Spy films are thrillers and action films that deal with international espionage. Common story elements centre around the efforts to obtain information, plans, key devices (what Alfred Hitchcock calls a McGuffin) from enemy territory; to prevent enemy plots to attack domestic territory; and assorted manoeuvrings around. The genre of the spy thriller has assembled a long list of tropes regarding subterfuge, aliases and disguises, code breaking, gadgets, double agents and the like.
The spy genre was created in print around the turn of the 20th Century by authors such as Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad. This soon inspired a regular output of print thrillers. These began to filter into thriller cinema in the 1920s. Spy films gained popularity during the 1940s, although the works produced during this period were mundane works of espionage and intrigue that did not feature any fantastic content.
The spy film as we know it did not emerge on screen until the 1960s. It remains a strong genre today, both in fiction and on screens. The variant that is discussed here that features assorted science-fictional elements has been nicknamed ‘spy-fi’.
The James Bond Film
The type of spy films discussed here was the genre that was created by the James Bond series. This was based on a series of twelve books and two story collections written by Ian Fleming between 1953 and his death in 1964. Fleming based much of what he wrote about on his own experiences working for British Naval Intelligence during World War II and mixed that with his own tastes for fast cars, fine dining, gambling and of course beautiful women.
The James Bond film series began with Dr No (1962) starring Sean Connery, although what we recognise as the formula of the series was set in place with the third film Goldfinger (1964). While cinematic heroes of the previous decades had been detectives, private eyes or cowboys, the image of the spy changed the hero on screen. The spy hero became a suave playboy who was also a dashingly ruthless killer and traded atrocious puns with super-villains and their world-domination schemes.
The Bond films brought with them an array of colourful tropes – the parade of girls with suggestive names (Pussy Galore, Honeychile Rider, Chu Me, Holly Goodhead, Xenia Onatupp etc) that would fall into the arms of the hero; the improbable gadgets the hero is outfitted with; the super-weapons (which over time became increasingly more science-fictional); the villains with extravagant schemes to take over the world and their monosyllabic, near-invulnerable henchmen; the organisations with contrived acronyms. Though very much born of the Cold War milieu, real world politics seldom featured in the Bond films and they instead created a fantasy of international intrigue.
The Bond films created an iconic franchise that continues to this day where the role has passed through several different actors. Entries of the 1970s became increasingly more absurd and over-the-top, although subsequent entries from the 1990s onwards, which tried to deconstruct the Bond film for the modern post-Soviet world, have sought to scale things back towards a greater realism.
The James Bond films consist of:- Dr No (1962), From Russia with Love (non-genre, 1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), Live and Let Die (1973), The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Moonraker (1979), For Your Eyes Only (non-genre, 1981), Octopussy (1983), A View to a Kill (1985), The Living Daylights (non-genre, 1987), License to Kill (non-genre, 1989), GoldenEye (1995), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), The World is Not Enough (1999), Die Another Day (2002), Casino Royale (non-genre, 2006), Quantum of Solace (non-genre, 2008), Skyfall (non-genre, 2012), Spectre (2015) and No Time to Die (2021). Casino Royale (1967) and Never Say Never Again (1983) are non-series Bond films.
The Bond Imitators
The success of the Bond films spawned a great many imitators throughout the 1960s. These included the more realistically grounded Harry Palmer series adapted from the books of Len Deighton and starring Michael Caine, which consist of The Ipcress File (1965), Funeral in Berlin (1966) and the science-fictional Billion Dollar Brain (1967).
Far more common were those that turned the spy film into a parody or an absurd fantasy. The first of these was James Coburn as Derek Flint in the tongue-in-cheek Our Man Flint (1966) and its sequel In Like Flint (1967). There was also the Matt Helm series, which consisted of The Silencers (1966), Murderers Row (1966), The Ambushers (1967) and The Wrecking Crew (1969), starring Dean Martin as a spy who seemed to spend most of the series with a drink in his hand and taking none of the show seriously with excruciating results.
Many of the imitators inflated the relative realism of the Bond films into cartoonishly absurd adventures that became even more silly as the fad went on – the Matt Helm and Our Man Flint films surround their heroes with so many girls as to enter the realm of complete fantasy, while the psychedelic sets and surroundings become eye-poppingly surreal.
In many cases, the films become outright parodies like Carry On Screaming (1964), Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) and its even sillier sequel Dr Goldfoot and the Girls Bombs (1966), The Last of the Secret Agents (1966), tv’s Get Smart (1965-70), Our Man Flint, Casino Royale (1967) and the wittily satiric The President’s Analyst (1967), as well as the animated adventures of Secret Squirrel in The Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show (1965-7).
Other imitators include the Bulldog Drummond films Deadlier Than the Male (1967) and Some Girls Do (1969), which reconstructed the British adventurer hero as a dashing spy (Richard Johnson). There were a large number of Bond copies produced in Italy, including the Agent 077 and James Tont films, even OK Connery/Operation Kid Brother (1967) that cast Sean Connery’s younger brother Neil, while France produced the OSS 117 films.
