Top 10 Historical Movies About Espionage

#1 THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS 1956

The British really know how to make this kind of war movie. Everyone in it underplays the importance of what he or she is doing (all except the the monumentally-over-rated ham Gloria Grahame that is), and that creates an atmosphere of quiet confidence in their abilities that you just know will triumph in the end. Clifton Webb is his usual, polished self, an American actor who often appears to be more English than the English. Irish actor Stephen Boyd is terrific as well. I still cannot understand how Chuck Heston stole an Oscar for Ben-Hur yet Boyd’s Messala was not even nominated.

#2 5 FINGERS 1951

As espionage films go this is one of the best. James Mason plays a spy in the British Embassy in Ankara during the Second World War who sells photographs of secret Allied documents to the Germans. Mason is terrific, although his polish bears little resemblance to the real spy who was a rather uncouth little man. A true story with a surprising sting in the tail.


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#3 ARGO 2012

I do not really think Argo deserved an Oscar for Best Picture, but it most certainly was not the first undeserving winner in Academy Award history and it won’t be the last I’m sure. Having said that, I still enjoyed the movie, especially the screenplay (which also picked up an Oscar). Alan Arkin (another Oscar) and John Goodman are great fun too. The suspense seems a little too contrived at the end, but that’s Hollywood for you I guess.

#4 CARVE HER NAME WITH PRIDE 1958

Virginia McKenna is wonderful as the doomed British spy Violette Szabo. There are very few heroics here, at least none that are thrust upon us; just the quiet courage of a young woman who knew the risks she was taking, but took them anyway. This is probably the best of the WW2 secret agent movies.

#5 BREACH 2007

Until the Soviet Union collapsed it seemed as if every second Englishman was a double agent working for the Russians. It came, therefore, as a terrific shock to the Americans when Robert Hanssen, a senior FBI agent, was found to have been selling secrets to the Soviets for 25 years! This movie starring the superb Chris Cooper looks at why he did what he did and how he was caught in 2001.

#6 MUNICH 2005

There are no holds barred in this story of a group of Israelis sent into Europe to assassinate the Black September terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Prime Minister Golda Meir gave the green light to the operation, authorizing five men to track down and kill everyone involved in the Munich killings.

#7 CHARLOTTE GRAY 2001

This picture was inspired by the exploits of an Australian agent (born in New Zealand actually) named Nancy Wake who made it to the top of the Gestapo’s ‘Most Wanted’ list during the Second World War. Known as ‘The White Mouse’, she became the most decorated Australian servicewoman of WW2. Cate Blanchett plays the lead in this interesting movie.

#8 ODETTE 1950

Unlike Violette Szabo, Odette Sanson survived World War Two despite being captured and savagely tortured by the Gestapo. Anna Neagle plays her here with great dignity, having spent a year with the lady herself, visiting prisons where Odette had been a captive, and meeting other Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents from the war days.

#9 THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN 1985

Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee would have to be two of the least likely spies in history. Boyce was the son of an FBI agent, Lee a drug pushing childhood friend of his. This movie is sympathetic to Boyce whose idealism got the better of him, whereas Lee is portrayed as a rather stupid ‘druggie’ just waiting to get caught.

#10 THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE 1956

It is only a Disney movie, but this little story of an actual Union raid behind Confederate lines during the Civil War is quite well done. Fess Parker is believable as the leader of the Union spies, and Jeffrey Hunter is also good as the relentless conductor bent on getting back his train. A nice, entertaining film.