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Thanks to the rampant popularity of the James Bond franchise and Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest,’ the 1960s was the heyday of the spy film. Full of intrigue, beautiful women, fancy gadgets and commentary on the tense Cold War politics of the era, these movies gave audiences both escapism and food for thought on the issues of the day.
With that in mind, let’s look at some non-Bond 1960’s good spy movies that also made a mark upon the genre, from the deadly serious to the campy and quirky.
Alfred Hitchcock found his stellar box office and critical hit track record slipping by the mid-60’s, and ‘Torn Curtain’ was derided as such. Accused by critics of being too slow and lacking modernity, they missed the point. ‘Torn Curtain’ is an excellent potboiler thriller, starring Paul Newman as a scientist acting as a double agent, charged with smuggling Soviet secrets in Germany.
This puts him and his fiancee (played by Julie Andrews) in a precarious position after his cover is blown, and they make a hasty retreat back to the U.S.
Featuring crackling dialogue, an unsettling murder scene and gorgeous scenery, ‘Torn Curtain’ is one of The Master of Suspense’s most underrated films.
While Sean Connery’s James Bond wins the award for most iconic 60s movie spy, Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer is a close second. Palmer is an unorthodox spy unafraid to mix it up with criminals and rogue agents while irritating his superiors.
But it’s his loose cannon approach that helps the cause, namely capturing a suspect named “Bluejay” leading to the revelation of a file called Ipcress, which has dangerous and wide-ranging ramifications.
‘The Ipcress File’ is notable for launching the career of Michael Caine, who would reprise the role of Palmer (based off of the book series by Len Deighton) in four sequels.
Based on the book of the same name (by famed novelist (and former real life spy) John le Carre), this film stars Richard Burton as Alec Leamas, a British spy out to execute one last job before retirement.
This task proves the most harrowing of his career, landing him in a East German jail, as he scrambles to maintain his secret identity, while uncovering one of the most diabolical and intricate plots in espionage history.
‘Spy’ is one of the most classic and stately films in the spy genre, winning multiple awards and nominations the year of its release. It is often the film that other 1960s spy movies are measured against.
Iconic Italian horror director Mario Bava changed genres with ‘Danger: Diabolik,’ creating a vibrant film based on the classic Italian comic character Diabolik. Actor John Phillip Law (‘Barbarella’) played the title character, a daring thief who plans large scale heists to enrich himself and pamper his statuesque girlfriend.
Living in an elaborate underground lair and sleeping on a bed full of cash, he’s an opulent, devious criminal unafraid of racking up a body count as long as he gets paid. He’s still the “hero” of the piece, however, taking on corrupt government officials and mafiosos.
One could say ‘Diabolik’ doesn’t totally qualify as a “spy film,” given its character’s propensity for thievery over espionage. But with his anti-hero demeanor, fancy 007-esque gadgets, sleek vehicles and pop-art sensibility, it holds strong stylistic traits with the genre. While a financial and critical bomb upon its release, it’s now appreciated as a visual feast of 1960’s style.
Our second Hitchcock entry on this list is yet another underrated Cold War entry from the storied director’s filmography.
In this film, a Russian official defects to the U.S. bringing the knowledge that his country is working with Cuba on a nuclear missile program. It’s up to CIA agent Michael Nordstrom (John Forsythe) with aid of French agent André Devereaux (Frédérick Stafford) to investigate their findings.
Once these dire claims prove true, the duo also discover ‘Topaz’: a French spy organization collaborating with the Russians to uncover top secret plans from NATO.
Based on the novel of the same name by Leon Uris, ‘Topaz’ features Hitchcock’s fondness for a globe-hopping plot, with the film taking place in Copenhagen, Wiesbaden, West Germany, Paris, New York City, and Washington, D.C. While the movie was tepidly received upon its release, the main complaint was the lack of an all-star cast. But the true star of any Hitchcock film is the director himself, making ‘Topaz’ far more entertaining than its reputation would suggest.
Even as the 60s came to a close, the Cold War continued, and showed no sign of slowing down. This was reflected in spy films as well. The James Bond series continued with great success, and its popularity encouraged studios to pump out other espionage tales in hope of box office success.
Likewise, the ensuing Watergate Scandal and fallout from the Vietnam war created a sense of paranoia that produced other cinematic epics featuring devious, undercover acts which would expand and further popularize the genre.
So stay tuned when I’ll tackle the best spy films from 1970-1975.
Now it’s your turn: what spy films from 1965-1970 do you think best represent the genre? Tell us in the comments!
Honorable Mentions: ‘The Satan Bug’ (1965), ‘Operation Kid Brother’ (1967), ‘Casino Royale’ (1967), ‘What’s New, Tiger Lily’ (1966)
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