Beginning in the silent era, spy films have been around for more than a century, thrilling moviegoers with tales of double-crosses and espionage since 1897. The best spy movies of all time continue to spark the imaginations of filmmakers and audiences alike, showing us daring stunts, gadgets and glamour, and throwing us into a world of full-blown paranoia.
However, over the years, we’ve seen spy films, much like the secret agents they follow, take on many disguises – appearing as cerebral thrillers, action-packed blockbusters, goofy flicks, and more. So, in a sea of high stakes missions and a line-up of wildly different films, you may be left feeling lost, desperately searching for clues to answer the age-old question – what are truly the best spy movies that you can watch right now?
Well, The Digital Fix is here to hand over the intel. After doing some in-depth recon of our own, we’ve gathered intelligence on the best films for all your secret operative needs. From the high budget explosive hits to the suave noir capers, we’ve made a list so airtight that even Tom Cruise couldn’t hack it. So sit back, have a shaken martini at the ready, and prepare for some high-class espionage – here are the best spy movies of all time.
What are the best spy movies?
- North by Northwest
- Mission Impossible
- From Russia with love
- The Conversation
- Top Secret!
- The Bourne Identity
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
- Lust, Caution
- Spy Kids
- The Lives of Others
North by Northwest (1959)
You can’t list the best spy movies without mentioning one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films, North by Northwest. The light caper made history in the genre by being the original anti-spy film, showing an average person doing dangerous deeds and uncovering a dastardly plan. Due to a case of mistaken identity, advertising executive Roger Thornhill becomes entangled in a convoluted plot, and finds himself hunted by a criminal organisation.
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North by Northwest shows Hitchcock doing what he does best, presenting us with a thrilling story, a well-written script, and a good old entertaining time. Besides being a hugely influential title on the spy genre, and considered one of Hitchcock’s best pieces of work, the movie also has one of the most dramatic final standoffs. With a thrilling grapple on top of Mount Rushmore, and Thornhill literally clinging for survival, the film gives you – a memorable shot of suspense every time you sit down to watch it.
Mission Impossible (1996)
With six blockbusters already behind its name, and a seventh film scheduled to drop in 2022, you know we had to put a Mission Impossible movie on our list, and when it comes to the best of the best, you just can’t beat the original. Directed by Brian De Palma in 1996, Mission Impossible is where all the crazy Tom Cruise stunts began, and is pretty much pure action and entertainment fuel at its finest.
The continuation of the ‘60s TV series of the same name, the movie follows spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), who, after being framed for the murder of his elite field team, goes on a mission to uncover a mole and clear his name. The film is incredibly enjoyable, giving you all you’d want out of a high budget spy movie, from thrilling chase scenes to tense break-ins; this film has it all.
From Russia with Love (1963)
Despite plenty of incredible James Bond movies released over the years, the Cold War thriller, From Russia with Love, is Bond perfected. After killing Dr No in the 1962 film, James Bond (Sean Connery) is being hunted by an international criminal organisation called SPECTRE. Our favourite agent is sent on a mission/ trap to help Tatiana Romanova (a corporal in the Soviet Army) “flee” to the West in exchange for a Lekor ( a cypher machine used by Soviet intelligence).
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The movie is full of thrills and grit, without being gimmicky or too misogynistic (at least no one is called Pussy Galore in this one), making it stand out in the Bond universe as one of the most serious features you can watch. The world of espionage and spies is also built up beautifully here, and the movie has some of the best-choreographed action scenes seen in any Bond film today.
The Conversation (1974)
Written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), The Conversation shows a spy doing what a spy does best – spying on people. In response to the Watergate scandal, and growing anxiety around privacy back in the ‘70s, the thriller movie tells the story of mass surveillance, and was so inventive that it received three Oscar nominations on the year of its release.
Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert that does questionable missions for people in power. After taking a job to spy on a young couple from someone called the Director, he is sent into a tense mind trip of second-guessing, and guilt fuelled anxiety – as his eavesdropping may have dire consequences. The film focuses on a spy’s slow descent into paranoia and guilt, giving a fresh take on espionage that is intertwined with morals.
Top secret! (1984)
From the brilliant mind behind the hilarious film Airplane!, Jim Abrahams does it again, spoofing a cinematic genre into a comedic masterpiece. Top Secret!, delivers gags like no other, and in terms of a spy movie parody, it stands proudly as the most ridiculous feature out of the bunch.
