From “Martini, shaken not stirred” to
“It is just the right size, for me, that is”,
Bond’s response to Tatiana Romanova,
“I think my mouth is too big” statement.
Bond movies have always been at the forefront of the best spy movies, enticing the audience with the coolest sports cars to tuxedos and of course dirty lines and masterful use of audiences’ imagination to its cause. From thrillers to dramas to adventure, best spy movies are watched time and time again.
Bond had a huge impact on how we differentiate good spy movies to best spy movies, or simply identify the spy movies genre.
However, there are plenty of good spy movies that marginally fall under the spy movie genre that we at OnReplayTV identified.
It is simply a movie that features the idea of spy or spying and somehow relates to our classical understanding of spies.
In this piece, I will be writing about the best movies featuring spies; from Jason Bourne movies to Mission Impossible and of course including some British spy movies.
One small caveat is that since there are so many movie franchises and outstanding directors who made more than just one good spy movie. Whether it is an intelligent Bond movie or a movie by Legendary filmmaker Hitchcock, I will be taking one of their best spy films per director and franchise.
The Third Man (1949)
Director: Carol Reed
Writers: Graham Greene (by), Graham Greene (screen play)
Stars: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli
It might be a surprise for you to have a movie from 1949 as one of the best spy movies of all time if you are young and have never heard about it. However, it is the spy movies like this one that built the foundation and popularized spy movies.
A first rate noir classic Third Man was shot during a time when color was only getting commercial use and popularity, yet being only tri-color The Third Man outshined everything else for rather different aspects.
Outstanding musical score and brilliant cinematography, coupled with the one of a kind tragic storytelling, this movie could not but be the best spy movie of all time.
I won’t go in detail about what happens in the movie or who kills who, but what I will tell you is that it is definitely worth your time if you like spy movies, heck it is not just a good spy movie to watch but a good time in general.
Third Man takes you to the post WW2 Vienna and gives a glimpse of history together with one of a kind entertainment that you will enjoy, be in awe of and think about for a long time.
Mission Impossible (1996-2018)
Director: Brian De Palma
Writers: Bruce Geller (television series), David Koepp (story)
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart
To be frank, this is not the best movie from this franchise that I would nominate as one of the best spy movies. However, it is the one that started the whole franchise, and unlike any other franchise, Mission Impossible franchise kept getting better and better and better.
This might be the only movie franchise in the history of moviemaking that always delivers and gets better.
The reason Mission Impossible is on my list of best spy films is simply because if you do not watch this, you cannot watch subsequent movies and enjoy them.
Ethan Hunt starts off the franchise being wrongly accused of killing his team and trying to prove his innocence. In other words, it seems like lousy writing for a spy movie franchise, yet it is still going on.
This movie is great in every sense, but I still find it difficult to pinpoint which part is exceptionally good. Because the movies later have done it all better, and as a big fan, I can’t help but compare it to others.
You can expect an exceptionally good performance from Tom Cruise though, which is as a spy flick it stands out like no other.
Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writers: Tony Gilroy (screenplay), Scott Z. Burns (screenplay)
Stars: Matt Damon, Edgar Ramírez, Joan Allen
I took a different approach with Bourne movies and instead of recommending you the first to start the whole story off, it is the third installment in the franchise and by far the best.
You see, it is not always the franchises get better and better, in fact it is quite rare, actually probably never happened except with Mission Impossible film series. 😂
Although Bourne movies have gathered quite the fan base despite it being cancelled after the fourth, or fifth installment, it was this movie that probably helped the franchise with it.
Jason Bourne movies have been known for their shaky cam fight sequences and have been less concerned with the story. But this one is one heck of an unsettling ride into the life of amnesiac spy Jason Bourne as protagonist.
Bourne film series are definitely among the best spy movies to watch when bored.
Bond (From Russia With Love 1964)
Director: Terence Young
Writers: Richard Maibaum (screenplay), Johanna Harwood (adaptation)
Stars: Sean Connery, Robert Shaw, Lotte Lenya
Does it objectify women a bit?
Does it have cheesy and dirty lines ?
However, as a Bond film which was made in the 60s, it was quite successful and still is to this day. As for its drawbacks, which movie did not have it back then?
You could easily watch this movie and think as if it was made yesterday. The cinematography, direction and well, let me be straight all the technicalities are in par with today’s standards. It is why it probably was loved and thought of as one of the best spy movies of all time.
Do you remember the introduction of the article, if not go ahead and read it up again. If yes then you know I took a quote from one of the bond movies.
Which one do you think it was, the second quote, that is?
Of course it was from this very movie.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Writers: Bridget O’Connor (screenplay by), Peter Straughan (screenplay by)
Stars: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy
If you are one of those kinds of people who watch movies just to spend some time and see if you like it, then you are definitely going to hate this movie. Because it is impossible to take your eyes and mind off this film.
It starts the story off with a retired British Secret agent being called to investigate a stealthy last case. However, the story might seem similar or but an old one, like looking for the mole, and loopholes to avoid government restrictions, it is not a normal spy movie.
It is not only one of the best spy movies, it just is an incredibly gripping movie. If you are used to watching spy movies and thinking highly of the spies, this movie breaks all those stereotypes and finds a new belief in you that you cannot escape for months after watching it.
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Director: Sydney Pollack
Writers: James Grady (novel), Lorenzo Semple Jr. (screenplay)
Stars: Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson
If I forgot to add a bit of definition to the spy movie genre, let us refine it and add one more quality to the best spy movies.
It is that they are gripping, taut, and exciting as hell. Three Days of the Condor is just that type of movie.
It features a witty, CIA researcher who finds his whole team murdered after lunch one day. Now, he not only has to flee to save himself, but also find the killer or killers.
