At the height of the Cold War, both American and Soviet citizens lived in a near-constant state of paranoia. Your friendly neighbors could be agents of a foreign superpower. Government officials might be watching your every move, gathering enough evidence to land you in jail–or worse. At any moment, nuclear missiles could fall out of the sky. Reality became so distorted that it was nearly impossible to separate truth from fiction. In other words, conditions were just right for some of the greatest thrillers ever made. These nine best Cold War movies capture the cloak-and-dagger intrigue, gallows humor, and steely-eyed courage of a time when the entire world lived on the brink of disaster.
North by Northwest
Balancing on a razor’s edge between suspense and comedy, this tale of mistaken identity inspired by the true story of Operation Mincemeat is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining films. Cary Grant delivers a witty, stylish performance as Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive with the bad luck to be confused for an American spy named George Kaplan. Interrogated by foreign thugs, arrested on a bogus drunk-driving charge, and framed for the murder of a U.N. ambassador, Thornhill finally catches a break when he meets the beautiful and resourceful Eve Kendell (Eva Marie Saint) on a train. But nothing is at is seems in this twisty thriller that perfectly captures the paranoia and moral relativism of the Cold War era. From the iconic crop duster scene to Cary Grant’s impeccable grey suit, North by Northwest set a standard that modern-day spy flicks are still trying to match.
The Third Man
Set in post-WWII Vienna, this iconic film noir captures the amorality of a world emerging from the ashes of global conflict into the icy chill of the Cold War. With the city divided into American, British, French, and Soviet sections, conditions are ripe for black marketeers such as Harry Lime (Orson Welles)—or so the police would have Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) believe. A writer of pulp Westerns, Martins has just arrived in Vienna at Lime’s invitation only to discover that his friend was killed hours earlier by a speeding truck. Something about the whole thing seems off to Martins, and when he learns that there may have been an unidentified third man at the scene of the accident, he sets out to clear Lime’s name. But nothing is at it seems in this shadowy world of secrets and suspicions, and the more Martins learns about Lime, the less he recognizes him.
Graham Greene’s screenplay (he wrote the novella as a film treatment) is packed with ingenious plot twists and whip-smart dialogue; director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker turn nighttime Vienna into its own unforgettable character; and Orson Welles delivers one of his finest performances as a villain so charming and self-aware you can’t help but be seduced by him. In 1999, the British Film Institute named The Third Man the greatest British film of the 20th century.
The Manchurian Candidate
Released at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis and one year before John F. Kennedy’s assassination, this prescient political thriller stars Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh, and Angela Lansbury in an Oscar-nominated role. When his platoon is captured in the Korean War, Major Bennett Marco (Sinatra) and his men are taken to Manchuria and brainwashed by a cadre of Soviet and Chinese officials. They’re returned to the U.S. frontlines with an implanted memory that Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) saved their lives in combat. Years later, Shaw’s McCarthy-esque stepfather, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), is a vice-presidential candidate, and Marco has been having a recurring nightmare in which Shaw kills two of his fellow soldiers. After Marco learns that another member of the platoon has been having the same nightmare, he sets out to expose a sinister international conspiracy with roots that are disturbingly personal. Director John Frankenheimer sticks closely to Richard Condon’s novel while adding a visual style well-suited to the story’s captivating blend of suspense and satire.
The Hunt for Red October
Globetrotting hero Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) first jumped from the pages of Tom Clancy’s novel onto the silver screen in this techno Cold War thriller about a Soviet submarine officer who wants to defect. The problem is that the defector, Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), is at the helm of Red October, a Typhoon class submarine with a silent propulsion system that allows it to evade detection. After he kills the boat’s political attaché, Ramius sets a course for the east coast of the United States. Soviet naval commanders, desperate to keep their new technology from falling into the wrong hands, inform their American counterparts that Ramius has lost his mind and plans to start a nuclear war. It’s up to Ryan to guess the Russian’s true intentions. In the six years it took for Clancy’s story to go from bookstores to movie theaters, the geopolitical situation had changed dramatically. But American audiences were eager–for two hours, at least–to trade the warm glow of glasnost for the icy chill of the Cold War. It helps that underlying the film’s technical wizardry and spine-tingling suspense is a message of shared humanity.
