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Ten Romantic Spy Thrillers

Features
by The Playlist Staff
December 9, 2010 7:40 AM
7 Comments
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The Tourist
It's probably escaped your attention, as the film's essentially being buried by all involved, but the Angelina Jolie/Johnny Depp spy flick "The Tourist" hits theaters tomorrow. Early reviews have been poisonous (and we certainly were not impressed) but it's not entirely surprising -- the film's genre, that of the romantic espionage thriller, is not the easiest one to get right, requiring a fiendishly difficult juggling of tone.

When it works, as with many of the films on this list, it seems effortless. But it's so easy to get it wrong, and filmmaking greats from William Goldman to Jonathan Demme have come unstuck trying to ape Hitchcock & co. Below, we've picked out 10 films of note in the genre. Not everyone's a classic, and most of them are souffle-light, but they're all worth discussing and much more worth your time than "The Tourist" (yeah, even "Duplicity").

"The 39 Steps" (1935)
Perhaps the seed of the romantic spy thriller as a whole, and the birth of the 'innocent on the run' idea that Alfred Hitchcock would constantly return to, the director's 1935 film is easily the best of the countless adaptations of John Buchan's classic thriller. It differs significantly from the novel, most notably by introducing Pamela, the stranger who becomes embroiled in the adventures of Richard Hannay, as he's wrongly accused of murdering a spy. The relationship between Hannay (the great Robert Donat) and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), handcuffed together, is at the heart of the film, and the sparkling banter would feel at home in the best rom-coms. He'd return to the same genre in a more confident manner, but rarely with as much wit.

"Casablanca" (1942)
What's left to say about "Casablanca?" In the 70-odd years since it was released, it's been endlessly (mis)quoted, parodied, ripped-off and referenced, but it remains one of the most purely entertaining films ever made -- an honestly thrilling thriller, a snappy comedy and a tragic love story rolled into one. Michael Curtiz is at the top of his game, the script is perfect, and the supporting cast, which includes Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet and the Crown Prince of character actors, Claude Rains, are unmatched. But the film lives and dies on its leads, as the fascination with the idea that Ronald Reagan, George Raft and Ann Sheridan might have taken the roles attests to, and Bogie and Bergman were never better. We're not sure that there's a soul out there who wouldn't mark either Rick or Ilsa as their ideal partner, and the ending somehow breaks your heart with a featherlight touch.

“Charade” (1963)
This genre-bender is so Hitchcockian in nature that you almost expect the pudgy, balding genius to make his signature cameo at any moment. But a look at the credits proves that it’s “Singin’ in the Rain” helmer Stanley Donen behind the camera, who adds a fun mix of thrills and giggles to the film. Cary Grant stars as a man who may be in love with Audrey Hepburn’s Regina...or he may be after her dead husband’s money. Mistaken--and confused--identity is key here, as are the dresses by Givenchy, tourism-video-ready shots of Paris, and the fizzy chemistry between Grant and a decades-younger Hepburn. There’s suspense as Regina tries to evade the clutches of three definitely bad guys (James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Ned Glass), and there’s romance as she makes a futile attempt to avoid falling for Grant’s name-changing charmer.

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7 Comments

  • John | May 29, 2011 3:35 AMReply

    The Tourist is fine and just misjudged it fits in as well as any other of these films

  • CyberG4 | December 10, 2010 5:22 AMReply

    Couldn't the title have just read "Ten Romantic Spy Thrillers"?
    Listing them as better than The Tourist says absolutely nothing.

  • Garth | December 10, 2010 2:53 AMReply

    History is more correct than you on the George Lazenby front, his performance makes Dalton and Moore seem Oscar-worthy in comparison. It's a horrendous job that sticks out and insults all the more because everything and everyone else around him is so good.

  • Hossam | December 9, 2010 11:04 AMReply

    Duplicity? really? i didn't even complete it

  • Rashad | December 9, 2010 10:23 AMReply

    How can a movie differ significantly yet be the best adaptation? The 39 Steps is a convoluted silly mess. ? Donat's mustache alone is worth it to avoid. North by Northwest is a better 39 Steps but even then that's a farce.

    And as has been said, if Duplicity is better, I don't have a lot of confidence in The Tourist

  • peter peter pumpkinfarmer | December 9, 2010 9:57 AMReply

    Wow. If Duplicity is better than The Tourist, The Tourist must be really bad.

  • Pope | December 9, 2010 8:18 AMReply

    I was watching North by Northwest last night on TCM. Hitchcock's must fun film.

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