If reading alone does not excite you or want to find out what happens I don’t know what else would. That is why it is one of the best spy movies because it has one of the most captivating plots, and an engaging atmospheric feel.
It is also one of those films you can learn something from, especially from the 70s. It basically takes you on a ride through the 70s in the eyes of a CIA clerk’s one of the most difficult days.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt
I don’t know if you like Osama Bin Laden or not 😂 but this movie tells us the story of how the CIA caught him. Whether you like him or not, you are definitely going to enjoy one of the best spy movies of all time with a manhunt script in it.
It is advised you don’t view it as a factual event that happened, however, if you look at it from the movie point of view. It is hell of a thrilling ride that is awful and entertaining at the same time.
It is one of those films that pushes you a bit then pulls you right back into it, but never lets you off the hook. It has one of the best storylines and scripts to make an Oscar worthy movie, and the movie makers were able to make it that good.
The Departed (2006)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: William Monahan (screenplay), Alan Mak
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson
The first thing I should tell about this movie is its cast. It is almost impossible to keep all those people in one room, let alone make a whole movie out of it.
However, what makes it one of the best spy movies is that it is as much entertaining as it is thought provoking, and that it is an enthralling tale of an Undercover cop trying to infiltrate an Irish Gang.
There is not much to say about the director except to remind you that it was a Scorsese film, which won an Oscar by the way. But it is not something you introduce Scorsese with, as he has won multiple Oscars and been nominated more times than I can count 😉.
Bridge of Spies (2015)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen
Stars: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda
This one is another one of those movies from which you can learn something from, which makes a good contender to being one of the best spy movies.
Another factor why it is the best spy movie is that it is led by Spielberg, and written by Coen brothers, and performed by Tom Hanks. You put these people together, they will film your ordinary day like it was an Oscar worthy piece.
Bridge of Spies is a daring tale of the Cold War times through our protagonist James D. Donovan who has to defend Soviet KGB agent in the US court to exchange him with Rudolf Abel and another US pilot.
Just like many stories of Spielberg where he shows the bad side is not quite evil and the good side is not quite virtuous, this spy movie can’t help but stick to this logic.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Eric Roth (screenplay)
Stars: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Marie-Josée Croze
Another one of Speilbergs’ masterpieces, Munich tells us the story of 1972’s murder of Israeli athlete. It is a chilling tale, yet one that ensnares you to the screen.
It is a political statement, but one that has been made so careful and daringly that it does not hit anyone yet hits the mark, and delivers the message.
What makes it an exceptional piece of work and one of the best spy movies of all time is its direction. And it might have been based on an existing material, but the screenplay is so well put to the sighs, and the performances are like through the roof.
Bana acts like he was there with them, or like he was so angry that it happened and wanted to do something, and instead of doing something, ended up acting on it. 😂
But it is a hell of a good acting one that you would only see in the best spy movies.
Kingsman Secret Service (2014)
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Jane Goldman (screenplay by), Matthew Vaughn (screenplay by)
Stars: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson
British spy movies have always stolen the show in the beginning of the 19th century, but it was Hollywood that took that honorary title from them in the late part of that century.
Kingsman Secret Service, though, proves British spy movies are still fighting to be the best. It has this regular old plot, a guy joins a secret service and realizes he is special but now has to save the world.
The way this spy movie approaches it more like funny spy movies would, makes it a unique, and exceptionally uncommon spy movie.
It is one of those funny spy movies that knows there is a thin line between being taken seriously and as a joke.
As a joke it was not taken, nor was it taken seriously, which makes up for a unique entertainment in the world of similarities. And it is the reason why it is one of the best spy movies of this decade.
Lives of Others (2006)
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Writer: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Stars: Ulrich Mühe, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch
This is no ordinary spy movie, it does not have Spielberg directing, nor does it have Tom Hanks Or Di Caprio playing it. What it has is an incredibly well written honest story of recent Germany.
It is one of those spy movies that makes you add a whole bunch of new adjectives to the spy genre, because a dozen is not enough to explain this movie.
It is a raw artful piece of work that is going to seem so personal and professional at the same time. It won an Oscar without even speaking a word in English, off course if you want to watch it now, which I highly do recommend you do. It must be dubbed (or subbed) in English.
If you were to choose one word and use it to describe it and subsequently add to the best spy movies genre, it would be “thrilling”. And this spy movie is but thrilling all the way through, giving you the real sense of danger.
It is easy to feel you are in the presence of a masterful performance.
North by Northwest (1959)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Ernest Lehman
Stars: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason
Good spy movies are hard to come by, the best ones are even harder. North by Northwest is undoubtedly the best spy movie of all time from one of the best directors of the 19th century – Hitchcock.
What makes this movie jaw-droppingly good is the fact that it is a tale of an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation, being involved in cross country chases, spies, and off course, eye-candies.
The quality of the picture stands up to today’s standards as well, despite it being shot in 1959. North by Northwest is simply a thrilling adventurous ride that gets straight into action and grips from the very beginning, and ends abruptly so that you would get too attached.
Except everyone who has seen it, are already so attached that this movie keeps being mentioned as one of best accomplishments of moviemaking itself.
It truly is a masterpiece and a brilliant moving picture, that deserves all the respect and appreciation it got during all these years. It is the one and only kind of the best spy movies.
All things considered
There are spy movies that use the most cliche and overused plots yet still succeed, while there are those with unique, and bespoke plots and writing that fit and expand the genre to be successful.
In this article, I hope I have shown you the case of both. When you have everything going for the movie which is why it succeeds, or when it has nothing but itself, and yet still makes it like the example of “Lives of Other People”.
You have also learnt that spy movies do not have to always feature the latest bad-ass sports cars, or the coolest weapons and the hottest girls, well not quite sure about the last one 😉.