The 10 Greatest Performances in Political Thrillers

4. Faye Dunaway in Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Faye Dunaway's ability to be shrill, intelligent and real -- simultaneously -- is her gift, and in Three Days of the Condor she's a cool blend of savvy and startling. As the beleaguered Robert Redford's kidnapped accomplice who proves to be quite valuable, she punches in with a few magnificently stinging lines of dialogue. Has there ever been a line in cinema quite like, "You can always depend on the ol' spy fucker"?

3. Jason Robards in All the President's Men (1976)

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman deliver fine, unadorned performances as Woodward and Bernstein in what remains the definitive political thriller, but no one hits harder in All the President's Men than Jason Robards. Though we know the roving duo will break the news story of the century, Robards's fierce command as Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee is a slice of perfectly realized newsroom personality. Robards would win a second Oscar in as many years for his performance as Dashiell Hammett in Julia, but his earlier work here trumps that as a powerful, eminently modern portrayal.

2. Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Lansbury is unforgettable as the Manchurian Candidate's Svengali who works secretly as an embedded Communist agent with a plan to overtake the presidency. Her delightful disposition from Death on the Nile and Beauty and the Beast melts away in favor of hardened, frightening intention.

1. Cary Grant in Notorious (1946)

To call Hitchcock the master of suspense is understating the matter; he's also the grandmaster of cinematic espionage. In his definitive '40s caper Notorious, Cary Grant played T.R. Devlin, a government agent who is essentially forced to choose between -- as Hitchcock put it -- duty and love. Devlin also offers up the woman he loves, (Ingrid Bergman) as sexual bait to an elite Nazi spy (Claude Rains). It's a psychological drama within a romance within a political thriller, as so many Hitchcock classics are, and Cary Grant's combination of Arsenic and Old Lace swiftness and Suspicion intrigue make for a stunning and thrilling protagonist.

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  • NP says:

    Not as iconic as these, but I love Olivia Williams as Ruth Lang in _The Ghost Writer_.

  • Capote99 says:

    Thanks for the "Notorious" love, Louis, but I think Claude Rains is the terrific performance in that movie. He reins (ha!) in his hamminess and is quite moving, especially in the final walk down the staircase, to the car and ultimately to his doom.
    P.S. The late Ulrich Mühe gave a wonderful performance in "The Lives of Others."

  • ES says:

    Ditto on Olivia Williams in The Ghost Writer.

  • Emily says:

    This is a great list! I loved James Stewart in 'The Man Who Knew too Much' and Ryan Gosling is brilliant in 'Ides of March.' I'm glad that such a great political movie has come out n the past year. I love to read political novels, right now I'm reading "Operation Downfall" by Daniel McNeet (, but sometimes I do like to sit in front of a screen and watch rather than read.