Weekend Film Recommendation: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Editors-Pick-The-Spy-Who-Came-in-From-The-Cold What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.

So says disillusioned British secret agent Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) in perhaps the best effort to adapt a John le Carré novel to the big screen: 1965’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The serpentine plot concerns a burnt-out espionage agent who enters a downward spiral of booze, self-hatred and lost faith after a disastrous mission in Berlin. But then it turns out that Leamas’ decline and despair is a ruse (?) play-acted at the behest of his superiors. As planned, he is recruited by the other side and ends up trying to discredit East German intelligence head Hans-Dieter Mundt (A cold, effective Peter van Eyck). Leamas undermines the ex-Nazi by feeding false (??) information to Mundt’s ambitious, Jewish deputy (Oskar Werner, very strong here). It’s a difficult, high-risk mission, but Leamas knows that his boss back home is 100% behind him (???).

This may be the most magnificent performance in Richard Burton’s career, and will definitely please all fans of rotting charm. Drinking heavily in real life at the time, he was willing to expose his own capacity for ugliness and decay in a way that many glamorous stars of his era would not have dared to do. He exudes bone crunching hopelessness and isolation in shot after shot: Leamas alone on a park bench, alone in a bar, alone in his bed, alone chained in a cell. He’s devastated and devastating.

x950A 15 minute sequence of scenes in Britain is a masterclass in cinematic storytelling. It’s unsettling yet fascinating as Leamas repeatedly gets pissed and wanders through empty streets. Ultimately, he savagely beats an innocent man (Did the filmmakers cast for this part Bernard Lee — M from the flashy, unrealistic James Bond series — to make a point?). His copy book blotted, Leamas is judged “turnable” by the other side. After being released from jail, he is recruited by the Soviets in a sleazy men’s club by an unctuous businessman and a pathetic, gay procurer (Robert Hardy and Michael Hordern, respectively, terrific actors who clearly understood that there are no small roles).

The romantic aspects of the story also work well and become more important as le Carré’s ingenious plot unfolds. Claire Bloom is credible and sympathetic as the British would-be communist “who believes in free love, the only kind Leamas could afford at the time”. Leamas’ lacerating disdain for her naiveté reveals the depths of his own self-contempt: She may be immature in her politics but who after all is the one risking his life and doing horrible things in a struggle over the very same politics?

Rarely has the look of a movie more perfectly captured its mood, and that’s a credit to Oswald Morris. Without any conscious intention, I have recommended here at RBC more films shot by Morris than any other cinematographer. He is a remarkably unpretentious professional who maintained an astonishingly consistent quality in his work for 6 decades (and he is still with us at age 98). It was a bold and brilliant choice to make this movie in black and white, which let Oswald create a washed out look that matches the bleak tone of the story. As much as the excellent acting, what stays with the viewer are Oswald’s shots of complete desolation both during Leamas’ alcoholic, putatively free, British wanderings and his time in East German captivity.

The other delight of this film is that it never condescends to the audience by over-explaining. With each double and triple cross, rather than clumsy exposition director Martin Ritt simply gives us Burton’s face, as the mind behind it struggles frantically to make sense of the latest shift in the icy wind. A small example of the film’s understated, even at times cryptic, storytelling style is the scene where Werner asks for some paperwork from his underling Peters (Sam Wanamaker, memorably creepy). The seated, lame, Wanamaker extends his hand but not far enough. Rather than step forward, Werner waits until Wanamaker struggles to his feet and hands it to him. Burton starts to laugh derisively. The subtext which the film expects you to understand: Werner is the boss but as a Jew, he will never be fully respected by his German underlings. A small moment, a sly moment, a powerful moment, brought across with no comment other than Burton’s mad laughs at Wanamaker’s expense.

Touches like that are a key reason why The Spy who Came in from the Cold is completely engrossing. Fans of spy films simply cannot miss this landmark movie.

p.s. If you like this movie, you might enjoy prior RBC posts on the best effort to adapt le Carré to television (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and on the battered, shattered Richard Burton and his iconic dingy overcoat

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

8 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”

  1. Dublin (Ireland) doubled as East Berlin in the film because in 1965 it looked so bleak, run-down and full of rotting tenements in gappy streets, half way between bomb sites and building sites

    I visited East Berlin in the 1970s and it was indeed shabby and grey as mid-century Dublin.

  2. A great movie, and Burton’s performance is amazing. I agree that this is the best adaptation of a LeCarre book, although The Tailor of Panama is also quite good.

    1. I love Tailor of Panama and will review it someday but it’s just a notch below TSWCIFTC

  3. I weighed in on this in the earlier thread on Burton’s overcoat, but I’ll say it again. This is Richard Burton’s greatest performance, and probably his only screen performance that I would call great. Forget about this being the best screen adaptation of a Le Carré book, this is one of the best films ever made. It’s one of those works of art where wherever you turn, you’re confronted with perfection. I read the book only after having seen the film, and I have to say the film is a better film than the book is a book. For those of you who haven’t seen this, I envy you. You have it still before you.

  4. I should probably have said, one of those works of art, like Othello, where wherever you turn, you’re confronted with perfection.

  5. Finally watched it from start to finish last night (“free” on Amazon Prime). I’m not sure “great” does justice to this movie. Richard Burton was what he should have been always and Claire Bloom was luminous. I had forgotten how good Oskar Werner was. Who is the current heir to Martin Ritt?

    Sad, really. Over the holiday I went to a local movie palace for the first time in 10 years to see “Hobbit, Part the Second.” Meh. Previews were for “Godzilla,” “RoboCop,” and another freakin’ remake I can’t remember. Looks like it will be another 10 years. But we have Keith to remind us what to watch. Thank you.

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