For spies, it’s all about subtlety. And that’s one thing those ‘60s sexy espionage movies left out. But there’s a certain image in the stellar opening scene of Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold that speaks directly to that “spy craze”, and how off-the-mark it really was.
As British double-agent, Karl Riemack, tries to coerce his way back into West Berlin with false papers in his hand and a bicycle by his side, fellow spook, Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) waits safely across the border, silently rooting for his cohort. Just as it seems Riemack made it through the gates, the alarms and spotlights switch on, and Riemack ungracefully climbs onto his bike, trying to outrun the incoming gunfire. This last-ditch effort proves futile, and Leamas can do nothing but look on in horror as his last agent is murdered before his eyes.
And it’s that small moment – the image of Riemack collapsing from his bicycle – which sets this film apart from the silliness of 007 (and all the other fantasy spy romps) and claims the somber tone of the film. And even though James Bond had been tearing up the British box offices and bookstores, this humorless adaptation of John le Carré’s 1963 gritty, spy noir received much critical acclaim (including 1965 BAFTA wins for Burton and Witt), with kudos falling largely on le Carré’s great source material, Oswald Morris’ stellar black-and-white cinematography, Burton’s broad, lumbering shoulders and Martin Ritt’s ability to deal with Burton’s enormous amount of lumber.
In the film Ritt uses demoralization and disillusionment as currency. There are no extraordinary gadgets, given by Q, or Alexander Waverly, that miraculous save your life – just a rickety bicycle, your inadequate wits and a government who cares nothing about you. After watching Riemas’ murder, when the camera settles on Leamas’ sunken-in, weary eyes, the tragic realism of the film is secured and Burton begins his powerhouse of a performance.
After Leamas’ failed trials in Berlin, the disheartened agent is given a new assignment: to act as a traitor and provide false intelligence to the East Germans implicating one of their higher-ups (Peter van Eyck as Hans-Dieter Muntz) as a double-agent for the British. It was hoped Leamas would provide enough doubt to Muntz’s credibility that his own organization would oust him. As different layers of the plot reveal themselves – who is indeed duping whom—Leamas becomes increasing embittered with an already bitter business.
If it sounds convoluted, it’s because it is; spies often resort to various levels of self-reflexivity to provide cover. A former spook himself, le Carré (aka/ne David Cornwall) speaks about this topic and much more in his 40-minute Criterion-exclusive interview, as well as in the included BBC-TV documentary about his life and times, The Secret Center: John le Carré.
As per usual with Criterion, the extensive special features not only highlight the movie and its accomplishments, but also all the culture that comes with it. For The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, that culture includes much of le Carré’s thoughts about Cold-War spy tactics, Ritt’s involvement in the Hollywood blacklist and also the notorious, public fights of Richard Burton and Martin Ritt.
Sadly, as good as the film is, the Burton-Ritt sparring sessions will always cast a tall shadow on its legacy. From the various special-features interviews, it seems the blame rests squarely with Burton, whose argumentative nature ended with him storming off the set more than once, and whose endless entourage increasingly isolated him from the film’s production.
What’s miraculous, then, is how well Ritt was able to direct Burton despite such setbacks. Known for his boisterous Petruchio, Hamlet and other Shakespearean characters and for his very public marriage to Elizabeth Taylor, Burton wasn’t famous for his restraint. But in this film, Ritt reduces Burton’s grand gestures to nothing more than looks. His weather-beaten Leamas shows the wear of the cold war and the second world war, but not in hyperbolic stage antics – rather in shuffles, in ticks, in grimaces and in glances.
This is easily one of Burton’s best film performances in a long career of great roles, and as Michael Sragow states in his included new essay, “Ritt may not have loved working with Burton, but as a director, he must have loved Burton’s art.” And it’s true, Leamas is interpreted here with incredible artistry. He represents and embodies so eloquently the ambivalence of the Cold War, the disdainful things done on both sides, and the sad fiction of the “sexy spy”.
After watching 140 hours of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. it’s hard not to directly compare the two works. They are, after all, both products of the ‘60s spy phenomenon. But where Napoleon Solo sleeps with women, Alec Leamas sleeps with alcohol. And where U.N.C.L.E.’s men are fitted with pen-sized, world-wide communicators, sleep-inducing darts and a host of ever-expanding gadgets, the British SIS are simply provided a rusty bicycle, false papers and a little information – and the more you learn about the story, the more you realize how little information it really is. Spies certainly lead intriguing lives, but as this movie showcases, very little else.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a classic in many respects and, as always, Criterion gives the film the grace it deserves. The transfer is gorgeous, the gray-scale is deep and clear, and the special features are apt and plentiful. My only gripe is that instead of a full feature commentary, there is only scene-specific audio tracks. There’s something to be said for listening to the commentator’s rhythm in conjunction with the film’s. But next to the 40-minute Ritt interview, a 1967 Burton interview and the other lengthy features previously mentioned, I can’t say I’m that disappointed.