With Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit barreling into theaters this weekend, it seems Hollywood will never tire of attaching increasingly-nonsensical phrases onto their most popular spy franchises (Ghost Protocol? Quantum of Solace?); or, in the case of Jack Ryan, those you barely realized even were. Nevertheless, the near-superheroic, endlessly-rebooted-and-recast film series is not the only way to get your espionage kicks. Sometimes, you just need a ripping good yarn, a handful of suspiciously-intriguing characters, and loads and loads of directorial tension, so with that in mind, here are the ten best spy films that have yet to spawn a franchise of their very own.
10.) The Good Shepherd (Robert De Niro, 2006)
The second of a grand total of two films that Robert De Niro has directed, The Good Shepherd falls somewhere between the sort of grand historical epics that Hollywood was just on the cusp of abandoning almost entirely and more artistically-driven intellectual fare like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (itself a franchise film of sorts). Telling of the birth of the CIA by way of flashbacks amid one of their most public debacles (the Bay of Pigs), the film finds its focus in Edward Wilson (Matt Damon), who by 1961 is a senior officer, but who we come to see as nothing more than a college kid groomed for eventual success. The real heart of the film is in showing the moral decay required for such a job, in which one must suspect the worst of everyone else and divulge nothing of themselves, and instinct that crawls well beyond the imaginary battlefield and into whatever semblance of a home life the agent has managed to construct. Damon is exceedingly good at this sort of reserve, suggesting a turmoil that’s well under his character’s control, yet which rages endlessly inside of him.
9.) Hopscotch (Ronald Neame, 1980)
Has the screen ever had a more comforting presence than Walter Matthau? You just look at the guy and you’re totally at ease. No wonder, then, that he should make such a good spy, the kind of guy who needs to coax information out of innumerable targets without them even thinking they’re being asked a question. He seems such a perfect fit, in fact, that as soon as we figure out that he’s embarked on an elaborate operation to make fools of his employers, there’s little doubt towards whose favor this will all fall.
8.) Duplicity (Tony Gilroy, 2009)
Tony Gilroy made a huge splash in the Hollywood landscape with 2007’s Michael Clayton, a film that was nominated for seven Oscars yet which seems to have only recently received its critical due. Hopefully his 2009 follow-up will be treated as well a few years from now. With a plot as knotty as they come, I can’t say it’s the easiest one to keep track of, as such, but Gilroy’s sharp direction and the presence of two compelling leads (Clive Owen and Julia Roberts perfectly toe the line between flirtatious and dangerous) more than make up for it. As the opening conversation, which will be repeated several times over the course of the film with new meanings each time, establishes, it’s a film all about intonations, body language, and conveying meaning without saying what you mean. Who needs narrative clarity, anyway.
7.) Reign of Terror (a.k.a. The Black Book) (Anthony Mann, 1949)
Because espionage is not merely a modern concern! Set during the French Revolution, Anthony Mann’s amazing 1949 film follows operative Charles D’Aubigny as he impersonates a prosecutor in order to intercept a black book with the names of those a rising politician intends to have executed. Shot by master cinematographer John Alton, the film is drenched in pitch-black, film noir-esque shadows, features a half-dozen tremendous suspense sequences, and doesn’t for a second let the perceived slowness of 18th-century life prevent its relentlessly thrilling pace.
6.) Top Secret! (Jim Abrahams, David & Jerry Zucker, 1984)
Spy spoofs are nearly plentiful as the genre they lampoon, and while there’s a good deal of fun to be had in a great many of them (Zoolander almost made the cut here as well), none is more absolutely perfect and completely deranged as David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker’s 1984 film. Val Kilmer (in his debut film) plays Nick Rivers, an Elvis-style pop sensation, who, while performing in East Germany, is recruited by the French resistance movement to prevent the Germans from…ah, don’t worry about it. Top Secret!‘s reference points might be too specific for some, but the nice thing is you’ll know almost immediately whether this film is for you, as a wacky espionage operation immediately gives way to a music video montage for Rivers’ hit song “Skeet Surfing,” which capitalizes on that great phenomenon of taking rifles out while you ride the waves. When I first saw that sequence, I thought I’d never laughed so hard in my life, and that was just the beginning.
