Brilliant Spy Films

We take a look at the best films that are about spies… but not necessarily about James Bond

KINGSMEN: THE SECRET SERVICE is released in Irish cinemas this week. The film, based on a graphic novel by Mark Millar, tells the story of a young man drawn into the world of gentlemen spies; The Kingsmen. The film, directed by Matthew Vaughn and starring Colin Firth, is a pastiche of all the great spy films that have gone before, and with this in mind, decided to take a look back at some of the best movies about those brave souls working undercover…


In this adaptation from John Le Carré’s late 70s Cold war novel of the same name, Control (John Hurt) believes that there is a mole within British Intelligence, so he sends agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary to meet with a Russian agent. Things soon go wrong for both Prideaux and Control, and it is up to George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to step in and find the mole who is leaking secrets to the other side, before the Americans share their secrets with the UK.
Director Tomas Alfredson makes TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY a slow burning conspiracy thriller about the square off between two spy masters at the top of their game. The film exudes oppression, is filled with emotional aloofness, but keeps the audience guessing the whole way through.


The first of the BOURNE franchise, back when Doug Liman was still at the helm is still arguably the best. Matt Damon, in a role that would revitalise his career, plays an amnesiac pulled from the ocean, his body riddled with bullets and his brain rattling with questions as to who he is, and who wants him dead. Throughout the films 2 hour running time, Damon’s character discovers his name – Jason Bourne -increasingly worrisome information, and assassins who are out to finish the job.
Although the film is based on a novel by Robert Ludlum, it actually only loosely follows the novel’s plot. Nevertheless, THE BOURNE IDENTITY is a skilfully crafted thriller, which keeps the lead character and the audience on their toes. Matt Damon is on fantastic form as the violent but befuddled Jason Bourne, and director Doug Liman shows his skill in the thrilling action sequences.


The 2006 German drama film THE LIVES OF OTHERS is no less thrilling than THE BOURNE IDENTITY, but takes the audience on a very different journey.
In East Berlin, in the 1980s, the Secret Police listened in on potential troublemakers, and this is the basis of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut feature.
Stasi officer Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler is tasked to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman, who had previously escaped scrutiny due to his fame and pro-Communist views. As he listens, however, Weisler learns some uncomfortable truths about the people he is assigned to listen in on, truths that lead him to question the task he has been given.
THE LIVES OF OTHERS is a slow burning, engrossing thriller, in which Weisler becomes more engrossed with the lives of the people he spies on, than the life he lives himself. The film is powerful, engrossing and entirely unsettling, as audience sympathy swings regularly from anti-hero to hero.


Another John le Carré adaptation; THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD was released in 1965, and stars Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Oskar Werner. In an additional point of trivia, Dublin’s Smithfield stood in for Berlin’s infamous Checkpoint Charlie in the film’s opening scenes.
Richard Burton plays Alec Leamas, a dispirited British secret agent who is seemingly brought ‘in from the cold’ to work a desk job, but in truth, is running one last mission behind the Iron Curtain, a job to expose a double agent, and one that could cost him everything.
THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD has been hailed as a career best performance from Burton, and the film, which closely follows the plot of le Carré’s novel, seems to be an obvious rejection of the flash and glamour of the newly formed James Bond franchise – THUNDERBALL was released in the same year.


Alfred Hitchcock’s comedy thriller, which stars Cary Grant and James Mason, tells the story of an advertising executive who is mistaken for a government agent by a group of international spies, and is relentlessly pursued across the US as he tries to save himself and clear his name.
Hitchcock’s film is filled with paranoia, shady agents and ambitious shots that have become cinema icons. Cary Grant is on fine form as the beleaguered and paranoid Roger Thornhill and NORTH BY NORTHWEST, with its comedically over the top sequences, suave and wisecracking leading man, and charming villain, has been said to inspire the wildly successful James Bond franchise. Whatever the case, NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a film made my artists at the top of their game and now, over 50 years later, is still gripping, stylish and engrossing.


Do you have a favourite spy film? Perhaps a Bond movie that you’ve watched countless times? Let us know in the comments below.

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE is released in Irish cinemas on January 29th 2015

Words: Brogen Hayes