The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)
Directed by Martin Ritt
Tuesday, October 2, at BAM, part of its John le Carré series
Martin Ritt’s adaptation is a powerfully icy experience, a walking autopsy of disillusionment lobbed at popcorn-munchers during James Bond’s heyday. Comparing crumbly alcoholic-spook Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) with Agent 007 is inevitable; whereas Ian Fleming left British intelligence for a writer’s life the instant World War II was over, John le Carré was interrogating refugees from the brand-new East Germany by age 20. Properly repulsed, he dedicated his writing career to company men like Leamas—in Burton’s rendition, a seen-it-all derelict held together by coffee and booze, the promise of his analytic prowess long betrayed by shin-deep political ideals and sluices of mindless bureaucracy.
The movie begins and ends at the Berlin Wall, where one of Leamas's informants is shot crossing on bicycle; the spy is called back to London and none-too-subtly encouraged to leave government service. He takes a job at a podunk library for £11 a week. When his supervisor asks him if his handwriting is legible, he responds without missing a beat: "except for weekends." He slowly begins dating a much younger, prettier, leftier woman named Nan (Claire Bloom). After drunkenly attacking a shopkeeper, Leamas serves a brief prison sentence; released jobless and penniless, he’s intercepted by some “charity workers” who tender him a fancy lunch, two free Scotches, and a proposition to defect—and name names—for cash. He accepts.
As a traitor-in-waiting, Leamas becomes a human pinball bounced between two different, equally shady new Communist allies: his interrogator Fiedler (Oskar Werner), described by Leamas's boss as “a Jew,” and intelligence officer Mundt (Peter van Eyck), described by same as “quite the other thing.” Sporting a Trotsky beard and goatee, Werner looks every bit the part, but Mundt looks like a dainty executive—details that neatly obscure the actors' uncanny facial similarities. Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper’s script loves doubles, actually; Leamas has two near-identical speeches denouncing spy culture and its fanciful notions of valor, but one is delivered with a smile; the other, later, with deathly seriousness.
The plot is classic Cold War stuff: intricate, serpentine, relatively talky by today’s standards... but the truth is in the watching. This is not one of those 60s movies where a set of blue floodlights means nighttime; huge swaths of the frame can be pitch-black or swallowed up by clouds and fog. With harsh sunlight blasted into his eyes and punched-in jowels, Burton seems an especially unhandsome vessel for the audience—but Leamas's quips and haggard listlessness fit tidily with Ritt's long and meticulous takes, his for-real ambient quiet, and his stark black and white photography. Geopolitics aside, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold may be the first Hollywood film to accurately muster the feel of a hangover.