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The 50 Best Spy Movies of All Time

As with most genres, any attempt to define the spy movie falls apart pretty quickly. Maybe more quickly than most, given that the term can encompass films featuring everything from evil supervillains plotting to take over the world with futuristic weapons to grounded-in-fact stories of those who trade secrets behind enemy lines. (At least Westerns take place in the Old West. Except those that don’t. See, genre definitions are hard!) For this list of the best spy movies ever made, Vulture opted for a big-tent approach in an attempt to create a selection that captured the full breadth of the spy film. If it features espionage of some form as a key element, in other words, it’s a spy movie for our purposes.

A few dominant types of spy movies do help provide a little definition, however. It’s useful to remember the terms “Martini” and “stale beer,” two categories often used to define spy stories, in movies and elsewhere. Martini stories operate in a glamorous world where bad guys live in lairs, femmes fatales wait at every backgammon table, and our hero drives fast cars and seldom takes off a tuxedo. If that puts you in mind of James Bond, there’s a reason. Stale-beer stories take place in the shadows, where dull-looking operatives plot and probe, it’s never clear who’s a friend and who’s an enemy, and moral compasses tend to get warped. Stale-beer stories often tend to be informed by the actual practices of spying, and sometimes written by those with some experience in the world of espionage, e.g. the quintessential stale-beer writer John le Carré.

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