The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold



Based on the breakthrough novel by former spy John Le Carré, shot in black and white to suggest that espionage is unglamorous, dirty work and starring a hollowed out Richard Burton, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is as far from James Bond as it’s possible to get – further, even than Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer of the Ipcress File. Telling the story of a jaded spy who is busted to a desk job in London and then recruited by East German intelligence – or that’s what they think – it’s a bleak marvel, as redolent of the drab side of the 1960s as the smell of a wet duffel coat. Martin Ritt directs, and you’d not guess from the portrait painted of life behind the Iron Curtain that he’d been blacklisted in the US, for supposedly having Communist sympathies. Mind you, the picture he paints of life in Britain, just emerging from economic lockdown after going broke fighting the Nazis, is hardly sympathetic either.

Though critically rated, the film did not do overly well at the box office, the public being still in the first flush of love with 007 and finding the lack of car chases, gadgets and no-strings sex something of a letdown. And Ritt’s determination to keep the boomy theatrics out of the performances by Burton and his co-stars (including Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner and Peter Van Eyck) probably didn’t help sell it to the glamour-hungry either.

Not everyone loves this film. Some find it too dark, too grey. But in its depiction of an almost heretical character – the spy who seems ambivalent towards his country – it takes a type established by Graham Greene and adds several dollops of bleak. Le Carré, Ritt and Burton know exactly what they’re about, and they’re all facing in exactly the same direction.




Trivia hounds might like to note that the film also features the first screen appearance of Le Carré’s most famous creation, George Smiley (played here by Rupert Davies), who’d go on to be played in later films by James Mason, Denholm Elliott, Alec Guinness and, most recently by Gary Oldman.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


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4 thoughts on “The Spy Who Came In from the Cold”

  1. For reasons we may never know, Richard Burton did his most inspired work when cast as a suffering or doomed character in pictures such as Becket, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, and Night of the Iguana. As the burnt-out British spy, Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, his suffering practically becomes an alternate and truer language than mere speech. Burton portrays Leamas so effectively that you can’t help but wonder what sort of depths within his being supply the peculiar energy needed for portrayals of this kind. His performance is so powerful that it would be wrong to say that watching him is a great pleasure; that would be like saying you enjoy the sight of a large animal slowly tearing itself to pieces before your eyes.

    The film as a whole is relentlessly grim from start to finish, and is miles from James Bond territory. Not only is it shot in black and white, but there isn’t a single scene blessed with sunlight. Such was director Martin Ritt’s determination to create not merely a portrait of one man in his own personal hell, but to imply that under the conditions of cold war, life in western civilization is apt to be psychically deadening for all. Throughout, the condition of being almost permanently cold seems to be fundamental to Spy, so that by the time the film ends you want to consume a stiff hot drink and hug someone.

    The plot is this: Leamas returns to Britain after a fatally botched operation in Berlin, shaken and despondent, but wanting to go back out into the field (probably in part to redeem himself in his own eyes). Control, the head of the spy organization, asks him to participate in a scheme to destroy Mundt, their East German enemy. Leamas’s assignment is to pretend to have been thrown out of his job and appear to go completely to seed, leaving himself open to recruitment by East German agents in London, who quickly make their appearance on cue. The rest of the movie follows Leamas as he’s lured by stages to East Germany, and ultimately brought to the realization that he’s been nothing but a pawn used by both sides to accomplish Byzantine ends that he couldn’t see coming.

    What particularly intrigues me about all this is whether Leamas merely impersonates someone who goes to seed or actually does so after a lifetime of spying. Was he an alcoholic by the time he got this assignment, or was he only pretending to be? Did the strain of months of intentional impersonation as a drunken, defrocked agent unexpectedly take hold of him and hasten a downward slide? The film is never clear on this.

