Before Ethan Hunt: The Best Super Spy Franchise You Haven’t Seen

Mission Impossible-III Sill

Tom as Ethan Hunt in the third of the four-part ‘Mission: Impossible’ series.

Ethan Hunt, James Bond, and Jason Bourne need no introduction. Bond, as the imperious and unpuncturable 007, has been wresting the fate of the free world from evil doers for more than 50 years, while Hunt and Bourne have helped redefine international intrigue for last 16. The heady mix of ruthless double- and triple-crossing agents, sophisticated villainy, breathtaking stunt work and ridiculously cool gadgetry that represents the ne plus ultra of ingenious technology is a potent and addictive recipe. All told the combined revenue of these three franchises is in the billions of dollars. That’s just another way of saying “We love this stuff!”

Notorious PosterWhen it comes to franchised espionage, not many spies live beyond one film, or are cultivated by the same actor over time to establish a character whom fans can’t wait to see again. Great individual spy films are plentiful, with many of Alfred Hitchcock’s early films kickstarting the genre and serving as templates for later works. The 39 Steps, Notorious, and North by Northwest are especially notable. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, The Manchurian Candidate, Three Days of the Condor, The Hunt For Red October, True Lies, and The Good Shepard name only a few of the many other great and highly revered films in the genre.

Although you might be hard pressed to list franchised spy series other than those above, the 1960′s were a particularly fertile period for them. Most were made in response to the success of the Bond films but came at the genre from a different angle. One of the more successful series involve the Harry Palmer films The IPCRESS File, Funeral In Berlin and Billion-Dollar Brain, all of which were based on the novels of Len Deighton. Palmer was created as the antithesis of Bond’s worldly, womanizing master of cloak and dagger. In fact Palmer had been court-martialed from the military for black-market activities, but was offered the choice of jail or espionage. As the series progresses, Palmer does find himself on the continent dealing with international beauties with gams that kill. Michael Caine, however, always maintains Palmer’s working-class demeanor.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold PosterYet, despite a conscious attempt to play the other side of Bond’s glamourous espionage, the Palmer films have a charm all their own. As a product of the 60′s, the films convey a cool, irreverent quality that captures the swinging tenor of the time. One of the trailers gives Palmer the ultimate compliment: “Horned-rimmed. Cockney wit. Iron fist.” He may not be a household name like James Bond or Ethan Hunt, but he’s no less entertaining for that, and we believe well worth a few nights hunkered down in front of the flat screen with a double-barrel of popcorn.

We’ve included the trailers from each movie below, along with a plot synopsis. In our humble opinion, trailers like these are a lost art. The Billion-Dollar Brain stands out as an especially good enticement to watch the film.

Keep checking back as we go deeper into the 60′s spy genre with two more classic series. Can you guess what they are? :)
The Ipcress File (1965)
Ipcress File PosterThis plot synopsis comes from  In the spy-crazed film world of the 1960s, Len Deighton’s antihero Harry Palmer burst onto the scene as an antidote to the James Bond films. Here was a British spy who had a working-class accent and horn-rimmed glasses and above all really didn’t want to be a spy in the first place. As portrayed by Michael Caine, Palmer was the perfect antithesis to Sean Connery’s 007. Unlike that of his globetrotting spy cousin, Palmer’s beat is cold, rainy, dreary London, where he spends his days and nights in unheated flats spying on subversives. He does charm one lady, but she’s no Pussy Galore, just a civil servant he works with, sent to keep an eye on him. Eventually he’s assigned to get to the bottom of the kidnapping and subsequent “brain draining” of a nuclear physicist, all the while being reminded by his superiors that it’s this or prison. Things begin to get pretty hairy for Harry. Produced by Harry Saltzman in his spare time between Bond movies, the film also features a haunting score by another Bond veteran, composer John Barry.

The Ipcress File Trailer


Funeral In Berlin PosterFuneral In Berlin (1966)
This plot synopsis comes from Rotten Tomatoes: Funeral in Berlin was the second of three films based on the Harry Palmer novels by Len Deighton. As he did in The Ipcress File, Michael Caine stars as Palmer, Deighton’s bespectacled, somewhat disreputable British secret agent. In the manner of Graham Greene’s The Third Man, Palmer is dispatched to Berlin to look into the highly suspicious defection of Soviet colonel Stok (Oscar Homolka). It is giving nothing away to reveal that Stok’s death is a sham, and that Palmer is expected to engineer the “corpse”‘s defection.

Funeral In Berlin Trailer


Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

This plot synopsis comes from Secret agent Harry Palmer is blackmailed into working for MI5 again on his wildest – and most dangerous – assignment yet. An insane oil billionaire, intent on destroying Communism by starting a new world war, is close to achieving his goal with the help of the world’s largest, and mostpowerful, computer. Harry is the only man who may be able to stop him; but as he races from London to Finland to Latvia to Texas and back, he must determine who of his supposed allies (a sexy Russian agent, a Soviet colonel and an American mercenary) is the one he can actually trust!

Billion Dollar Brain Trailer

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  • Heidi Edwards

    Thanks for the retro-spy tour! Enjoyed!

  • Tracey

    Love Michael Caine….watched Dirty Rotten Scoundrels last Sunday Afternoon….just love him!

  • PuppyLove

    I Loved The Early Michael Caine Action Thrillers.

  • jimkhm

    so far out of reach

  • 陆之羽

    阿汤哥加油~we will always support you

  • kiki


  • kiki

    love you tom <3