Critics trying to analyze John le Carre’s breakthrough spy novels often note, how the novelist’s portrayal of spy game looks closer to reality than Ian Fleming’s glamorous, action-packed ‘James Bond’ tales. In fact, le Carre (real name: David John Moore Cornwell), a former intelligence officer for MI5 and MI6 (in the 1950’s and early 60’s) is said to have been annoyed by the way pulp fiction treated the spies and wanted to showcase the stodgy bureaucracy behind every spy-game. “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” was published in 1963, when James Bond craze was at its highest, but the book immediately became popular and garnered enough critical acclaim to warrant for a movie adaptation.
Director Martin Ritt, known for making engaging, character-driven dramas, steered the adaptation, while the great British actor Richard Burton played the disillusioned spy protagonist Alec Leamas. Although le Carre’s other novels were adapted for the big-screen in this past five decades, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (1965) still remains the best. In the film’s opening scene, we see the weathered British agent Alec Leamas standing at a checkpoint of West Berlin, looking forward to the arrival of his valuable operative from the checkpoint of East Berlin. Unfortunately, the operative is gunned down in front of Leamas’ eyes by the ruthless, East German intelligence head Mundt (Peter Van Eyck). Crafty, yet world-weary Leamas returns to London, pondering over the failed espionage mission. When his superior, Control (Cyril Cusack) suggests him to take a desk job (uses the expression “come in from the cold”), Leamas rejects it as he is hungry for a new mission.
For his new mission, Leamas has to make himself a target for recruitment by East German Intelligence officials in London. The downward spiral of booze, hatred and misanthropic attitude lends him the characteristics of a defector. As expected, he is soon recruited by his counterparts and meets up with Mundt’s chief assistant Fiedler (Oskar Werner) in Netherlands. Leamas’ disinformation subtly suggests to Fiedler that Mundt might be a British Operative. Fiedler, a Jew, transports Leamas into East Germany and eagerly works with him to gather ample evidence to have his ex-Nazi boss shot. But, this isn’t a conventional espionage mission as Leamas believes it to be and his romantic relationship with the young British librarian Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), a card-carrying communist, comes to strike him at a pivotal moment.
Director Ritt and Cinematographer Oswald Morris have created an exact opposite imagery of the Bond films. Shot in black-and-white, the visuals lean a bit on the aesthetics of film-noir. The film’s initial, glacial pace intends to convey the squalor and tedium faced by spies in doing espionage work. Screenwriter Paul Dehn (“Goldfinger”) also had some real-life experience as spy. He sets about the story in a simple, straightforward manner, and like le Carre, Dehn gradually increases the tension by hinting at the hidden knowledge. In le Carre’s novels, the knowledge possessed by the protagonist or the details laid-bare, would always discomfort the readers. It’s because the attained information only underlines the fact that there are still lot of things you don’t know; hidden information that could entirely change the context of the tale. As the movie proceeds into that court-like setup, towards the end, we get the larger picture of how spies are just cogs in a giant bureaucratic machine, where secret knowledge decides which side wins the warfare.
Martin Ritt, known as left-realist director, is as unrelenting as le Carre in depicting the spy agencies of both west and east. He brings a real sense of outrage to the way, the bureaucrats at the top works. Ritt also wonderfully directs the actors, especially Richard Burton. Since this is a character-driven drama, Ritt allows his excellent cast to invest themselves with the characters and their language. The atmosphere, here isn’t painterly and the tension isn’t conveyed through cold-blooded killings or earth shattering twists. Terrible things do happen in the film, but for the most part, the characters talk with each other in a dispiriting tone. So, if not for these talented actors, the film’s ironic explorations and alternating rhythms would have turned futile.
Burton gives a highly internal performance as a spy who is drifting away from the nuances of spy-game. Claire Bloom turns in a perfect understated performance, and comes out as the only character that we really care for. The scenes between Burton and Oskar Werner were equally understated. Their conversation hints about a wary friendship, which in the end turns out deadly for each other. However, if I had to pick one favorite scene, it’s when Leamas bursts out to Nan Perry in their possible escape: “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 are just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queer, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys to brighten their rotten little lives.”
“The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (112 minutes) is a dark, edgy thriller that shines a light on the harsh, remorseless espionage world. It serves as a fine counterpoint to the annoyingly patriotic and mawkish secret agent flicks.