By the mid-1960s, if there was a spy film released theatrically, it was almost certainly either a 007 adventure or a colourful, zany adventure evidently attempting to emulate the Bond vibe. Then again, why not, considering the (at the time) young franchise’s roaring commercial success? But espionage tales are not exclusive to the realm of fantastical, gadget-laden action escapades. In truth, the work of spies is a solitary one, most notably because, as a covert agent, mistrust is one’s greatest ally. Celebrated author John LeCarré was already a notable storyteller in the 1960s, finding inspiration in his time as a spy for the British government. Unlike what Ian Fleming, who also formerly operated in intelligence, did for 007, LeCarré felt that the more realistic, bitter pill was the best one to swallow when relating the adventures, or rather the misadventures, of his literary protagonists. One need look no further than the novel and film adaptation of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is a burnt out British operative stationed in West Berlin. His latest assignment, which involved hustling an inside man out of the city’s eastern half via the infamous Check Point Charlie crossing, proves calamitous; his prized agent is gunned down by East Berlin guards just before making it to the safe haven. Back in London, secret service chief Control (Cyril Cusack) orders that Leamas stay ‘out in the cold’ for a little while longer as the British concoct a serpentine scheme that should, if successful, finally see riddance of notorious German informant Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter can Eyck). In the leadup to being picked up by a London-based communist cell, Leamas finds a temporary job at a library, where he makes the acquaintance of shy, diminutive Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), herself a communist. Once Leamas is funnelled into Holland, under the pretence of switching sides (but in truth working for Control in order to ensnare the target Mundt), the plot thickens considerably. Few things are quite what they seem and even the experienced Leamas finds himself in dire straights…and straight into the hands of the opposition.
Truth be told, the above plot synopsis barely scratches the surface of what transpires in director Martin Ritt’s film adaptation of LeCarré most celebrated novel. Another full paragraph would be required to really get all the critical points across, yet therein lies part of the film’s intrigue and notoriety. It isn’t as though the plot is too circuitous or convoluted to understand per say, except that it its many layers and details are partly what help make one of the points the movie is trying to get across. The role of a spy, and of those that act as their puppeteers, is maddeningly weaved with countless threads of different colours, like trying to knit the perfect brown cloth with hundreds of different shades of blue and green. It can probably be done, but the gymnastics required to pull off the coup are impressively complex to say the least.
What with notions of thread and circuits on the mind, it is rather stupendous to witness Leamas’s journey, the actual mission that is, from its inception to dramatic conclusion in the picture’s final moments. Director Ritt and screenwriters Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper take LeCarré serpentine plot and strive to clarify it with a relatively straightforward path for Leamas to be set upon. The number of various operatives involved for the single purpose of bringing a turncoat into the East, from the London pick up men posing as goodwill workers, to the multiple interrogators grasping at anything their new toy has to offer, says a lot about the nature of espionage. It involves so many people, so much covert business working in the shadows, such much posing, oftentimes to collect intelligence of peripheral interest at best, utterly useless at worst. And for what? The film wisely never really gives a straight-faced answer to that question, but the viewer is perfectly within their right to ask it.
If it feels as though an overwhelming quantity of intellectual resources is being dispensed on misguided plans of stealing ideas, it could very well be because that assessment is largely true. But then again, when the rivalling ideologies, via their verbose spokespeople, have made it clear that cooperation is out of the question, then somebody has to work in the shadows. Spy’s blunt depiction of the many human faces involved peals another onion layer however. However much the people involved, acting as a collective, are fighting to uphold a cause or philosophy, they remain individuals, each with their own desires, strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. Leamas is a British spy, his defection is entirely fake, yet his demeanour rarely changes. He is a bitter, overworked, and occasionally abrasive man when in England as when he is pretending to align himself with the communists. Fiedler (Oskas Werner), a communist interrogator and bitter rival to Mundt, is both a participant in the communist machine that wishes to extrapolate what it can from Leamas, yet evidently holds more politically ambitious aspirations. Nan is a proponent of communism yet is both quite content to live her London life and accept random, expensive gifts from mysterious benefactors.
The point here is that, however draconian an ideology, humanity cannot be contained in a perfect test tube. Ideologies themselves always sound perfectly simple and straightforward when orated by a powerful, convincing voice, but they never take into consideration the individual’s personal desires and behavioural patterns. Spy makes this clear with characters acting out roles both in service for themselves well as their respective political machines.
Although the picture is replete with terrific performances, from Claire Bloom’s heartfelt Nan, Cyril Cusack’s intellectually blunt Control, to Oskar Werner’s unshakably charismatic Fiedler, there is no question that Richard Burton takes center stage. He is, to put it mildly, an excellent angry, burnt out drunkard. Of course, several stories from co-workers in the business have made it clear that he was a drunkard and a bit of a jerk in real life, so perhaps the role is not much of a stretch for the thespian. Nevertheless, his performance is as captivating as it is terrifying. Captivating for its brilliant eruptions of energy, and terrifying because it often looks as if Leamas would be better off simply killing himself instead of making those around him all the more miserable. Burton sublimely juggles emotional fatigue and bitterness, resulting in a performance that stands among his best, however much he is playing a scoundrel who isn’t deserving of the audience’s empathy in the slightest.
Spy’s other qualities are exemplary and numerous and would require several more paragraphs to properly provide them their due. Sol Kaplan’s theme, which sounds far more like a lament for a man whose has entirely lost himself, is unforgettable. The cinematography, courtesy of Oswald Morris, imbues the picture with a steely coldness. Black and white lighting is vastly more malleable than modern audiences give it credit for, fully capable of communicating a whole host of tones and feelings. Morris employs the technique in the only away that makes sense for Spy: make everything look cold. It’s both beautiful and pleasant all at once.
To borrow a tired expression, Martin Ritt’s adaptation of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is the thinking person’s spy film. It certainly is not for everyone, but for those willing to engage with its bleak and dire depiction of espionage, it ends up being a shockingly rewarding experience.