Become A Spy Thrillers Expert In Ten Easy Movies

Master a genre in just a handful of films…

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As Anna Chapman proved when she got trapped by the FBI over a mocha-frappuccino in Starbucks, spies seem to have got a bit, well, gormless lately. Poisoned brollies are out; shopping at Saks is in. Everyone needs to up their game, and the KGB, CIA, MSS (that’s the Chinese one), Mossad et al could do worse than take a leaf out of SPECTRE’s evil handbook and hollow out a volcano or two, just to keep us all interested. Gary Oldman is bringing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’s uber-spook George Smiley back to the screen, so there’ll soon be even more inspiration waiting at Langley’s nearest multiplex. Until then, here’s a dead-drop’s worth of spy classics to keep them, and you, entertained. It’s off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush.

Tagline: “They should have left him alone”

There’s two morals to this full-throttle tale of espionage, intrigue and extreme absent-mindedness. Firstly, never bother a man who could kill you with your own stationery. Secondly, if your movie needs a car chase, Paul Greengrass is your guy. The Bullet-like thrills of his high-speed Moscow pursuit practically defy you to keep up. It’s filmmaking at 150bpm. Jason Bourne’s (Matt Damon) journey there is every bit as thrilling, taking the bare bones of Robert Ludlum’s thriller, stripping away their Chinese villains and fleshing out Treadstone instead, a covert op so black it would waterboard its own gran for £5 and a pack of peanuts. Picking between the three Bournes is nigh on impossible – Doug Liman’s Identity, often seen as the lesser of the bunch, is a perfectly-judged opening salvo – but with its breakneck action and disarmingly moving climax, Greengrass’ Supremacy gives us a Bourne (Matt Damon) who’s at once super-spy and man searching for his soul. Tony Gilroy has his work cut out in part four.

Iconic moment: “Get some rest Pam, you look tired,” Bourne one-ups the CIA again and almost cracks a smile. Almost.

What to quote: “They don't make mistakes. They don't do random. There's always an objective. Always a target.”

Pub trivia: Treadstone is based on a real CIA cell, the Enterprise, set up to funnel cash during the Iran-Contra debacle. Chris Cooper’s Conklin is modelled loosely on ex-Marine Oliver North. Unsurprisingly, he now works for Fox News.

Further reading… La Femme Nikita (1990), The Hunt for Red October (1990), Black Cat (1991), Mission: Impossible (1996), Enemy Of The State (1998), The Bourne Identity (2002), Munich (2005), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Tagline: “It's a guessing game of mirth and mystery!”

“All I want for Christmas,” said Carey Grant with that half-grin of his, “is to make another movie with Audrey Hepburn”. Boy, can you can see why. For all the critics’ mutterings about their age difference (25 years), the pair’s chemistry (fizzing) is still a delight, coursing through Stanley Donen’s spy caper like the warm buzz of champagne. Yes, you’re statutorily obliged to call Charade “the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made”, but it’s a much more sugary confection than Hitch would have delivered. There’s none of the menace the master would have brought to a McGuffinsome story of murder and missing OSS gold – but then Donen, the man who’d had Gene Kelly Singin’ In The Rain and Frank Sinatra out On The Town, choreographes the Parisian thrills with romance in mind, and delivers in spades. While the plot twists and turns around them like an Escher staircase, Grant and Hepburn are as stylish as Chanel and as fun as the Folies-Bergère. What more could you want?

Iconic moment: Cheek-by-jowl in a cramped elevator, Reggie (Hepburn) turns her playful, flirtacious charm up a notch or 12 as she ties Peter (Grant) in knots. “I don’t bite, you know,” she purrs, “unless it’s called for”. Think you might be in there, Pete.

What to quote: “I already know an awful lot of people,” deadpans Hepburn, “and until one of them dies I couldn't possibly meet anyone else.”

Pub trivia: Look out for a knowing joint cameo by Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone as US Embassy functionaries.

Further reading… In Like Flint (1967), Sneakers (1992), True Lies (1994), The Truth About Charlie (2002), Mr And Mrs Smith (2005), Charlie Wilson’s War (2007).

