The spy genre has never been prolific, and aside from some of the big budget cash-cows the genre has brought us (James Bond, Mission Impossible), it tends to rely on razor-sharp scripting rather than action sequences. The genre frequently saturates the bestseller lists for novels all of the country, and with the recently adapted release of the John le Carré masterpiece Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it was about time we re-visited the best the genre had to offer. Dating back to the nineteen-sixties and as well as new releases, below is a compilation of my personal favourites from the film world of espionage, listed in order of excellence. (Special mention goes to some which didn’t make the cut - Body of Lies, The Conversation, Salt, The Tailor of Panama, Casino Royale, Ronin and The Good Shepherd).
1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Tomas Alfredson has surpassed himself and many of his peers by making a spy film more British than anyone Ol’ Blighty could’ve offered for the task. His magnificent cinematography, stellar cast and intelligent script have all the workings of a masterpiece. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not flashy; this is raw intelligence, or chess if you like.
2. Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) – this German film sees the rigid and meticulous espionage of the East German Stasi, and with all the grime and grey of Berlin (akin to Tinker Tailor’s London) von Donnersmarck captures the essence of the iron fist and the cold war. A superb piece of filmmaking with a magnificently subtle ending.
3. The Bourne Ultimatum – the last in the Jason Bourne Trilogy, Ultimatum had all the boxes ticked for intelligent thriller. The globetrotting locations (including two great setpieces in London Waterloo station and along the rooftops of Tangier) along with a plot reveals and answers which begged answering from the trilogy opening contribute to the finest film in the series.
4. The Bourne Identity – the first of the trilogy, Doug Liman created his best work here and hasn’t been able to beat it since. Welcome to the world of Jason Bourne, a highly-trained agent who has suffered amnesia and thus his quest to reveal his true identity begins. Cue Paris car chases, embassy invasions and some particularly painful beatings (with a biro). And so begins the best spy franchise created (yes…better than Bond).
5. The Bourne Supremacy – you probably saw this one coming. The middle Bourne film is the weakest (but not by much) due to the slightly befuddled storyline with some Russian gangsters / agents, yet we see Bourne kick some ass with a rolled up magazine, and also have that car chase in Moscow which is fantastic.
6. Munich – the story of what followed after the slaughter at the Munich Olympics, Munich sees Eric Bana lead a group of Mossad agents hellbent on exacting revenge on the Palestinians responsible for the killings. With a great cast including Bana, Daniel Craig and Ciaran Hinds, this is one of Spielberg’s most compelling films, and certainly his most adult.
7. Hanna – Joe Wright, the master of cinematography who directed the beautiful Atonement, released his latest film about a lethal girl trained by her CIA-agent father so as to be prepared when the time came to uncover the great secret of her existence. Unlike the Bourne films, all the locations are far from being recognisable as we see desolate deserts, unused waste land, generic campsites and abandoned theme parks. Hanna is certainly a force to be reckoned with, and the same can be said for her harder-than-nails Dad, played by the excellent Eric Bana.
8. Quantum of Solace – the most adult (and also most complicated) of the Bond movies, this latest saw the British spy attempting to infiltrate and break the shady organisation known only as Quantum. The film follows on directly from where Casino Royale left off, and with the death of his love Vesper Lynd, Bond is angrier than ever and looking for retribution. Before long he becomes embroiled in a plan to control the World’s water supply, and along the way finds the help of Bolivian agent Camille Montes, also set on wreaking havoc on the men responsible for the death of her father.
9. The Constant Gardener – another John le Carré adaptation, although this time not in the collection with the MI6 Circus and über-spy George Smiley, this time we see Ralph Fiennes as British diplomat Justin Quayle who falls for Rachael Weisz’s humanitarian activist Tessa. The two live in Kenya until Tessa digs too deep into a new pharmaceutical product being tried on the African population and her body is found on the veldt. Quayle then takes the reigns and starts his own investigation into the murder, falling deeper into the murky waters of old spies, MNC cover-ups and government complicity.
10. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – le Carré’s first great work is adapted here with Richard Burton playing the titular spy Alec Leamas. The plot sees the spy retire from British intelligence before he is picked up by the commies as a potential agent and taken to Germany for interrogation by the bosses. Great acting, great script and a riveting plot make this adaptation very memorable – especially that last nail-biting scene.