By: Erik Swift
By the mid-1960s, Cold War entertainment was big business. The sleek and sexy lifestyle of the super spy relentlessly permeated television (“I Spy,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”) and film (the 007 and Harry Palmer series). Spy-Dom was quickly saturating the market and became rightfully ripe for parody (“Get Smart,” “Casino Royale”), especially since few motion pictures after 1964 could contend with the genre’s seminal works, the holy quartet of Frankenheimer’s “The Manchurian Candidate,” Young’s “From Russia With Love,” Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” and Lumet’s “Fail-Safe.” One of the few exceptions is Martin Ritt’s 1965 effort, “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.” Paramount Pictures’ release of this film on DVD has zero bonus features – not even a trailer – but this adaptation of John Le Carre’s third novel provides a unique view of the Cold War era that set it apart from its contemporaries.
A 1963 bestseller, Le Carre’s work provides brooding and provocative material for Ritt, a master at commanding compelling turns from his actors via previously published words (see “Hud” for a perfect example). Richard Burton plays the jaded Alec Leamas, a British agent who watches the shooting of his leading German contact under the bright lights at the Berlin Wall as the film opens. Fed up with the success that his Communist counterpart Hans Dieter-Mundt (Peter van Eyck) has had at the expense of his agents, the operative is ready to take himself “out of the cold.” Leamas’ boss, Control (Cyril Cusack), has another idea. The plan: eliminate Mundt at the hand of his own people by making him appear a traitor.
Unbeknownst to Leamas, his country has secretly worked for years at spreading misinformation targeting the highly placed Mundt. Leamas’ mission is to make himself visible to the competition as a potential defector, under a guise of being a burned-out former secret agent who is disillusioned with his former employers. The pissed-off Leamas, realizing it’s a final way to best his rival, proceeds to play it to the hilt by drinking heavily, taking a menial library job and landing himself in jail for assault. Sensing he’s ready to spill his guts for any compensation, the opposition closes in and offers him a hefty sum to desert his country. Continuing to dispense lies to a stream of interrogators, the veteran spy walks a fine psychological line in an attempt to nail Mundt.
From Claire Bloom as the idealistic communist Nan Perry to Oskar Werner’s turn as Mundt’s scheming Jewish (!) subordinate Fiedler, “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” has a supporting cast with everything going for it. Snaring Burton for the role of Leamas gives the production weight, and he looks like crap for most of the film’s 112 minutes. The actor suffered from acute insomnia throughout his life, and he comes across like he’s been awake for days. Whether he’s unshaven, disheveled or being beaten, he’s a knockout. Who can’t believe him boozing to the extreme? He’d appear out of place without a cocktail in hand and spewing the line “I didn’t have any supper with my drink” with a straight face. Engaging in an intriguing game of cat-and-mouse, Leamas’ survival depends on his ability to lie – well. Burton’s Leamas is a fighter; the icily silent stare he directs at Control when his boss tells him he can’t retire is one for the books. Inhabiting one of a record seven roles that failed to net him an Oscar (Lee Marvin beat him out here for “Cat Ballou”), all eyes are on Burton, and Ritt skillfully puts him in the center of everything. The director uses the camera cleverly throughout the film, from an opening shot that lasts over two minutes to a 360-degree turn from within a school bus that moves from the jail Leamas exits to a line of bus passengers only to rest upon the solitary agent casing the entire proceedings. Ritt could tell volumes with a camera. What he could have done if he wasn’t blacklisted during the McCarthy era….
“The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” is not your ordinary spy film. Willing babes in bikinis, glitzy locales and helpful gadgets for Leamas to escape his captors are absent – it’s the antithesis of the brightness and mass appeal of “Goldfinger.” Action happens verbally, and the film begins and ends at one of the most depressing creations ever – the Berlin Wall. A script by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper translate the tedium and nuances of interrogations well, and effectively drop little from the book. The opening chat about birds between Ashe (Michael Hordern), the communist agent who initiates contact, and Leamas is up there with the multi-layered horse racing discussion in “The Big Sleep.” Oswald Morris’ harsh black and white cinematography keeps “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” dreary and bleak, but then Eastern Europe has never been known for its sunny beaches, has it? It’s quite unsettling to view such a bright spotlight on the dark side of international security.
The original negative of this film isn’t the cleanest. It’s also noticeably scratched at points. No DVD extras, a typical move from Paramount. What is present is a dour, chilling alternative to most spy flicks. “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” is worth checking out regardless of the weather.