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Set in a combination world of World War II and the Cold War with some Beach Boy aesthetics, the movie centres around the East Germans facing off against an American Rockstar (Val Kilmer), who, after travelling to Germany for a concert, gets caught up with the resistance and dragged into a rescue mission. Not only is this the film where Kilmer made his acting debut, but it is still one of the best spy comedy movies you can experience. It’s completely ridiculous, full of visual puns, and has a collection of dad jokes that we’ve come to know and love from Abrahams’ work.
The Bourne Identity (2002)
What happens when a spy forgets that he is a spy? Loosely based on Robert Ludlum’s hit novel of the same name, The Bourne Identity follows Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), a man with amnesia and a dangerous past. After being rescued from drowning in the Mediterranean sea, Jason has no memory of who he is, but quickly learns that he holds several special skills…oh and that the CIA is tirelessly hunting him down.
The film is presented as a tense mystery, turning the typical spy movie formula on its head as we follow Jason discovering clues to his identity as the story progresses, and trying to survive while piecing together his sketchy backstory. Its close combat fight sequences, handheld camera work, and general moodiness have made the film go down in history as one of the best openings to a spy franchise you can find.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
A Cold War thriller with one of the strongest casts that you’ll ever see, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a movie that focuses on creating a perpetual sense of doom. Based on John le Carre’s novel of the same name, the movie’s main crux revolves around British Intelligence trying to uncover a mole within their ranks. From affairs, interrogations, to some emotionally packed killing, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a cerebral film led by a fantastic story.
Instead of the typical action-filled sequences you’d get in a blockbuster, the movie revolves around subtle moments, relying on deceit and second-guessing to craft suspense, and boy does it work. As you watch a stressed-out Gary Oldman trying to navigate a web of lies and dodging a few daggers aimed at his back, you can’t help but feel tense, waiting for an explosive outburst to consume your screen at any moment.
Lust, Caution (2007)
Seduction and spies go hand in hand, but no film combines the spy genre with some good old romance quite like director Ang Lee’s feature – Lust, Caution. Set in Hong Kong and Shanghai during World War II, back when it was occupied by the Japanese Army, the film follows a young theatre troupe who plan to assassinate special agent Mr Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai).
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An erotic plan full of espionage and betrayal ensues, with a young woman attempting to lure Mr Yee into a honey trap. The pacing throughout the movie is second to none, making sure there isn’t a dull moment in sight as it moves through its engaging and emotionally charged script. Truly an underrated and intimate film; for any fans of the genre Lust, Caution is a must-watch.
Spy Kids (2001)
A classic kids movie, Spy Kids takes beloved secret agent tropes, makes them fantastical, and basically shows an action-adventure movie that is as bizarrely enjoyable as they come. Created by Robert Rodriguez, the movie follows two young siblings on a mission to save their spy parents from a dastardly children’s TV host, who has been kidnapping special agents and turning them into mutated creatures. It’s stupidly hilarious, full of imaginative gadgets, and perfectly shows the fantasy of a life of espionage through the eyes of a child.
Let’s be honest, as a kid, Spy kids was the coolest film you could watch on family movie night, and even if those walking thumbs are certifiably terrifying, it is still super enjoyable to watch today, even as an adult. A fun movie that embodies all the imagination and wonder that the spy genre could possibly offer, Spy Kids is an irrefutable chaotic masterpiece.
The Lives of Others (2007)
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut feature, The Lives of Others, sees spy work being done at a distance, quietly impacting lives, and watching calamity unfold from afar. Set during 1984 in East Germany, The Lives of Others revolves around Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler, who is ordered to quietly monitor a playwright whose communist views and acclaim have gathered the government’s attention.
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However, as he gets to know the man through his sneaky work, Wiesler begins to feel for him as well, causing some engaging internal conflict to unfold. The movie stands as a phenomenal period piece, perfectly capturing the sense of constant danger and mistrust from a surveillance state during the Cold War. Like our previous entry – The Conversation – the movie also shows spy work grounded in reality, seeing a unique take on espionage, and diving into the personal consequences of the job.
And there you have it, the best spy movies of all time. If you are looking for more heart-racing flicks, head over to our list of the best action movies – but you better hurry because this article will self-destruct in 3…2…1.
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