Several friends and I were talking the other day about fictional movie spies. The conversation degenerated into lists of our favorites. Most people had James Bond and Jason Bourne somewhere on their list, so do I, and I thought it might be fun to come up with my top ten. Here they are in ascending order. This is completely idiosyncratic and leaves off a lot of other possibilities. These are, I will add, only movie spies so there are no TV secret agents. It also does not include private eyes, etc., although that might be fun to think about sometime as well. Anywhere he is my list. Who are your favorites?
10. Austin Powers: OK, I’ll admit it, I enjoyed the silliness of the three Austin Powers films: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), and Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002). Mike Myers was brilliant as both the James-Bondesque hero and the super-villain, Dr. Evil. The camp is greater than any other spy parody, and some of the humor is both juvenile and revolting but the fun is too great to miss.
9. Harry Palmer: Michael Caine was superb in the title role of five British spy films. In all of them the bespectacled Palmer is something of an anti-James Bond. He comes from a working class background, is less than stunningly handsome although there is no chance that Michael Caine could ever be very unattractive, lives in a small flat, stays in sleazy hotels, wears glasses, hates the bureaucracy for which he works, and believes he deserves a pay raise. The Ipcress File (1965) launched the series and the last, Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996), still left open the possibility of yet another film. In each the plot is more cerebral than those of any James Bond films with their maniacal super-villains.
8. Matt Helm: Dean Martin made four spoofs of the James Bond-type secret agent films in the 1960s, all of them successful. These included The Silencers (1966), Murderers’ Row (1966), The Ambushers (1967), and The Wrecking Crew (1969). They are all light-hearted entertainment with the cool of the Rat Pack everywhere apparent.
7. Sasha Banicek: Linda Fiorentino played this spy in Gotcha! (1985), an entertaining romantic comedy/thriller about a college student traveling around Europe only to meet up with Banicek and being used by her as a cover for her CIA operations. It’s silly but Fiorentino is always entertaining.
6. Mata Hari: There have been several movies made about Mata Hari, a real-life spy although the films usually bear little resemblance to her actual life. She was a Dutch exotic dancer and spy for Germany in World War I that was executed by firing squad in France in 1917. The best Mata Hari film might still be the 1931 Greta Garbo movie, made pre-Hays code and therefore a bit racy for the time. It was Garbo’s biggest hit and set the standard for the films about Mata Hari that followed. Sylvia Krystal’s Mata Hari (1985) made much of the sexual intrigue present in this story and while not a particularly good movie I enjoyed some of it. Other related films are essentially forgettable.
5. Edward Lyle: He was only in one movie—what a waste—but in Enemy of the State (1998) he was a brilliant agent and a former specialist in electronic spying at the NSA. Played to perfection by Gene Hackman, we learn that he had been in Iran before the Iranian Revolution, was burned in the operations there, and has been in hiding ever since. He is solicited by the generally clueless hero played by Will Smith who gets wrapped up in a murder conspiracy plot. Hackman makes it possible for Smith to succeed in exposing the bad guys.
4. Nathan Muir: Played by Robert Redford in Spy Game (2001), Muir is on his last day as a case officer at the CIA before retirement. He learns that his longtime operative, Tom Bishop, played by Brad Pitt, has been captured and is being held in a Chinese prison. He spends the day working to extricate Bishop from the prison, all the while infuriating his superiors at the agency. I’d love to see other Nathan Muir films, either prequels to this one recalling his exploits during the Cold War or after retirement as a freelancer.
3. Jason Bourne: Amnesiac secret agent Jason Bourne is on a mission, first to discover who he is and then to put it behind him. Those overlords in U.S. intelligence won’t leave him alone, however, and he demonstrates repeatedly that he is an unstoppable killing machine. The three movies in which Matt Damon plays Bourne—The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)—were all superb if a little unbelievable as his superhuman exertions are just outrageous. You would have thought that the powers-that-be would have learned not to mess with him in the first film!
2. James Bond: Speaking of someone not be messed with, through 23 films and seven different actors playing the British secret agent—Sean Connery, George Lazenby, David Niven (in the 1967 spoof Casino Royale), Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig—one would think that super-villains would just give it up whenever his name is uttered. I still like the Sean Connery Bond best and by the far I really like one of the earliest of the franchise films, From Russia with Love (1963). But that is not to say that many of the others are not entertaining and worthy of spending time watching. The stunts are stupendous, the women enthralling, the gadgets ingenious, and the villains devilish. How can you not enjoy a marathon of Bond movies.
1. T.R. Devlin: Only Cary Grant could have pulled this one off as secret agent T.R. Devlin hunting Nazis in Rio de Janeiro in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). He persuades the daughter of convicted Nazi spy, Alicia Huberman, played by Ingrid Bergman, to seduce, marry, and spy on Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), whom he is convinced is a Nazi. The film is famous for the Grant/Bergman kiss that got around the censors. They would kiss, stop and whisper to each other, then nuzzle, then kiss again. In all, this is a scene of more than two minutes and it is decidedly erotic. I like to think that when Devlin took Huberman away from Sebastian’s house at the end of the film that they went away to undertake additional espionage missions together.