Tagline: None

Born to a working-class background, surveying the world wrily behind thick-rimmed NHS specs and capable of whipping you up the best meal you’ve ever eaten… no, not Harry Palmer but author Len Deighton, the template for the Swinging Sixties’ most iconic spy. Of course, that little list of character traits applies equally to Palmer – you can add insubordinate and surly, too. And very, very cool. Food critic-turned-novelist Deighton created espionage’s edgiest agent; Michael Caine, who named the character after an unpopular boy at school, made him his own. Next to picking Sean Connery to play that *other *secret agent, it’s the canniest piece of casting Bond producer Harry Saltzman ever pulled off. Palmer’s thin smile and cocky attitude make him the perfect anti-007, a rebel with a cause caught in a Kafka-meets-Claret world of paperwork, bureaucracy and the old school tie. You couldn’t imagine James Bond sneering with Palmer’s icy disdain (“You didn't come here to talk to me about button mushrooms and birds”), but then it’s hard to picture Bond living in a bedsit either.

Iconic moment: The nasty people from IPCRESS blast John Barry’s disorientating electronica at Palmer until his brain is as mushed as the scientists he’d been investigating. Well, that’s the plan, anyway…

What to quote: “I was counting on you being an insubordinate bastard, Palmer.”

Pub trivia: IPCRESS stands for ‘Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex under strESS. Which is slightly easier to fit on a business card than ‘Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion’.

Further reading… Billion Dollar Brain (1967), Ronin (1998).

Tagline: “Is it a crime of passion, or an act of treason?”

Mirrors are a recurrent motif of Roger Donaldson’s tight-as-buttons Cold War thriller, but there’s smoke too, most of it pouring out of that limo as naval attaché Tom Farrell (Kevin Costner) and femme fatale Susan Atwell (Sean Young) go at it hammer and tongs. Filmed in the wake of Iran-Contra disillusionment, Donaldson paints a bleak picture of Reagan’s Washington. You wouldn’t trust Gene Hackman’s morally compromised Secretary of Defense, Fred Thompson’s blasé Agency head, Scott Pritchard’s sinister aide or that clutch of CIA goons to win a round of Spy Vs. Spy, never mind the Cold War, so bogged down are they in cover-ups and cover-ups of cover-ups. The hunt for Soviet mole ‘Yuri’, twisting and turning through the endless corridors of the Pentagon, is thrilling – a slug of ’80s paranoia finished off with a twist even Shyamalan would envy. The lisping Pritchard steals the show, but Costner, who’s not required to do much more than get chased around DC a lot, is the perfect stooge in a role that helped make his name. And for anyone missing Richard Gere in An Officer And A Gentleman, his Daz-white uniform is manna from heaven.

Iconic moment: As an incriminating Polaroid chugs agonisingly through the CIA scanner, Farrell sprints through the Pentagon to find something – anything – to pin on the Secretary of Defense and get his own neck out of the noose.

What to quote: “That… was… a… stupid… stupid… thing… you… did!”

Pub trivia: No Way Out is the second adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s post-war thriller The Big Clock. The first, 1948 noir The Big Clock, saw Ray Milland and Rita Johnson in the Costner/Young roles.

Further reading… The Big Clock (1948), The Recruit (2003), Spartan (2004), Breach (2007), Fair Game (2010).

Tagline: None

If sending a new agent into Nazi-held Europe armed with nothing deadlier than a poem sounds about as sensible as parachuting Andrew Motion into Helmand Province, you need to watch this terrific slice of wartime derring-do. Virginia McKenna brings Violette Szabo, one of Blighty’s great heroes, to the screen. She’s a widower recruited to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and dropped into France with encrypted poems. The plan is to share intel with the French Resistance and generally confound Jerry, but, caught and brutally interrogated by the Gestapo, her heroism, and McKenna’s moving performance, shift powerfully to the fore. Lewis Gilbert underplays things, letting the sheer courage and drama of the story speak for itself. This was, after all, a woman who fought off the Third Reich’s finest with only a borrowed Tommy gun and a stiff upper-lip. Fittingly, considering Ian Fleming also worked in wartime intel, Gilbert went on to direct three Bond films. If this earlier spy thriller doesn’t leave you shaken and stirred, there’s something seriously wrong. Think Charlotte Gray with the punch of a boxer.

Iconic moment: Facing the firing squad in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, Szabo chokes back her fear and earns immortality.

