10 Great Cold War Spy Movies

‘Bridge of Spies’ by DreamWorks Studios.

‘Bridge of Spies’ by DreamWorks Studios.

Steven Spielberg’s latest movie Bridge of Spies opens in theaters this weekend. Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, an NYC attorney who previously served as a prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials. He’s asked to represent spy Rudolf Abel in a gesture designed to prove to the Soviet government that Americans take their principles seriously. Donovan takes that task a little too seriously for everyone involved and manages to save Abel by getting him a 30-year sentence instead of the execution the public wants to see.

Donovan realizes that Abel can be a bargaining chip and eventually is brought in to engineer a trade for downed U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, also gaining the release of an American student arrested by the East Germans as part of the deal.

Bridge of Spies isn’t one of Spielberg’s serious Oscar-bait pictures (see War Horse or Lincoln), recalling Hanks and Spielberg’s underrated capture-the-con-man flick Catch Me If You Can more than the kind of serious fare that gets awards-season attention. That’s a recommendation: the movie features great performances from Hanks and Mark Rylance as Abel, plenty of great period design and sure direction from the master. It’s the kind of literate movie that you’d think Hollywood could crank out by the dozen and you hardly ever see.

In honor of its release, here are ten other great Cold War espionage movies to enjoy once you get caught up in Allied/Soviet spy games.

1. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)

John LeCarré was the Tom Clancy of his day and his 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was a runaway bestseller made into a highly anticipated 1965 movie starring Richard Burton as a downtrodden British spy seemingly recruited by the East Germans as a potential defector. In fact, he’s there to spread disinformation on behalf on Western interests. Plot twists abound and it becomes apparent that Burton’s mission was different than the one he thought he was carrying out. Spies live lonely lives and are destined to suffer a bad end. (available to buy or rent from iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu and Google Play.)

2. No Way Out (1987)

Kevin Costner plays Navy Lieutenant Commander Tom Farrell, accused of being a Soviet spy after he starts working at the Pentagon as an aide for the Secretary of Defense David Brice (Gene Hackman). As Farrell races to find a way to prove his innocence, he uncovers a murder conspiracy and coverup led by Brice’s general counsel Scott Pritchard (a fantastic performance by Will Patton). The Soviets make a surprise appearance in the film and the ending is truly shocking the first time you see it. One of the great Hollywood movies of the ’80s, No Way Out is loosely based on a 1948 novel called The Big Clock, previously made into a rather good film noir starring Ray Milland. (available to buy or rent from iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu and Google Play and currently streaming on HBO Go.)

3. The Ipcress File (1965)

Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer character was conceived as the antidote to James Bond: a gritty, working-class, rough-around-the-edges British spy who does the scut work protecting Western democracy from the communist threat. Based on a novel by Len Deighton, the movie has a convoluted plot about an audio tape that’s brainwashing top scientists. There’s conflict between British intelligence and the CIA and the eventual exposure of moles in the service. Palmer survives and wins the day but there’s no beautiful woman or glamorous locales waiting at the end of his mission. In the ’60s, Caine starred in two more Harry Palmer movies based on Deighton novels (Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain, both worth watching if you enjoy the first one). There are two more from the ’90s (Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg) that lose all the ’60s atmosphere and feel more like TV movies, but serious Harry Palmer fans will enjoy them anyway. (The movie is out of print on DVD and not available to rent or buy digitally.)

4. The Good Shepherd (2006)

Robert DeNiro directed this sprawling epic about the origins of the CIA that climaxes with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, a character loosely based on James Jesus Angleton, legendary head of CIA counterintelligence. Alec Baldwin is the FBI agent who recruits a young Wilson to fight the Nazis in 1939, DeNiro plays a character based on OSS head William Donovan, William Hurt plays a thinly veiled Allen Dulles and Angelina Jolie as Wilson’s wife. The movie presents a highly fictionalized account based on historical events and sometimes feels like the Goodfellas version of a spy movie. That’s a recommendation. (available to buy or rent from iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu and Google Play.)

5. Torn Curtain (1966)

Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t get Cary Grant (who was retiring from acting) and Eva Marie-Saint to reprise their North By Northwest chemistry for this spy thriller and had to make do with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, who happened to be the two biggest movie stars on the planet. Newman plays an American physicist who pretends to defect to East Germany to steal a formula for the United States. Andrews plays a fellow scientist who’s also Newman’s fianceé. Newman doesn’t tell Andrews about his mission and she follows him to East Germany, creating complications for the mission. Hitchcock was beginning to lose his touch in the mid-’60s and this is arguably his last good movie. It definitely holds up better than Topaz, his other Cold War thriller from 1969. The action is up to standard, although the director’s bad habit of filming all driving scenes on a set with rear projection is starting to look dated by this point.  (available to buy or rent from iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu and Google Play.)

