George Huertas ’15 / Emertainment Monthly Alumni
A fan of the Man from U.N.C.L.E TV series? Excited to see the new movie? Here are our picks for the greatest entries in the spy genre. How will Cavill and Hammer’s new adventure stack up?
9. The Bourne Ultimatum
One of Damon’s signature roles, Jason Bourne always lacked the charisma of a James Bond or the star power of an Ethan Hunt. What he did have, however, was brute force power, and this was most evident in The Bourne Ultimatum. The film is replete with thrilling action sequences, the most eye-popping of which was Bourne’s fight with Desh, wherein the two make use of almost every available object in a room as a weapon. But what makes The Bourne Ultimatum a great film is its depiction of Bourne’s weariness. Damon’s Bourne is a man who is tired of fighting, tired of having to continuously having to stave off CIA agents, and wants to move on from the espionage war, but no one seems to let him.
8. Casino Royale
With James Bond was devolving into self-parody– having more in common with Austin Powers than with the thrilling action adventures of old– with Die Another Day, a reboot was necessary. When Daniel Craig was first announced as the new James Bond, the outrage was palpable. “Bond Not Blonde!” was a rallying cry. And the rumors during the production were not helping. This all changed when Casino Royale was finally released, and Craig proved himself to be the best Bond since Connery. His rough and tumble style married with a more ruthless Bond made for a flick that was unlike any in recent memory. Brutal and thrilling, Casino Royale is also a terrific action-adventure film.
7. From Russia with Love
If Goldfinger is the most famous of the Connery Bond films, then From Russia with Love is the most acclaimed. The second Bond film, it introduced one of just many Bond staples we would come to know and love over the years: the gadgets. And it started with a mere briefcase. But it was far from the only memorable thing in this movie. With a motley of memorable miscreants (Rosa Klebb [played by Lotte Lenya] and Red Grant [Robert Shaw]) and some truly sterling action set-pieces (with the fight in the Orient Express taking particular note) From Russia with Love is one of the most thrilling spy films ever made overall.
It’s not without reason that Goldfinger is the most famous of all of Sean Connery’s Bond films. It has one of the best villains (Gert Forbe as the titular Goldfinger), the best henchman (Oddjob), the best theme song (Shirley Bassey’s titular theme song), the best car (the Aston Martin DB5), and one of the best Bond girls (Pussy Galore). Merely grading this film based on its exceptional window-dressing is to do it a disservice, however, because the film depicted is also terrific on its own. A tense cat-and-mouse game between Bond and one of his most cunning and savvy foes in the entire series, Goldfinger serves to be a master class in filmmaking. It presents Bond at his most vulnerable, taking on a threat that he is utterly unprepared for. Goldfinger is a true classic that cannot be missed.
5. The Manchurian Candidate
John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate came and went when it was first released and would not resurface until 1988. It is thankful that it did. Perfectly capturing the paranoia of the era, The Manchurian Candidate gives audiences Frank Sinatra’s terrific performance as Captain Bennett Marco, a Korean War veteran who has been aggrandizing his colleague, Raymond Shaw, into a war hero. What ensues is a thrilling political satire which acts as both an encapsulation of the Red Scare-era and on its own. In particular, it gave us one of the most terrifying movie villains ever in the form of Mrs. Iselin, played to deliciously evil perfection by Angela Lansbury. Scary, tense, and exciting, The Manchurian Candidate is as good a spy thriller as any to come out of the Cold War.
4. Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Rather than go realistic, as was the trajectory of the Bond films, Mission: Impossible instead opted a different route: go big and go louder than ever. When Brad Bird directed Ghost Protocol, he imbued it with an animator’s sense of clarity and theatricality, lending Ghost Protocol a sense of humor and personality not seen in a spy film for quite some time. In his signature role as super-spy Ethan Hunt, Tom Cruise proves that he is at his best best when he is in danger. While Casino Royale proved the necessity of having a serious tone to a spy film, Ghost Protocol proved that one can have a sense of fun while simultaneously offering audiences a spectacular time at the movies.
3. North by Northwest
No list of spy flicks would be complete without Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Cary Grant stars as Roger O. Thornhill, an ad executive mistaken for a spy who is said to be smuggling out secrets of a nefarious organization. North by Northwest, more than any of Hitchcock’s other films, scintillates with a confidence that is unseen in many motion pictures even today. So greatly entertaining it could almost be a crime, North by Northwest is one of the best spy films of any generation.
2. Three Days of the Condor
Sydney Pollack’s film is another classic “wrong man, wrong place” tale. Joe Turner, code-named Condor, is a CIA analyst tasked with reading books for new ideas and hidden messages. When, after filing a report with his bosses, he finds that his very life is in danger. Turner decides to stake it out on his own, attempting to find just what exactly went down with his fellow company employees. There are few thrillers that could be described as “groovy” but Three Days of the Condor wears that adjective with aplomb. Boasting an inventive soundtrack and charismatic performances from both the lead Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway as his only ally, a beautiful photographer named Kathy, Three Days of the Condor is a film that endures even today.
1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
“There is a mole… right at the top of the Circus.” And so the chase begins in Thomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. An adaptation of one of John le Carre’s most famous novels, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy features one of the casts in recent memory. Featuring the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, and Colin Firth, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy oozes prestige from the word go. What really lends the film its humanity though is Gary Oldman’s performance as le Carre’s spy, George Smiley. Smiley is, in many ways, the anti-James Bond. A shabbily dressed, physically unremarkable man, Smiley is nonetheless the best qualified man when it comes to chasing down Soviet moles. His gifts for people-reading, for chasing down government documents, and with spying talent make him an exemplary spy. While the definition of a slow-burn, Tinker Tailor is also a pleasure to watch thanks to the parade of talent on display. When discussing realistic spy films, Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor is one for the books.