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The Greatest Spies In Movie And TV History

Movies and TV shows love a good spy. Between the twisty mysteries, shocking double-crosses, and thrilling action, the espionage genre is the perfect combination of brainy and brawny. And if it includes secret agents smoothly making their way past bad guys using nothing but their wits and a cleverly designed costume, so much the better. However, not all pop culture spooks are equally ready for the challenges of spycraft or the unending secrets they're forced to keep. For every highly trained agent who's comfortable extracting information in the direst of circumstances, there's an untrained analyst forced into the field or a well-placed asset pressed into service with little to no preparation.

Yet, whether they're smooth and suave like James Bond, enigmatic like Evelyn Salt, or frequently out of their element like Jack Ryan, on-screen spies have been intriguing us for decades. With so many options to choose from, we've set out to answer the question of which movie and TV secret agents are the most accomplished, whether due to skill, smarts, or pure cunning. No assassins or private investigators were included, and even when the character originated in a different medium, we've focused solely on their on-screen versions. From classic company men and wily operatives working both sides of the fence to overwhelmed agents attempting to foil world-ending plots, these are our picks for the greatest spies in the history of movies and TV. Warning — there will be spoilers ahead.

Sydney Bristow - Alias

There may be no TV spy that went through more than Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) of "Alias." Over five seasons, Sydney took on all kinds of challenges — from double-dealing bosses and a fractious relationship with her secret agent father to a race to unravel the mysteries left behind by a mystical prophet — and somehow managed to live to tell the tale. "Alias" begins when Sydney discovers she's been duped into working for a nefarious organization that's passing itself off as the CIA. She soon becomes a double agent for the real CIA and stealthily works from the inside to bring down the criminals in charge of the villainous agency.

In the course of her work, Sydney is tortured and brainwashed, loses friends and lovers, tangles with her duplicitous long-lost mother, and even gives birth during a mission -– which she still completes with her usual courage and commitment. And she does it all with an endless supply of perfectly put-together disguises, donning everything from blue hair to rubber dresses in the name of completing her latest assignment. But whether she's knocking out the enemy with a well-timed punch or supplying the good guys with vital intel via a covert brush pass, Sydney always acts out of a strong sense of duty and an obligation to do the right thing.

Ethan Hunt - Mission: Impossible franchise

"Your mission, should you choose to accept it" is among the most famous lines in pop culture history. It's been heard repeatedly since 1966 when "Mission: Impossible" started life as a TV series, and it's been uttered repeatedly on the big screen over the last 25 years in the action-heavy film series fronted by Tom Cruise. In the movies, Cruise plays Ethan Hunt — an agent for the Impossible Missions Force and a character created specifically for the films. Since the first "Mission: Impossible" movie premiered in 1996, Ethan has become the face of the franchise — a man so dedicated he will jump out of windows, scale tall buildings, and hang on to planes as they take off to ensure he completes his mission, which he always accepts.

Despite being set up or held in suspicion by his superiors numerous times over the course of the series, Ethan is willing to do whatever his self-destructing mission briefings tell him to do, and he approaches each assignment with intense sincerity and dedication. Although he employs disguises, guile, and his innate shrewdness in the field, he most often relies on sheer muscle and endurance, physically throwing himself into progressively more jaw-dropping scenarios in each new movie.

Sarah Walker - Chuck

Spies are often tasked with protecting government secrets. That's exactly what CIA agent Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) is assigned to do, except in her case, that means looking after Chuck Bartowski (Zachary Levi) — an underachieving big-box store employee who inadvertently uploads a database of top-secret intelligence to his brain. Whoops!

When she's initially introduced in "Chuck," Sarah seems as cold as ice — a woman solely focused on her mission and comfortable with dispatching any adversary, often with a well-aimed throwing knife. Yet, over the course of the show, she slowly reveals to Chuck that her hardened exterior hides a carefully guarded depth of feeling. That ability to compartmentalize and keep a lock on her emotions is one of the things that makes Sarah a great spy. She's like a lockbox full of secrets that even experts can't crack, to the point where most people don't even know her real name — even those she's closest to.

Alicia Huberman - Notorious

Today, the ranks of women who work in espionage in movies and on TV are constantly growing. However, back in 1946, when Alfred Hitchcock's classic spy thriller "Notorious" came out, ladies who engaged in covert operations were a rarity. That's part of what makes Ingrid Bergman's Alicia Huberman such a standout. Alicia is recruited into service by American agent Devlin (Cary Grant) after her father is convicted of Nazi war crimes. While Alicia has a checkered past dominated by drinking and meaningless affairs, she proves to be more than capable as a government mole.

Under the supervision of Devlin, Alicia infiltrates a circle of Nazis in Brazil and slowly and meticulously works to discover what their endgame is. Alicia lies and manipulates like a pro, playing on the affections of one of the men and even marrying him in order to continue pursuing the intel her handlers need. She may not have to throw a punch or deploy a weapon like her more recent counterparts in the spy trade, but she more than makes up for that with her own savvy tenaciousness and her complex but unwavering devotion to the job.

