There’s a reason why John Le Carré’s work has stood the test of time. For instance, Le Carré escapes the flamboyance and escapism found in James Bond, the shaky-cam combats in The Bourne Quadrilogy, or the face mask revealing gadgetry and aptitude for stunts in Mission Impossible. His work is the antithesis of those tropes: cold, visceral, and methodical, with a patient and intelligent world-building for characters and their motivations. The fact that he was a spy himself – working for MI5 and MI6 respectively before becoming a full-time writer – means the experiences he encountered would eventually form as inspirations for his novels. And that honest sincerity would eventually cross over into the world of film and TV.
Adapted from the 1963 novel, that grounded yet realistic criteria crystalises Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – a quintessential spy movie encapsulating the fears and anxieties of the Cold War that’s deeply wrought with deception and tragedy.
The film stars Richard Burton as Alec Leamas, recalled back to London after the death of an operative in Berlin. Under the orders of Control (Cyril Cusack), Leamas carries out a faux defector plot to entrap a Nazi double agent. He attracts the attention of East German Operatives, sharing sensitive British Intelligence for the prospect of money. But in the world of espionage, where secrecy and trust are everything, this places Leamas’ mission in jeopardy.
For fans of Le Carré, the intricacy and intimacy within The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is to be applauded, with familiar names such as Control and George Smiley (Rupert Davies) inhabiting that world (and later becoming household names within Le Carré’s interconnected universe of ‘The Circus’). By no means is the film adaptation an easy watch. Occasionally, the weight of the dramatics can challenge a viewer’s interest. But throughout, you can’t help but feel its natural unease as if it senses danger within every layered frame. Through Ritt’s directorial work with its amplified use of atmospheric shadows, lighting low-angle shots and Sol Kaplan’s melancholic score, it’s an effective mood board, one that subsequently reminds you of the power of spy films.
And it’s that ‘old school’ feel of cryptic conversations, interrogations and clandestine meetings in seedy nightclubs or bird watching outside Wormwood Scrubs prison which drives a lot of its appeal. There’s no echo of jingoism or patriotism in Ritt’s post-war depiction of Britain. Through Leamas’s eyes, it’s a far more cynical and embittered view of the world where innocents pay the price in a never-ending war. It’s not pleasant. It’s not kind. It’s a world absent of optimism, humour, or sympathy, and somehow, those attributes seem to ring truer in 2021 than its release back in 1965. If anything, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold showcases its ideology as history repeating itself.
Even when those views are challenged by socialist and idealist Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), an innocent who becomes embroiled in the noir-mystery, its inclusion feels more like a futile fantasy to the growing veracity that surrounds Leamas. There’s a notable generation gap between Alec and Nan – Alec is a middle-aged reflection of traditional views while Nan is the youthful and energised ‘new wave’ of political culture and consciousness. But it’s a duelling conflict captured in Ritt’s adapted evocation of Le Carré’s novel. It’s a disconnect where the nature of capitalism and communism – as a battle line – doesn’t matter. It’s a resounding resignation, and whatever future the world wants to tell itself, for spies, it’s an unpleasant, complex navigation of power, misdirection, and ugly truths.
It’s no surprise why this role is considered Richard Burton’s best of his career. Alec Leamas is billed as the ‘tragic hero’, and yet there’s nothing heroic about the film’s adventure. The film is more interested in the myriad of suspects within its storytelling arsenal, and the ruthless circumstances to justify its endgame. Burton playing the profuse whisky drinker, bitter loner, and disillusioned agent, seamlessly embodies this world. He’s a blunt force of nature who rarely blinks. Whether it’s Control, Fiedler (Oskar Werner) or Peters (Sam Wanamaker), every scene might as well be Burton quietly interrogating individuals with his intense gaze. Occasionally, you wonder about Leamas’s application to the job – is he pretending to be all these qualities or quietly unravelling his true nature? No scene more apparent than the vicious abuse and attack laid upon an Italian couple and a shopkeeper over store credit. The film almost leaves that up to debate. Yet, the resounding takeaway is a man who’s unwilling to escape the life he leads. To be a spy, you have to accept all its hypocrisies, fallacies, flaws and its lack of moral ambiguity, which make the film’s ending – a beautifully executed and deceptive game of tug of war – so chilling.
As an alternative to the norm, it’s a celebrated recognition of what Le Carré brought to the genre, making this blu-ray transfer a fantastic addition to the Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series.
- Limited Edition Exclusive O-Card slipcase with new artwork by artist Grégory Sacré (Gokaiju) [2000 copies]
- 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a restored high-definition digital transfer
- Uncompressed LPCM Stereo audio
- Optional English SDH
- Brand new audio commentary with film scholar Adrian Martin
- Brand new video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns
- A collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by Richard Combs
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is released on Blu-ray by Eureka on 17th May