For a new project I’m working on, I need to watch some espionage thrillers. My focus is on espionage thrillers where an “ordinary person” gets tangled up in the world of espionage.

North by Northwest is a classic of the genre. Three Days of the Condor is another, Frantic is another, Marathon Man is another.

As always, I invite my readers to make suggestions, and thank you in advance.


43 Responses to “query”
  1. coyotegoth says:

    The Parallax View, with Warren Beatty.

    (Actually, although it’s hardly an espionage movie per se, your description could cover The Matrix, as well.)

  2. viktor_haag says:

    – The 39 Steps
    – The Third Man
    – The Constant Gardner

  3. catpeeler says:

    Probably not the flavor you’re looking for, but The Man Who Knew Too Little would fit the bill.

  4. selectnone says:

    Spy Kids? 🙂

  5. daveroguesf says:

    Eye of the Needle.
    Tangentially, Grosse Pointe Blank.

  6. gremlingirl says:

    The Bourne Identity
    Many James Bond films
    Sneakers (its espionage-y)
    Jumpin’ Jack Flash (its comedy, but still)

  7. mimitabu says:

    the first few episodes/season of the anime black lagoon may fit the bill. ( torrent ). i think some of the dominant themes/elements are there, though it’s not literally about spies.

  8. igorxa says:

    The first thing I thought of? Cloak and Dagger.

  9. igorxa says:

    Wait, does Spies Like Us count?

  10. iainjcoleman says:

    Watch the original British TV serial Edge of Darkness (not the mutant Hollywood offspring of the same name). It is truly excellent, and depicts the ordinary guy plunged into a weird and confusing world very well.

  11. goonpuck says:

    Definitely “The Man Who Knew Too Little”

    How about “The Man with One Red Shoe”?

  12. jedisoth says:

    Gotcha! might qualify, though it tempers it’s thrills with comedy (and it even has the dreaded punctuation in the title!). Target with Gene Hackman might work, too, though only Matt Dillon’s character would qualify as a regular guy.

  13. woodandiron says:

    Torn Curtain was good except the crazy Polish lady at the end of the movie who completely sucked the air out of the thing.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Try a little known thriller from a few years back called “The Assignment” starring Aidan Quinn, Ben Kingsley, and Donald Sutherland. Apart from some clunky dialog, the writing, structure, direction and performances are all surprisingly strong.

  15. ndgmtlcd says:

    – My Favorite Blonde (1942)
    – Our Man in Havana (1959)
    – Bad Company (2002)

  16. dougo says:

    The Scarecrow and Mrs. King!

  17. voiceofisaac says:

    True Lies.

    Not sure if La Femme Nikita would work here, but I’ll suggest it anyway.

    District B13 — it’s not *about* espionage, but you do have the “ordinary man gets caught up in subtle plot much larger than he is” angle.

    I would hesitate to call it good, but the WANTED movie might have some elements worth studying for this.

  18. matherd says:

    Does “A Beautiful Mind” count?

  19. Good movies in which an ordinary person is caught in a web of espionage:

    Of course Hitchcock’s got a slew of such films aside from NORTH BY NORTHWEST – NOTORIOUS, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, THE LADY VANISHES, THE 39 STEPS, SECRET AGENT, etc.).

    Michael Caine plays a thief who’s been roped into espionage in THE IPCRESS FILE and FUNERAL IN BERLIN, and both are excellent films, but the roping-in has happened before the first film begins. (The third is the series, THE BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN, is terrible.)

    Fritz Lang’s silent film SPIES is alright, and features a different sort of story than many ordinary person/espionage films.

    And it’s been a few years since I’ve seen it, but Carol Reed’s NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH with Rex Harrison might fit the bill. I can’t remember if it involves an ordinary person, though. Criterion releases a DVD in a month or two.

    (As far as espionage thrillers NOT featuring ordinary people, I also recommend SCORPIO, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, and TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and its even better successor SMILEY’S PEOPLE. But you’ve probably seen those already.)

  20. Anonymous says:

    Total Recall

  21. craigjclark says:

    Out of all the Hitchcocks people have named, I’m surprised no one has mentioned Foreign Correspondent yet. It’s a cracking good thriller, definitely worth checking out.

  22. icesickle says:

    Most of these aren’t the best fit, but hopefully the list is helpful anyway.

    * Reservoir Dogs (1992)
    Mostly because of Mr. Orange, if the criminal underworld counts. Since police are trying to set the criminals up, I think it does.

    * The Whistle Blower (1987)
    British spy thriller. Michael Caine as a normal man despite his character being ex-navy. He remains a normal man as he and his equally normal son, who works as a linguist for British intelligence, become victims of espionage-related intrigue.

    * Well-Fed Me – NIGHT CRUISE (2004)
    This came to mind first. Episode 28 of the anime Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex. It can be watched without prior knowledge of the show, and is possibly my favorite from that season. The episode is essentially a tribute to the movie Taxi Driver from the show’s unique uber-elite secret police / counter-terrorist / near future / post-cyberpunk-because-its-non-dystopian perspective.

    http://www.themediadrive.com/video-streaming-anime/19654-Ghost_in_the_Shell_Episode_28_DI_WellFed_Me_NIGHT_CRUISE (dubbed–mostly bearably, not high quality, but perfectly watchable)

    * Leon the Professional (1994)
    It’s a stretch, however there’s a lot of parallels as long as you focus on co-star Natalie Portman’s character: a warped little girl from a dysfunctional family who gets dragged into the world of a hitman.

