Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965) is a brutally unvarnished reflection on international espionage, an unapologetic indictment of the Cold War and its inevitable fallout and human sacrifices on both sides of the Berlin Wall. John le Carré first novel – a runaway best seller – had been conceived out of a trifecta of closeted anxieties; first and foremost because le Carré was himself working under the radar for the British Secret Service at the time he began to write the book. Le Carré would later muse that his immediate success caught him completely off guard; the public notoriety and unexpected fascination shared by Paramount (who bought it for a song) rather unnerving. Le Carré found the business side of ‘making movies’ rather dull. Still, the behind-the-scenes machinations of shooting one proved absolutely fascinating. In many ways, le Carré’s involvement on the movie mirrored that of Paul Dehn – a one-time paid assassin cum screenwriter whose first draft adaptation became the basis for some minor consternation on the set between Richard Burton and director Martin Ritt; the full screen credit actually augmented by contributions from Guy Tropser. In the eleventh hour le Carré was brought to the Dublin shoot at the rather frantic behest of Ritt to act as a sort of buffer between the director and his rather cantankerous star.
By 1965 Richard Burton had established himself as a magnetic presence on both the stage and in the movies. His talent was frequently referenced by the critics as in the same league with his mentor Sir John Gielgud and also Rex Harrison; very distinguished company indeed. By his own admission, Burton acted largely through the booming range of his mellifluous voice. The Welsh zeitgeist had also cut his chops on some fairly weighty stagecraft. But he had endured something of a ‘spotty’ track record under his exclusive contract to 2oth Century-Fox, before freelancing on The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. In some ways, Burton was working against type, playing the low key/anti-social misanthrope he generally loathed; his preference for kings, warriors and saints perhaps a stopgap for having been born of the working class.
Burton’s name had clout. But it also carried with it an expectation for grandiosity – if, in nothing else, the performance itself. On The Spy Who Came In From The Cold Martin Ritt worked to systematically rid Burton of his thespian’s pomposity; chronically reminding the actor that his character, Alec Leamus, was a virtual non-descript, razor-backed and very sullen. However, early shooting was something of a nightmare; Ritt and Burton increasingly at odds about the screenplay; so much that at one point it looked as though Burton might walk away from the project. Le Carré was recalled to Dublin (where much of the film was photographed); Ritt begging the author to engage his star on Burton’s own level and penchant for sophisticated talk and strong drink, becoming something of a buffer between actor and director.
Le Carré would later admit that his involvement on the movie was minimal at best, the minor tweaking of a few of Burton’s speeches – and a complete rewrite of two brief soliloquies that survived the final cut, by le Carré’s own admission of ‘no consequence’. The stroking of Burton’s ego nevertheless eased the production ahead. Le Carré was not particularly pleased with Burton’s casting, feeling the weight of the actor’s reputation and Burton’s own proclivity to grandstand an ill fit for the character as written. Although le Carré would reassess his opinion of Burton’s performance after production wrapped – finding it more than ‘competent’ and even ‘intelligent’ in spots the author would still have preferred Trevor Howard as his reluctant Cold War dilettante.