What to quote: “The life that I have is all that I have and the life that I have is yours/The love that I have of the life that have is yours, and yours, and yours…” Szabo learns the coded poem that the Nazis won’t be able to prise from her.

Pub trivia: The film’s technical adviser, Leo Marks, was head of the SOE’s codes team in 1940, making him possibly the most important 22 year-old in the world. It was Marks who penned the poems Szabo carried with her to Occupied Europe.

Further reading… Cloak And Dagger (1946), 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), The Triple Cross (1966), Charlotte Gray (2001), Enigma (2001).

Tagline: “Debonair. Defiant. Defrosted.”

Dr. Evil, a man whose standing in the crazed-supergenius stakes is undermined by the fact that he can’t even ground his own son, is a brilliantly barmy amalgam of Blofeld, Dr. No, and your local village idiot. He’s a role model for sea bass-owning megalomaniacs everywhere, but would make a much more credible adversary for Austin Powers were it not for his faulty fembots, overcomplicated plans and the small matter of forgetting to adjust his crazed demands for inflation (“One *MILLION *dollars!”). Mike Myers’ mojo-boasting spoof pays loving, and often hysterical homage to a genre that’s had more than the occasional po-faced portrayal, what with that whole future-of-the-world-hanging-in-the-balance thing. Austin Powers himself is accessorised from British thrillers of yore (Jason King’s chestwig, Harry Palmer’s specs, camera stolen from the set of Blowup), a cryogenetic love machine sent from the past to thwart his nemesis and chat up the odd bir.. ahem, lady along the way. Yeah, baby, yeah!

Iconic moment: The Evil family try to find common ground at Carrie Fisher’s counselling session (“Maybe I could be a vet”, “evil vet?”, “or I could work in a petting zoo,” “…an evil petting zoo?”).

What to quote: “Ooo, Behave!”

Pub trivia: Evil acolyte Robert Wagner’s wife, Jill St. John, was Bond girl Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever. She narrowly escapes Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd’s bombe surprise.

Further reading… Spies Like Us (1985), Austin Powers The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), Spy Kids (2001), Austin Powers In Goldmember (2002), Team America: World Police (2004).

Tagline: “The Man Who Knows All The Dirt… Sheer And Naked!”

No self-respecting spy-pedia is complete without a dark and dirty slice of John le Carré, the don of all espionage writers. We’ve gone for this taut, cynical thriller – although if you haven’t seen the BBC’s masterful take on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, do so immediately – largely because of Richard Burton’s complex, unsympathetic performance as M16 spook-gone-sour Alec Leamas. Director Martin Ritt handles the Russian-doll intrigue with aplomb, spinning a plot so cunning you’d have to be a fox to understand it. Central to the shadowy story is the exhausted, jaundiced Leamas, whose defection to the East may not be quite what it seems, but whose cynicism certainly is. Like a harder-living prototype for Jason Bourne, he’s a man trapped between nations and ideologies. His salvation – the beautiful, guileless Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) – may also be his downfall. Le Carré’s work has been tackled by directors are gifted as Sidney Lumet, Roy George Hill, John Boorman and Fernando Meirelles, but none have captured the bleaker side of the spy game better than this.

Iconic moment: Reacting to Bloom’s needling, Leamas unleashes a tired, disillusioned tirade: "What do you think spies are?" he blasts. “They are a bunch of seedy squalid bastards like me, little drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands...” This won’t appearing in an M16 recruiting ad near you.

What to quote: “She offered me free love. At the time, that was all I could afford.”

Pub trivia: Bloom was cast as teenage idealist Perry despite being 34, a tribute to her friendship with Burton and, presumably, fantastically good skin care.

Further reading… Funeral In Berlin (1966), Spy Game (2001), The Quiet American (2002), The Good Shepherd (2005), The Lives Of Others (2006), Syriana (2005).

Tagline: “Everything he touches turns to excitement.”

A little fussy with the cocktails, a little smug with the post-mortem put-downs and boasting a seriously uncool disdain for The Beatles, this 007 would, in the hands of anyone but Sean Connery, be a bit of div. Connery, though, makes Bond cooler, sexier and edgier than any screen spy before or since. He’s also a bit of a bastard – a hundred miles away from George Lazenby’s broken-hearted 007 in OHMSS – who kills in a way Burton’s Alec Leamas could probably relate to: pitilessly and with twisted humour. Co-scripter was The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’s Paul Dehn, who helped Ian Hamilton create some of Bond’s greatest moments, from that pimped-up Aston Martin to the aerobatic sizzle of Pussy Galore and her flying circus, via Auric Goldfinger, Oddjob, and some serious cheating on the golf course and the poker table. Connery is the cool heart of the best Bond flick.

