Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Spy Movies (Not James Bond)

We’ve talked about James Bond a lot in the blog this week. While Agent 007 may be cinema’s most famous spy, he’s far from the only (or even necessarily the best) secret agent whose adventures have graced the silver screen. For today’s Roundtable, let’s look at some of our other favorites. WARNING: The following file has been classified TOP SECRET: FOR YOUR EYES ONLY.

M. Enois Duarte

As soon as I read this week’s topic, my first thought was for the ‘Danger Mouse’ cartoon series from the early ’80s. But then I realized that this is for favorite spy movie, not TV show, so I thought about Alfred Hitchcock. In the end, however, I decided to pick a spy movie that spoofs the genre: James Cameron’s ‘True Lies‘.

Filled with the same sort of action-packed, death-defying exploits as any James Bond picture, this story about a mild-mannered family man who hides his secret identity as a spy is a laugh-riot of clichés, silly plot devices and familiar archetypes (like Tom Arnold’s sidekick goofiness, or Arnold Schwarzenegger being capable of almost anything). It’s basically a remake of Claude Zidi’s ‘La Totale!’, but Cameron brings his own brand of larger-than-life spectacle with lots of excitement and hilarity.

Steven Cohen

Based on John le Carre’s celebrated novel of the same name, ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold‘ has always been a favorite of mine. A classic Cold War-era tale set in Berlin, in many ways it’s the “anti-Bond” spy flick. The film presents a much more cynical and realistic perspective on espionage, and its spies are a far cry from the charming, debonair 007. Instead, they’re “seedy, squalid bastards,” and Richard Burton’s brooding performance as Alex Leamas is one of my favorites, from any actor… ever. The character is a depressed, jaded husk of a man who wears the pain of his past in every weathered line on his face. Burton’s biting, climactic monologue on the unsavory realities of espionage is particularly memorable, and every scornful syllable in his diatribe absolutely stings with self loathing. Oswald Morris’ moody black and white cinematography is also a real highlight, and director Martin Ritt does a great job of maintaining an icy air of intrigue. A methodically paced but emotionally potent examination of dehumanization and spy politics, the film is a true classic of the genre.

Which reminds me, hurry up and release this on Blu-ray, Criterion! Please.

Mike Attebery

The technology is outdated, and the danger seems extremely pedestrian, but I still love ‘Sneakers‘. Twenty years after its release, lines from this comic thriller pop into my head regularly:

“Too many secrets.”
“I didn’t know you could do that in Mexico City.”
“My voice is my passport. Verify Me.”
“This LTX-71 concealable mic is part of the same system that NASA used when they faked the Apollo Moon landings.”

When Neil Armstrong passed away last month, I couldn’t help but wonder what Dan Aykroyd’s conspiracy theorist “Mother” would have to say about it. The issues, characters, performances (folks like Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, David Strathairn, River Pheonix, Dan Aykrod and Ben Kingsley are more relaxed, off kilter and funny than in anything else any of them did before or since) all hold up beautifully. Even re-reading some of the quotes now, this stuff is as relevant today as it ever was. Could this not describe, oh, I don’t know, Google?

“There’s a war out there, old friend. A world war. And it’s not about who’s got the most bullets. It’s about who controls the information. What we see and hear, how we work, what we think… it’s all about the information!”

This could be a quote from the editorial page in any American paper right now: “Pollution. Crime. Drugs, poverty, disease, hunger, despair – we throw GOBS of money at them and problems only get worse. Why is that? Because money’s most powerful ability is to allow bad people to continue doing bad things at the expense of those who don’t have it.”

‘Sneakers’ is ultimately a spy story with a distinct philosophy and a good sense of humor. I’ll leave you with one more quote as evidence. This one comes from a TV reporter: “In a surprise announcement, the Republican National Committee has revealed it is bankrupt. A spokesman for the party said they had plenty of money in their accounts last week, but today they just don’t know where the money has gone. But not everybody is going begging. Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the United Negro College Fund announced record earnings this week, due mostly to large, anonymous donations.”

Luke Hickman

I don’t know anyone who shares my sentiment, but I’m a huge fan of Tony Scott’s ‘Spy Game‘. For me, it feels like a couple different movies in one. I like the story of a savvy retiree who outwits his peers. I like watching the fresh new spy in training. I like not knowing why the spy is in prison. I like how the back-story intrinsically ties in with the present story. I like Scott’s direction (this was pre-hyper-editing), his fantastic cast (Brad Pitt and Robert Redford) and the screenplay. Despite being a long film (126 minutes), it flies by no matter how many times I’ve seen it. Most importantly, after 11 years, ‘Spy Game’ has held up perfectly.