But Howard’s name lacked marquee power in America, while Ritt’s first choice – Burt Lancaster – had left le Carré positively cold; Lancaster obviously American rather than the cloistered solitary Brit of the novel. In the end, the compromise came down to Richard Burton who, in retrospect, gives a marvelous performance. And yet, in reviewing the movie on its own terms, one is immediately drawn to a rather obvious disconnect between Burton’s larger than life presence and the downtrodden misfit he portrays. Burton’s Leamas never entirely eschews his affected patina of culture; his bitter condescension occasionally typifying the profound declaration of some Shakespearean martyr. Arguably, this is the Richard Burton audiences are paying to see and, occasionally, this is indeed the Richard Burton they get; with a masterful swagger and stoic cry into the dark night. It all makes for very appealing theater and/or high drama. But The Spy Who Came in From The Cold is neither in the purest sense; rather a villainous tale about unscrupulous, morally repugnant malcontents, each self-absorbed and much too self-involved to realize the web of deceit swirling around them until it is too late for salvation.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is a political thriller – yes – but the virtual antithesis of all spy thrillers gone before it – most definitely in American cinema, and particularly void of ‘set piece’ theatrics best exemplified within the James Bond franchise. ‘Spy’ is an entirely different enterprise. Perhaps no other movie reveals the rank awfulness of international intrigue; the perverse and exceptionally gritty realities in being the ‘invisible man’ given free reign among the general populace, only to quietly disappear and never allowed to evolve beyond this grotesquely nomadic and stiflingly nondescript existence – ever more shadow than man. And Ritt and his cinematographer, Oswald Morris, have done an exemplary job in creating this gloomy alternative to the colorful Bond movies; the sets unattractive and obscure in their perpetual windswept/rain-soaked moth-eaten, moldy decay; the lives set before these tableau perverted in post-war socio-political erosion.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold opens on a perilous recovery operation at Checkpoint Charlie in West Berlin (actually shot in Dublin for obvious reasons of conflict). Alec Leamas’ (Richard Burton) unit in the British Secret Service has been performing badly. Indeed, Leamas is a shell of a man; moody, impatient and exacerbated when his contact, East German double agent and political operative, Karl Riemeck is shot dead before his very eyes while attempting to make contact by reentering the American sector on a bicycle. Riemeck was Leamas’ last and best agent. His public assassination is frankly an embarrassment. Recalled in disgrace to London, Leamas is informed by his superior – Control (Cyril Cusack) that he should ‘stay out in the cold’ for a while longer for one last mission. The assignment is particularly gruesome; to feign disloyalty, become a defector and implant the doubt in the East Germans that one of their own, Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter Van Eyck) is, in fact, a corrupted double agent, something Mundt’s second in command, Fiedler (Oskar Werner) already suspects.
In order to convince the East Germans of Leamas’ defection, Control leaks the story that Leamas has been forced into early retirement. He is given a pittance of a pension and takes up a temporary and altogether menial post at a dilapidated library. Leamas’ coworker there is Nan Perry (Liz Gold in the novel, but name changed in the movie to appease Burton’s concerns of any parallel drawn in the public’s mind between the character and Burton’s own tempestuous relationship with Elizabeth Taylor; the character played with empathetic restraint by Claire Bloom). Nan is a naïve girl, devoted in her Marxist principles as secretary to her local cell in the Communist Party. She and Leamas become friends and eventually lovers, Leamas making her promise not to look for him as he prepares for his faux defection to the East. As part of the ruse, Leamas pummels Patmore (Bernard Lee); a local green grocer – the act landing him in jail. Upon his release, Leamas is approached by an East German recruiter, Ashe (Michael Hordern) and introduced to Dick Carlton (Robert Hardy) at a seedy strip club. Leamas’ foray into the upper echelons of the Abteilung is secured after he begins to drop casual hints about his knowledge of a double agent lurking in their midst, all the while pretending not to see the implications.
Leamas’ defection is taken seriously by second in command Fiedler (Oskar Werner), who seeks conclusive proof against his superior Mundt. Philosophically, Fielder is Leamas’ equal. Ideologically, however, he is rather suspicious. But Fielder is motivated by his own greed to replace Mundt in the chain of command who he has suspected of working for the West for some time. During their various discussions Leamas takes a genuine liking to Fiedler; a Jew and an idealist in support of the Communist manifesto. By contrast, Mundt is a monolithic creature of willful brutalities; an ex-Nazi whose opportunistic and mercenary tactics would have crushed the likes of Fiedler during the Second World War but now are forced to partake in the rouse that they are both working for the ‘same side’.
The struggle for dominance within the party reaches its critical point after Mundt arrests and tortures Leamas in his desire to get to the truth. Since Fiedler applied for Mundt’s own arrest warrant on the very day he and Leamas were detained by Mundt, members of the Abteilung convene a trial to dissect the truth from the make-believe and get to the bottom of things. At trial, Fiedler vehemently defends Leamas, having bought into the story that Riemeck passed along crucial information implicating Mundt as a double agent. But Mundt’s attorney (George Voskovec) has done his homework, calling into question Nan’s association with Leamas after it is learned that British operative George Smiley (Rupert Davies) offered to pay for the lease on her apartment.
The espionage exposed, Leamas blows his cover to spare Nan. He reveals the true nature of his mission, thereby sealing Fiedler’s own death warrant. The court arrests Fiedler and detains Nan and Leamas in separate cells. However, in the dead of night Mundt secures Leamas and Nan’s escape with a car waiting for them at the gate. Leamas now realizes that Mundt is, in fact, the British operative that Fiedler exposed during trial, his own involvement deliberately meant to throw the Abteilung off while deflecting suspicion to Fiedler – in effect, setting up an innocent man and a true loyalist of the communist party to take the fall. Nan is repulsed. Leamas is merely sickened.