Iconic moment: Bond, mid-close encounter with Goldfinger’s shiny industrial laser, has to think very fast indeed.

What to quote: “Do you expect me to talk?”, “No Mr. Bond…” You know the rest.

Pub trivia: Baldy uber-villain Auric Goldfinger was named after Ian Fleming’s architectural nemesis, Ernő Goldfinger, who built his modernist pad next door. Apparently Fleming didn’t like it.

Further reading… Dr. No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963), Our Man Flint (1966), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).

Tagline: “Mystery - Intrigue - Romance, burn a flaming trail among the gay capitals of Europe.”

Not to be confused with Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent which, even more bamboozlingly, was also made into a Hitchcock film (Sabotage), Secret Agent turned to the spy stories of Somerset Maugham for inspiration. Maugham’s Ashenden (John Gielgud), a character that drew on Maugham’s own experience in the secret service, was one of the Master’s (relatively) ordinary joes chucked into the moral maze and left to flounder. He’s joined there by Madeleine Carroll, a woman masquerading as his wife, and Peter Lorre, an assassin known as The General, who are charged with killing an enemy agent. With Peter Lorre sporting a devious mind and a moustache that would look silly even in Movember, this isn’t Hitch’s greatest spy thriller (or Lorre’s greatest performance – “He was a morphine addict and an expert in stealing scenes,” sniffed Gielgud). But, heck, with its alpine settings, dead organists, several ripping set-pieces, light relief from an on-form Robert Young, and the jaw-dropping Madeleine Carroll playing opposite a cool and cagey Gielgud, it’s well worth hunting down. Preferably using dogs.

Iconic moment: While Ashenden helps set up their mark for assassination, Carroll fidgets with increasing discomfort next to the man’s German wife (Florence Kahn) and dog. It’s a gut-churning scene made more so by the realisation that they’ve gone after the wrong man.

What to quote: “We aren't hunting a fox, we're hunting a man. He's an oldish man, with a wife. Oh, I know it's war and it's our job to do it, but that doesn't prevent it being murder - simple murder!” Ashenden suffers a serious outbreak of scruples.

Pub trivia: The first of Hitchcock’s blondes, Madeleine Carroll joined the Red Cross during World War II and won France’s Legion d'Honneur. She also donated her chateau outside Paris to orphans.

Further reading… Spies (1928), Mata Hari (1932), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Saboteur (1942), Journey Into Fear (1943), Diplomatic Courier (1952), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), North By Northwest (1959).

Tagline: “His CIA code name is Condor. In the next seventy-two hours almost everyone he trusts will try to kill him.”

Essentially a giant vulture that flaps around the Andes, Condor is not nearly as cool a codename as ‘the Jackal’, ‘Broadsword’, or, heck, even ‘Danny Boy’. Spyland’s answer to Mr Pink, Robert Redford’s bookish CIA researcher Joe Turner should really have seen the writing on the wall. He certainly does when he gets back from lunch to discover his entire team has been wiped out by a slick assassin (Max von Sydow). But who ordered it and why? And are they coming for him next? If you’re looking for a nervy slice of ‘70s paranoia, Sydney Pollack’s cat-and-mouse conspiracy thriller is right up there with Coppola’s The Conversation and Alan Paluka’s The Parallax View. Be warned, though: it’s not as easy to get hold of – Condor is still unavailable on DVD in the UK.

Iconic moment: Turner returns from his lunchbreak to discover that the office Christmas party will be a lonelier affair this year.

What to quote: “You think not getting caught in a lie is the same as telling the truth.”

Pub trivia: The movie’s influence has seen comic riffs in Frasier (‘Three Days Of The Condo’), The Simpsons (‘Three Gays Of The Condo’) and Seinfeld. Kramer receives the same veiled warning as Joe Turner when he tried to cancel his mail.

Further reading… Notorious (1946), The Parallax View (1974), The Conversation (1974), The Osterman Weekend (1983), The Fourth Protocol (1987), The Spanish Prisoner (1997).

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