Spy film

Last updated
Nuvola spy.png

The spy film, also known as the spy thriller, is a genre of film that deals with the subject of fictional espionage, either in a realistic way (such as the adaptations of John le Carré) or as a basis for fantasy (such as many James Bond films). Many novels in the spy fiction genre have been adapted as films, including works by John Buchan, le Carré, Ian Fleming (Bond) and Len Deighton. It is a significant aspect of British cinema, [1] with leading British directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed making notable contributions and many films set in the British Secret Service. [2]


Spy films show the espionage activities of government agents and their risk of being discovered by their enemies. From the Nazi espionage thrillers of the 1940s to the James Bond films of the 1960s and to the high-tech blockbusters of today, the spy film has always been popular with audiences worldwide. Offering a combination of exciting escapism, technological thrills, and exotic locales, many spy films combine the action and science fiction genres, presenting clearly delineated heroes for audiences to root for and villains for them to hate. They may also involve elements of political thrillers. However, there are many that are comedic (mostly action comedy films if they fall under that genre).

James Bond is the most famous of film spies, but there were also more serious, probing works like le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold that also emerged from the Cold War. As the Cold War ended, the newest villain became terrorism and more often involved the Middle East. [3]


The spy film genre began in the silent era, with the paranoia of invasion literature and the onset of the Great War. These fears produced the British 1914 The German Spy Peril, centered on a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, and 1913's O.H.M.S., [4] standing for "Our Helpless Millions Saved" as well as On His Majesty's Service (and introducing for the first time a strong female character who helps the hero).

In 1928, Fritz Lang made the film Spies which contained many tropes that became popular in later spy dramas, including secret headquarters, an agent known by a number, and the beautiful foreign agent who comes to love the hero. Lang's Dr. Mabuse films from the period also contain elements of spy thrillers, though the central character is a criminal mastermind only interested in espionage for profit. Additionally, several of Lang's American films, such as Hangmen Also Die , deal with spies during World War II.

Alfred Hitchcock did much to popularise the spy film in the 1930s with his influential thrillers The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1937) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). These often involved innocent civilians being caught up in international conspiracies or webs of saboteurs on the home front, as in Saboteur (1942). Some, however, dealt with professional spies as in Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936), based on W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden stories, or the Mr. Moto series, based on the books of John P. Marquand.

In the 1940s and early 1950s there were several films made about the exploits of Allied agents in occupied Europe, which could probably be considered as a subgenre. 13 Rue Madeleine and O.S.S. were fictional stories about American agents in German-occupied France, and there were a number of films based on the stories of real-life British S.O.E. agents, including Odette and Carve Her Name With Pride . A more recent fictional example is Charlotte Gray , based on the novel by Sebastian Faulks.

Also during the period, there were many detective films ( The Thin Man Goes Home and Charlie Chan in the Secret Service for example) in which the mystery involved who stole the secret blue-prints, or who kidnapped the famous scientist.

The peak of popularity of the spy film is often considered to be the 1960s when Cold War fears meshed with a desire by audiences to see exciting and suspenseful films. The espionage film developed in two directions at this time. On the one hand, the realistic spy novels of Len Deighton and John le Carré were adapted into relatively serious Cold War thrillers which dealt with some of the realities of the espionage world. Some of these films included The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Deadly Affair (1966), Torn Curtain (1966), and the Harry Palmer series, based on the novels of Len Deighton.

In another direction, the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming were adapted into an increasingly fantastical series of tongue-in-cheek adventure films by producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, with Sean Connery as the star. They featured secretive and flamboyant super-villains, an archetype which would later become a staple of the explosion of spy movies in the mid-to-late 1960s. The phenomenal success of the Bond series lead to a deluge of imitators, such as the eurospy genre and several from America. Notable examples include the two Derek Flint films starring James Coburn, The Quiller Memorandum (1966) with George Segal, and the Matt Helm series with Dean Martin. Television also got into the act with series like The Man from U.N.C.L.E and I Spy in the U.S., and Danger Man and The Avengers in Britain. Spies have remained popular on TV to the present day with series such as Callan , Alias and Spooks .

Spy films also enjoyed something of a revival in the late 1990s, although these were often action films with espionage elements, or comedies like Austin Powers . Some critics identify a trend away from fantasy in favor of realism, as observed in Syriana , the Bourne film series and the James Bond films starring Daniel Craig since Casino Royale (2006).


Some of the most popular films include:

Movie series (franchises)

One-shots, sequels and remakes

Television series

Some of the most popular television series include:

Classic era

Modern era

See also

Related Research Articles

Spy fiction is a genre of literature involving espionage as an important context or plot device. It emerged in the early twentieth century, inspired by rivalries and intrigues between the major powers, and the establishment of modern intelligence agencies. It was given new impetus by the development of fascism and communism in the lead-up to World War II, continued to develop during the Cold War, and received a fresh impetus from the emergence of rogue states, international criminal organizations, global terrorist networks, maritime piracy and technological sabotage and espionage as potent threats to Western societies. As a genre, spy fiction is thematically related to the novel of adventure, the thriller and the politico-military thriller.