    * La Femme Nikita (1990)
    Another vote for this one. Again a stretch since (1) not the best film and (2) the main character is not “normal” but instead a delinquent. However, as soon as she’s dragged into the world of espionage she acts just as much like a fish out of water as a normal person might.

    * The Bourne Identity (2002)
    Not sure what your feelings are on the Bourne series (mine being it’s ok), but if Three Days of the Condor counts, then The Bourne Identity probably does. The protagonist is hardly an ordinary person. However, he has regressed into false normality because of amnesia, before slowly beginning to climb back out.

    * The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
    A soccer mom starts in a similar starting position to Bourne. Of course she discovers she has amnesia and is actually a government-trained assassin. Often video game-y, but not terrible, either.

    * Fight Club (1999)
    Another stretch, but in light of the protagonist plus the espionage-like organization eventually created…

    * Vantage Point (2008)
    Haven’t seen. Did not get good reviews, but fits the criteria.

    * Eagle Eye
    Also did not get favorable critical treatment, also fits the criteria. 2 “everyday people” exactly like you describe get caught up into a world of espionage.

    * Lord of War
    For the side character of Nicolas Cage’s wife, if arms dealing counts.

    * xXx (2002)
    If you count Vin Diesel’s over the top extreeeeme skater as being “ordinary”. Heh.

    * The Usual Suspects (1995)
    Sort of. Depends how you view each of Verbal Kint, the grunt cops, the allegedly pro criminals, and the ghost story. Is there a criminal conspiracy, or isn’t there?

    * The Fugitive (1993)
    If Harrison Ford’s rich doctor counts as ordinary and also if a conspiracy and generic evil corporation-style espionage count.

    * The French Connection (1971)
    If you count the 2 grunt cops as average joes.

  23. The underrated The Russia House, script by Tom Stoppard, from the LeCarre novel, with Sean Connery as a boozy English book publisher who is forced to engage (against his lazy, drunk will) in spy work for his country. Wonderful procedural sequences and a TERRIFIC cast.

  24. pjamesharvey says:

    I’ll second Charade, and suggest Eyes Wide Shut as a film that subverts the genre.

  25. foryourfyi says:

    Enemy of the State seems about right to me.

  26. e_colberto says:

    The Ghost Writer, if you’re looking for a recent example. Can’t go wrong with Polanski and conspiracies.

  27. malsperanza says:

    On the comedy side: Topkapi, which introduced the idea of the Schmoe–the normal guy who gets used by the nefarious criminals as cover.

    A classic: The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe

  28. Anonymous says:

    Ordinary people mixed up with spies

    I would certainly agree that the all-time greats in this genre are Hitchcock’s trilogy of “39 Steps”, “Saboteur”, and “North by Northwest”, followed closely by Donen’s “Charade”, but here’s some that haven’t been mentioned yet:

    1. After director Stanley Donen and writer Peter Stone made “Charade”, they returned to the genre for “Arabesque” (1966), which is fun because it’s gender-reversed– one of the few movies about a guy (Gregory Peck) getting mixed up with a female superspy (Sophia Loren)
    2. Another great one Stone wrote for Peck, with Dmytryk replacing Donen, was “Mirage” (1965), which is the most serious of the three.
    3. After Stone, screenwriter Colin Higgins picked up the banner in the late ‘70s with two more underrated movies “Silver Streak” and “Foul Play”. I love them both.
    4. This one doesn’t really fit the “non-spy in spy role” rule, but another light-hearted, truly great, truly forgotten spy movie was “Hopscotch” (1980), with Walter Matthau. I wrote it up recently for my underrated movies blog, Cockeyed Caravan. (and I covered “Antz”, too)

  29. peter_erwin says:

    Continuing with the John Le Carre suggestions: there’s also The Little Drummer Girl (1984), with Diane Keaton and Klaus Kinski.

  30. The current TV series CHUCK.

    The rather old TV series MASQUERADE.

    CONDORMAN starring Michael “The Phantom of the Opera” Crawford.

  31. laminator_x says:

    Casablanca. 😛

    • Anonymous says:

      Real Men with Jim Belushi and John Ritter

      The In-Laws with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin.

  32. Anonymous says:

    Eric Ambler novels

    Eric Ambler’s novels all possess a protagonist who is not a professional spy or action hero being thrust into the world of espionage or crime against his will.

    – Topkapi, as mentioned above;
    – Journey Into Fear; and
    – The Mask of Dimitrios, the movie version of Coffin for Dimitrios.

    (I really enjoy reading your assessment of films – thank you!)

  33. Anonymous says:


    Does anyone know how to find good writers? I’m producing a low budget feature, and we have gone through a couple people who call them selves writers. Good writers even with a studio budget seem hard to find these days.

    Thanks guys,


  34. robjmiller says:

    The classics have already been hit pretty hard, so I’ll give the comedy responses:

    If Looks Could Kill
    Never Too Young to Die (who doesn’t want to see John Stamos battle transsexual supervillain Gene Simmons?)

  35. unbeliever64 says:

    Scarecrow and Mrs. King. 🙂

  36. Two other odd sources:

    The Flintstones episode “Doctor Sinister”

    The Flintstones movie A MAN CALLED FLINTSTONE.