A mysterious loner backed by a team of experts, secret gadgets, glamorous locations, dangerous women, complex plots, double dealers and an evil mastermind are all familiar tropes for the spy movie. It is also something British filmmakers are particularly good at putting on the screen. Some stories make great TV shows. Some stories make great films. In a few, very rare cases, some do both. Spooks: The Greater Good is in cinemas now and to celebrate we’ve put together a top 10 of British movies over the years.
10. Our Man in Havana (1959)
The first of novelist Graham Greene’s two films in our list, this is the story of vacuum salesman Jim Wormwold’s accidental fall into the murky world of espionage in pre-revolution Cuba. Played by Alec Guinness before his success as a spy on TV, Wormwold is a loser who tries hard to provide for his daughter and finds that the British will pay handsomely for any information on Cuba even if he makes it all up. Comic and tragic, it set the tone for the British spy movies to come.
9. Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
While gently poking fun at the rich tradition of the British spy movie, Kingsman adds to that canon, and ultimately brings something fresh to the party. Harry Hart (Colin Firth) recruits a young street kid into his spy organisation before training him in the ways of a secret agent. In a deviation from the norm, Kingsman is based on a comic book rather than a novel.
8. The 39 Steps (1959)
From the book by John Buchan, there are several versions of the movie around and it will be personal choice which one you prefer. We have gone with the Kenneth More version over Hitchcock’s classic but both feature plenty of suspense with a light comic touch. Richard Hannay (More) finds himself caught up with a group of secret agents when a woman is murdered in his flat. Now he must defeat the agents to prove his innocence.
7. Goldfinger (1964)
No British spy list would be complete without the biggest name of all – James Bond. Here played by Sean Connery, Bond battles Auric Goldfinger and his plans to attack the Fort Knox gold reserve. Along the way there’s a killer-hat throwing henchman called Oddjob, the iconic Aston Martin complete with ejector seat and of course there’s Pussy Galore! It’s terrific all-round entertainment and cemented the franchise for decades to come.
6. Spooks: The Greater Good (2015)
On the big screen for the first time, the award-winning TV series serves up more nerve-jangling action and surprises. Peter Firth is back as the Head of Counter-Terrorism who turns rogue when a terrorist swap goes wrong. Will Holloway return from Moscow to unearth the truth and to stop an attack planned on the very heart of the organisation.
5. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
Written by the king of the spy novel John Le Carré, the movie follows British agent Alec Leamas played by Richard Burton. Brought back to the London office in what seems like a demotion, he is quickly approached by the Russians who are keen to get the spy on their side. Cue the agent, double agent, twists and turns that have become Le Carré’s trademark. The film went on to win four BAFTAs including Best Film and Best Actor.
4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Another Le Carré classic, this film – just like Spooks – had a hugely successful TV series before switching to the big screen. Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, a retired Intelligence Chief who is brought back into the ‘Circus’ to unearth the mole at the heart of their operation. It’s a slow-burning, complex movie but thoroughly gripping stuff none the less.
3. Skyfall (2012)
Bond is back! A different decade and played now by Daniel Craig, James Bond has moved with the times and while he’s still cool and sexy, he gets to show he is an agent with a heart. The Bond recipe is all here: gadgets, great locations, a chilling villain (Silva played by Javier Bardem) and more action and explosions than ever. But for many it’s the pathos behind Bond’s loyalty to ‘M’ that raises this above other films in the franchise.
2. The Ipcress File (1965)
Michael Caine in his trademark NHS specs and mac became the epitome of the British spy during the Cold War 1960s. Starring as Harry Palmer, the anti-hero of British Intelligence, he investigates the brainwashing of scientists while falling foul of double agents. Followed by two hugely successful sequels – Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain – the films remain as popular today as they did back in the day.
1. The Third Man (1949)
Selected by the BFI as the “best British film of the 20th century”, our number one pick is a true giant of a film. Set in post-war Vienna, it’s a multi-layered tale of espionage and black market dealings centred around the seldom seen Harry Lime played magnificently by Orson Welles. With a story by Graham Greene, the film is a masterclass in black and white cinematography as the stunning locations give a sense of foreboding before the final chase through the Viennese sewers. It’s a classic in every sense of the word.
Spooks: The Greater Good is in cinemas now.