❉ We look back at some of the finest spy films exploring the tension and paranoia of the Cold War age.
With the end of World War II the world rejoiced as nations looked forward to a new era of peace. But the dark spectre of war was never truly banished as two reluctant wartime allies, the USA and the Soviet Union, quickly drew ideological lines in the sand and embarked on a sustained period of geopolitical struggle known as the Cold War, that included conflicts such as the Korean War and Vietnam War as well as ever deteriorating East-West relations in the nuclear age.
With both sides facing off in an ever-growing grapple for military and scientific intelligence, espionage was a valuable weapon in the Cold War, and the spy games from the era have inspired many classic films and novels. Some were based on historical events and some were works of pure fiction but all characterised the tension and paranoia of the Cold War age, and the potential catastrophes that threatened the world’s safety. And while the globe-trotting exploits of Ian Fleming’s super spy James Bond highlighted action and adventure, many of the works portraying this era of espionage took on a darker tone, reflecting the very real fear that your government might be subverted by foreign powers or that someone could push the nuclear button.
Based on true-events, The Courier is the story of a British businessman who became involved in helping MI5 and the CIA carry top secret information to and from a high-level Soviet informant. To celebrate the release of The Courier on premium digital, we’ve taken a look back at some of the finest spy films to show the shadowy, secret side of the Cold War.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Adapted from Richard Condon’s 1959 novel of the same name, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate fully taps into Cold War fears about sleeper agents, as it was released during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The film tells the story of a band of US troops who are captured during the Korean War and taken to Manchuria, where they are brainwashed by an international communist conspiracy. The leader of the military unit, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), is then reintroduced into the US along with his troops, who begin to experience disturbing flashbacks from their time under hypnosis in Manchuria. As much a paranoid political thriller as a noir mystery, The Manchurian Candidate takes its time in revealing the true purpose of Shaw’s brainwashing and it includes one of the most shocking and unlikely reveals of a double agent in cinema history. With a fantastic cast of Hollywood heavyweights including Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh and Henry Silva, The Manchurian Candidate is packed to the brim with commanding performances and netted two Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Lansbury. In 2004, the film was remade with Denzel Washington in the lead role and the story transposed to the Gulf War, however for a pure adrenaline shot of paranoid thrill, look no further than the original Cold War classic.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965)
The first of three film adaptations by revered spy fiction author John Le Carré to grace this list, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a classic Cold War espionage tale of double-crossing and government infiltration. Richard Burton stars as Alec Leamas, a British agent on a mission in East Germany who, posing as a defector, is tasked with sowing damaging information about a high ranking German intelligence officer. To do this, Leamas pretends to leave the British intelligence service and allows himself to be recruited by communist agents before travelling to East Germany with them to enact his plan of manipulation and subterfuge. Le Carré actually worked for the British Intelligence services in Berlin in the 1950s and 1960s. He was there when the Berlin wall was being built, and drew on this real-life experience when we penned his novel, which is set around one year after the wall was erected. With an enthralling central performance from Burton (which netted him a BAFTA for Best British Actor), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a tense and thrilling espionage thriller about what can happen when an agent goes deep undercover in enemy territory.
The Russia House (1990)
Moving away from his role as the suave secret agent James Bond, Sean Connery took on a very different role as British book publisher Barley Blair in The Russia House, based on John Le Carré’s 1989 novel. When some documents containing Soviet military secrets are handed to Barley, he soon finds himself entangled in a web of intrigue and espionage, as the British authorities push him to use his connections in Russia to determine if the details in the documents are accurate. Filmed on location in Moscow and Leningrad, incredibly the film was the first major American film to be shot inside the Soviet Union, an amazing fact especially considering the large number of American Cold War films that had been made from the 1960s onwards. As part of his contract, Connery had casting approval but it’s fair to say any input he had must have been positive as the film also stars acting greats Roy Scheider and Michelle Pfeiffer as well as an appearance from director Ken Russell. An often overlooked Cold War film from the pages of Le Carré, The Russia House is a thrilling and compelling spy film shot amid the frosty atmosphere of the USSR’s two biggest cities.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
The final film on this list from the mind of John Le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first feature adaptation of the 1974 novel of the same name, having previously been adapted into a television series in 1979 and a radio play in 1988. The film stars Oscar-winner Gary Oldman as George Smiley, a British agent working for the intelligence services (known as ‘The Circus’), who is heading up the investigation for a Soviet mole. Much like Raymond Chandler’s private investigator Philip Marlowe, George Smiley is a recurring character across much of Le Carré’s work and appears in Call for Dead, A Murder of Quality as well as making an appearance in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Taking on a character with so much literary history behind it is never an easy task, but the always-brilliant Oldman delivers an outstanding performance as the man tasked with plugging a leak in British intelligence, earning him an Oscar nomination and the film a BAFTA for Best British Film. With an outstanding cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, John Hart and Kathy Burke, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a modern British masterpiece.
Bridge Of Spies (2015)
A tense historical drama, Bridge of Spies tells the true story of American lawyer James B. Donovan (a mesmerising Tom Hanks), who negotiated the release of US Air Force pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been captured by the Soviets when his spy plane was shot down over the USSR in 1960. In exchange for Powers’ release, a deal was negotiated with the USSR that in return for Powers, the US would release Soviet KGB operative Rudolf Abel (British fave Mark Rylance), who was incarcerated in the US. The film’s title refers to the Glienicke Bridge in Germany, where the exchange eventually took place in 1962 after many months of tense negotiation. Helmed by Steven Spielberg and written by the Coen brothers, Bridge of Spies has plenty of top-tier Hollywood talent both in front of and behind the camera and is a nail-biting recreation of a fascinating era of Cold War relations.
The Courier (2021)
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and based on an incredible true story, The Courier is a nail-biting tale of Cold War espionage and the extraordinary bravery of one man who helped bring the world back from the brink of nuclear war. The Courier is a true-life spy thriller, the story of an unassuming British businessman, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), recruited into one of the greatest international conflicts in history. At the behest of the UK’s MI6 and a CIA operative (Rachel Brosnahan), he forms a covert, dangerous partnership with Soviet officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) in an effort to provide crucial intelligence needed to prevent a nuclear confrontation and defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. Directed by Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach), The Courier garnered wide critical acclaim on its cinema release and is packed with powerful performances from an outstanding international cast. A surefire Cold War classic.
❉ ‘The Courier’ is available to rent now on premium digital from Lionsgate UK. BBFC Cert 12. Run time: 111 mins.
❉ Editor’s note: This is a syndicated article from @WitchfinderPR/Lionsgate Home Entertainment UK.