The Lives of Others
The Stasi, East Germany’s notorious secret police, take center stage in this Academy Award-winning German thriller. Although director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was only 16 years old when the Berlin Wall fell, his parents were both East German, and he made regular visits to the Communist state when he was a boy. His familiarity helps to give the film, set in 1984, a startling authenticity. Gerd Weisler (Ulrich Muehe), a Stasi captain, is asked by his superiors to spy on a prominent playwright. Weisler bugs the man’s home and sets up a listening station in his attic but is disturbed when he discovers the real reason behind the surveillance: The Minister of Culture has designs on the playwright’s girlfriend and wants to get him out of the picture. With the shadowy powers of the state brought to bear on their lives, the playwright and his girlfriend soon begin to crumble, forcing Weisler to choose between his ideology and his conscience. From the clash between the soul-crushing nature of totalitarianism and the irrepressible human desire for love, freedom, and joy, The Lives of Others creates nail-biting suspense.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Master spy novelist and former secret service agent John le Carré openly questioned whether his densely plotted tale of a Soviet mole at the top levels of MI6 could be successfully adapted into a feature film (the acclaimed 1979 BBC version was a seven-part, five-hour miniseries). But with a sure-handed script by husband-and-wife playwrights Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan and an all-star cast including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hardy, this BAFTA Award winner for Best Picture hits all the right notes. From the arcane double-speak to the drab government office buildings and distinctly nondescript wardrobes, the reality of Cold War espionage is revealed in all its murkiness and isolation. The men and women who keep secrets for a living pay a staggering cost–even when they’re on the side of freedom and justice.
Three Days of the Condor
Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway headline this white-knuckle political thriller based on the James Grady novel Six Days of the Condor. Bookish CIA analyst Joe Turner (Redford) goes out for lunch one day and returns to a horror show: Everyone in his small office at the American Literary Historical Society has been murdered. Things go from bad to worse when Turner’s Head of Department arranges to bring him to safety–then tries to kill him. With no one he can trust, Turner kidnaps a photographer (Dunaway) and hides out in her apartment as he tries to determine why his most recent report, an analysis of a mystery novel with strange plot elements, has gotten everyone he knows killed. Released in the wake of the Watergate scandal and one year after the New York Times broke the story of the CIA’s “Family Jewels” reports, Three Days of the Condor touched a nerve with moviegoers who’d come to believe that their government was capable of the most heinous of crimes. The erotic charge between two of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars certainly didn’t hurt ticket sales.
No Way Out
Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, and Sean Young star in this pulse-pounding remake of The Big Clock. U.S. Navy officer Tom Farrell (Costner) takes an assignment as the CIA liaison to Secretary of Defense David Brice (Hackman). Soon after arriving in Washington, DC, Farrell reconnects with beautiful Susan Atwell (Young), with whom he once shared a passionate limo ride. They pick up right where they left off, but their romantic sojourn is ruined when Atwell’s married lover shows up at her apartment. To Farrell’s surprise, the man at the door is his new boss, Brice. Having seen a man leaving Atwell’s apartment, Brice kills her in a fit of jealous rage and covers up the crime by blaming it on a KGB mole who has infiltrated the defense department. He asks Farrell to ferret out the double agent and arrest him–in effect, putting the naval officer in pursuit of himself. But that’s just the first incredible twist in a film that combines a knowing look at backroom DC politics, steamy romance, and Cold War spy games.
Sidney Lumet’s terrifying thriller had the unfortunate luck to be released the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. American moviegoers were reluctant to open their wallets for another nuclear disaster film, especially one that foregoes the absurdist satire for unbearable psychological suspense. But in the ensuing years, Fail Safe has been hailed for its skillful pacing and poignant anti-nuclear message. Henry Fonda stars as the President of the United States, who must negotiate with his Soviet counterpart when a computer error sends an American bomber group on a mission to attack Moscow. Once the planes pass the fail-safe point, their commander has been trained to dismiss all counter-orders as Soviet deceptions. With the world on the brink of nuclear holocaust, the president has only one terrible hand to play: He guarantees that if the bombers deliver their payload on Moscow, he will order the destruction of New York City.
Featured still from "North by Northwest" via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer