clear of: Max Von Sydow’s icy, professional Joubert. LOVE that character.

    I’ll always have a soft spot for “The Russia House” for dozens of reasons including but not limited to: Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer (swoon!), Roy Scheider, Ken Russell (!!!!), Klaus Maria Brandauer, and the late, great Jerry Goldsmith.

    Another favorite is “The Lady Vanishes”, but I’m not sure it counts for our purposes here if the superspy isn’t the main character, does it?

  • stchivo

    Can I say Mission Impossible? (the first one only) I remember being blown away by it the first time I saw it. Although now that I think about it when I saw it again recently it seemed to be unnecessarily complicated, like complicated for complicated’s sake, or maybe it was just me. But it has certainly been influential like the surprise rubber mask getting ripped off or the cable hang from a ceiling. How many times has that come up in other films or tv, whether in parody or a straight copy?

  • Jester

    Yeah, add another vote for Spy Game. It’s just so well done and so well put together. I can’t think of one on your list that I’d remove, though. If I had to take one off, The Good Shepherd, which technically is not a spy movie, per se…

  • drewryce

    “Riley: Ace of Spies” sure it was made for TV but man that thing was great;
    “Our Man in Havana”;
    “Night People”;

    Various Hitchcocks: North by Northwest, etc

  • Mo

    “The Day of the Jackal” is quite good from what I remember of it… it’s been a while. It’s one of my Dad’s all-time favourites.

  • CB

    I’d called *Inception* a heist film rather than a spy film. I think one essential element of the spy film is nationalism and the involvement of secret government agencies.

    So, Sneakers might count, kinda? I nominate it as a great spy movie to the extent that it counts as one.

    At the very least, it is film’s most realistic portrayal about what actual computer systems entry is all about — social engineering.

    Though now that I think of it that part probably seems terribly dated like the rest of the movie, now that “social engineering” means tricking people into clicking on a link to free porn/kitten-picture-screensavers.

  • Ide Cyan

    Nobody’s mentioned “Breach” yet?

    Also: The Message (aka Feng Sheng, starring Li Bingbing) is really solid.

  • iakobos

    I’ve enjoyed the Bourne series. However, my vote for another favorite spy movie is Spies Like Us. There are a few miss-steps in the comedy but for the most part it’s pretty funny.

  • Ahhhh, just this week I plugged information in on TV Tropes for Three Days of the Condor… :)

    As for not wanting to highlight the Best Bond movie for spydom, you can always create a separate list for Best Bond Per Bond (i.e. the Best Bond for each of the Bond actors)…
    For me it’d go like this:
    Connery) From Russia With Love – Goldfinger may be a fan favorite, but From Russia is the better movie: excellent set pieces, worthy villains in Red Grant and Rosa Klebb.
    Lazenby) On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – okay, he’s only got this one. Aside from Lazenby’s wooden acting and lack of chemistry with Diana Rigg, this is one of the better action movies of the entire series.
    Moore) For Your Eyes Only – most fans may think Spy Who Loved Me, for its epic battle sequence in the hollowed-out ship, Barbara Bach as a decent foil and sexy femme, and the one in which Jaws is a serious threat and not a campy one like in Moonraker. But For Your Eyes Only is the most serious of Moore’s tenure, has some excellent action scenes, decent plotting, believable love interest, and perhaps Bond’s best kill (kicking a bad guy’s entire car off a cliff).
    Dalton) Living Daylights – of the two he made, this one had good plotting, an incredible opening sequence, and decent pop tunes (the villain assassin’s leitmotif is a Pretenders song). I personally like License to Kill, but I know not every fan liked it, and I still liked Daylights as much as License.
    Brosnan) GoldenEye – sad to say, but it was a damn shame the other movies in Brosnan’s series weren’t this good. A Bond villain that’s physically on par with Bond = good fight scenes, the fact they filmed in Russia, the underlying plot of post-Cold War bumming. Tomorrow Never Dies had some decent moments but far more wasted ones (and weaker villains, what does it say that Vincent Schiavelli has a cameo as a chatty assassin and he’s the most memorable villain of the entire movie?); World Is Not Enough had some brilliant twists but too many WTF elements (Denise Richards? Seriously, DENISE RICHARDS as a scientist?!?!); and Die Another Day devolved into pure camp.
    Daniel Craig) Casino Royale – while Craig’s got only two under his belt (damn development hell!), Royale was not only a brilliant reboot of the franchise but practically an Oscar-caliber film. Believable villains, great love interest, best Lieter, incredible action scenes, et al. If you had to debate between the Best Bonds EVER, Casino can best every movie I listed as well as the fan faves (Goldfinger, Spy Who Loved Me).

  • vucubcaquix

    The Lives of Others people!

    That movie was amazing.

  • The Conversation is amazing. There is a rumor that Lionsgate’s rereleases of most of Coppola’s catalog (they just shifted from Paramount to LGF, with the exception of The Godfather trilogy and some odds and ends, like Dracula, which is at Sony) includes Blu-Rays for all of them. Very much hoping to be watching that movie in 1080p, and, more importantly, DTS-HD Master Audio.

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