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The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Director: Martin Ritt
Cast: Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, Peter van Eyck

(Paramount; US DVD: 13 Jul 2004)

Review [3.Dec.2008]

All Taken Away

In John Le Carré‘s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the deposed head of research at the center of British Intelligence says of George Smiley and his colleagues, “Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away.” In that phrase, she captures the underlying theme of Le Carré‘s Cold War fiction, the anomie of a traditional ruling class losing its global power to the United States and Soviet Union, and its internal power to an upwardly mobile petty bourgeoisie.


Le Carré experiments with this theme in his two early detective stories featuring George Smiley, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality. In those books, however, his snipings at class seem as inconsequential as those of other English novelists, more anxious to establish their bona fides as card-carrying members of the upper middle class than to confront social change. It is only in his 1963 novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, that Le Carré fully unleashes his contempt for the post-1945 world through his ailing hero, Alec Leamas.


No dramatization of Le Carré‘s work has captured its bedrock of despairing misanthropy quite so luminously as Martin Ritt’s 1965 film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The story itself is spare: Leamas, a nearly burned out agent, pretends he has been kicked out of the British Secret Service in order to worm his way into East German intelligence as a fake defector, sowing disinformation. Once he crosses the Iron Curtain, however, he discovers that his own side is far more lethal to him, and to his British Communist lover, Nan Parry (Claire Bloom), than the enemy.


Ritt’s unsentimental direction and the eloquent casting (particularly, Richard Burton—not yet lost to the Elizabeth Taylor circus—as Leamas) conspire with Le Carré‘s material to strip the Ian Fleming-fed illusions from spying. Here the “Great Game” is exposed as a murky quagmire of duplicitous self-interest where the spy fatally compromises his morality on behalf of a society that will never deserve such sacrifices, or even care about them. Yet in Ritt’s iteration, Leamas, despite this self-knowledge, has nowhere to go but this world of make-believe, as unrealistic as what he perceives as Nan’s naïve political commitment to the “ordinary” working people of Britain.


For Ritt, espionage takes place in mundane rooms and tightly framed, dispassionate dialogues. He paints only one alternative, a seedy urban landscape in which humans are isolated and vulnerable. Leamas walks through the rainy streets of London with his hands thrust defensively into his raincoat pockets, and the abandoned buildings bordering the East German side of the Berlin Wall dwarf the utilitarian car in which Leamas and Nan navigate the enemy’s capital. In one of the delicate, claustrophobic touches that run throughout this movie, Ritt turns this car into a metaphor for Leamas and Nan’s entrapment: whether they are entering or leaving the car, they only ever use one door.


Ritt coaxes a performance from Burton that reveals Leamas as a full-fledged existential hero. With great subtlety, Burton portrays Leamas as British intelligence want him to appear, a bitter man cast onto the streets by the spying establishment, and ripe for subversion. Yet at the same time, Burton conveys that this fiction of irremediable disgrace also portrays the essence of his character’s life: his Leamas is already living a posthumous existence, waiting only for physical reality to catch up with his spiritual extermination.


No one can affect this Leamas, not even Nan, who eventually faces mortal danger as a result of his dalliance with her. In the closing moments of the film, he viciously turns on her, destroying her illusions about humanity as thoroughly as the post-War world has destroyed his own. Spies, he claims, are “drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, and civil servants, playing cowboys and Indians to brighten up their lives,” to make sure that, “the great moronic masses you admire so much can sleep safely in their crummy flea-bitten beds.” Leamas’ naked contempt is all the more shocking in that it marks one of the few moments in the movie when Burton lets passion creep into his voice, and animation illuminate his face.


The empathy between director and lead actor spins Spy into one of Ritt’s finest films. Throughout a long career, Ritt excelled as a chronicler of the dangerous cusps of social (and thus, political) change, exploring the pre-Civil Rights South in The Long Hot Summer (1958), Western mythology in Hud (1963), and blue-collar unionization in Norma Rae (1979). His nose for the accidental signs of approaching cultural change ensure that he loses none of the complexity Le Carré consciously, and unconsciously, wove into his novel, a sensitivity perhaps accentuated in this case by Ritt’s own experiences on the Hollywood blacklist.


While later television dramatizations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People upped the personal heroism of Le Carré‘s characters, and downplayed their displacement, Ritt’s movie does the reverse, offering audiences a chilling insight into why men in power are often the most casual betrayers of their own lands.

Related Articles
4 Oct 2013
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a richly rewarding film, but you'll endure a twisty plot that delivers no clear lessons or moral uplift.
11 Feb 2009
This film skirts heavy handedness with grace and subtly, insinuating itself into your subconscious and lighting things up from deep within.
3 Dec 2008
This is easily one of Burton’s best performances in a long career of great roles. He embodies so eloquently the ambivalence of the Cold War and the sad fiction of the “sexy spy”.
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