Espionage has been part of America’s history at least as far back as the American Revolution. The Culper Ring was a group of spies used by George Washington, particularly around New York City. The group helped identify Benedict Arnold, a leading U.S. officer who defected to the British.
The level of spying increased during the Civil War. Both the Confederates and the Union had networks of spies. Ulysses S. Grant in particular relied on a network of spies to help him gather intelligence about the enemy.
Much later in American history, spy networks worked for both the United States and Soviet Union. The best-known case was probably Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted and executed as spies for the Soviet Union.
As is true of virtually every part of American life that has an element of drama, spies have been part of film tradition. Spy films easily connect with audiences because there is usually a clear hero and a clear villain, and there is ample opportunity to show off exotic locales, splashy new technology and enough thrills to offer the audience top-quality escapism. Some spy films are incredibly high-concept and keep the audience guessing until the final twist. Some are packed with action and do not require too much thought on the part of the audience. Some send us on flashy trips around the world and some are downright hilarious.
To determine the best spy film, 24/7 Tempo developed an index using average ratings on IMDb, an online movie database owned by Amazon, and a combination of audience scores and Tomatometer scores on Rotten Tomatoes, an online movie and TV review aggregator, as of February 2022, weighting all ratings equally. We considered only movies with at least 25,000 audience votes on either IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes and ruled out documentaries. Only films that center on a spy or clandestine intelligence officer protagonist or deal with the theme of espionage were included. Data on cast and plot came from IMDb.
The best spy film was “Notorious,” which was released in 1946, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starred Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains and Louis Calhern. Here are the details:
- IMDb user rating: 8/10 (97,303 votes)
- Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 91% (35,835 votes)
- Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 96% (48 reviews)
This is not only the greatest spy film of all time but one of the greatest films period. In the movie, a U.S. government agent (Grant) enlists the daughter of a German war criminal (Bergman) in an effort to infiltrate a Nazi organization that moved to Brazil after World War II. The two fall in love, so it gets complicated when she is instructed to seduce the organization’s leader (Rains). The screenplay, direction, cinematography and overarching themes of trust, love and duty were all widely praised by critics, and many consider it Hitchcock’s best film.
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