There were also other individual efforts that can be included here such as Agent for H.A.R.M. (1966), Attack of the Robots (1966), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1966), Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die (1966), Lightning Bolt (1966), Modesty Blaise (1966), Secret Agent Fireball (1966), A Man Called Dagger (1967), Matchless (1967), The Destructors (1968), The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967) and Madame Sin (1972).
On tv screens we had Danger Man (1960-8), The Avengers (1962-9), The Saint (1962-9), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-7), Mission: Impossible (1966-73), I Spy (1965-8) and Department S (1969-70). We even had spy capers located into a Western setting in The Wild Wild West (1965-9) and Barbary Coast (1975-6), while Virgin of the Secret Service (1968) was set in various parts of the British Empire during the 1900s. Gerry Anderson twice ventured into the spy genre with the puppet series Joe 90 (1968-9) in which a young boy has various adult skills mentally transferred into his brain to go into action each week and the part-puppet, part-live action series The Secret Service (1969) about a vicar who goes into action as a miniaturised spy.
The best of tv entries were The Avengers (in its fourth and fifth seasons) with Patrick MacNee and Diana Rigg going up against increasingly absurd menaces with perfect British manners. The other was the droll wit of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which also produced a number of re-edited theatrical releases with To Trap a Spy (non-genre, 1965), One of Our Spies is Missing (1966), One Spy Too Many (1966), The Spy With My Face (1966), The Spy in the Green Hat (1967), The Helicopter Spies (1967), The Karate Killers (1967) and How to Steal the World (1968).
One of the strangest tv works to emerge from this era was the cult tv series The Prisoner (1968) with Patrick McGoohan as an agent who quits the service only to be abducted and taken to a mysterious village where he cannot leave and is forced to undergo brainwashing schemes and elaborate reality charades in an attempt to find why he quit.
In the late 1960s and going into the 1970s, there were a number of spy film and tv series that moved the genre back towards realism and set it amidst real-world politics. These include the first two Harry Palmer films, The Quiller Memorandum (1967), John Le Carre adaptations like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (tv mini-series, 1979), The Little Drummer Girl (1984) and A Perfect Spy (tv mini-series, 1987), and on tv screens Callan (1967-72), The Professionals (1977-83), The Sandbaggers (1978-80) and the Len Deighton adapted Game, Set and Match (tv mini-series, 1988).
One interesting entry that managed both realism and science-fiction elements was The Chairman (1969) in which Gregory Peck is sent undercover into Communist China with a radio transceiver implanted in his head. The most significant genre effort of the 1970s would be the hit tv series The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-8) with Lee Majors as astronaut Steve Austin who is rebuilt with cyborg body parts following an accident and then employed by a government agency on special missions.
Into the 1970s and onwards, there were sporadic attempts to revive the traditional tongue-in-cheek playboy spy as in the tv series’ A Man Called Sloane (1979) and Secret Agent Man (2000) and the tv pilots Billion Dollar Threat (1979) and Nick Fury, Agent of Shield (1998) and the films No 1 of the Secret Service (1977), Licensed to Love and Kill/The Man from S.E.X. (1979) and Angel of H.E.A.T. (1983). Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985) was a worthwhile attempt to create a Bond-like series based on the popular Destroyer novels featuring a hero trained in Korean martial arts that effectively granted super-powers, although this failed to meet much success.
The Post-Cold War Spy Film
The spy genre was dealt a considerable deathblow by the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War in the 1990s. In the aftermath, the spy film has been left searching for new enemies, alighting on the likes of post-Soviet Russia, Central American drug cartels and Islamic terrorism. Many works still harken back to the days of the Cold War – the James Bond film GoldenEye (1995) is set in a post-Soviet Russia, while The Hunt for Red October (1990) and the tv mini-series The Game (2014) predate their action to the 1980s. There was even the tv series Spy Game (1997) about unemployed spies trying to adjust to a post-Cold War world.
In the aftermath, beginning with GoldenEye, the Bond series stripped away the tongue-in-cheek elements and sought a greater realism, including modernising Bond with anti-smoking messages and appointing a female M. The era also produced the animated James Bond Jr. (1991-2) featuring James Bond’s teen nephew.
The end of the Cold War has not stopped a number of successful spy franchises from emerging. A great deal of success was had by author Tom Clancy and his Jack Ryan books beginning with The Hunt for Red October (1984) and the films based on these. The Clancy works that concern us here are The Hunt for Red October (1990), which concerned a hi-tech radar invisible Soviet submarine that goes AWOL, and The Sum of All Fears (2002) about the appropriation of and then detonation of a nuclear warhead on US soil.
In the 2000s, the tv series’ 24 (2001-10), Spooks (2002-11), Homeland (2011-20), The Bureau (2014- ), Berlin Station (2016-9), Deep State (2018- ), Killing Eve (2018- ) and the Jason Bourne films with Matt Damon are spy works that opt for a greater degree of realism and nothing in the way of (or next-to-negligible) science-fictional content. There is a great deal of ongoing success had by the Mission: Impossible films with Tom Cruise, which contain frequent science-fictional elements, including the use of lifelike facemasks and in particular the profusion of gadgetry on display in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011).
