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The Movies/TV 8 Ball: The Top 8 Spy Thrillers

September 19, 2017 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Top 8 Spy Thrillers

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!

This week the world of spy hijinks looks to take on Pennywise in movie theaters. Kingsman: The Golden Circle is poised to duke it out with It atop the box office and has every chance of preventing the horror film from a threepeat. Spy films are among my favorite genre, but not necessarily the genre Kingsman falls into. I love all-out action to be sure, but for me the twisty-turny nature of the spy thriller is superlative. This week I thought I would take the opportunity to examine the best entries in the long history of the spy thriller.

Caveat: There are a few caveats this week. First off, I didn’t consider the James Bond films, as they are practically a genre all their own and deserve their own list. Also, note that this is specifically spy thrillers; as such, spy comedies like Austin Powers and pure spy action films like Kingsman are not being considered. Finally, spy thrillers and assassination/hitman films are two separate film types for me; thus, films like The Manchurian Candidate, The Professional and Nikita were left behind because they focus more on the hitmen than the espionage and intrigue.

Just Missing the Cut

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Patriot Games (1992)
Bridge of Spies (2015)
Munich (2006)
The 39 Steps (1935)

#8: Traitor (2008)

First up on our list is this largely-overlooked thriller from 2008 starring Don Cheadle. Cheadle plays Samir Horn, a devout Muslim and former Special Forces Engineer Sergeant whose Sudanese father was killed by a car bomb when he was a child. Samir is now an arms dealer…or so it would seem. As FBI Agent Roy Clayton (played by Guy Pierce) begins to hunt Samir following the bombing of a U.S. consulate, it becomes clear that Samir may not be what anyone believes him to be.

This is a film that, in my opinion, didn’t play well at the time of its release due to marketing. Paramount didn’t know quite how to promote a film in which the protagonist is a Muslim who is being chased for the bombing of a US governmental building. To be fair, I can’t say that I blame them. That said, it’s well worth watching as Cheadle and Pierce deliver exceptionally strong performances as Samir and Clayton. Traitor takes a unique and fascinating look at the inner structure of the terrorist group Samir is involved with. It’s well-paced and while the action isn’t nonstop, what is there is very well-framed and put within a realistic context. If you’re sick of the super-slick action that is often prevalent in spy films, this is one that you may well like for a change of pace.

#7: The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)

The Cold War was an era rife for spy films, and The Falcon and the Snowman is one of my favorites. The John Schlesinger-directed film stars Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn in a story based off the real-life story of Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee. Boyce and Lee were two longtime friends from wealthy California families who sold classified government information to the Soviet Union during the mid-1970s. Penn and Hutton are both great in their roles as these two guys who are way in over their heads. Steven Zaillian wrote an admirable screenplay from Robert Lindsey’s book on the subject that makes the characters both sympathetic and pitiable.

Schlesinger, who won an Oscar directing Midnight Cowboy, does a fantastic job behind the camera here. The director focuses the film on the friendship between the two would-be seditionists as opposed to the specific acts of espionage. That allows us to really get close to these two guys and like them. In turn, that makes what eventually happens more impactful. The Falcon and the Snowman may not be full of fight scenes, martinis and car chases but it’s a hell of a good spy thriller nonetheless.

#6: Body of Lies (2008)

This Ridley Scott film is very much a departure from the glamorized spy action films of the Bond franchise or even the Mission: Impossible or Bourne films. The 2008 movie is much more of a modern and realistic, post-9/11 take on the spy film. Here, there are no secret agents sliding down jet wings in mid-air or dressing in tuxedos to fight the bad guys in style. Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe are compelling as the CIA agent and his boss who are on the hunt for a terrorist known as Al-Saleem. DiCaprio’s Roger Ferris handles the field work, while Crowe’s Hoffman stays at home and directs him.

That dichotomy helped make Body of Lies unique and carries the film, allowing us to see both levels of the hunt. These two men are on the same side but operate on entirely different levels. Watching that contrast and the way that Ferris and Hoffman find themselves at odds while trying to achieve their goal is as fascinating as any level of espionage. Scott’s eye toward keeping the mood tense and the look gritty do the film a ton of favors and the supporting work by Oscar Isaac, Mark Strong and Golshifteh Farahani is strong. The result is a great thriller about tensions between Western and Arab civilizations in the context of intelligence ops and terrorism.

#5: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

There are a few of the Mission: Impossible films that wouldn’t qualify as spy thrillers in my estimation. I love Ghost Protocol but it leans deeper into the all-action stylings. Meanwhile, Mission: Impossible II is definitely all action and…well, not very good either. But the other three entries are undeniably strong thrillers. The Tom Cruise-led franchise loves its twists and turns, its changing loyalties and paranoid bent. And while I enjoy the first and third films, Rogue Nation is the best of the lot when it comes to these aspects.

