The 10 Greatest Cold War Thrillers Of The '60s And '70s

Forget Bond, these tales of espionage in the Cold War have more than stood the test of time...
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When I was five, I thought the world was going to end.

It was the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and my father tried to explain what was going on. My mother thought I was too young and fretted. We were having chicken, I recall, but the sky did not fall.

Like many baby boomers, I’ve been fascinated by the Cold War ever since, growing up on a diet of Mission Impossible, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and feeding my appetite on chunky airport novels and blockbuster movies set in this era.

Recently, I edited my father’s first book, Not With A Whimper, a cracking Cold War thriller set in Spain in the late 1960s. It was inspired by a family holiday to Andalusia. Our hotel was near Rota, the US submarine base and the US presence was tangible, even to a ten-year-old. As I worked on the manuscript, it seemed a good idea to immerse myself in some classic 1970s Cold War movies. It was easy to find recent offerings – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, of course, and the BBC film of Legacy, based on Alan Judd’s edgy hero, not to mention The Americans. But what about authentic thrillers from the time?

The ‘invisible’ battle between the west and KGB was still very much in the newspapers (eg the Czech Uprising in 1968), although the arena switched to Vietnam, Dominican Republic, North Korea, Egypt and Syria, so ... qué? I rummaged.

Here’s my list of edgy Cold War thrillers from the mid-1960s and early 1970s that have stood the test of time rather better than Bond, in my opinion.

1. Seven days in May (1964)

Ruthless US military leaders conspire to overthrow a liberal president over his support for a nuclear disarmament treaty amid rumours of a Soviet sneak attack. This paranoid thriller stars a swathe of top talent (Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March and Ava Gardner), possibly inspired by some right-wing anti-Communist political activities of certain high-ranking personnel.

It is said that President John F. Kennedy had read the novel and believed the scenario could actually occur in the US. Partly what makes this film so edgy is that it was shot in stark black and white. It’s actually more relevant to public politics than is quite comfortable. The tagline is great: ‘The astounding story of an astounding military plot to take over the United States! The time is 1970 or 1980 or, possibly, tomorrow!’


2. Funeral in Berlin (1965)

As with many 1960s thrillers, I was too young to have seen these first time around, and came to them in my early 20s, when the gritty looked a little passé in the world of disasters movies and blockbusters. However, I am happily rediscovering their understated charms, especially Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer. Len Deighton knew how to pack a punch in his depiction of political conflict. Everyone knows The Ipcress File. The sequel is even darker, twisting and turning in a divided Berlin, with macabre effect. Conspiratorially cool.

3. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

Exposing the stark realities of espionage, John le Carré’s convoluted novel became the epitome of the Cold War experience, especially with the casting of Richard Burton as the jaded agent whose seedy nemesis has become an iconic portrait of a spy in the modern era.

4. The Bedford Incident (1965)

A US destroyer captain is determined to confront a Soviet submarine caught violating territorial waters – ‘perhaps too determined’. Old school heavyweights Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier star in a lesser-known adaptation of a book, which foreshadowed later submarine-based films, such as Crimson Tide, The Hunt for Red October and K-19: The Widowmaker.

5. When Eight Bells Toll (1971)

Alistair MacLean is a master storyteller, and this riveting little movie is a lost gem (I missed it first time around, being too young to see at the cinema). Starring Anthony Hopkins and a who’s who of British stalwarts (Jack Hawkins, Robert Morley, Corin Redgrave), it’s a tight action film. It seems the producer, Elliott Kastner, planned to produce a string of realistic gritty espionage thrillers to rival the James Bond series, but the film’s poor box office receipts ended his plans. Shame.

Hopkins play a British Treasury secret agent Phillip Calvert sent to investigate the hijacking of five cargo ships in the Irish Sea. He tracks the latest hijacked vessel, carrying gold bullion to a sleepy port town, packed with hostile locals. It’s a crazy, twisted race featuring delicious villains and the required femme fatale.

It was the 11th most popular movie at the British box office in 1971. But as Sean Connery returned to the Bond role and appeared in the successful Diamonds Are Forever, the projected Phillip Calvert series was cancelled. Shame. And for trivia collectors: Charles Gray is the uncredited voice of one of the characters, Sir Anthony Skouras.


6. Puppet on a Chain (1971)

That same year, MacLean was luring in the cinema-goers with a more European-style thriller. A professional US agent investigates a heroin smuggling ring in Amsterdam. Cue scenes of corruption and crime in the grubby world of narcotics. Women get slightly bigger billing, here, but their depiction dates the movie more than anything else. The plot weaves hither and thither amid authentic locales, but the dialogue is wry, as you’d expect from a classic thriller writer. It is perhaps most famous for the boat chase sequence. If the lead actor, Swede Sven-Bertil Taube, looks familiar, you’ll have seen him in the Swedish version of Stieg Larsson's novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as Henrick Vanger.

7. The Day of the Jackal (1973)

Another thriller based on a book, this time by Frederick Forsyth, this is worth a mention, although quite a different kettle of fish, with a European flavour, tapping into Anglo-French tension. Edward Fox is the professional assassin hired to assassinate French president Charles de Gaulle in the summer of 1963. A must for conspiracy theorists, this chilling movie has failed to date.

8. The Mackintosh Man (1973)

John Huston directed this snappy Desmond Bagley yarn about a British who is caught up in a ruse to get himself arrested, in order to expose a traitor. It is based on the outing and defection of George Blake, a Soviet mole in MI6, notably the prison scene, inspired by Blake’s escape from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966. Perhaps casting American actor Paul Newman was a mistake, although James Mason, Harry Andrews and Ian Bannen excel.


9. Callan (1974)

Every Brit of a certain generation will know Callan, the acclaimed UK TV series from the late 1960s, shedding its bleak light on the shadowy world of David Callan, a reluctant professional killer for a louche branch of the British Government's intelligence. It ended with Callan losing his nerve and retiring. In the film, he is called back to handle the assassination of a German businessman. The ex-boss promises Callan that he'll be returned to active status if he follows orders, but Callan refuses to play ball. This high calibre TV movie deserves a wider audience. Great tagline, too. ‘Callan doesn’t make friends ... and all his enemies are dead.’ Raymond Chandler would have loved it.

10. Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Robert Redford’s bookish CIA staffer pops out for lunch and returns to find his co-workers dead. Codenamed ‘Condor’, he investigates, dodging some murderous types. The director is Sydney Pollack, so it’s a classy political thriller, also starring Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow. The vintage is later, with the mood coloured by post-Watergate paranoia. Wonderful New York locales add to its neurotic realism.

Pam's book Not Without A Whimper is out now.