Director: Martin Ritt
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“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’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?”
— Alec Leamas, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
It’s doubtful most of 1965’s moviegoing public thought anything like the above quote. We were awash in the fantasy spy adventures of James Bond and the hilarious hijinks of Our Man Flint. On television, comedy writers gave us Get Smart, fantasy writers gave us The Prisoner, and an industrial mindset that recognized the world’s eternal love of gadgets gave us Mission: Impossible.
Like a spy “out in the cold,” novelist John Le Carré, a former civil servant in the British Foreign Service, was himself working on the fringes of the West’s thrilled fascination with Cold War intelligence operations, creating a vision of bleak, bureaucratic squalor in place of diamonds and dames. Le Carré’s large body of work often includes operative George Smiley as his central protagonist. By contrast, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Le Carré’s fourth Smiley book and the one that put him on the literary map, has Alec Que Leamas as its central character, a spy bone-weary of the game who must complete one more mission before he can come out of the deep-freeze of the Cold War.
Martin Ritt has made a number of stylish films of mixed quality that are more hot than cool (Paris Blues, The Long, Hot Summer). I’m not sure how he got the nod to do Spy, but this film is definitely his best showing. Helped greatly by the moody black-and-white cinematography of Oswald Morris, Ritt captures the isolation of the men in the shadows who are the perfect embodiment of the desperate, life-and-death play acting of T. S. Eliot’s Hollow Men.
The film opens with a high-angle look down on Checkpoint Charlie, the flashpoint of the physical absurdity that is the Berlin Wall. Leamas (Richard Burton) is standing in the Western sector telling a guard that he has a man coming through and that it would mean a lot to him if they left the man alone. The guard shrugs. “They shoot, and we are told to shoot back.” Leamas spots his man, Karl Riemeck, walking his bicycle to the gate. The gate lifts, then another, and it looks as if he’s home free. Then the siren sounds. The man mounts his bike in a desperate attempt to outrun the bullets that come flying at him. Leamas watches with a kind of stony horror as his agent falls, a tangle of legs and machine on a wet, cobblestone street.
Back in London, Leamas meets with Control (Cyril Cusack), who recognizes that his agent needs a break. He suggests a desk job, but Leamas insists he’s an operative. In a soothing tone, Control suggests that Leamas would like to come in from the cold, but he is needed to do one more job—get the German agent Mundt (Peter van Eyck) who killed Riemeck, a double agent Leamas had spent a great deal of time turning. The need for revenge and his desire to keep at the job lead Leamas to agree. He is to offer himself as a double agent to get inside German Communist headquarters and implicate Mundt as a double agent, leading to Mundt’s execution.
To set up his cover, Leamas goes to an unemployment office and is referred to a library for a job as a cross-indexer (an ironic turn for someone about to offer himself up as a double-crosser). He meets Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), an idealistic British Communist who works at the library. Leamas does a very convincing job of acting the disillusioned agent who has been “made redundant.” He drinks constantly, lives on the cheap, and in a drunken fit, beats a grocer who refused him credit and lands in jail. Naturally, Nan makes a play for him. So do the Communists.
Leamas is contacted by Peters (Sam Wanamaker) and Carlton (Richard Hardy), who blow him to a nice dinner and all the whiskey he can drink at a strip joint. Leamas agrees to tell all he knows for a large sum of money and a nice place to live in the East. He meets once more with Control at the home of George Smiley (Rupert Davies), then goes to say good-bye to Nan. He is transported to Amsterdam for what he thinks will be two weeks of questioning. When he sees his picture in the paper as a missing agent, we get an enormous reaction shot of Burton looking completely betrayed. His interrogator, Patmore (Bernard Lee), is unimpressed with the information Leamas has provided. He is sent to Germany, where he will most likely be killed. This is what Leamas has been waiting for.
Once there, a cat-and-mouse game ensues, with Leamas pitted against Fiedler (Oskar Werner), Mundt’s assistant, who is trying to get more information. In fact, Fiedler wrests enough data from Leamas to hang Mundt—just what Leamas wants. Then, things really start to get nasty as the true ruthlessness of the spy game snares innocent and guilty alike in traps they failed to anticipate.
The plot of Spy is tight and diabolical, though the film’s denouement is inevitable from the start. Leamas is more than tired—he’s completely adrift. Although he takes the assignment, one senses that he already is out of the game. Burton plays Alec’s disaffection so convincingly that the beginning of the film is extremely confusing. Is he on the mission, or has he really gone off the deep end? This instability makes the film a little difficult to settle into. Burton gives us a little more, however, to help us understand that Leamas is an actor almost as good as the one playing him. When Alec sees the newspaper story about himself, for example, we get a chance to witness the spy create his character before his interrogator returns to the room.
Claire Bloom is wonderful as Nan. The script doesn’t really build the reasons for Nan’s affection for Alec, but if the romance comes up a little abruptly, it certainly seems genuine. The change of the character’s name in the book from Liz Gold to Nan Perry may have been an attempt to distance the character from a perception that she is Jewish and soften what would have been a more strident variety of Jewish Communism to one that emphasizes world peace. This choice works in making the romance between Nan and Alec seem more genuine, and has the additional benefit of isolating Fiedler as the lone, identified Jew in the film. His opposition to Muntz, a former member of the Hitler Youth, sets up an ideological struggle—perhaps the only genuine one in the film—that makes the pragmatic choices of both sides look very bad indeed.
There are some interesting cinematic choices as well. The whoring aspects of spying come strikingly into focus as Leamas and Carlton sit across from each other in the strip club with the stage in the background and the stripper near the end of her act framed squarely between them. It’s a startling shot, even today. Throughout the film, Burton is lit to highlight a mole that sits under his right eye. It’s distracting, mars his good looks, and provides a metaphor for what his character is in an extremely subtle, archetypal way. The final shot will take your breath away with its clinical simplicity.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was very much a film of its time. Nonetheless, it’s a cautionary tale whose message is scarily appropriate for our stricken political times.