My Favorite Spy Movies

The release of Skyfall, which I haven’t seen yet, prompted me to reflect on my favorite spy movies. They are, in no particular order…

North By Northwest: A couple of weeks ago I watched a restored print of this Hitchcock classic, and I renewed my appreciation for a master at work. The setups, the angles, the editing, the story development, Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason…striking.

The Ghost Writer: It’s a funny thing. Two of my favorite spy movies have Pierce Brosnan in them, but neither of the movies is a Bond film. In The Ghost Writer, Ewan McGregor plays the titular scribe sent to work on the memoirs of the former British Prime Minister, played by Brosnan. His book starts out as a standard political biography, until McGregor’s character discovers some material in the PM’s past that suggests that he was never all he seemed. Polanski ratchets up the suspense, even as he leads the reader to a surprise that, in retrospect, makes perfect sense.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold: This is, quite possibly, the greatest spy movie ever made, mainly because of its central insight: spies are scum, whatever cause they may work for. They don’t wrestle with moral questions mainly because they lack the moral imagination to raise them in the first place. Indeed, amorality is a central job requirement. The film is black and white, but its characters’ ethics are thrillingly gray.

The Spy Who Loved Me: There are many Bond films that I like, and I could just as easily stick From Russia With Love or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in this spot and be satisfied, but in the end I go this way because Bond #10 is the film in which Bond achieves his full potential. It has the best car, the best stunts, the best sets, the best villain, and the best villian’s henchman. It neatly manages loss and heartbreak in the spy world without dwelling on it or losing the Bondesque sense of fun.

The Tailor of Panama: John LeCarre’s homage to Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana benefits hugely from a scene stealing performance by Pierce Brosnan as Andy Osnard. If the Bond movies present 007 as an object of wish fulfillment, Brosnan’s Osnard illustrates his real life counterparts as they are, greasy little salesmen who seek out people’s weaknesses to enrich themselves and further their careers. Osnard is selfish and greedy and creates more problems than he could ever solve, but it’s all right for him, because he always leaves other people with the mess.


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