The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
Director: Martin Ritt
Screenplay: Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper (based on the novel by John le Carré)
Stars: Richard Burton (Alec Leamas), Claire Bloom (Nan Perry), Oskar Werner (Fiedler), Sam Wanamaker (Peters), George Voskovec (East German Defense Attorney), Rupert Davies (George Smiley), Cyril Cusack (Control), Peter van Eyck (Hans-Dieter Mundt), Michael Hordern (Ashe), Robert Hardy (Dick Carlton), Bernard Lee (Patmore), Beatrix Lehmann (Tribunal President)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1965
Country: U.K.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold DVD
 The Spy Who Came in From the Cold It is impossible to imagine Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the first film adaptation of a novel by the prolific John le Carré, in anything other than black and white. Although by the mid-1960s most major film productions were being done in color, black and white was still a viable artistic choice if the filmmaker could justify it, and Ritt’s decision to depict the inner workings of Cold War-era espionage in various shades of gray rather than vibrant hues was the right one, especially to underscore the manner in which the film served as a corrective to the increasingly cartoonish and decadent exploits of Her Majesty’s favorite secret agent James Bond, who by that time had starred in four movies and become an international icon.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is essentially the anti-James Bond. Even though, according to le Carré, it is no less fantastical in content (note, for example, its fantasy version of the infamous Checkpoint Charlie), its focus on the unromantic and often ugly dealings in the spy trade makes it a counter-fantasy that is succinctly summarized by Richard Burton’s embittered British agent near the end of the film when he describes spies as “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.”

Burton’s character, Alec Leamas, is at the end of an 18-year career in the British secret service, much of which he spent overseeing various agents on the other side of the Iron Curtain (the film takes place in the mid-1960s, when the Cold War was particularly heightened and the memories of World War II were still fresh). As is typical of the genre, he accepts one final assignment, in this case to pretend that he has become a pathetic alcoholic after being let go by the government so that he might be approached by East German spies hoping to turn him. The ultimate goal is to fake defection to the other side in order to fill an ambitious East German spy named Fiedler (Oskar Werner) with lies that will implicate another agent, Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck), as a double agent. The British want Mundt dead, so what better way than to trick his own people into executing him for them? Dirty tricks, indeed.

While pretending to be down on his luck in London, Leamas strikes up a relationship with a librarian named Nan (Claire Bloom), one of those gentle souls who has gotten caught up in communist politics because she genuinely believes that it will lead to a better world. In le Carré’s world, there is no such thing as pure ideology, political or otherwise, and such fervent beliefs usually result in tragedy because their idealism can lead nowhere else. The grimmest aspect of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is not so much the ruthless nature of the British plan, but the manner in which it ultimately relies on the manipulation of innocent parties. In other words, the ends justify the means as long as capitalism wins.

It’s a neat and dirty little scheme, one that relies on a great deal of fabrication, deceit, and understanding of the human psyche. There are no exploding briefcases, secret weapons, or tricked-out Aston Martins, only desperate men trying to manipulate each other in the service of incompatible political ideologies. Leamas is not a hero, but he is not necessarily a scoundrel, either. He is, however, burned out and cynical, which we see in the opening scene as he watches one of his men being gunned down just feet away from him, a horrific event that barely causes him to bat an eyelash, but clearly tears away at him within. In this regard, Richard Burton’s performance is quite extraordinary since he tends to go for the big gesture and booming dialogue, which would have killed the film’s relentless interiority. Burton keeps his mannerisms in check, and as a result gives one of his best performances, especially when the film turns tragic.

Director Martin Ritt, who had already made an anti-Western of sort in 1963’s Hud, turns a penetrating gaze of disillusionment into the realm of the thriller, substituting gloom and doom for thrills and chills. As a result, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold has a somewhat ponderous gait, stumbling forward into darker and darker terrain until it arrives at its self-consciously tragic conclusion that is all but inevitable. Ritt’s approach can be somewhat heavy-handed, and in stripping away the glamour and fun of the spy movie he does less to reveal the realities of actual spy games than he does to reveal the fanciful inner workings of the genre itself. He doesn’t do away entirely with suspense (a climactic tribunal plays like a classical Hollywood courtroom showdown), but he does succeed in drawing our attention to the brutal nature of Cold War espionage, never so chilling as when a British superior calmly notes that the West cannot afford to be any less ruthless than its enemies, a justification that rings with frightening familiarity today.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Video interview with author John le Carré
  • Selected-scene commentary by cinematographer Oswald Morris
  • The Secret Center: John le Carré (2000), BBC documentary
  • 1967 interview with Richard Burton from the BBC series Acting in the 60’s
  • Audio conversation from 1985 between director Martin Ritt and film historian Patrick McGilligan
  • Gallery of set designs
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Essay by critic Michael Sragow
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateNovember 18, 2008

    Although the outside of the case lists the aspect ratio as 1.85:1 (which is how it was most likely projected in U.S. theaters), the transfer on this disc, which was made from a 35mm composite fine-grain master positive, is actually in the originally European aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The black-and-white image features fine shadings of gray, with excellent detail, no signs of age or damage (thank you, MTI Digital Restoration System!), and strong contrast that gives several sequences a decidedly film noir-esque feel. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print, sounds crisp and clean.
    The first few supplements on the second disc of this two-disc set focus on author John le Carré. You can start with the hour-long The Secret Center: John le Carré, a 2000 BBC documentary that traces his unique life from the precocious child of a single father, to a burgeoning teenage spy, to a bestselling author. There is also a new 39-minute video interview with le Carré that is particularly refreshing because, perhaps due to his age or the amount of time that has passed since the film’s production, he is candid and honest (and extremely well-spoken) in his assessment of the first cinematic adaption of one of his novels. He talks openly and sometimes humorously about the difficult relationship between director Martin Ritt and star Richard Burton, his own naiveté when originally approached by Paramount, and what he does and does not like about the film. There are also some archival materials, including a 1967 interview with Richard Burton from the BBC series Acting in the 60’s (34 min.), conducted by film critic Kenneth Tynan, and an audio conversation from 1985 between director Martin Ritt and film historian Patrick McGilligan (49 min.). For those interested in the film’s aesthetics, there is selected-scene audio commentary by cinematographer Oswald Morris, although oddly this is on the second disc, rather than the disc with the film. Finally, there is a gallery of set designs and the film’s original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Paramount Pictures and The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

    James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.

    © 1998 - 2018 - All logos and trademarks in this site are the property of their respective owner.