Saturday Night Cinema: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold


I wanted a Richard Burton film tonight, one that featured one of his top best performances. I am reading his diaries and I am enthralled by this clever, complex, cruel, romantic, multi-layered and above all, one of the most magnificent figures in film and theater.

Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, “John Le Carre’s novel about betrayal and disillusionment in the world of East/West espionage is treated with intelligence and a disarming lack of sentimentality or moralizing….What finally impresses, however, is the sheer seediness of so much of the film, with characters, buildings, and landscapes lent convincingly grubby life by Oswald Morris’ excellent monochrome camera work.”

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“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: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.”

So says disillusioned British secret agent Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) in perhaps the best effort to adapt a John le Carre’s novel to the big screen.

Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters

Based on the novel by John Le Carre, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold stars Richard Burton as a dispirited, end-of-tether British secret agent. He comes in from “the cold” (meaning he is pulled out of field operations) to act as a undercover man behind the Iron Curtain. To make his staged defection seem genuine, Burton goes on an alcoholic toot and is imprisoned and publicly humiliated. Once he has been accepted into East German espionage circles, Burton discovers that what he thought was his mission was a mere subterfuge–and that he’s been set up as a pawn for an entirely different operation.

This may be the most magnificent performance in Richard Burton’s career, and will definitely please all fans of rotting charm. Drinking heavily in real life at the time, he was willing to expose his own capacity for ugliness and decay in a way that many glamorous stars of his era would not have dared to do. He exudes bone crunching hopelessness and isolation in shot after shot: Leamas alone on a park bench, alone in a bar, alone in his bed, alone chained in a cell. He’s devastated and devastating. (more…)

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The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965)

Of all the novelists who specialize in espionage and spy thrillers, John Le Carre is probably the most acclaimed within literary circles for his distinctive prose and realistic, often unflattering portrayals of counter-intelligence agencies. While his books didn’t win him many friends at the British Secret Service or the C.I.A., readers were fascinated with his stories which often presented all-too-human characters toiling away in morally dubious assignments amid bleak or less than glamorous surroundings. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) is generally regarded as one of Le Carre’s finest works and the film version, directed by Martin Ritt, is a remarkably faithful adaptation, capturing all the disillusionment and despair of the novel, a mood that was perfectly in keeping with its setting – East Berlin during the Cold War era.

In the central role, Richard Burton plays Alec Leamas, a burnt-out officer in the British Intelligence who is given a final assignment before his retirement: to find and expose the “mole” in their own organization who is operating within a communist cell in East Berlin. Leamas is given a new identity – as a hard-drinking, political dissident who wants to defect from West Germany – and, as part of his cover, finds work at a library where he meets Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), a Communist Party member. Eventually, Leamas manages to infiltrate the secret organization run by former Nazi Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck) but quickly learns that his own role in the affair is a convenient smoke screen for his superiors; he is actually a pawn in an elaborate double-cross.

Prior to filming The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Richard Burton had just completed The Sandpiper (1965) with his wife Elizabeth Taylor, and was ready to take on more challenging material after the soap opera histrionics of the latter film. The role of Leamas was unlike any previous character Burton had played: he was depressive, non-communicative and spoke in monosyllables. There were no grand speeches or passionate explosions of emotion. Burton told an on-set interviewer, “The others do all the acting. As Leamus, I just react.” Interestingly enough, Burton, who was playing a habitual drinker in the film, was a well-known imbiber off the set but the director discouraged his bad habits with the exception of one scene. Burton recalled, “I had to knock back a large whiskey. It was the last shot of the day, and I decided to use the real hard stuff. We did 47 takes. Imagine it, luv, 47 whiskies.” Despite his flippant remark, Burton gave one of his most memorable performances in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, winning himself a Best Actor Oscar nomination (he lost to Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou). But during production, the actor was miserable. His immersion in the gloomy character he was playing began to affect him deeply as well as those around him. He drank more heavily and he found the various film locations – Shepperton Studios outside London, Dublin, Ireland, and Bavaria – cold and depressing.

Burton’s co-star, Claire Bloom, also found the actor unfriendly and distant. Years before, during the making of Look Back in Anger (1958), they had been lovers but upon their first meeting on the set of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Burton snubbed her. In retaliation, Bloom needled him on the set by doing wicked imitations of Elizabeth Taylor. Later she would mock him to the press as well, remarking on his career arc: “It was obvious that he was going to be a huge star, which is not the same as being a great actor. He has confused them.” Yet, in spite of her feelings about Burton, Bloom would later cite The Spy Who Came in From the Cold as one of the few films she was actually proud of; the others being Limelight (1952), Richard III (1954) and Look Back in Anger.

Critics were likewise impressed with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and lavished praise on everything from the ensemble acting to the atmospheric art direction (It was also nominated for an Oscar) and Martin Ritt’s skills as a producer-director. The New York Times wrote that “it looks as though Mr. Ritt has slipped in with a handheld camera and started recording the movements of a British secret agent at the Berlin wall.” Probably the most accurate assessment of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is this review by Geoff Andrew in the TimeOut Film Guide: “John Le Carre’s novel about betrayal and disillusionment in the world of East/West espionage is treated with intelligence and a disarming lack of sentimentality or moralizing….What finally impresses, however, is the sheer seediness of so much of the film, with characters, buildings, and landscapes lent convincingly grubby life by Oswald Morris’ excellent monochrome camera work.”

Producer/Director: Martin Ritt
Screenplay: Paul Dehn, Guy Troper, based on the novel by John Le Carre
Production Design: Tambi Larsen, Ted Marshall, Hal Pereira
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Costume Design: Motley
Film Editing: Anthony Harvey
Original Music: Sol Kaplan
Principal Cast: Richard Burton (Alec Leamas), Claire Bloom (Nan Perry), Oskar Werner (Fiedler).

by Jeff Stafford

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