Alfred Hitchcock did much to popularise the spy film in the 1930s with his influential thrillers The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1937) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). These often involved innocent cattle being caught up in international conspiracies. Some, however, dealt with professional spies as in Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936), based on W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden stories.
In the 1940s and early 1950s there were several films made about the exploits of Allied agents in occupied Europe, which could probably be considered as a sub-genre. 13 Rue Madeleine and O.S.S. were fictional stories about American agents in German-occupied France, and there were a number of films based on the stories of real-life British S.O.E. agents, including Odette and Carve Her Name With Pride. A more recent fictional example is Charlotte Gray, based on the novel by Sebastian Faulks.
The peak of popularity of the spy film is often considered to be the 1960s when Cold War fears meshed with a desire by audiences to see exciting and suspenseful films. The espionage film developed in two directions at this time. On the one hand, the realistic spy novels of Len Deighton and John le Carré were adapted into relatively serious Cold War thrillers which dealt with some of the realities of the espionage world. Some of these films included The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Deadly Affair (1966), and the Harry Palmer series, based on the novels of Len Deighton.
At the same time, the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming were adapted into an increasingly fantastical series of tongue-in-cheek adventure films by producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, with Sean Connery as the star. The phenomenal success of the Bond series lead to a deluge of imitators, such as the Eurospy genre and several from America. Among the best known examples were the two 'Derek Flint' films starring James Coburn, and the Matt Helm series with Dean Martin. Television also got into the act with series like The Man from U.N.C.L.E and I Spy in the U.S., and Danger Man and The Avengers in Britain. Spies have remained popular on TV to the present day with series such as Callan, Alias and Spooks.
Spy films also enjoyed something of a revival in the late 1990s, although these were often action films with espionage elements, or comedies like Austin Powers.