The Manchurian Candidate (1962) introduced the concept of hypnotic mind control assassins walking among us. The film was recently remade, although the more modern version was a disaster and conveys none of the suspense of the original, which was based on an explosive book by Richard Condon, who’d served as the publicist for Walt Disney before launching his career as a novelist. Disney was very close with J. Edgar Hoover and a real Cold Warrior himself. There were some deep secrets revealed by this film, so much so the studio pulled it one year after release because it had some eerie parallels to the assassination of JFK.
If you were expecting a James Bond film on this list, I’m afraid to disappoint. The Bond films are entertaining but really just silly melodramas that bear little resemblance to the moral complexities real spooks face when they delve into deep politics. John Le Carre’s portrayals of spook world were far more accurate than anything Ian Fleming ever wrote, although they both worked for British intelligence, though Le Carre’s “Circus” was initially based on the inner sanctum of the SIS, while Fleming initially worked for British naval intelligence. Based on Le Carre’s third and most successful novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) introduced George Smiley to most of the world.
The Ipcress File (1965) followed in the wake of Manchurian Candidate by delving into the use of hypnotism and psychic driving to rearrange the brains of secret agents who knew too much. It would soon become much imitated. Sealed the career of Michael Caine and got him noticed in Hollywood. Based on a novel by fromer RAF pilot Len Deighton. In response to the Bond franchise, Deighton revealed spook world was actually filled with meaningless red tape and interdepartmental rivalries to great comic effect.
The Kremlin Letter (1970) was a ground-breaking film that bombed at the box office, but remains one of the great masterpieces of the genre directed by John Huston and based on a book written by Noel Behn, formerly of the United States Army Counterintelligence Corps. This is probably the closest thing to a real CIA operation in Russia you will ever find, and it all revolves around drugs and prostitutes. The protagonist is recruited out of the Navy because of his photographic memory and soon enters the rabbit hole into a wilderness of mirrors. The spooks are ruthless and will use any tactic to fulfill a mission, and you never know which side they’re on because sides change quickly.
You don’t see this film on many lists, but I love it, and it revealed the dark underbelly to our involvement in Vietnam, including capturing a monopoly on opium from French intelligence. It’s not really classified as a “spy” movie because the main character was loosely based on Neal Cassady. They even recreate a version of the Pranksters hangout in Perry Lane for the big climatic ending, when the bad spooks and Cassady slug it out. Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978) is a rousing adventure story in which the spooks are the bad guys.
In the real world of spooks, the hidden machinations of the oil industry play a crucial role. Oil is a weapon, and when the price goes high, countries that don’t have any, like China, are kept in check. Syriana (2005) remains one of the few peeks into the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has become a haven for spook activities.
Munich (2006) may be my all-time favorite spy film and details how Israel set-up assassination teams to get vengeance against the Black September group that assassinated their Olympic champions at the Munich games in 1972. Based on the life of real-life Mossad agent Juval Aviv, it shows how the moderate Palestinian leadership was replaced by violent fanatics after the assassinations, leaving the Mossad spooks wondering if they weren’t being manipulated to increase violence and tension rather than resolve it.
The Company (2007) is actually what many undercover CIA spooks call their outfit, and this history of the CIA is better than the more expensive The Good Shepherd, which covered similar territory and was released a year earlier, the difference being this was released as a TV miniseries and not a theatrical film. Unfortunately, both projects blinked when it came to covering the JFK assassination, which was a Company project undertaken by many of the same spooks involved in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Other than that major oversight, there’s some real truths revealed in this complex drama.
Spooks and terrorists go hand-in-hand, and in the wilderness of mirrors it’s often hard to tell the two apart. Carlos (2010) is a masterful glimpse into this world and would have been even better if the original Feelies soundtrack had been left intact. Unfortunately, the band didn’t want to get associated with a notorious terrorist and nixed their music. You won’t find a better miniseries about deep political events and I promise this will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.
There are two celebrated versions of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy (1979, 2011), a loose interpretation of the unveiling of super spook Kim Philby (although some elements are ignored to make it more palatable, especially Philby’s friendship with Victor Rothschild). This famous Le Carre novel is widely considered the most accurate portrayal of MI6-SIS operations. The BBC version stars Alec Guinness while the more modern British-French theatrical film stars Gary Oldman. The theatrical film has better production values, but also makes many changes designed to enhance the drama. The BBC version, on the other hand, is much closer to the original book and more believable as a result. And if you like the 4-hour made-for-tv version (free to watch on Youtube), you can follow it up with the 6-hour Smiley’s People, the final saga in Smiley’s epic battles with KGB’s Karla.