Spying is nearly as old as recorded history. The biblical Book of Joshua tells how Joshua, son of Nun, sent two spies secretly into Canaan in order to ascertain whether the land was fruitful and readily susceptible to conquest. Three thousand years later, Cardinal Richelieu established an elaborate network of secret agents to protect both Louis XIII of France and his own personal interests, an episode fictionalized in numerous novels by Alexandre Dumas and such film adaptations as The Three Musketeers (1921, 1948, 1973, 1993, etc.) and The Man in the Iron Mask (1939, 1998). Forty years after George Washington, stung by the ease with which the schoolmaster-turned-spy Nathan Hale had been captured, recruited Major Benjamin Tallmadge as head of the so-called Culper Ring to gather information about British troop movements, James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1951) used these adventures as the basis for his novel The Spy (1821, filmed 1914). And the tale of how Billie Boyd, an undercover agent for the Confederacy during the Civil War, shot and killed a Union soldier determined to enter her home by force, inspired a similar scene featuring Scarlett O'Hara, the indomitable heroine of Gone with the Wind (1939). It is not until the twentieth century, however, that spies and spying truly came into their own. Their rise corresponds to the rise of popular fiction, which provided an indispensable supplement to the variously shabby secret agents who had figured in such literary masterpieces as Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Possessed (1871–1872), Henry James's The Princess Casamassima (1886), and Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907), and the rise of movies, a medium coeval with the culture of modern espionage. Graham Greene (b. 1952) applied the term "entertainments" to his own spy fiction from The Confidential Agent (1939, filmed 1945) to The Third Man (1949, filmed 1949) to The Quiet American (1955, filmed 2002). These tales, like Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands (1903, filmed 1979), in which a pair of vacationing yachtsmen discover a German plot to invade England, and E. Phillips Oppenheim's The Great Impersonation (1920, filmed 1921, 1935, and 1942), in which a German spy takes the place of a British aristocrat he resembles, set a tone of civilized adventure that dispelled the darker implications of espionage.
The earliest movie spies divide appropriately into two camps. On one side are tragic figures like the World War I nurse Edith Cavell, who smuggled more than two hundred Allied soldiers out of occupied Belgium before she was executed by the German Army ( Dawn , 1928; Nurse Edith Cavell , 1939); the much better known Mata Hari, whose tactic of seducing her targets made her a natural for Greta Garbo ( Mata Hari , 1931); and the wholly fictional Marie Kolverer, aka X27, the streetwalker-turned-spy played by the equally glamorous Marlene Dietrich in Dishonored (1931). On the other side are lighthearted stalwarts like Bulldog Drummond, the unflappable British gentleman whose run of two dozen films, mostly second features, began with Bulldog Drummond (1922) and sturdier, more melodramatic heroes like Nayland Smith, the earnest foe of the Yellow Peril represented by the implacable Dr. Fu Manchu in a long series of shorts and features (for example, The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu , 1929). In 1928, Fritz Lang (1890–1976), who had already used the figure of the gangster to incarnate Fu Manchu's dream of world domination in the epic crime film Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler ( Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler , 1922), substituted the looming, larger-than-life figure of the spy to produce the first great spy film, Spione ( The Spy , 1928).
Unlike Lang's megalomaniac villain Haghi, Bulldog Drummond and his cohorts were defending the vast colonial British Empire's attempt to bring the blessings of civilization to the colonies by playing "the great game," a phrase coined by Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901, filmed 1950) and later applied to the genteel aristocratic tradition British Intelligence would foster by recruiting agents from the ranks of the nation's leading universities. Since the world of spies is a world in which everyone is in constant danger of being spied upon, spy films borrow and foster a sense of global paranoia increasingly characteristic of the jittery twentieth century. Faceless, often menacing intelligence agencies proliferated in every corner of the globe: Great Britain's Ministries of Information for domestic intelligence (MI5, founded in 1909) and foreign intelligence (MI6, founded in 1911), the various Soviet bureaus that eventually became known as the KGB and SMERSH (both 1917), and such American agencies as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI, 1908), the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, 1942) and its peacetime successor, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA, 1947). Spies working for agencies modeled on them came to encapsulate both the dreams and fears of viewers afraid that individuals had lost the power to control the juggernaut of history and hopeful, or at least wishful, that heroic individuals could indeed make a difference. Unlike World War I, which was fueled by a chauvinistic faith in the racial superiority of the homeland and its easily recognizable citizens, World War II was marked by widespread rumors of a "fifth column" of undercover enemy agents already in place in the homeland in preparation for demoralizing tactics or armed insurrection. In a world in which every stranger could be a spy, the counterspy became the indispensable hero, the only figure who could unmask the enemy and protect the purity of hearth and home.
To this period of all-purpose Nazi villains belong such variously glamorized spies as the little-man hero of Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), the quasi-documentary pitting the FBI against American Nazis; the sportsman who stalks Adolf Hitler in Berchtesgaden to see if he can get a clear shot at him and then spends the rest of Lang's Man Hunt (1941) hounded by the vengeful German spies who honeycomb London; and the newlyweds who spend their European honeymoon tracking down a missing agent in Above Suspicion (1943). The true Everyman, however, was Peter Lorre's resolutely unglamorous Dutch novelist beguiled into sordid international intrigue in The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), based on a tale by Eric Ambler (1909–1998), who had emerged together with Greene as the foremost espionage novelist of the 1930s.