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The Greatest Spy Movies (As Chosen By Ex-Spies)

After years of dodging bullets, drinking martinis and indulging in espionage former operatives tell us, covertly of course, which spy films cut the mustard...

This list was compiled by several real-life former spies from the CIA, NSA, the US. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and more agencies — all of whom are founders or Board Members of the Long Island Spy Museum www.longislandspymuseum.org

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979)

“Real-life spies love the plot focus on recruitment of assets, betrayal and subterfuge; this is the ‘bread and butter’ of spycraft,” said one former CIA officer.

Many former and existing spies relate particularly well to Smiley’s character and the duality that he represents: patriotic and capable without ego combined with that nagging suspicion that defending democracy can be a thankless job and, in the end, he will almost certainly be the last victim in the saga.  There is an old saying in espionage: ‘There is nothing more dangerous than an honest man with no agenda.’  This makes Smiley incorruptible to the enemy but also makes him a long-term threat to his political masters.

Munich (2006)

Like real-life spying, the movie is slow and steady with moments of underlying tension and moments of pure ‘dynamite’ particularly when moral dilemmas present themselves. The way Munich proceeded was a lot like real-life spying.  It’s not glitz and glamour and flash all the time…successful espionage is slow, methodical, careful; sometimes there’s gripping tension when plans seem to go not quite according to plan, and other times — like in Munich — moral dilemmas can turn even the best laid plans on their head. The movie is realistic in this way.

Ronin (1998)

“NOC officers do not have the protection of diplomatic immunity so when they are caught working in foreign lands, it usually results in incarceration, death or severe bodily harm,” said one Defense Intelligence Agency Spy. “Shifting loyalties and alliances are not fiction in real-world spying. It’s critical to be careful; sometimes that’s the difference between life and death.”

Spying makes strange bed-fellows and there are many cases of two opposing deep-cover operatives inserted into a situation: being forced to work together for the greater good.

39 Steps (1935)

Spies love this movie because of the unexpected twists and turns; something that is ‘par for the course’ in the world of espionage. There is an old saying used by spies all over the world – ‘It’s a great plan until the first shot is fired!’ Any self-respecting spy will tell you that adaptability is critical in the field.

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peter of London 9:56 am, 13-Oct-2012

I loved the list and the mind fuck commen regarding counter intelligence still has me laughing.!

mike 10:34 am, 13-Oct-2012

great list, but i would replace ronin with the ipcress file, and for fast action spy films i would go for the bourne triolgy,but all in all great list .

Steve Harper 11:40 am, 13-Oct-2012

Though not cinema films, I would add 'Smiley's People' and 'A Perfect Spy' to this. 'The Cambridge Spies' was also good stuff.

Ms.Mary V 11:47 am, 13-Oct-2012

Very interesting perspective on the subtext of the flicks.I am going to watch the original "tinker..Spy" movie i have never seen the original.Mary V

peter of London 1:03 pm, 13-Oct-2012

Tinker,Tailor,Soldier Spy is worth the trip to the Video shop.I have heard that Smileys people is also really interesting and i have to admit i enjoy the Bourne trilogy!

Hillary Call 1:29 pm, 13-Oct-2012

The intel for this list came from real-life former spies working with the Long Island Spy Museum (www.longislandspymuseum.org)

peter of London 6:30 pm, 13-Oct-2012

Hillary-My roommates and i enjoyed the chance to hear some interesting comments from retired spies.I really enjoyed the insight and their choice of best movies seems spot on!

Rob Taylor 10:13 pm, 13-Oct-2012

Ezra Pound was a famous Communist? Either that's a piece of counter-intelligence mindfuck or those are some stupid spies.

Colonel Willowby-Gore St. Johns 12:08 am, 14-Oct-2012

Carry on Spying should be on this list.

Markxist 12:28 am, 14-Oct-2012

That The Ipcress File is awol is a travesty. I'd also consider The Quiller Memorandum, The Looking Glass War, Cambridge Spies, Smiley's People, A Perfect Spy and Spy Game. I thought The Good Shepherd was lamentable myself

Pilar in chelsea 10:10 am, 14-Oct-2012

Ipcress file is my only issue with the list other then that i really enjoyed the comments and the choices .Don't know "carry on spying" but will try to find it .

BorisBabe 5:21 pm, 14-Oct-2012

Fantastic list all i would add is Smileys people:)

James wilburn 10:35 am, 15-Oct-2012

Really enjoyed the list,would enjoy seeing more news stories written by former espionage officers as their perspective on current events i suspect would be interesting...James Wilburn

David W. 8:34 pm, 27-Nov-2012

Great list and a few i did not know until i read the article.Well done ST!

adenike Hameed 1:48 pm, 26-Feb-2013

Pls, i'm looking for china/american spy film-sweet spy.

Neb 10:54 pm, 3-Mar-2013

Great list, glad to see RONIN made the cut.

PaulT 4:20 pm, 24-Dec-2013

I would have added Where Eagles Dare to the list if I was asked and I was an ex-spy. But I wasn't and I wouldn't have admitted to what my previous career was anyway.

Lou 10:46 pm, 24-Dec-2013

Enjoyed it till I got to the part of Ezra Pound as a "famous communist", then disregarded it all as drivel.

Brian Of Ireland 10:46 pm, 9-Feb-2014

Nice-

Pompeii 4:10 pm, 14-Feb-2014

the fourth protocol.

Daniel7:7_London 8:32 pm, 17-Feb-2014

Best Film and Performance Orson Welles and/ in The 3rd Man,

Walter Grant 10:29 am, 22-Feb-2014

Breach

Simon 9:25 pm, 16-Mar-2014

Good to see Body of Lies and Ronin made the list, a very good list as well, the original Munich film called 'sword of gideon' from circa mid-80's in my opinion is much much better than Munich, i certainly enjoy it more and i think it was a TV movie!!! good list.

Sam Jennings 12:47 pm, 29-Apr-2014

Really enjoyed the article.Would love to get his views on some of the espionage books just released on Kim Philby? Sam

SaturnLegacy 5:51 am, 5-May-2014

That movie sucks. Full of anachronisms, historical mistakes, military errors and physical inconsistencies. It was simply post WW2 Anglo-american hollywooganda and further indoctrination about how mean and dumb the Germans were (where like always 2 A-a's could easily take down dozens of Germans AND fight on the top of a moving cabin AND stay alive AND return home). That movie is at the best for kids up to 14 who dunno shit about history, guns, combats and warfare. Putting that on the same list with some of the masterpieces mentioned here, shows that you have no clue about what espionage is.

BT99 6:36 pm, 8-May-2014

For those confused by the comments - Ezra Pound was not a Communist, but the complete opposite - a Fascist with a capital 'F'. He moved to Italy in the 1930s and lived there during WW2, working for Mussolini's Fascist party and government in making anti-US radio broadcasts. As he was still nominally a US citizen, he was arrested by the US forces for treason and imprisoned, some would say tortured. He ended up with severe mental and emotional problems as a result. To say that Angleton would befriend a known Communist is one of the more outrageous things I've seen pass by an editor's review.

Sam Jennings 2:32 pm, 14-May-2014

Great list.All i care about is the movies and their entertainment value.Well done..

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