When we think of spy movies, minds automatically gravitate towards the big hitters created in our modern age, such as the later James bond movies, the Jason bourne franchise, or Tom Cruise’s take on Impossible mission. In truth, all of these movie franchises started out using the stepping stones created by classic spy movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
This particular age lasted from around 1915 to 1963 and is marked by its classic values, scenery and epic creativity. Spy movies from this particular period aren’t nearly bursting, budget, or franchise-filled like today’s spy movies, but they’re still fascinating and fun to watch.
ten The Guns of Navarone (1961)
The fate of 2,000 trapped British soldiers is at stake in The guns of Navarone, starring super-iconic actors David Niven, Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn. After repeated rescue attempts, the soldiers are thwarted by the presence of two extremely powerful German guns atop the island of Navarone, a new plot is hatched.
A six-man team is sent to infiltrate the island disguised as fishermen to destroy weapons and carry out a rescue operation. But a number of obstacles stand in their way, from German patrols and difficult terrain to even a possible saboteur in their ranks.
9 Stalag 17 (1953)
Even the most comfortable prison remains a prison. This is the premise behind Stalag 17, a film about a German internment camp housing American prisoners of war who always seem to be a step behind their captors when it comes to escape attempts.
They soon discover that a leaker is among their ranks and provides information to the Germans, which allows them to throw a wrench into each new escape plot. Although they suspect that an obvious candidate is to blame, it quickly becomes apparent that someone else has become a traitor and needs to be unmasked.
8 The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Masterpiece by John Frankenheimer,The Manchurian candidate, was a big draw in ’62, mostly thanks to excellent performances from a stellar cast that included the iconic Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury and Above the law Henry Silva.
The premise was simple, yet frightening, involving a prisoner of war who was brainwashed by the Communists in an attempt to turn him into an unwitting assassin. It’s a biting thriller with a plausible real-world premise, which is perhaps the scariest notion of all.
7 Ministry of Fear (1944)
It’s a spy tale with a very unique premise. This is the story of Stephen Neale, a man who has just been released from an asylum following the events of World War II. Before returning home to London, Neale wins a big cake in a local village and takes it with him on a train.
He soon stole it and assumes that something of great value was in the cake, which led to him being stolen. When he investigates, he discovers a Nazi spy ring operating in the shadows. However, barely out of a mental institution, he doubted anyone would take him seriously.
6 The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
This classic spy film is a nail biter that focuses its entire premise on an impossible decision: allow a murder to take place or risk the life of your child? It happens when the father of a family on vacation witnesses a murder in a Moroccan market and learns of a plot to assassinate a politician.
In order to guarantee his silence, his eight-year-old son is kidnapped and used as a blackmail chip. As time goes by, it is up to him and his wife to decide how to save their son and prevent a political assassination at the same time.
5 Saboteur (1942)
Master thriller director Alfred Hitchcock strikes again with this 1942 thriller about a man wrongly accused of bombing an aircraft factory. He must scour the continental United States in an attempt to get rid of his name by locating the real saboteur – an anti-American Nazi fascist.
It’s notable for being one of the few movies of the era to run at such a high speed, with barely a breath before the chase begins again. It’s a cat / mouse hug where the lines are blurry between who is the hunter and who is being hunted.
4 The 39 Steps (1935)
Paranoia is the driving force behind this Hitchcock spy thriller. Richard Hannay ends up going red-handed when he receives information from a counterintelligence agent who has been attacked and left for dead in his London apartment. The nature of the information is questionable at best, and Hannay’s only lead is a reference to the “39 stages”.
As he tries to unravel the mystery of what is going on, he quickly uncovers a larger plot involving a breach of national security and the theft of top-secret information. It’s unusually tense for a 1935 film, and a testament to Hitchcock’s strength as a filmmaker.
3 Notorious (1946)
In the wake of the end of WWII came this film which took full advantage of the events of the war to create a classic spy film. The film centers on the character of Alicia Huberman, a German-American woman who learns that her father was a spy for the Nazi regime.
She was approached by a government agent and recruited to spy on her father’s Nazi colleagues in hiding in Brazil. It’s part of the love triangle and part of the spy thriller, as Alicia straddles the line between two worlds and two men fighting over her affections.
2 North by northwest (1959)
Still one of the greatest spy movies ever made, North to northwest is also one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most biting. It’s memorable for that iconic chase scene involving the main character, Roger Thornhill, chased by a feather duster across an empty expanse of land with nowhere to hide.
The film centers on Thornhill being mistaken for a government agent by a group of spies to eliminate him. As he tries to figure out what is going on, he is dragged further and further into the rabbit hole. Masterfully drawn, this is a must have watch for spy geeks.
1 From Russia with Love (1963)
Dr No might have been the first film to put James Bond on the map, but From Russia with love is the one who cemented his status as a secret agent. He was slimmer, more focused, and more self-confident compared to his immediate predecessor, and gave actor Sean Connery more leeway for the character.
The movie had it all, including lavish locations, helicopter chases, cat fights, train brawls, and, of course, the standard lineup of dazzling MI6 vehicles and gadgets. To this day, it’s the definitive Connery era 007 movie, and one of the last great spy movies of the Golden Age.
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