Leonard Cyril Deighton is a British author. His publications have included cookery books, history and military history, but he is best known for his spy novels.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Harry Palmer</span> Fictional secret agent

Harry Palmer is the name given to the anti-hero protagonist of several films based on spy novels written by Len Deighton, in which the main character is an unnamed intelligence officer. For convenience, the novels are also often referred to as the "Harry Palmer" novels.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">John le Carré</span> British novelist and former spy (1931–2020)

David John Moore Cornwell, better known by his pen name John le Carré, was a British and Irish author, best known for his espionage novels, many of which were successfully adapted for film or television. "A sophisticated, morally ambiguous writer", he is considered one of the greatest novelists of the postwar era. During the 1950s and 1960s he worked for both the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).

Thriller is a genre of fiction with numerous, often overlapping, subgenres, including crime, horror and detective fiction. Thrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving their audiences heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety. This genre is well-suited to film and television.

<i>I Spy</i> (1965 TV series) Television series

I Spy is an American secret-agent adventure television series that ran for three seasons on NBC from September 15, 1965, to April 15, 1968, and teamed US intelligence agents Kelly Robinson and Alexander "Scotty" Scott, traveling undercover as international "tennis bums". Robinson poses as an amateur with Scott as his trainer, playing against wealthy opponents in return for food and lodging. Their work involved chasing villains, spies, and beautiful women.

Matt Helm is a fictional character created by American author Donald Hamilton (1916-2006). Helm is a U.S. government counter-agent, a man whose primary job is to kill or nullify enemy agents—not a spy or secret agent in the ordinary sense of the term as used in most spy thrillers.

<i>Our Man Flint</i> 1966 film by Daniel Mann

Our Man Flint is a 1966 American spy-fi comedy film that parodies the James Bond film series. The film was directed by Daniel Mann, written by Hal Fimberg and Ben Starr, and starred James Coburn as master spy Derek Flint. The main premise of the film is that a trio of "mad scientists" attempt to blackmail the world with a weather-control machine. A sequel, In Like Flint, was released the following year, with Coburn reprising his role.

Spy-fi is a subgenre of spy fiction that includes elements of science fiction, and is often associated with the Cold War. Features of spy-fi include the effects of technology on the espionage trade and the technological gadgets used by the characters, even though the technologies and gadgets portrayed are well beyond current scientific reality.

Derek Flint is a fictional world adventurer and master spy featured in a series of movies and comic books. Flint, a parody of James Bond and Doc Savage, is an agent for Z.O.W.I.E..

<i>Tremor of Intent: An Eschatological Spy Novel</i>

Tremor of Intent: An Eschatological Spy Novel (1966), by Anthony Burgess, is an English espionage novel.

<i>The Ipcress File</i> (film) 1965 British film

The Ipcress File is a 1965 British spy film directed by Sidney J. Furie and starring Michael Caine. The screenplay, by Bill Canaway and James Doran, was based on Len Deighton's novel The IPCRESS File (1962). It received a BAFTA award for the Best British film released in 1965. In 1999, it was included at number 59 on the BFI list of the 100 best British films of the 20th century.

<i>The Spy Who Came In from the Cold</i> (film) 1965 film by Martin Ritt, Paul Dehn, Guy Trosper

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is a 1965 British spy film based on the 1963 novel of the same name by John le Carré. The film stars Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Oskar Werner. It was directed by Martin Ritt, and the screenplay was written by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Eurospy film</span> Genre of spy films

Eurospy film, or Spaghetti spy film, is a genre of spy films produced in Europe, especially in Italy, France, and Spain, that either sincerely imitated or else parodied the British James Bond spy series feature films. The first wave of Eurospy films were released in 1964, two years after the first James Bond film, Dr. No, and in the same year as the premiere of what many consider to be the apotheosis of the Bond series, Goldfinger. For the most part, the Eurospy craze lasted until around 1967 or 1968. In Italy, where most of these films were produced, this trend replaced the declining sword and sandal genre.

Jeremy Duns is a British author of spy fiction and the history of espionage. Born in Manchester, he now resides in Åland.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thriller film</span> Film genre

Thriller film, also known as suspense film or suspense thriller, is a broad film genre that evokes excitement and suspense in the audience. The suspense element found in most films' plots is particularly exploited by the filmmaker in this genre. Tension is created by delaying what the audience sees as inevitable, and is built through situations that are menacing or where escape seems impossible.

<i>Codename: Kyril</i> 1988 UK Cold War espionage TV drama

Codename: Kyril is a 4-part British miniseries, first broadcast in 1988 over two consecutive nights. It is a Cold War espionage drama, starring Ian Charleson, Edward Woodward, Denholm Elliott, Joss Ackland, and Richard E. Grant. The spy thriller was directed by Ian Sharp, and the screenplay was written by John Hopkins, from a 1981 novel by John Trenhaile. The fairly complex plot concerns a known Russian spy ("Kyril") sent to the UK under falsely reported pretenses in order to hopefully indirectly spark an unknown mole in the KGB to reveal himself; the endeavor eventually has repercussions which none of the initial players could have predicted.


  1. "The Spying Game: British Cinema and the Secret State", 2009 Cambridge Film Festival, pp. 54–57 of the festival brochure.
  2. "Spy movies - The guys who came in from the cold" . The Independent. October 2, 2009. Archived from the original on 2022-05-24.
  3. "Spy Film Movies and Films - Find Spy Film Movie Recommendations, Casts, Reviews, and Summaries - AllRovi". Archived from the original on 2012-01-17. Retrieved 2012-01-21.
  4. O.H.M.S. at IMDb
  5. The first four focused on illegal street racing and thus they were not spy films