The Definitive John le Carré: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is a film about espionage and the unflattering psychological drudgery of undercover intelligence. There’s a degree of legitimacy here because of the John le Carré book upon which the film is adapted. Le Carré is known for his series of spy novels that are validated by his history as a Secret Service agent. Like most writers, his screen adaptations vary from title to title, but le Carré's material proved to be a near perfect marriage with Martin Ritt’s icily matter-of-fact direction.
The thematic deception at the heart of le Carré's work is a perverse irony, someone who has made a professional career in trafficking secrets and duplicity, then turns it into a publicly heralded career outing the mechanics of espionage. How much can we trust this self-appointed secret agent soothsayer? Perhaps that’s the appeal; there’s a sly sense of cohesion in the convoluted narratives, sneakily whittled ethics and murky politics to his work. It makes stories like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold feel so genuine.
British agent Alec Leamas, who is masquerading as a disgraced MI5 agent waiting to be picked up as a defector in East Berlin, is compromised when he’s being ferreted out for being exactly what he is, a British agent. While that’s a relatively accurate account of the story, it only scratches the surface. Leamas is played by the inimical Richard Harris. His de facto communist girlfriend is brought to life by Claire Bloom, while the East Berlin officer is played by Peter van Eyck, and, in a show-stealing performance, (among these heavy hitters, it's no small feat) is Oskar Werner as the German interrogator Fiedler.
It seems like the most compelling genre films are the ones that take the air out of their subjects, and the overarching appeal in le Carré's work lies in his ability to deglamorize militarism and counter intelligence. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is one of the first movies to take the pomp and vanity away from the espionage genre.
The specificity running through his work is what makes his low-key thrillers so substantial; while the recurring George Smiley character (seen in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is a representation of weary alienation and the generation gap from World War II to The Cold War, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold features a more physical, bulldog-like operator in Alec Leamas. Both embody the emotionally depleted loner whose lives are defined and destroyed by what they do, something le Carré seeming knows all too well.
Richard Burton, a commanding presence regardless of the film he’s in, brings a boozy volatility to the volcanic and unstable Alec Leamas. The conflict emits from his outwardly expressed inner turmoil and Burton’s interpretation of his contrasting psyche is fiery and compelling. There’s a registered history behind Leamas, and you can see it in Burton’s facial expressions: angry, sad, mournful, but professional due to his lost sense of purpose.
Director Martin Ritt and credited screenwriters Guy Trosper and Paul Dehn understand that le Carré's stories don’t need fluffing or padding to work on screen. The action of the film is functional because of the impactfully deliberate script; the weight behind each tonal inflection is parried in a combative exchange that crackles throughout. Werner and Burton spit fire at each other in their de-briefing sections, Werner’s crafty Berlin operator Fiedler is a coy bastard and a brilliant match for Burton’s disenfranchised Leamas.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is a movie with a taut sense of propriety and, without betraying the author's vision, Ritt and an international cast of stalwarts collectively produced what became the definitive model for le Carré's film adaptations.