6. The Double Man (1967)

Yul Brynner plays Dan Slater, a CIA agent who travels to the Austrian Alps to investigate his son’s death and stumbles into a Soviet plot to replace him with a lookalike agent called Calmar. Future Bond girl Britt Ekland is still struggling with her English but it’s not too noticeable in scenes opposite Brynner’s own outrageous accent. Director Franklin Schaffner followed this one with the amazing one-two punch of Planet of the Apes and Patton and he delivers on the action here as Yul attempts to pull of a Paul Newman/Steve McQueen tough guy.  (available to buy or rent from iTunes and Amazon Video.)

7. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy (2011)

No one really thought we needed a movie version of John LeCarré’s classic spy novel after the seven-part 1979 BBC TV series starring Alec Guinness at the height of his Obi-Wan Kenobi fame. It’s one of the best series ever, criminally unavailable for streaming but worth buying on DVD. Somehow, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson condensed the intricate tale of moles in British intelligence and Gary Oldman gave a performance as aging agent George Smiley that somehow equaled Guinness’ original portrayal. This might be the last great Cold War thriller. (Currently streaming on Netflix and available to buy or rent from iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu and Google Play.)

8. Telefon (1977)

The great Don Siegel (Dirty Harry and Hell is for Heroes) directs Charles Bronson as a Soviet major sent to the U.S. to stop forgotten sleeper agents who are being activated by a rogue KGB clerk and committing acts of terror. Bronson must stop the attacks before the American public figures out what’s going on. There’s a double agent played by Lee Remick and intrigue between the KGB and CIA at mission’s end.  (available to buy or rent from iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu and Google Play.)

9. The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)

Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn play boyhood friends who spy for the Soviet Union in the 1970s in a movie based on actual events. Hutton plays Christopher Boyce (the “Falcon”), a civilian defense contractor who gets frustrated by the secret dealings of his own government and decides to repay the betrayal by selling secrets to the USSR. He enlists his drug dealer buddy Andrew Daulton Lee (the “Snowman” played by Penn with a wicked pencil moustache) who’s just out to make a few bucks off the deal. Lee’s drug habits and dealing prove to be their undoing. Boyce and Lee have both served out their sentences and there was probably an excellent sequel to be made about Boyce’s 1980 escape from prison and subsequent bank robbery spree. (available to buy or rent from iTunes or to rent from Vudu.)

10. The Kremlin Letter (1970)

The great John Huston (who narrates his own trailer in the above video) brings his noir directing sensibility (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre) to an intricately plotted tale of a Naval intelligence officer (Patrick O’Neal) whose commission is revoked so he can be recruited into a secret mission to retrieve an unauthorized letter (written by “some damn fool in Washington”) which proposes that the USA and Soviet Union join forces to bomb Chinese nuclear sites. In 1973, Huston also directed Paul Newman as a British agent in The MacKintosh Man, a crime thriller posing as a spy movie. The two make an excellent double feature. (available to buy or rent from iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu and Google Play.)

  • Gray Fox

    Thanks for the spoiler in the Tom Hanks movie.

    • TomV

      I suppose revealing the movie adheres to the commonly known history of the Rudolf Abel trial and subsequent exchange for Powers could be considered a “spoiler” in the same sense that revealing a WW2 movie ends with an Allied victory could be considered a spoiler.

  • bart ninja

    ramping up the cold war propoganda I see… but… but… Elton John sang that song Nikita?

  • Juanito

    THE BEDFORD INCIDENT (Richard Widmark, Sidney Potier) is deserving of mention. Good cast, good acting, & realistic (“If they fire one, we’ll fire one……….FIRE ONE.”

    • Leon Suchorski

      Not just good, but excellent. the moment when MacArthur, in his nervous state, hears the words to fire the missle, and he does, was out of this world.

  • Rob

    2 good movies Gotcha, and Target, and a 3rd and the best one ‘Spies like us’ .

    • Leon Suchorski

      Spies Like Us, was a comedy, but GOTCHA was great, showing how an innocent American can get caught up in the spy game. But the way that he got even with the snooty blond, at the end, was perfect.

  • Jim

    The Chairman with Gregory Peck was great too.

  • “Speed” Dillon

    If a movie was made of “Blind Man’s Bluff” it would be an EDGE OF YOUR SEAT type of movie! There were some very intense moments and some very funny moments. This would be a flick like “The Bedford Incident”, which was banned from all military bases when it came out in the early 60’s.

  • Jeff

    “Where Eagles Dare” was a great movie, but it took place during World War II…Ironically, Clint Eastwood did star in a great cold war move; “Firefox”…

  • Alex

    Who picked these movies? The Good Shepard? Funny how Matt Damon makes movies about subjects he is politically opposed to.

  • Leon Suchorski

    A nd then there was the movie, THE FORMULA. It was about the fact that the Germans came up with a working formula to make oil from coal. The movie starred George C. Scott, and Marlon Brando. The best line of the movie was when Scott said to Brando, “You’re not in the oil business, you’re in the oil shortage business. Or some people will go for THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, starring Robert Redford and Max Von Sydow. About how there was a CIA, within the CIA, working to control the politics of countries.

  • David

    No mention for Ishtar? Just kiddin’.

  • robwhite2003

    Fail safe is another very good movie, Henry Fonda, Walter Mathau.