    Aside from Burton, Spy offers a slew of notable British and German actors in supporting roles. Cyril Cusack as Leamas’s chief is onscreen for only two brief periods, yet it’s hard to take your eyes off this wily Irishman, so soft-spoken and detached as he calmly explains how he’s going to spin his web to catch Mundt. In his quiet way, Cusack comes close to stealing the scenes he shares with Burton-an impossibility for any ordinary supporting actor. Claire Bloom plays an unmarried woman, an openly and sincerely devoted communist who befriends Leamas when he goes to work in the small library where she’s employed. Michael Hordern, a British treasure, is a recruiter for the East German spy ring and makes Leamas’s acquaintance when the latter finishes a brief prison term for savagely beating a grocer (in order to attract the East Germans’ attention to himself). Hordern’s character is a sensitive old queen, and Leamas is sarcastically contemptuous of him, making a series of cutting remarks that would not be politically correct nowadays. Oscar Werner, one of the most appealing film actors of the 20th century (Interlude, The Shoes of the Fisherman, Jules and Jim, Fahrenheit 451, Ship of Fools), gives another of his many impressive performances as a dedicated East German Communist who slowly forms a liking for Leamas; and Peter Van Eyck (whom you’ve seen playing Nazis in dozens of films) as his brutal superior, Mundt, is unpleasantly convincing as someone quite ready to destroy anyone standing in his way.

    Spy, based on John LeCarré’s first great espionage novel, is one of the most tightly constructed motion pictures I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t have a wasted frame of film, never yields an inch nor gives the audience a break, and doesn’t falter in its view of a career in espionage as damaging and inhuman. Everyone involved is exploited, corrupted, treacherous, or at least disillusioned, and the ones who aren’t are usually murdered. Lies are the lingua franca of the people who populate this movie. There are no personal triumphs, not even of spirit remaining triumphant over loss, and the ending remains one of the classic downers in the history of sound films. This was a movie whose makers risked bad-mouth publicity and the loss of audiences. Executives at Paramount, the company that produced it, must have suffered night sweats before the reviews came out.

    Made more than 30 years ago, the movie has lost none of its power to emotionally affect audiences. Martin Ritt, whose own career had been temporarily ruined by the Communist witch hunt during the McCarthy era, had a feeling of sympathy for doomed, burnt-out losers caught in a system or situation not (usually) of their own making, struggling to no avail, then ultimately being swallowed up or simply discarded (cf. The Great White Hope, Hud, The Front, and No Down Payment). After several years, Ritt managed to re-establish himself in Hollywood; many others who were driven out of their jobs were unable to ever come back.

    The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is a classic of its kind. In terms of its economy of presentation, it could be profitably studied by many of today’s filmmakers as a lesson in masterly, well-honed, adult filmmaking.

  2. Having just read LeCarré’s first novel, ‘Call for the Dead’, I am now appreciating his third novel ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ even more. This film adaptation directed by Martin Ritt is a fine preamble to the masterful BBC series ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ and ‘Smiley’s People’. One of the joys of LeCarré’s novels is that many characters return again and again. Mundt, the "villain" in ‘Spy…’ first appears in ‘Call..’ and as usual LeCarré wraps up a few loose ends from the previous story.

    This black and white film recreates the sullen atmosphere of cold war espionage in a way that color seems to diminish for some unexplainable reason. Those were black and white kinda times in my memory. Depressing, frightening and dour.

    George Smiley makes a small appearance, albeit very important as a character in the plot line, and is nicely played by Rupert Davies, capturing the diffident and wry Smiley as effectively as Guinness did later on and Denholm Elliot even further on in the TV film ‘A Murder of Quality’. Cyril Cusack’s Control could easily be the younger version of Alexander Knox’s masterful rendition in the Smiley TV shows. The continuity suggested in all of these films is very satisfying. It’s a shame so many of the other versions of LeCarré’s novels are so mediocre… ie ‘The Little Drummer Girl’ with a totally miscast Diane Keaton, and ‘The Russia House’, too Hollywood by half.

    Richard Burton turns in just about the greatest performance of his life here. He is the embodiment of the disillusioned, bitter and down-trodden ego-maniac that seems to be the basic cocktail for a spy’s personality, according to LeCarré.

