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20 Classic Spy Thrillers From the 1960s


The 1960s proved to be a golden age for spy thrillers. The movies from the era captured the tension surrounding the Cold War and political disagreement with a cloak-and-dagger intrigue. Soon, the idea became a popularized imagination. While the James Bond films dominated the decade and seized all of public’s attention, they were certainly not alone in crafting jet-setting adventures and entertaining espionage.


In the 1960s, to be a moviegoer was to feel like a player in the great game. Everyone could enjoy a thrilling ride to exotic locations, even if they’re not aboard an Aston Martin. The genre expanded beyond any single franchise, pacing forward with colorful characters, clever twists, and a sincere novelty.

Related: The 12 Highest Grossing Spy Thrillers of All Time, Ranked

Each director and writer brought their own style to create the perfect spy thriller. Some used realism, while others embraced fantasy. But together, they fashioned a movie that sat audiences on the edge of their seats, wondering which ally might be a spy and which ally might pull a gun. The stakes were always high, and nothing was as it seemed. There were no rules and no allegiances but your own.

Over and over again, the audiences witnessed the sheer thrill of the con, the glamor of the chase, and the dangers that came with knowledge and power. In the ‘60s, spies and their never-ending pursuit of secrets and saving the world shaped a genre that still captivates today. While the following eras have since tried to reclaim the cool, a ’60s spy thriller remains forever untouchable.

20 Topaz (1969)

Universal Pictures 

Topaz was proof that Alfred Hitchcock was the master of suspense until decades after he began filmmaking. The slow, creeping thriller centers around a French Intelligence Agent who joins teams with CIA agent Michael Nordstrom to assert a statement made by a Russian informant. As he enters the web of Cold War politics, he not only learns the first-hand details of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis but also flies back home to infiltrate a Russian spy gang. Featuring an all-star cast including Frederick Stafford, Michel Subor, Michel Piccoli, and Dany Robin, Topaz shows just how deep loyalties do. As secrets are whispered, and deals are made over bourbon and cigars, you are left unsure of what is real and what isn’t.

19 Dr. No (1962)

Sean Connery as James Bond in a scene from Dr. No
United Artists

Dr. No was the first James Bond film, introducing Sean Connery as the suavely dangerous secret agent 007. The movie was adapted from Ian Fleming’s sixth novel, and it established the very template for the franchise with its refreshing locations, strange villains, attractive women, and extreme thrills.

Set in Jamaica, the story pits Bond against a scientist named Dr. No, harvesting his evil intentions of ruining the America space program. As he prepares to stop the scientist, 007 also encounters Honey Ryder. More realistic and determined than its flashy successors, Dr. No crafted a nuanced story that defined the entire series’ tone and attitude. Directed by Terence Young, Connery’s inaugural 007 outing remains compelling for its emotional depth, moral complexity, and stripped-down style.

18 Arabesque (1966)

Arabesque 1966
Universal Pictures 

Arabesque was a lean and mean suspense machine from director Stanley Donen. Gregory Peck plays David Pollock, a university professor teaching ancient hieroglyphics at Oxford, who is caught in a sinister web of spies, seductions, and plot twists that spiral dangerously out of control when he is recruited to uncover a dark truth about a well-known Middle Eastern politician. Peck matches his wits against a powerhouse performance from Sophia Loren, playing a manipulating woman with motives as muddied as her past. Sophisticated, dark, and compulsively watchable, Arabesque crafts mind games within mind games that pull you in.

17 Funeral in Berlin (1966)

Funeral in Berlin
Paramount Pictures 

Based on the 1964 story of the same name by Len Deighton, Funeral in Berlin demonstrates that even low-budget book adaptations can achieve a level of suave, fast-paced storytelling to rival any big-budget blockbuster. The movie is one among three starring Michael Caine as the character Harry Palmer. This one follows the British agent assigned to transfer a Russian spy who is shifting ground across the Berlin Wall – in a coffin. But as Harry meets him, he realizes the man has more to him than he lets on. The movie creates a haunting atmosphere around those involved in history. But Michael Caine leads an outstanding cast, including Paul Hubschmid, Oskar Homolka, and Eva Renzi, through political intrigue, peril, and moral ambiguity.