Joseph Turner - Three Days of the Condor

When we first meet Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) in "Three Days of the Condor," he comes across as an unassuming, devil-may-care bookworm who spends his days poring over novels, comics, and newspapers from around the world at the American Literary Historical Society. He also happens to be a CIA analyst –- codename: Condor –- whose recent report on a book with strange plot points is dismissed by the higher-ups in his department. So he understandably panics when he returns from getting lunch and discovers that every one of his colleagues has been murdered while he was out.

This forces him onto the streets of New York City, where he must do everything in his power to save himself from the people that still want him dead. Unlike most spies, Turner is completely unprepared for what's happening to him, which makes for a paranoia-drenched scenario where almost everyone he meets could secretly be an enemy. Despite all that, Turner manages to rise to the occasion. Not only does he physically best the people gunning for him, but he also uses his considerable intellect to covertly make contact with a potential ally and track down key information that helps him understand what's going on. Turner may protest that he only reads books, but when push comes to shove, he shows he can do much more than that.

Lorraine Broughton - Atomic Blonde

The most memorable thing about MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) of "Atomic Blonde" is her almost preternatural hand-to-hand combat skills. Broughton can shoot a gun with the best of them, but her true genius lies in close-contact fighting where she uses pretty much anything and everything around her — from a stiletto to a freezer door — to get the job done. And she does it all to a bouncy '80s soundtrack as she attempts to recover a key piece of intelligence in 1989 Berlin before the KGB can.

However, while the fight sequences in "Atomic Blonde" are undeniably impressive, Broughton's true greatness as a secret agent only becomes clear in the film's final moments. The seemingly dedicated MI6 agent is, in fact, a triple agent who's managed to fool both the English and the KGB for years while actually working for the CIA the whole time. Talk about secrets! While the KGB catches onto her ploy by the end of her mission, the fact that she manages to maintain her cover for so long -– and that the English still have no idea by the end -– speaks to Broughton's talent for manipulating the truth. She's a master of keeping up appearances while still managing to fulfill her actual objectives.

Nikita Mears - Nikita

There are certain secret agent characters, like James Bond and Jack Ryan, who pop up so frequently in TV shows or movies that we feel like we know them. That could also be said of Nikita, who originated in the 1990 film "La Femme Nikita" written and directed by Luc Besson. Nikita is a teenage delinquent who kills a police officer during a robbery gone wrong and is subsequently sentenced to life in prison. Seeing something promising in the young woman, a secret government agency fakes her death and creates a new identity for her as an assassin. Her story has been adapted several times, but it wasn't until her eponymous 2010 CW series that she evolved from a government killer into a rogue spy.

The central character of the "Nikita" show shares the basic backstory of her other incarnations, but she's escaped from the agency that previously controlled her and has since reemerged to destroy it. So while Nikita (Maggie Q) is still capable of wielding a gun and delivering a roundhouse kick with panache, her new goal is to gather intelligence that will enable her to prove the evils of the organization that trained her –- an objective that demonstrates just how strategic and crafty she can be.

Jack Ryan - The Jack Ryan franchise

Since "The Hunt for Red October" premiered in 1990, five different actors have played Jack Ryan across five films and one TV series with vastly different degrees of success. While Alec Baldwin (in "Red October") and Harrison Ford (in "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger") were praised for their work as the Tom Clancy-created character, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine (in "The Sum of All Fears" and "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," respectively) didn't capture audiences' imaginations in quite the same way. More recently, however, Amazon's "Jack Ryan" series has renewed the character's relevancy for a new audience.

That's largely because of John Krasinski's highly relatable approach to the role of Ryan, a CIA analyst who's constantly uncovering information that results in him being pulled into the field. While Ryan can certainly hold his own in a fight, he's really an earnest everyman who'd rather use his brain than his fists. Still, his commitment to justice and his country ensures that he sees each mission through to the end, even when that means putting himself in some very tense situations.

Peggy Carter - Marvel Cinematic Universe

Audiences first got to know Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) in "Captain America: The First Avenger," but it wasn't until ABC's two-season series "Agent Carter" that Marvel Cinematic Universe fans really got to see the breadth and depth of her abilities as a spy. In the mid-1940s, right after the Second World War but before she helps found SHIELD, Peggy is an operative for the Strategic Science Reserve. Given the overt sexism of the time, she is regularly dismissed and undermined, but instead of letting that stop her, she perseveres, gathering intelligence and pursuing her own objectives without her superiors catching on.

Of course, those familiar with the history of Marvel know that Peggy isn't someone who should be underestimated. She repeatedly demonstrates a wide range of expertise in the series, from a scrappy fighting style and the ability to speak multiple languages to sharp observational skills and shrewd powers of deduction. Above all, though, Peggy comes across as warm and deeply moral — someone who strives to do the right thing no matter how difficult that may be.