    I’ve seen this film many times but just recently spotted LeCarré himself (at least it certainly looks like him) as an extra in a short scene. As Leamas is making his roundabout way to Smiley’s house at 9 Bywater Street, he is exiting the first of 2 taxis. As he does so a tall, lean man in black is walking towards him. Ritt seems to be focusing the camera on this "extra" actor who actually makes furtive glances at Leamas. It is later revealed that Leamas has been followed by the Communists. Could LeCarré be playing that non-speaking, uncredited part of the Eastern "watcher" trailing Leamas to Smiley’s house? Wouldn’t surprise me in the least. It’s a part LeCarré would have enjoyed playing, I think.

    And, like Hitchcock, LeCarré has appeared in film adaptations of his books before.

    Claire Bloom is excellent as the naive English communist who hasn’t got a clue as to what she’s supporting. The end of this film is always shocking to me. The ruthlessness of the spy-masters, the lies, the back-stabbing…. There is nothing over-blown in this film. It’s all very subtle and intriguing and with the passage of time just gets more and more fascinating.

    Highly recommended to fans of this genre, especially LeCarré fanatics. If you haven’t read his books you are missing out on perhaps the finest living writer of the English language. Some "experts" think his writing style is out of date because the plots are so involved and the prose so full of humor and political incorrectness; I read something to that effect in the most recent edition of the ‘Halliwell’ guide. Perhaps the editor of that book has A.D.D. or something, or perhaps he’s just seen to many glitzy, empty flicks designed to entertain the gawping masses, I don’t know. To me, LeCarré will never go out of style and it is to be hoped the film adaptations of his books will continue to be made. A few remakes wouldn’t be out of order either.

  3. So many poor Cold War spy movies were made in the 1960s, ranging from shtick to schlock. This one is a standout — great acting, great atmosphere, great plot. It’s darker, grittier, and more realistic than any other films of this genre from the mid-60s, and wears even better with age (no "mind control machines" or other ridiculous retro gadgets).

    Le Carré is often credited for making the spy novel transcend genre fiction and enter into the realm of literature. It is apt that a similar statement can be said about a movie based on Le Carré; it moves beyond "spy movie" into brilliant cinema. Heavily recommended.

  4. It seems to me as though no one remembers this film. In fact, I think that it would be fair to say that I wouldn’t have become intrigued enough by it to finally rent if I hadn’t seen just the briefest of clips of it on an ABC news broadcast. When I think about it, I realize why should anyone remember it? This was made during the Golden Age of Bond, which this film acts as a dark mirror to. More’s the pity, actually, as this was one of Richard Burton’s finest performances.

    Burton is cast as Alex Leamas, a nerve-dead, aged secret operative operating out of West Berlin. After a routine assignment goes awry, Leamas is sent home and out of the service. He struggles to try to live a normal, average life as a librarian’s assistant, but he can’t make it work for him (something that is not helped by his chronic alcoholism). This fact is made forcefully clear when he winds up beating a local grocer and is sentenced to jail time. Slowly but surely, he allows himself to be pulled back into the Cold War he operated in, not suspecting or maybe not even caring that his superiors are setting him up for a fall.

    One will never mistake Alex Leamas’ grey, rainy world for the sunlight universe of James Bond. It offers what is probably the ugliest depiction of the Great Game on film: drunkards, ex-Nazis, Jews, and die-hard Communists swimming like sharks through a fish pond, all of them devouring any who get in their way. None have any more than lip-service loyalty to their fellow operatives, their countries, or maybe even their own ideologies. At it’s center stands Burton, playing Leamas as a walking dead man, festering with hate, resentment, and cynicism at the system that eventually sends him into the gutter. His devastating parked car monologue alone is worth the price of renting this one from the local video store.

    It’s bitter cynic tone may have been the film’s undoing; rarely have I seen a film so downbeat in it’s depiction of humanity. Still, it is not one that deserves to be forgotten.

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