16 Where Eagles Dare (1969)

Where Eagles Dare
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Directed by Brian G. Hutton, Where Eagles Dare turned out to be a spectacular spy film involving action and suspense. This war thriller follows a covert mission to infiltrate a Nazi fortress in the Bavarian Alps and rescue imprisoned American generals and soldiers. Clint Eastwood plays Lt. Schaffer, an American commando leader partnering with Richard Burton’s hard-boiled Maj. John Smith and a squadron of operatives to navigate the treacherous terrain disguised as Nazis. But things get out of hand when they realize they have a mole among them. The movie uses an icy precision and wordless intensity to show the battle of power and differing views or honor, courage, and sacrifice. Eastwood and Burton forge a rather compelling bond as they strategize and launch a daring raid.

15 Thunderball (1965)

Thunderball- _I Think He Got The Point_
Distributed by United Artists

Thunderball saw Sean Connery at his most charismatic as James Bond. In the movie, secret services assign him with a mission to recover stolen nuclear weapons before they endanger the world. With SPECTRE as the villain and the Bahamas as the setting, it is not surprising that the movie is considered as one of the most spectacular and stylish entries in the series.

Thunderball has remained memorable for scuba diving stunts, aerial dogfighting, exotic locations, thrilling set pieces, and over-the-top spectacle. Under director Terence Young’s flashy direction, it is a vision of sophistication in the face of danger, and global espionage as fantasy. For many, this quintessential ’60s James Bond film is the blueprint for blockbuster action and franchise fun.

14 Charade (1963)

Audrey Hepburn in Charade
Universal Pictures

Charade was as stylish as it was compelling. Created by Stanley Donen for the very purpose of immersing the audience in the genre, the movie follows Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) a charming and mysterious stranger in distress seeking the help of the dashing but distrustful Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) after she returns from a skiing holiday in the French Alps. Their time in the glamorous mountain range had drawn her towards Peter, but upon return, when she discovers that her husband is murdered by his World War II cronies, the two navigate mysteries, danger, and undeniable, steamy attraction. Along the way, they also uncover secrets that turn out to be fatally close to home. But can Regina really trust Peter?

Related: Most Realistic Spy Movies of All Time

13 Torn Curtain (1966)

Torn Curtain
Universal Pictures 

Starring Paul Newman and Julia Andrews at their best, Torn Curtain was another fantastic entry into the Hitchcock filmography. In this movie, we follow an American physicist who, as part of a secret mission, pretends to defect to East Germany. He works with secret agents to gain insider knowledge in order to obtain a resin formula. But when his wife learns about it, the knowledge puts the two of them in danger. Paul Newman plays the scientist and he is excellent as he navigates a maze of mirrors, shifting loyalties, and false identities. On the surface, Torn Curtain is a political espionage thriller, but it soon emerges as a psychological study of trust, betrayal and the fine lines between sacrifice and honor.

12 Murderer’s Row (1966)

Murderers' Row
Columbia Pictures 

An intriguing spy thriller that infuses lighthearted comedic elements into the mix, Murderer’s Row is an excellent second entry in four films starring Matt Helms. The story follows Julian Wall (Karl Malden), who seeks to rule the world. In order to do so, he teams up with fellow cohorts in the Brotherhood of International Government and Order, and kidnaps Dr. Solaris. Dr. Solaris has invented a Helium laser beam that can blow up an entire race. Now it is up to Dean Martin’s Matt Helms to not only rescue Solaris, but to save the world. He fakes his own death, poses as a gangster, and even woos Solaris’ daughter, Suzie (Ann-Margret) to do what he must. Filled with intrigue, chase, and action, Murderer’s Row is as sloppy as it is entertaining. A refreshment from all the thrillers on the list.

