It took me almost six years, but I’ve finally finished reviewing the Spy 100 list. (Well, almost; several of its entries were not available to me, but I’m sure I will catch up on them some day.)
So what did I think of the list? Is it the definitive list of spy filmdom’s best movies? Are they in the perfect order? Do they all deserve to be there?
No, no, and no, in my opinion.
Let’s face it. Best-of lists are rarely the objective end-all, be-all. They’re conversation starters, gathered by critics with conflicting and differing opinions. Anyway, it seems clear from reading this list’s reviews that American History’s 100 Greatest Spy Movies issue was always more about generating discussion and providing a mix of styles and subject matter than serving as a true qualitative evaluation of the genre. I watched the films in that spirit, appreciating some rankings while disagreeing strenuously with others.
But I learned a few things looking at all these films and shows, and overall it was a rewarding exercise. I also spent plenty time thinking about my own preferences, and the points I would have argued had I been contributing to the list. So, here are some final thoughts and observations after reviewing most of the films of American History magazine’s 100 Greatest Spy Movies.
Most Overrated Film
Goldfinger (#4), hands down. Is it one of the most influential spy films of all time? Fine. But greatest? Uh, no. It doesn’t even make my top 100. But then, I’ve never liked 007 (see below).
Most Underrated Film
Burn After Reading (#92). Many of the spy spoofs on the list are broad, silly, unsubtle, and unfunny. Burn After Reading is smart, silly, clever, and hilarious, and one of those films that improves with every viewing. Belongs far closer to the top of the list.
Other highly underrated entries include The Mackintosh Man [#83], The Guns of Navarone [#79], 5 Fingers [#60], Casablanca [#46], and The Conversation [#21].
Alfred Hitchcock? Yes, Please!
Hitchcock’s spy oeuvre makes eight appearances on the list, and I can’t quibble with any of them. North By Northwest is perfectly placed at #2. The most underrated of his films on the list may be Torn Curtain at #48; originally considered a flop, for some reason it lodges in my memory as one of his more enjoyable technicolor espionage capers.
James Bond? No, Thanks!
This project further ossified my stance against James Bond, my least favorite film franchise. There are five Bond films on the list, and some would argue that isn’t enough, but the only two I would keep are Daniel Craig’s debut in Casino Royale (#73), and Sean Connery’s From Russia with Love (#39), which one could argue best represents the early days. But in general I remain immune to Bond’s sleazy superhero “charms.”
I think it’s bogus to create a list of best films, and then add both TV miniseries and filmic trilogies to it. Do I think the BBC adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (#11) and Smiley’s People (#7) are brilliant? I do, but they don’t belong on this list. What about The Company (#30) or Reilly: Ace of Spies (#22)? Nope, and they also don’t belong on the list. As for the Bourne trilogy? I could have stopped after the first one. Three films should not share a ranking on a best-of list!
If I were to revise the list, I would remove these cheats, even if that meant keeping something like the brilliant The Honourable Woman out of my top ten.
John le Carré is Golden
There are six le Carré adaptations on the list, and they all belong. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (#3) is of course brilliant; I also greatly admired The Looking Glass War (#33), a more obscure but nearly as effective counterpoint. You could also easily make arguments for the overlooked The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardener, as well as A Most Wanted Man, which was released too late to make the list.
Variety is the Spice of Life
Much as I disagree with some of the list’s sillier selections, I can see why they were included. Spy films have their own language, and when you watch enough of them in a row, you’ll end up craving dialects other than murky, cynical, twisty, ingenious, or super-serious. Those happen to be my favorite spy film flavors, but often a shot of patriotic, quirky, cheesy, or slapstick goes a long way to keep your diet interesting. The list’s makers clearly sensed this as they were fleshing out their selections.
When all is said and done, I find it impossible to argue with the list’s #1 pick, The Third Man.
Which five films would I jettison from the list?
I could probably get rid of more, but if I were forced to limit myself to five (not including the aforementioned Bond flicks and cheats), they would be:
- The Fourth Protocol (#57) – Man, 1980s filmmaking is the pits.
- Our Man Flint (#61) – Modesty Blaise covers this angle well enough, and is far weirder.
- Billion Dollar Brain (#71) – I can see keeping the first two Harry Palmer movies, but the third?
- Ice Station Zebra (#93) – A glacial exercise in Technicolor tediousness.
- Triple Agent (#96) – A yawnworthy slog.
Which films would I add to the list?
Some great spy films were missed, and many more have come out since the list was created. Here a number of solid spy films I enjoyed that I think are worthy of consideration (titles with an asterisk are particularly strong):
- 36 Hours (1965)*
- The Amateur (1981)*
- Argo (2012)*
- Bridge of Spies (2015)
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)*
- Carve Her Name With Pride (1959)
- The Debt (2010)
- Decision Before Dawn (1951)*
- The East (2013)
- Hanna (2011)
- Haywire (2011)
- The Informant! (2011)
- A Most Wanted Man (2012)*
- Night Train to Munich (1940)*
- OSS 117, Cairo Nest of Spies (2006)
- Page Eight (2011)
- Seven Days in May (1965)*
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)
Yes, I had a lot of problems with the list, but I also enjoyed the hell out of this project. It introduced me to a lot of films and directors I might not otherwise have discovered, gave me plenty to think about, and did nothing to exhaust my enthusiasm for the genre. Looking forward to watching even more spy films in the future. Any recommendations?
It’s been a joy following this project. I remember fondly watching A Most Wanted Man with you. Keep the reviews coming!
Thanks, Steven! There seems to be no shortage of things I want to watch, so the reviews will keep on coming.
Fun to look back on the posts and remember commenting on the ones I’d seen before you, and remember watching the ones that I hadn’t seen that you made sound interesting.
Thanks, Philip! I hope you the posts pointed you at a few new things to check out.