The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965) *****
Dir. Martin Ritt
Starring: Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, Sam Wanamaker, Rupert Davies, Cyril Cusack, Peter van Eyck, Michael Hordern
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"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. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?" - Richard Burton as Alex Leamas in Martin Ritt's film adaptation of John le Carré's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
There are few films that approach the overwhelming sight, sound and almost rank smell of damp cold as Martin Ritt's extraordinary adaptation of John le Carré's classic novel of dirty, double-dealing espionage in London and East Germany at the height of the Cold War. It's a movie that will have haunted anyone who saw it when it first came out and it continues to hold up superbly as a sad, yet strangely suspenseful plunge into the dirty business of spying. As an adaptation from a genuinely great literary source, it's both faithful to the spirit of its writer and yet a superb entity unto itself. For those who have not read John le Carré's book, I suggest that you, like I, see the movie first, then dive into the words of a true master to supplement Ritt's phenomenal interpretation of this genuinely great work of 20th Century literature.
Alex Leamas (Richard Burton) is a spy - weary, bitter and yet, not quite ready to leave the only life he's ever known - the foul world of double-crossing to keep the West safe from the scourge of Communism - a blight not all that far removed from the purported freedoms of Democracy. He knows he's little more than a nasty, lying bureaucrat with nothing left but cynicism and the skill to do what he does - to what end, he continues to even question - but to forge on, he must. His mission is to stay out "in the cold" which is to say, he must keep his carcass embroiled in the Cold War for yet another stinking job.
This time out, will not be much of a stretch. He'll live a life of alcohol abuse and loneliness until taken in by a sweet young librarian (Claire Bloom) with leftist ideals and ties. He'll hopefully be targeted by Eastern-Bloc double agents to sell out Blighty for some filthy lucre - though in so doing, he'll be part of a master chess game played out by his boss Control (Cyril Cusack) and agent George Smiley (Rupert Davies) - characters respectively played by John Hurt and Gary Oldman in the great Tomas Alfredson 2011 film adaptation Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy of 2011.
Eventually approached by the gay Brit traitor Ashe (Michael Hordern), he's placed in the hands of Peters (Sam Wanamaker, the superb blacklisted American actor) who transports Leamas behind the Iron Curtain to spill his guts out to the German-Jew Fiedler (Oskar Werner) whose ultimate goal is to out the vicious anti-Semite assassin Mundt (Peter van Eyck) and hence allow the Germans to execute their own man instead of getting Brit hands dirty.
Needless to say, things will go seriously wrong.
Ritt, of course, was perhaps one of the best directors to tackle this material - his ability to work within genres that required a much more humanist quality while maintaining a sense of razzle-dazzle is what made Hud such a tremendous revisionist take on the American West and so much of his later work continued in this tradition. Of course, as had already been established, Ritt was also a master of eliciting terrific performances and there is not a single false note from any actor in this powerful antithesis to the over-the-top derring-do of the James Bond franchise from the same period. The violence in Bond was pure cartoon viscera, le Carré's was just plain viscera and while Bond was banging anything and everything of the female persuasion, le Carré'gave Alex Leamas one single, gentle woman - a born victim due to high ideals and someone Leamas could genuinely love.
Legendary Brit cinematographer Oswald Morris created such a sumptuous range of grey here, which proves again just how much we've lost by not using genuine black and white FILM more often in the modern world of cinema and just how much the medium stands to lose by its full-on conversion to both digital photography and theatrical presentation. Morris also dazzles us with the fact that black and white is as replete with "colour" in its myriad of shades as anything splashed in full-on technicolor.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold might well be the greatest espionage thriller ever made and this is certainly no mean-feat - especially when one considers how extraordinary Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was. Granted, the films were based upon le Carré books separated by a few years (and lest we forget the huge span of over 40 years between films), but it's certainly a testament to Alfredson that he superbly dabbled with a completely different end-of-era take than Ritt - one didn't even live through as Ritt had. Ritt, of course, was well acquainted with one of the effects of the Cold War - the McCarthy witch hunts and years later made the very powerful blacklist drama The Front from Walter Bernstein's great screenplay. Also, Alfredson's source material proved, in many ways, far more challenging given that it centred almost solely upon the inside bureaucratic wrangling of British Intelligence whereas Ritt had the advantage of being "in the Cold" (as it were).
Burton and Oldman both proved to be extraordinary actors to render the two very different le Carré heroes - Oldman's poker face was perfectly in keeping with the role of George Smiley. Burton, however, had quite a few more opportunities to chew the scenery with his role, but he proved, as he so often did, that with the right role, material and director, he was an unstoppable force and when he needed to maintain a poker face, as he needed to here, he did it better than anyone.
Finally, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, plays very much closer to tragedy - so much so, that it manages to have as much resonance now, if not more than it did at the time of its release. The Cold War of le Carré's work is long behind us and yet, we're currently in the midst of more than one Cold War - the "War" on Terror and the rise and seeming unstoppability of the Stalin-like Vladimir Putin (not to mention the conflicts between the West and countries like China and Northern Korea). Characters like the one played by Burton, Alex Leamas, are as numerous and expendable in today's dirty world of international espionage as they ever were. John le Carré and Martin Ritt, rendered works that were, like all great tragic tales, universal and timeless.
And here we are, 48 years later and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold feels like it could have been made just yesterday. If that's not universal, nothing is.
The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray is yet another masterpiece of home entertainment bravado and will hopefully introduce a whole new generation or two to the genius of Ritt's great film. The disc is replete with a bevy of fascinating extra features. Included in the presentation are the following: An all-new, high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, a new exclusive interview with author John le Carré, a selected scene-specific commentary with Oswald Morris, The Secret Center: John le Carré, a 2000 BBC documentary on the author’s life and work, an interview with actor Richard Burton from a 1967 episode of the BBC series Acting in the ’60s, conducted by critic Kenneth Tynan, an audio conversation from 1985 between director Martin Ritt and film historian Patrick McGilligan, a gallery of set designs, the trailer and booklet featuring a Michael Sragow essay.