11 Our Man Flint (1966)

Our Man Flint
20th Century Fox

Clearly over-the-top but equally fun, Our Man Flint was an action comedy knockoff of the classic James Bond series. The movie exhibits zero subtlety or irony but enough wit and flair to entertain. James Coburn plays a former secret agent recruited back into service to stop a global crime organization from controlling the weather and Earth’s tectonic activity. Coburn’s Derek Flint is not willing to return until his spy agency commander, Cramden, is severely hurt by assassins. Now sworn to avenge his friend, he takes the job, and suffice it to say, does it well. Featuring a glittering cast including Lee J. Cobb, Gila Golan, and Gianna Serra, Our Man Flint delivers wild stunts, eccentric villains, swooning women and dangerous sequences in spades.

10 You Only Live Twice (1967)

A scene from You Only Live Twice
United Artists

The fictional MI6 agent returns in You Only Live Twice to stop a warlike scenario once again brought together by SPECTRE. Bond journeys to Japan to investigate a case regarding a stolen Russian and American satellite, which could potentially lead to a nuclear strike by either superpower. Faking his own death, Sean Connery’s character enters a geisha house and teams with Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) and the beautiful Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) to stop the plot. A

nother visually stunning outing directed by Lewis Teague, this entry embraces the idea of campy villains with zero subtlety. While still very entertaining, You Only Live Twice falls short in its underlying sincerity and depth brought by the movies that came before it. The cult classic chooses style over substance, and has since come to be known as a “cheesy ’60s spy fun.”

9 The Ipcress File (1965)

The Ipcress File
Lowndes Production

Another one based on Len Deighton’s thriller novels, The Ipcress File is a grim and enchanting British espionage that brings cynicism and psychological complexity to the spy genre. In London, renowned scientists, including Dr Radcliffe, have been kidnapped and brainwashed. Fighting against their own conditioning, they are waiting to be rescued. The task is trusted upon the wisecracking spy Harry Palmer (Michael Caine). He is not only navigating the lies fabricated by his superiors but also trying to bring a suspect named Bluejay into custody, when he finds evidence in the form of tapes titled ‘IPCRESS’. The movie has a dramatic pace, and Caine fights oppression and morals with quiet brilliance opposite a menacing Guy Doleman as his authoritarian keeper. Overall, The Ipcress File is a clever fusion of drama, noir, and science fiction.

8 In Like Flint (1967)

In Like Flint
20th Century Fox

In Like Flint was an obvious and unnecessary follow-up to Our Man Flint, milking the premise for even more over-the-top action and jokes that never garnered any genuine laughs. James Coburn again plays Derek Flint, this time on a mission to unravel an international conspiracy concerning a space-station mission. He travels across the globe in search of answers and takes up many guises. Directed by Gordon Douglas, the movie clearly lacks the wit or self-awareness of its predecessor. Instead, it attacks you with stunts, grand set pieces, and corny one-liners until you are exhausted.

And yet, fans find it absurdly entertaining. Turns out that the only thing “in like” about this film is its desperation to be liked.

Related: Best Women Spy Movies of All Time, Ranked

7 Harper (1966)

Harper
Warner Bros. 

Jack Smight adapts Ross Macdonald’s 1949 novel titled The Moving Target to create this gripping neo-noir private detective thriller. Harper follows Paul Newman, who plays Lew Harper, a classy shamus with a haunting past investigating an existential mystery involving a missing husband of a rich Californian matron. As he immerses himself into the lies that bind people together, he realizes that there is a bigger story at play – one involving an illegal-alien smuggling ring.

Set against the glossy backdrop of LA high society, the fim is a character study of a man destroyed by a job that made him see the worst of human nature. Newman delivers a powerful and nuanced performance in this overlooked gem of a 1960s thriller.

6 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

Diana Rigg as Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service
United Artists

Sean Connery had already set a mark on the decade with his definitive performances as James Bond. But with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the Eon Production series saw a star-spangled conclusion to Lazenby’s lone outing as the notorious spy. This movie centers around Lazenby’s character trying to take down the antagonist Ernst Blofeld who is creating an army out of women. Along the way, he is also enchanted by the Tracy Draco.