That’s a high bar, to be fair. JJ Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III is a ton of fun and the first movie set the bar for the series. But Rogue Nation as directed by Christopher McQuarrie is the perfect blend for this series. There’s action to be sure, but it leans much heavier on the fact that Ethan Hunt is alone and doesn’t know who to trust. Rebecca Ferguson makes a great impression as Ilsa Faust here, a nice counterpart to Ethan. Meanwhile, the supporting cast is as good as we’ve ever seen. The Mission: Impossible has improbably gotten better as it’s gone on for the most part, with the exception of part two. And Rogue Nation makes for one of the most engaging, fun spy thrillers in modern memory.

#4: North by Northwest (1959)

Before Bourne, Hunt and all the modern action spy heroes, there was one name that was synonymous with spy thrillers. That name was Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock is responsible for many of the best films in this genre, which is obvious when you consider he has two films on this list and another two in the honorable mention. North by Northwest is a lot of people’s favorite Hitchcock film, and for me it’s close to it. It stars the inestimable Cary Grant as a man who, by virtue of mistaken identity, ends up caught in a web of intrigue involving microfilm, government secrets, undercover agents and crop dusters.

North By Northwest is one of the most famous films of all-time for a reason. It features several iconic moments, including that crop duster sequence and the climactic scene on top of Mount Rushmore. It is also an incredibly entertaining film, and in many ways is the quintessential Hitchcock movie. Ernest Lehman even wrote the script with the intent of making “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” This is perhaps a more light-hearted film than most people think of when they’re looking for a thriller. That said, there’s plenty of tension and the themes of the film resonate strongly within the genre. This is just one of many Hitchcock films that you should put in when you’re looking for a little espionage fun.

#3: The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

At the time that the Bourne franchise began in 2002, spy movies were by and large dead. The Bond franchise was in its death throes and about to unleash one of the worst films in the franchise in Die Another Day. Meanwhile, good films like Spy Games failed to resonate with audiences. In the wake of 9/11, audiences weren’t interested in beating international terrorists via gadgets or glamorized violence. Then Doug Liman and Matt Damon came along with The Bourne Identity and instantly created a new demand.

As much as I enjoy The Bourne Identity, it’s not quite the best of the franchise. The Bourne Supremacy is good but it is a slight step down for the franchise, and the less said about last year’s Jason Bourne the better. 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum is the series high point. There was always something left hanging in the first two films, and this was the film that answered all the questions. Jason Bourne (played as effectively as ever by Matt Damon) gets all the answers he needs and Pam Lindy makes her full transition to a supporting protagonist. Paul Greengrass really hit his stride with this film. While some may complain about Greengrass’ use of shaky camera, it’s certainly more effective in using it than Supremacy and doesn’t distract that much. Ultimatum gave the franchise that revitalized spy thrillers the send-off (at the time) that it deserved.

#2: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

For all the fun gadgets and big action, spy films are invariably at their best when they involve paranoia, mystery and tension. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy proves this fact beyond a shadow of a doubt. John le Carré is one of the most beloved spy writer ever, and his 1974 novel is one of the most acclaimed in the genre. It was previously turned into a BBC miniseries in the late 1970s, but this 2011 film is the definitive version of the story in live action.

No small part of that is due to Tomas Alfredson. The man behind the camera invests almost every frame with tension as we follow a phenomenal Gary Oldman around as George Smiley. Smiley is trying to hunt down a Soviet double agent within the British secret service and he has a stellar cast of suspects. Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, David Dencik and Toby Jones are at the top of their game here and Benedict Cumberbatch is stunningly good as Smiley’s assistant Peter Guillam. Many spy thrillers don’t age well on rewatches, because you already know the twists and turns. Tinker doesn’t because there’s always something worth watching, even when you know what’s coming. Among modern spy thrillers, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is inarguably the best.

#1: Notorious (1946)

I guess I spoiled this one a bit by previously noting that I had two Hitchcock films in my list. This is my favorite Cary Grant role of all-time and second-favorite of Ingrid Bergman’s, second only to her work in Casablanca. Adding Claude Reins to the mix as post-WW II Nazi Alex Sebastian only sweetens the pot of what is quite possibly the perfect intrigue film. Grant and Bergman’s chemistry is great and Reins offers what is quite possibly the most sympathetic and nuanced Nazi this side of Oskar Schindler. You can’t ignore Leopoldine Konstantin as Alex’s vile mother Anna, either.

Notorious represented Hitchock’s triumph in the spy thriller genre for many reasons. Most notably, it’s the script. In Ben Hecht’s screenplay, each of the relationships relies on trust. That’s true whether it’s Bergman’s Alicia trusting in Grant’s Devlin to keep her safe, or manipulating Sebastian’s trust to get what they need. Watching the various webs overlap and tie together makes for a fascinating journey. You’re never quite sure how things are going to turn out in this film, or who will make it out alive. That’s a recipe for a great thriller. There are no ifs, ands or bust about it; this is one of the truly great films out there and for my money there’s no better spy thriller.

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.