In genre material there was Hanna (2011) with a teenage Saorise Ronan as a genetically engineered assassin, which was later spun out as a tv series Hanna (2019- ). A strong and intelligent tv series that readily incorporated fantastic content was the J.J Abrams produced Alias (2001-5) featuring Jennifer Garner as a double-agent. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-20) was set around a secretive government agency inside the Marvel Cinematic Universe dealing with espionage threats and the like amid a super-powered world, while the spinoff Agent Carter (2015-6) set spy action during World War II.
A unique variant was Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020), which uplifts the tropes of the spy film – a CIA agent hero, the hunt for an advanced weapon, the super-villain, the international locales, action sequences with luxury vehicles – in a challenging time travel plot.
In the realms of the absurd is surely xXx (2002) and sequels with Vin Diesel as an extreme sports junkie who is recruited as a spy.
The Spy Film Parody
One can argue to what extent various of the 1960s Bond copies are parodies or simply just imitators. Nevertheless, following the success of the Austin Powers films, there has grown a distinct sub-genre based on parodying the cliches and tropes of the spy film.
The spy parody did not begin with Austin Powers. TV’s Get Smart would almost certainly count as the progenitor of the genre. There were a number of earlier film efforts that predate Austin Powers. The funniest of these was Stephen Chow’s From Beijing with Love (1994). There had been a number of other spoof films with the likes of Spies Like Us (1985), Leonard Part 6 (1987), If Looks Could Kill/Teen Agent (1991) and Spy Hard (1996), as well as the dementedly indescribable Never Too Young to Die (1986) and the entirely gonzo Real Men (1987), as well as Condorman (1981) in which comic-book artist Michael Crawford gets to bring his creations to life in a spy caper. The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode Our Man Bashir (1995) also conducted an appealing spoof of the spy film as a holodeck simulation. The British animated film Freddie as F.R.O.7. (1992) was the first of the talking animal spy films.
The spy film parody became its own sub-genre with the success of the Austin Powers films beginning with Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery (1997), followed by Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) and Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002) starring Mike Myers as both Austin and his super-villain nemesis Dr Evil. These wittily spoofed the tropes of the series – from the gadgets, the 1960s fashion sense and design schemes to the hero’s womanising and the super-villains.
The Austin Powers series proved popular and produced a number of imitators and other spy comedies from Johnny English (2003) and sequels with Rowan Atkinson as an inept agent to The Tuxedo (2002) with Jackie Chan in a gadget-producing tuxedo, a Blaxploitation spoof Undercover Brother (2002), a lesbian parody D.E.B.S. (2004) and revival of the French OSS 117 series made as parodies of the earlier films. There was also the popular live-action comedy tv series Chuck (2007-12) in which a computer geek has the entire CIA/NSA database imprinted in his brain, and the animated tv series Archer (2009- ).
There was even a sub-genre of juvenile spy film spoofs featuring children/teenagers outfitted with spy gadgetry as in the Spy Kids series from Robert Rodriguez beginning with Spy Kids (2001), Agent Cody Banks (2003) and sequel, Secret Agent Dingledorf and His Trusty Dog Splat (2021) and the more serious Stormbreaker (2006). The Pacifier (2005), The Spy Next Door (2010) and My Spy (2020) are comedies that feature tough spies having to babysit kids.
We even see spy antics enacted by talking animals in Cats & Dogs (2001), G-Force (2009) and Agent Toby Barks (2020), as well as Spymate (2006), perhaps the lamest film in this section, with a spy going into action accompanied by a chimpanzee agent. There was also the animated talking animal spy capers in the likes of Penguins of Madagascar (2014), Tom and Jerry: Spy Quest (2015), Spies in Disguise (2019) and Spycies (2019). We also had spy antics enacted by cartoon characters in Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) and by talking vehicles in Cars 2 (2011). By the time it came to the big screen remake of Get Smart (2008), the idea of a parody seemed redundant.
The more enjoyable of these was the tongue-in-cheek Kingsman films beginning with Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015) and followed by Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) and The King’s Man (2020), which feature spies who are trained as impeccable gentlemen.
- Dr No (1962)
- The Avengers (tv series, 1962-9)
- Goldfinger (1964)
- The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (tv series, 1964-7)
- Thunderball (1965)
- The President’s Analyst (1967)
- You Only Live Twice (1967)
- The Prisoner (tv series, 1968)
- On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
- Never Say Never Again (1983)
- Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985)
- Never Too Young to Die (1986)
- The Hunt for Red October (1990)
- From Beijing with Love (1994)
- GoldenEye (1995)
- Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery (1997)
- The World is Not Enough (1999)
- Alias (tv series, 2001-5)
- Spy Kids (2001)
- D.E.B.S. (2004)
- Mission: Impossible III (2006)
- Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
- Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)
- Tenet (2020)
A full list of titles can be found here Spy Films