While the other Bond movies stay sharp with their wit, heart, and courage in the face of danger, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service follows the same approach but takes the adventure and romance up by a notch. Director Peter R. Hunt wisely embraces the fantastical story and when all is said and done, we get a highly entertaining secret agent story.

5 Last Man to Kill (1966)

Last Man to Kill
Romana Film

Last Man to Kill is an Italian-French crime-spy thriller that remains underappreciated. The low-key espionage prioritizes fists over froth. Starring Roger Browne as Michael King, the movie begins with a rich banker who hires a private eye to find his son – a brilliant scientist – and the secret formula he’s had with him. Director Umberto Lenzi brings some of the most engaging scenes into the picture, with enough twists to keep you at the edge of your seat. The characters have sufficiently captivating chemistry. From high-stakes danger to changing morals, the movie captures every aspect of the human conscience. Last Man to Kill has an impact that many not echo for long, but in the moment, it definitely works.

4 Ice Station Zebra (1968)

Ice Station Zebra
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Ice Station Zebra was an underrated Cold War thriller from director John Sturges. The movie is known particularly for bringing together Rock Hudson, Earnest Borgnine, Partick McGoohan, and Jim Brown. The story revolves around a submarine sent on a perilous Arctic mission to investigate a Soviet satellite for important data regarding the US bases. The plan goes awry when the sub is vandalized midway, leaving a Russian expat, a British spy, and an American mariner to fend for themselves. Sturges crafts a delicate suspense not just from the threat of being discovered but also from disagreements brewing among the diverse crew in a state of isolation. Ice Station Zebra pushes the three men to their limits, never allowing them to panic, summating it into a thoughtful political thriller.

3 The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965)

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
Paramount Pictures

Richard Burton stars in what is considered to be his finest performance with The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. Directed by Martin Ritt, the chilling espionage drama follows Burton as Alec Leamas, an aging British spy sent on a covert mission to gain intelligence about fellow colleagues captured in East Germany. He poses as an alcoholic MI5 agent, and while entrapped, he discovers a thick web of lies and ambiguities that tie a larger scheme together.

The movie features powerful performances from the entire cast, with subtle and fresh complexities and a pervasive mood of betrayal and lost innocence. It also displays some exotic locations and escapist thrills for those who truly enjoy an immersive and undivided viewing experience.Related: The Best Villains from Spy Movies, Ranked

2 From Russia With Love (1963)

James Bond in From Russia with Love (1963)
MGM

The second installment in Connery’s James Bond series, From Russia With Love, brings a cunning and dangerous story and also introduces the secret crime organization SPECTRE. This time, Bond aids two Russians, Rosa Klebb and Kronsteen, to acquire Lektor, which is a decoding device. We also get to see Bond develop a romantic interest in Tatiana, who convinces him to travel to Istanbul and beyond.

Filled with dangerous scheming and a charming cast, the movie serves as a lavish entry. It is memorable for bringing Red Grant, the idea of a “Bond Girl,” shadowy conspiracies, and proposals of marriage into the franchise. From Russia With Love emerges as the series’ most intellectually engaging entry, placing Bond against not just villains but cunning counter-intelligence operatives, each playing their own deep game.

1 Goldfinger (1964)

James Bond Goldfinger (1964)
Eon Productions

While all the movies in the franchise were incredible in their own way, it was Goldfinger that cemented Sean Connery as 007 and the series as a global phenomenon. Not only that, it also placed the series on the top of spy thrillers with its now legendary golden girl, the iconic henchman Oddjob, and a ludicrous evil plot worthy of a Bond film.

The movie follows Bond trying to uncover the truth about Auric Goldfinger, a businessman secretly running a gold-smuggling ring. But soon, he is faced with the realization that there is a bigger scheme underneath. Goldfinger is considered the quintessential James Bond film because it delivers the trills, the spectacle and the signature campy style in abundance. From Connery’s suave and dangerous Bond to Shirley Eaton’s iconic gold painted death, Goldfinger represents the pinnacle of 1960s spy styling and satire.



This story originally appeared on Movieweb

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