Leamas and Nan race to their prearranged rendezvous, an isolated spot along the Berlin wall where they can make their escape to the West. Regrettably, East German guards are alerted to their presence, a spotlight falling on Nan as Leamas attempts to hoist her over the side of the wall to freedom. Instead, Nan is mortally wounded by sniper fire and plummets to her death on the eastern side, Leamas sacrificing himself after a brief moment of bittersweet contemplation; content to die rather than return to Smiley and the turpitude of his own regime.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is bleak. In retrospect, the film plays more astutely today than it probably did in 1965, its Cold War trappings dated; its drama intensified by its not so subliminal critique of governmental morality – or lack thereof. This is the movie that unequivocally debunks the myth of spying as a glamorous affair; the frothiness of Ian Fleming’s heroics turned upside down to reveal a festering malignancy; the multi-layered full measure of deceptions in true espionage. In direct contrast, the glittering playgrounds of a James Bond movie play like uber-sophisticated farce to le Carré and Ritt’s unrelenting and very gritty back alleys. And Ritt has managed the near impossible feat of fine tuning and toning down Richard Burton’s Wagnerian vocals. Burton’s Leamas is a rumpled, careworn, socially inept, and morally exhausted outcast – truly, a spy who is unable to come in from the isolationism of his chosen profession for very long.
Conveying the vastness of Leamas’ own abject demoralization bodes well with Burton’s intuitive instincts as an actor and his inherent fascination to play complex characters struggling to find themselves within a social context neither created for themselves nor entirely understood in any sort of meaningful way; certainly, never to be rescued from the maelstrom unscathed. Richard Burton is undeniably a legendary talent. Even so, there remains a pallid glimmer of Burton – the Shakespearean-trained thespian at play within – a disconnect with the character and the melee within Burton’s own makeup in constant flux and, on occasion, even slightly desperate to break free into a bravado moment that arguably never arrives within the context of this story. Unlike the arc of a Bond movie, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold maintains its methodical pace; the ‘action’ cerebral rather than visceral. Burton is at his absolute best when he plays consistency through insolence. He has obvious difficulties in the ‘love scenes’. By his own admission, Burton would later reveal that he absolutely hated being touched on the stage or in the movies, the art of intimacy eluding him entirely and feeling foreign if not wholly unnatural.
Claire Bloom’s performance, imbued with a deft tenderness that never seems rehearsed or strained, helps to coax the awkwardness out of these moments. In fact, it is interesting to note that when she shares the screen with Burton the camera focus deliberately stray from its star to favor Bloom over Burton. Ultimately, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is the story of the evil that ‘men’ do; the women either reduced into unsuspecting appendages that help to move the story along (as in Bloom’s Nan) or masculinized all out of proportion (as with Beatrix Lehmann’s portrait of the tribunal president) in order to be properly assimilated into this cutthroat patriarchal world. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is brilliant film making, quite unlike any of the spy-themed thrillers that precede – or, in fact follow it. In the final analysis, it remains a damn good show for a very cold winter’s night…the winter of our discontent.
Criterion Home Video’s Blu-ray is, in a word – magnificent. The 1.66:1 image is free of debris, scratches and other age-related artifacts that impacted Paramount’s DVD release from 2004. This 1080p hi-def transfer sparkles. The ‘wow’ factor is in evidence in every frame. Oswald Morris’ stunning cinematography is brought spectacularly to life with a superbly rendered gray scale, luscious black levels and very clean whites. The optical stereo soundtrack has been given an upgrade as well, showing off Sol Kaplan’s careworn saxophone dominated compositions, as well as Richard Burton’s impeccable vocal command, each to their best advantage.
Extras are plentiful and meaningful – a rarity. John le Carré speaks at length on his life in civil service, the making of the movie and temperaments flaring on the set; great insight expertly told by the suave Brit. We also get the BBC documentary ‘The Secret Centre: John le Carré – a fascinating look at the real world of international espionage; frank acumen /unvarnished truths. Oswald Morris gives us a scene specific audio commentary; not as comprehensive but definitely worth a listen. Finally, there’s a 1985 audio conversation with Martin Ritt and historian Patrick McGilligan; plus a gallery of set designs and the original trailer. Bottom line: fantastic - an absolute must have!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)