21 Iconic Spy Movies To Keep You on the Edge of Your Seat

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Within the cinematic artform, few genres evoke as much excitement and intrigue as the spy thriller. From the suave sophistication of James Bond to the gritty realism of Cold War dramas, spy films have captivated audiences for decades with their stylish blending of excitement and procedure. We all love spy films because we all want to be spies. It’s certainly outlasted other genres of its ilk – the western being a notable example – thrilling and chilling audiences to this day. Today, we’ll be exploring 21 of the best spy films ever made, with each of these films leaving their mark on the genre that’s so fascinated audiences for decades.

1. Dr. No (1962)

Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Our journey through the world of espionage begins with the film that launched a franchise. Starring Sean Connery as the eponymous 007, Dr. No introduced audiences to the tried-and-true tropes that would become a staple of the suave secret agent:  exotic locales, larger-than-life villains, and that world-famous cocktail.


2. North by Northwest (1959)

Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Alfred Hitchcock’s timeless thriller follows advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a man who unwittingly becomes embroiled in a case of mistaken identity and international espionage.

3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Photo Credit: Focus Features.

Adapted from John le Carré’s seminal novel, this atmospheric Cold War drama follows retired British intelligence officer George Smiley (Gary Oldman) as he delves into a labyrinthine conspiracy within the highest echelons of the Secret Service. Expertly crafted, this twisty thriller is a must for fans of the genre.

4. From Russia With Love (1963)

Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Sean Connery is back again as James Bond in the second installment of this long-running franchise. This time, Bond is tasked with retrieving a Soviet decoding machine while contending with the deadly assassin Red Grant. With its pulse-pounding action sequences and a memorable turn from Tatiana Romanova, From Russia with Love solidified 007’s status as a cultural icon.

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5. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)

Photo Credit: Salem Films Limited.

Richard Burton delivers a mesmerizing performance as Alec Leamas, a British intelligence officer who becomes embroiled in a web of deception and betrayal during the height of the Cold War. Adapted from another novel by John le Carré, this bleak and morally ambiguous tale offers a sobering glimpse into the murky world of espionage.


6. Mission: Impossible (1996)

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Tom Cruise stars in this Brian De Palma-directed adaptation of the eponymous television series, portraying IMF agent Ethan Hunt as he embarks on a high-stakes mission to thwart a rogue agent’s plan to steal a top-secret list of undercover operatives. De Palma uses his knack of special geography to capture some incredibly fluid action sequences here.

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7. The Bourne Identity (2002)

Photo Credit: Universal Studios.

Matt Damon is Jason Bourne, a former CIA operative suffering from amnesia who embarks on a perilous journey to uncover his true identity while evading capture by his former handlers. Doug Liman’s kinetic direction and Damon’s intense performance make The Bourne Identity a gripping and relentless thrill ride from start to finish. Be on the look-out for Paul Greengrass’ later entries in the series!


8. Notorious (1946)

Photo Credit: RKO Radio Pictures.

Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful thriller stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in a tale of espionage and betrayal. Bergman shines as Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy recruited by American intelligence to infiltrate a group of ex-Nazis in post-war Brazil. With Hitch’s usual sense of visual dynamism, this is one thriller you’re not going to want to miss.

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9. Casino Royale (2006)

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures.

Daniel Craig’s turn as James Bond breathes new life into the character, with his interpretation bringing with it a gritty, more grounded portrayal of the Directed by Legend of Zorro director Martin Campbell, the film follows Bond on his first mission as 007, as he uncovers a terrorist plot while facing off against the ruthless financier Le Chiffre in a high-stakes game of poker.

10. Bridge of Spies (2015)

Photo Credit: Dreamworks Pictures.

Another Steven Spielberg joint, and this one stars Tom Hanks, to boot. Bridge of Spies tells the true story of James B. Donovan, an American lawyer tasked with negotiating the release of a captured American pilot during the height of the Cold War. Spielberg’s trademark craftsmanship shines, offering up a compelling portrait of courage and diplomacy in the face of adversity.

11. Skyfall (2012)

Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Daniel Craig returns for his third outing as James Bond in Sam Mendes’ thrilling installment in the long-running franchise. When MI6 comes under attack and a dark secret from M’s past threatens to unravel the agency, Bond must confront his own demons while tracking down the enigmatic cyberterrorist Raoul Silva, played with great menace by Javier Bardem. Perhaps the best Bond film outside of the deep cut, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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12. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Photo Credit: United Artists.