Harry Hart - Kingsman franchise

In "Kingsman: The Secret Service," viewers learn that the titular organization is a U.K.-based independent intelligence agency tasked with protecting the world against all kinds of threats. Their ranks are primarily made up of rich elites who look down on anyone who doesn't fit into their rarefied environment or their exclusive tax bracket. On the surface, Harry Hart (Colin Firth) seems to be cut from precisely that same snobbish cloth. He wears a perfectly tailored suit, speaks with a posh accent, and adheres to the motto "manners maketh man."

However, when he's given the opportunity to choose a new recruit for the agency, he selects a young man who appears to be from the wrong side of the tracks. Harry's ability to see past people's exteriors and notice their true potential makes him an insightful spy who is determined to fight for all people, everywhere. Also, for a man of his age, he proves to have sensational combat skills, whether he's deploying an armed umbrella to foil his opponents or engaging in old-fashioned fisticuffs.

Nick Fury - Marvel Cinematic Universe

The Marvel Cinematic Universe may be filled with superheroes, but leading them all is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) — an individual who may not be super but is nonetheless an amazingly effective spy. Fury initially appears in the MCU as an enigmatic presence who seems to be pulling the strings of anyone and everyone who displays enhanced abilities. As the head of SHIELD and the originator of the Avengers Initiative, he has a vision of bringing together Earth's mightiest heroes to protect the planet from any global threat. His belief that such a force is necessary points to his basic pessimism, and Fury often shows that he's willing to bend the rules and color outside the lines if it'll help him keep the world safe.

Even though Fury can come across as untrusting and calculated, his perspective comes from a wealth of knowledge about both earthly and extraterrestrial menaces. His ability to gather and process intelligence is second to none, and his desire to protect the world is so great that even after the dissolution of SHIELD, he continues his work underground, showing an absolute belief in the importance of what he and the superheroes in his orbit do.

Evelyn Salt - Salt

Spies are enigmatic by nature, but there may be no more inscrutable of a movie spy than Angelina Jolie's Evelyn Salt. When Salt is introduced, she appears to be a loyal CIA agent. However, her life gets turned on its head after a Russian defector fingers her as a sleeper agent who will soon participate in a covert Russian revolution against America. Under suspicion but wanting to protect her husband, who may be a potential Russian target, she goes on the run. Throughout almost all of "Salt," it's unclear whose side the character is really on.

Yet, even as Salt treads a fine line between the Russians and the Americans, she manages to prove herself highly capable. She uses costumes, clever tactics, and raw physical skill to work her way into and out of situations while avoiding capture. In different situations, that could mean using a well-placed mask to impersonate a man or jumping onto a truck from a bridge when she has nowhere else to go. Despite her unenviable circumstances, Salt still demonstrates a strong compassion and daring to help those she loves. She scales the outer wall of her apartment building and risks death in the process to bring her dog to the safety of a neighbor, all while in the midst of a frantic escape from approaching enemies.

George Smiley - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

George Smiley, the protagonist of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," is perhaps the closest thing to an anti-James Bond that exists in pop culture. Smiley was originated in a John le Carré novel and has been brought to life twice on screen –- first in a 1979 British miniseries starring Alec Guinness, and more recently in a 2011 movie starring Gary Oldman. No matter the medium, though, Smiley boasts none of the eye-catching traits usually associated with spies. He's not suave, he doesn't possess any high-tech gadgets, and he has no fighting skills to speak of.

What Smiley does have is a meticulous ability to track down clues, put them together, and uncover the truth of some very dicey matters. As an intelligence agent for the British during the Cold War, Smiley is melancholy and muted, yet his mind is constantly churning as he doggedly works to uncover a mole in the top ranks of the government. His spycraft is driven entirely by his intellect, which makes him different from many of the onscreen operatives audiences are familiar with. But while he may not be as exciting as his more action-oriented counterparts, he's an undeniably accomplished secret agent.

James Bond - The James Bond franchise

No list of movie and TV spies would be complete without James Bond, the best-known fictional agent of all. Based on a character created by writer Ian Fleming, Bond has been a movie mainstay since Sean Connery first played him in 1962's "Dr. No." With such a long history, the "007" franchise has laid a whole formula all its own, delivering propulsive action, femme fatales, remarkable gadgets, and world-threatening villains in every installment.

Although the actors playing Bond have changed multiple times, with everyone from Roger Moore to Daniel Craig putting their own unique spin on the role, what 007 really represents is the grit and glamor of the imagined spy life. Bond spends his life in exotic locales and driving fancy cars, and no matter how dire his situation might seem, he's always in control. The most recent "James Bond" films have injected a bit more reality into the franchise, but they still stick to the basic formula, and the series has shown no signs of slowing down. Whatever stars end up playing 007 in the future, fans can continue to revel in the romance and excitement of the franchise for years to come, regardless of whether they prefer their martinis shaken or stirred.