While the British may not have invented the spy genre of fiction, there’s no doubt that authors such as Baroness Orczy, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, and John le Carré were leading figures in its popularity. This transitioned to film beginning in 1963 with Dr. No, the first movie in the prolific James Bond franchise. Of course, it’s not only Fleming’s famous spy who’s been brought to screen as several notable British spies have also graced our cinemas. We have identified five such movies below that we think you should watch if you love spycraft. Let us know if we left anything off and what some of your favorites are in the comments.
The 39 Steps
Coming from director Alfred Hitchcock’s British period, before he moved to the States post-war, The 39 Steps was a 1935 film loosely based on the book by John Buchan. In the film, Richard Hannay is a normal civilian who is drawn into a web of espionage when it falls to him to stop the eponymous group from stealing British military secrets. Fans of Hitchcock’s movies will find it contains all the usual tropes from a normal man drawn into an abnormal situation, said man going on the run, and a McGuffin at the heart of the whole adventure.
Johnny English films
Patron saint of British physical comedy Rowan Atkinson stars in his own parodies of the James Bond franchise, starting with the first Johnny English film in 2004. When the bungling Johnny is working a desk job at the fictional MI7, he finds himself the sole surviving agent capable of completing a dangerous mission. The film spawned two sequels: Johnny English Reborn in 2011 and Johnny English Strikes Again (currently scheduled for 2020). All of the films feature Atkinson’s signature comedic stylings and ability to triumph more from sheer dumb luck than actual skill.
The Ipcress Files
Based on the Len Deighton novel of the same name, 1965’s The Ipcress File is arguably one of Michael Caine’s best early films. Caine plays British spy Harry Palmer discovers that British scientists are being kidnapped and brainwashed as part of a sinister scheme, but has to battle his own agency’s bureaucracy to do anything about it. While the production crew included a lot of Bond film crew, The Ipcress File was very different in tone. Rather than flashy cars, guns, and cocktails, Caine’s Harry Palmer was a glasses-wearing everyman with a less-than-stellar past. Caine would go onto play Palmer in another four theatrical and television films.
The Kingsman Series
Coming from a different place than the other works on this list, the Kingsman franchise is based on an original comic book comedy-adventure series by writer Mark Millar and artist Dave Gibbons. The film series is based primarily on an independent spy agency whose agents are expected to behave and dress like gentlemen while using code names taken from the legends of King Arthur. The first film, Kingsman: The Secret Service, came out in 2015 with Taron Egerton, Coin Firth, Mark Strong, and Samuel L. Jackson and was joined by the sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle in 2017. A third film, 2020’s The King’s Man, is set to be a prequel that shows how the organization was formed.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
John le Carré is second only to Ian Fleming when it comes to Britain’s most prolific spy authors, and several of his works have been translated into theatrical and television films. Besides The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, his other best-known work is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Both stories feature his character George Smiley in different capacities, with the former having Smiley playing only a minor role while the latter features him as the protagonist. A TV miniseries in 1979 saw Alec Guinness as George Smiley, while the 2011 film featured Gary Oldman in the role along with Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, and more. Both stories involve Smiley on a hunt to discover a Soviet double-agent working within British Intelligence and its low-key thriller atmosphere presents it as the best antithesis to the flashiness of the Bond films.