Tom Landy

I was planning to go with ‘True Lies’, but since that one has already been taken, I guess I’ll go with nostalgia. (My pick may end up doubling as another candidate for last week’s Roundtable, since I haven’t seen it in ages.) I’m talking about 1984’s ‘Cloak & Dagger‘. Now, I’m sure that this movie starring Henry Thomas (shortly after hitting the big time in ‘E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial’) and Dabney Coleman hasn’t aged all that well. However, for a time back in the mid-1980s, it was adored by practically every kid out there.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

“…but what if James Bond was a bad guy?” That’s pretty much the premise of ‘Danger: Diabolik!‘, Mario Bava’s candy-colored adaptation of the wildly successful Italian comic. Diabolik is an impossibly brilliant super-thief who pulls off one daring heist after another to disrupt the world’s financial markets. A terrorist in a painted-on latex ninja suit, Diabolik really isn’t in it for the money. Of course, if it helps pay for his sprawling, futuristic lair, sleek cars and more gadgets than you’ll get in a dozen Bond flicks, all the better. Those bags of cash also make for nice padding when writhing around with Marisa Mell in his mammoth rotating bed. Smart, sexy, subversive, visually dazzling and a delirious amount of fun, here’s hoping that ‘Danger: Diabolik!’ finds its way to Blu-ray sooner rather than later.

Josh Zyber

Two decades after officially giving up the role of James Bond (and seven years after the misbegotten ‘Never Say Never Again’), Sean Connery returned to the spy game in the 1990 adaptation of John le Carre’s novel ‘The Russia House‘. However, his character Barley Blair is pretty far removed from James Bond. He’s no suave secret agent. Instead, Barley is an over-the-hill book editor who gets wrapped up in an intelligence scheme when a Russian government official passes him a top secret manuscript with a list of Soviet nuclear capabilities, in the hopes that Barley will publish it and help bring democracy to the U.S.S.R. (The film is set a few years earlier, at the tail end of the Cold War.) Recruited by MI6 to travel to Moscow and validate the source’s credentials, Barley finds himself falling in love with a Russian woman (Michelle Pfieffer), whose safety he values above political ideology.

Directed by Fred Schepisi (‘Six Degrees of Separation’) and scripted by Tom Stoppard, the film was actually the first major American production to shoot on location in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Its performances are impeccable, and the movie features one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best scores. It’s a beautiful, very emotional love story with a complex and frequently witty story that just so happens to involve a touch of international espionage intrigue. Unfortunately, because it lacks the action/adventure elements that many viewers expected from a spy movie starring Sean Connery, the film was largely dismissed and forgotten at the time. I’ve always considered it an underrated gem, and I’d love to see it released on Blu-ray some day.

You may note here that we’ve left off some expected picks, such as the ‘Bourne’ or ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchises. Feel free to tell us what else we’ve missed in the Comments.


  1. Alex

    Looking back, I know it’s pretty goofy, but I’ve always loved “The Saint.” I still think it’s Kilmer’s best performance behind “Tombstone.”

  2. Shannon Nutt

    Two of my favorites were mentioned: The Russia House and Sneakers.

    I’d also like to submit the Jack Ryan movies – particularly The Hunt For Red October and Clear & Present Danger, which I thought were quite good.

    • Alex

      Love Clear & Present Danger!!!!!

      And if Hunt for Red October had had Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, it might have been the best movie ever made.

  3. HuskerGuy

    Spies Like Us

    I also like Swordfish and From Paris With Love if those qualify.

    Otherwise, I’ll throw out Enemy of the State as another favorite.

  4. JM

    If ‘The Departed’ counts, my love is uncontested.

    Otherwise I choose ‘Ronin’ (for the spying, not the car chasing).

    ‘Charlie Wilson’s War,’ ‘Tinker, Tailor…’ ‘Bourne U,’ ‘The Ipcress File,’ ‘The Russia House,‘ and ‘Mission: Impossible – Gadgets & Cleavage’ share the consolation.

    For the fluff… ‘A Shot in the Dark,’ ‘Duplicity,’ and ‘OSS 117: Lost in Rio.’

  5. EM

    I love Diabolik, but I don’t see it as a spy movie. It does have some of the genre trappings, but isn’t a spy movie supposed to be about one or more spies?

    I’ll go with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones is essentially an espionage agent of the United States in that film, in which one of his foes, Toht, appears to be a “regular” spy.

    An honorable mention goes to Buster Keaton’s The General. The main character, Keaton’s Johnnie Gray, is not a spy, but for most of the film he counters the espionage efforts of the main antagonists.

    Hmm…I guess I haven’t been much for traditional spy films.

  6. Barsoom Bob

    The original Manchurian Canidate, Harvey was brainwashed in N. Korea but his mother and step father were embedded communist agents trying to take over the U.S government.

    Funneral in Berlin is the second Harry Palmer movie and as good if not better than Ipcress

    The mad dutchman’s The Black Book

    Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution

    South Korean TV drama.” Iris “

  7. C Boyer

    Blake Edward’s The Tamarind Seed (1974)with Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif is one of my favorites and is often overlooked because it’s so difficult to get a copy.It features a wonderful score by John Barry. Hopscotch is right up there as well. Matthau and Jackson were terrific together.

  8. AllanL5

    The Man with One Red Shoe (1985) has always been a favorite, in the “comedy spy” genre. Tom Hanks, Lori Singer, even Carrie Fisher and Dabney Coleman.

  9. Mark Luty

    Operation Crossbow (1965)
    The Eiger Sanction (1975)
    Ice Station Zebra (1968)
    Clear and Present Danger (1994)
    Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)