Directed by John Frankenheimer, this chilling Cold War thriller stars Frank Sinatra as Major Bennett Marco, a Korean War veteran plagued by recurring nightmares of brainwashing and conspiracy. As Marco delves deeper into the mystery, he uncovers a sinister plot involving political intrigue, psychological manipulation, and the potential assassination of a presidential candidate. Makes for a great double feature with Jonathan Demme’s remake, which updates the proceedings for a post-9/11 world.

13. Argo (2012)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Directed by and starring fomer Batman and current Dunkin’ Donuts employee Ben Affleck, Argo recounts the true story of a daring CIA operation to rescue six American diplomats trapped in Tehran during the Iran Hostage Crisis. Affleck flexes his chops as a director, crafting a propulsive thriller that more than earns its Best Picture win.

14. The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Photo Credit: Paramount.

Based on Tom Clancy’s pulpy bestseller, this submarine-based thriller stars Sean Connery as Marko Ramius, a Soviet captain who defects to the West aboard his state-of-the-art nuclear submarine. As both American and Soviet forces race to intercept the renegade vessel, CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) must unravel the mystery of Ramius’ intentions before it’s too late. John ‘Predator’ McNaughton’s sturdy propulsion keeps things moving, making for one of the best spy films ever made.

15. Spy Game (2001)

Photo Credit: Universal Studios.

Directed by maverick blockbuster filmmaker and brother of Ridley, Tony Scott, the film follows veteran CIA operative Nathan Muir as he races against time to rescue his protégé from execution in a Chinese prison. With its pulse-pounding action and dynamic performances, this adrenaline-fueled thriller will make the audience wonder, “why did I pay for a full seat when I’m only using the edge of it?”

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16. The Lives of Others (2006)

Photo Credit: Wiedemann & Berg Filmproduktion.

Set in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, this critically acclaimed drama follows Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler as he surveils a playwright and his lover, who is suspected of subversive activities against the German government. As Wiesler becomes increasingly disillusioned with the oppressive regime he serves, he must confront the moral implications of his actions and decide where his loyalties truly lie. A thought-provoking masterpiece of modern world cinema.


17. The Ipcress File (1965)

Photo Credit: Altitude Television.

Directed by the great Sidney J. Furie and starring Michael Caine as British intelligence agent Harry Palmer, The Ipcress File is a gritty portrait of Cold War paranoia. When top scientists begin to disappear under mysterious circumstances, Palmer is tasked with unraveling a complex conspiracy involving brainwashing, double agents, and international intrigue. A stylishly directed from one of Canada’s greatest genre filmmakers.

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18. The Departed (2006)

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Martin Scorsese’s epic, a remake of the Hong Kong action film Infernal Affairs, is a gripping crime thriller set against the backdrop of Boston’s criminal underworld. As an undercover cop infiltrates the Irish mob and a mole rises through the ranks of the police force, tensions escalate as loyalties are tested in a deadly game of cat and mouse. With its riveting performances, labyrinthine plot, and visceral action sequences, The Departed is a modern masterpiece by one of our greatest-working directors.

19. Munich (2005)

Photo Credit: Dreamworks Pictures.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, Munich tells the true story of Operation Wrath of God, a covert Israeli assassination mission in the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. As a team of Mossad agents tracks down and eliminates those responsible for the terrorist attack, they are forced to confront the moral complexities and personal sacrifices inherent in their mission.

20. Atomic Blonde (2017)

Photo Credit: Focus Features.

Directed by David ‘John Wick’  Leitch, Atomic Blonde is a stylish and action-packed thriller set against the backdrop of Cold War-era Berlin. Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a hardcore MI6 agent tasked with retrieving a valuable dossier while navigating a treacherous web of double agents, assassins, and double-crosses.

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21. Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford, Three Days of the Condor follows CIA analyst Joseph Turner as he becomes a target of assassination after stumbling upon a clandestine operation within his own agency. Forced to go on the run and evade capture by his own government, Turner must rely on his wits and resourcefulness to uncover the truth and expose the conspiracy before it’s too late. A tense piece of New Hollywood mythmaking.

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Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

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