5.) Spy Game (Tony Scott, 2001)
His Enemy of the State may have been the bigger hit, but Tony Scott really got to the heart of his subject with his 2001 follow-up, a film all about loneliness, regret, the price of harboring secrets, and, don’t get me wrong, plenty of deception, intrigue, and subterfuge. Robert Redford plays Nathan Muir, who, on his last day as a CIA officer, is called in to provide background information on Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), an agent he trained, who is now in a Chinese prison and the agency is pretty content to let be killed. As Muir navigates the means at his disposal to get Tom out of there, we see flashbacks to their time together, full of camaraderie and the finer points of espionage, certainly, but which gives way to a more bitter relationship, one that is never resolved in the kind of direct way most dramas provide. Their eventual reconciliation is as unusual as it is cinematic, as pure a distillation of Scott’s philosophy that distance hardly ensures the separation one suspects it will.
4.) Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller, 1953)
Sam Fuller’s 1953 thriller is more closely associated with the crime genre, but the particulars of the plot, about a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) who accidentally lifts a purse containing government secrets, casts the events in a slightly different light. Sure, it’s pretty contained at a local level, but because of the wider implications, Fuller reveals how small ordinary people appear in the grand scheme, all the while magnifying the personal importance our struggles take on. It’s an unusual direction in which to take the spy film, but a thematically resonant one amidst a world that seems to be continuously expanding and shrinking at the same time.
3.) The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)
Though this list could be comprised nearly entirely of Alfred Hitchcock pictures, I decided to limit myself to only one, and, speaking for myself personally, there was no other choice than his elementally perfect 1935 feature. This is the spy film distilled into its absolute essence, using Hitchcock’s familiar “wrong man” theme as a way of dispelling with most of the exposition that a more knowledgable protagonist would have, and instead devoting the entirety of his very brief screen time to the causes of tension, sensuality, thrills, and deception. Oh, and charm. Loads and loads of charm. What are The 39 Steps? It couldn’t possibly matter less.
2.) Burn After Reading (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2008)
I’ll admit to being among those who did not give Joel and Ethan Coen the credit they were due when this film was released in 2008. Prepared as I was for another raucous comedy (and the film is certainly very funny), the real meat of the picture is hopelessly grim and nihilistic. In many of these capsules, I’ve noted that the specific plots of spy films are rarely of great importance in assessing their achievements; here, the Coens twist that, suggesting that even much of what happens is a mysterious to the world’s authority figures. At best, you can only hope to somewhat keep pace of things, but ultimately, people’s motivations are too selfish, bizarre, misguided, and ultimately unpredictable to ever truly “solve” or “contain.” The spy genre has often allowed for meditations on the human condition by way of loneliness, isolation, and secrecy, but the Coens have always been more concerned with how we all ultimately damn ourselves in the pursuit of self-interest. It made, oddly, for a perfect fit.
1.) Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963)
Often called the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made, I’m content with regarding this as another masterpiece from Stanley Donen, a guy who’s made a half-dozen landmark films (including Singin’ in the Rain!) and yet still somehow is only regarded second on the bulk of his achievements. Here, Audrey Hepburn’s husband turns up dead (and just as she’s decided to divorce him, too!). Turns out he was suspected of stealing $250,000 from the U.S. government – they want it back, and suspect she has it. Together with Cary Grant’s amiable photographer, she tries to stay one step ahead of her late husband’s cohorts, who are pretty keen on recovering the money themselves, and aren’t quite as given to non-violent means as the CIA (which, you know, is saying something). Donen has such a fine touch with his material, never undermining the emotional or, here, physical stakes yet perfectly pleased to let everything skate along with an air of lightness, charm, and affability. It’s a total pleasure of a picture, the perfect blend of romance and thrills.