Spy film

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The spy film genre deals with the subject of fictional espionage, either in a realistic way (such as the adaptations of John Le Carré) or as a basis for fantasy (such as James Bond). Many novels in the spy fiction genre have been adapted as films, including works by John Buchan, John Le Carré, Ian Fleming and Len Deighton. It is a significant aspect of British cinema,[1] with leading British directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed making notable contributions and many films set in the British Secret Service.[2]



The spy film genre began in the silent era, with the paranoia of invasion literature and the start of the First World War. These produced the British 1914 'The German Spy Peril' (centred around a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament) and 'O.H.M.S.'[3] (standing for Our Helpless Millions Saved as well as On Her Majesty's Service, and introducing for the first time a strong female character who helps the hero).

In 1928, Fritz Lang made the film Spies which contained many tropes that became popular in later spy dramas, including secret headquarters, an agent known by a number, and the beautiful foreign agent who comes to love the hero. Lang's Dr. Mabuse films from the period also contain elements of spy thrillers, though the central character is a criminal mastermind only interested in espionage for profit. Additionally, several of Lang's American films, such as Hangmen Also Die, deal with spies during World War II.

Alfred Hitchcock did much to popularise the spy film in the 1930s with his influential thrillers The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1937) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). These often involved innocent civilians being caught up in international conspiracies. Some, however, dealt with professional spies as in Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936), based on W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden stories.

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