SPECTREQuick Picks: 10 Espionage Films

Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens. Avengers: Age of Ultron. Jurassic World. For many, these are the most anticipated blockbusters of the year.

For me, they all take a back seat to the twenty-fourth James Bond film, SPECTRE.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, espionage is a subgenre about which I’m particularly passionate. This stems from, among other things, a lifelong love of the James Bond series. In preparation for SPECTRE‘s release later this year, I will be posting 23 days worth of material on the Bond films, 1 film per day, from October 14 through November 5. I’ll only be tackling the EON films, i.e. the “official films,” meaning fans of Never Say Never Again may be disappointed.

Until then, with another addition to the ranks of the spy film—Kingsman: The Secret Service—in theaters later this week, I thought I would pick out 10 currently streaming examples films to highlight in this week’s Quick Picks, along with 2 bonus films available for local rental. Unlike many of our Quick Picks features, wherein we deliver as many films as we can, these selections are very much personal favorites.

To the cinephiles among you, it’s likely you’ve seen most of these. However, I am increasingly surprised by what some people haven’t seen, so I feel compelled to highlight these selections irrespective of their popularity. That said, I suspect many of you have not seen Walk on Water, an Israeli film about a Mossad agent who is tasked with hunting down a Nazi war criminal. To do so, he has to get close to his target’s grandchildren, and in building a relationship with the two of them, comes to terms with some uncomfortable truths about himself. Director Eytan Fox delivers a profoundly thoughtful and moving journey into the mind of a man tasked by the tradecraft of death. It was the best film of 2004, hands down.

Along with the under-seen Walk on Water, there are two Hitchcock classics made almost 25 years apart, and in both cases the master filmmaker is firing on all cylinders. There is the 1960s comedic thriller featuring two of the most charming Hollywood stars there ever were, and I’m not just talking about Walter Matthau and James Coburn. You’ll see one of the better examples of 1970s cinema of paranoia, as well one of the better examples of 1980s cold war comedy. (You’ll never respond to the question, “Would you like a Pepsi?” the same way again.)

As we move into the 2000s, we have a film starring former Bond Pierce Brosnan using John Le Carré source material that has a tone closer to Dr. Strangelove than you would ever expect. I’ve included The Bourne Identity, which holds up after more than a decade as a terrific piece of action cinema. Getting back to Le Carré, there is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which is simply one of the best films ever made (make sure to read this wonderful post by David Bordwell after you watch it). And because my list would not be complete without a Bond film, I’ll go with the latest and most successful, Skyfall. It may not be the greatest of Bond films, but it is certainly the grandest. More on this in a future post.

Whether you like intricate plotting, entertaining suspense, political intrigue, driven and often guilt-ridden characters making impossible decisions, or poking fun at all of those, there is something for everyone in the choices below. Whether you’ve seen them before or are approaching them for the first time, let us know what you think about these and your own favorite espionage films in the comments below. And look for more on spy films—especially the James Bond series—here at the Madison Film Forum in the future!

Click on the movie posters without tags to take you to Netflix, Amazon Instant, or other streaming resources based on current availability.

39 Steps North by Northwest Charade Three Days of the Condor Spies Like Us The Tailor of Panama The Bourne Identity Walk on Water Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Skyfall

Links are confirmed as of the posting date.

Local DVDs: Four Star Video Cooperative and Madison Public Library

I would feel remiss if I didn’t add these two films to my brief list above, but they are unfortunately not available for rental on a streaming platform. Four Star’s website doesn’t have a subgenre search, but you can do some digging and find plenty of excellent spy movie fare in their catalog. The two posters below link directly to Four Star’s inventory. The link below to the Madison Public Library’s site is keyed to espionage DVDs, but you will have to work your way through some TV seasons while browsing.

On to the films. First, there is The Ipcress File, which, aside from being a showcase for just how cool Michael Caine can be, has some of the most impressively stylized cinemascope images put to screen. Second, there is Munich, which I often say is one of Steven Spielberg’s indisputable masterpieces. If you haven’t seen both of these films and you live in town, get to Four Star right away.

Four Star DVD wide MPL DVD wide

The Ipcress File Munich