In this week’s installment, we look at spy movies. But we’re not talking about the world of James Bond here, a dazzling universe in which everyone’s wearing tuxes and saving the world in a series of increasingly ludicrous stunts. We’re talking about the grunt work, a much less glamorous place where a lot more real spycraft is done. We love a good Bond film, but today we’re looking at the best non-Bond spy films. And, to be fair, we’re also eliminating 007-adjacent franchises like the Bourne and Mission: Impossible films. There’s a place for those films. Just not here. So mum’s the word: Here’s the best of the spy game.
No Way Out (1987)
Not technically a spy thriller — it’s mostly set within the Department of Defense — but there’s enough behind-the-scenes treachery and secrecy that we’re counting No Way Out, particularly because it’s a crackerjack '80s thriller that weirdly no one talks about anymore.
Kevin Costner gives one of his more interesting movie-star performances as a military investigator who learns what his superior (Gene Hackman, all sinister and fantastic) is capable of, although he might not be able to do anything about it. This is the sort of extra-twisty, super-knotty D.C. thriller no one dares make anymore but really should. In No Way Out, everybody’s always lying to someone. The real mystery is trying to discover why.
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
It’s a hell of a premise: A CIA analyst walks into his office after lunch, only to discover that all his colleagues have been killed. What happened? And is he next? Based on the James Grady novel of the same name, Three Days of the Condor was a film of its time, speaking to the paranoia and mistrust of the 1970s. But director Sydney Pollack also made sure that the movie was, at its core, a crackling suspense thriller.
A year before Robert Redford played another man of conscience going up against the system — Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men — he depicted Joe Turner as a sterling everyman hero, providing a warm, empathetic center to this look at government corruption and thwarted idealism. Featuring Max von Sydow as a note-perfect villain and Faye Dunaway as an unlikely love interest, Three Days radiates menace that never lets up — for us, or for Joe.
Most spy films operate under the audience assumption that we’re going to be following the good guys. What’s brilliant about Steven Spielberg’s moody Best Picture nominee is how it muddies that perception. Taking place after the tragedy of the 1972 Summer Olympics, in which 11 Israeli team members were killed by a Palestinian terrorist group, Munich chronicles the Mossad agents tasked with getting revenge.
Spielberg’s peerless skill at crafting suspense is on full display, but Munich is far from rousing. Instead, it’s a sneaky exploration of eye-for-an-eye violence, embedding us with a group of characters whose mission seems justified but whose actions begin to leave them questioning their motives — and wondering if they’ll ever receive anything resembling closure.
A Most Wanted Man (2014)
The polar opposite of the glitz of the Bond world, everyone in A Most Wanted Man is overworked, unappreciated and deeply unhappy. This applies most of all to Gunther, the haggard and defeated — yet hopeful enough to be defeated one last time — German operative played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who spends his whole life trying to make the world safe and keeps getting undermined by bureaucracy and politicians trying to score a point and scamper away.
This was one of Hoffman’s final roles, and its power is in how worn-down he looks: This is not a job anyone should ever want or expect to make a difference in. And yet, just when he’d given up, he gets a chance to make a difference. And that chance just makes it worse. A Most Wanted Man reminds you that being a spy is just like any other job: frustrating, exhausting and, ultimately, entirely thankless.
Another Alfred Hitchcock classic, North by Northwest, is often ranked among the best espionage movies, but we’re not including it on our list because of a technicality: Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill isn’t actually a spy.
Instead, we’re showing some love to the other great Grant-Hitch collaboration, in which the beloved actor plays Devlin, an American agent trying to infiltrate the lair of Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), the leader of a Nazi group hiding out in Brazil. Devlin’s plan? Enlist Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), the disgraced daughter of a captured Nazi, to woo Alex. Things get complicated when Devlin and Alicia fall for each other, of course, and along the way Hitchcock delivered one of his most suspenseful cat-and-mouse films while simultaneously diving into the mysteries of love, unearthing all the suspicion and uncertainty inherent in spycraft as well as matters of the heart.
Notorious isn’t as propulsive and jaunty as North by Northwest, but it cuts deeper, giving us three characters whose destinies are intertwined and whose fates aren’t clear until the final, nerve-wracking moment.