The spy and espionage genre of film first started to fill out in the 1930s, with the introduction of Alfred Hitchcock, the father of the espionage thriller. As the British director was a story teller supreme it is hardly surprising that the early films were gadget free espionage thrillers with complex stories, twists and turns.
1932 - Mata Hari
Mata Hari, with Greta Garbo in the lead role, was the first spy film. Garbo’s performance as the First World War spy saw the film turn out to be MGM’s biggest success of the year. It also made Mata Hari the most famous female spy of all time.
1934 - The British Agent
Based on the Memoirs of a British Agent, the autobiography of RH Bruce Lockhart a former British Secret Service Operative, the film starred Leslie Howard in the lead role during the Russian Revolution. The same book would later be used as inspiration for a TV series many years later called, Reilly, Ace of Spies.
1935 - The Man Who Knew Too Much
Alfred Hitchcock’s first foray into the world of spies actually began as an adaptation of a Bulldog Drummond story, which involved international conspiracies and baby kidnapping. The deal fell through and the plot was regenerated with the title taken from a GK Chesterton book. What begins with a couple on holiday in Switzerland, an assassination of a spy and the passing of secret information prior to his death to the unwitting wife, sets off a chase to London, further assassination attempts and a climax, which we won’t spoil...
1935 - The Thirty Nine Steps
A Hitchcock masterpiece, starring Robert Donat as Richard Hannay - A man just enjoying a night out at the theatre, until events take over that sees him attempting to thwart an organisation of spies. As Hannay comes under suspicion himself, a chase ensues across Britain leaving the protagonist accused of a murder.
1936 - Secret Agent
The third genre thriller of the decade by Hitchcock. This time a British officer is sent on a secret mission to Switzerland. It includes a killer, brilliantly known as, ‘The Hairless Mexican.’
1946 - Notorious
Another Hitchcock classic, and this time a love story that sees movie legends Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains entangled in an espionage operation. The post Second World War films would come thick and fast, with the victorious allies making almost all of them. Bergman is the American daughter of a captured Nazi spy, who is recruited to infiltrate an organisation of Nazis that have relocated to Brazil.
1956 - The Man Who Knew Too Much
James Stewart and Doris Day starred in this remake of Hitchcock’s 1934 thriller. When asked why he remade the film, the director said, "Let's say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional."
1959 - North by Nothwest
Another tale of mistaken identity. This time, Hitchcock’s innocent man is chased across the United States by a mysterious organisation who want to prevent his interference in their plans to smuggle microfilm containing government secrets.