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 Carré novel to the big screen: 1965’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The serpentine plot concerns a burnt-out spook who enters a downward spiral of booze, self-hatred and lost faith after a disastrous mission in Berlin. But then it turns out that Leamas’ decline and despair is a ruse (?) play-acted at the behest of his superiors. As planned, he is recruited by the other side and ends up trying to discredit East German intelligence head Hans-Dieter Mundt (A cold, effective Peter van Eyck). Leamas undermines the ex-Nazi by feeding false (??) information to Mundt’s ambitious, Jewish deputy Fiedler (Oskar Werner, very strong here). It’s a difficult, high-risk mission, but Leamas knows that his boss back home is 100% behind him (???).
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.
A 15 minute sequence of scenes in Britain is a masterclass in cinematic storytelling. It’s unsettling yet fascinating as Leamas repeatedly gets pissed and wanders through empty streets. Ultimately, he savagely beats an innocent man (Did the filmmakers cast for this part Bernard Lee — M from the flashy, unrealistic James Bond series — to make a point?). His copybook blotted, Leamas is judged “turnable” by the other side. After being released from jail, he is recruited by the Soviets in a sleazy men’s club by an unctuous businessman and a pathetic, gay procurer (Robert Hardy and Michael Hordern, respectively, terrific actors who clearly understood that there are no small roles).
The romantic aspects of the story also work well and become more important as le Carré’s ingenious plot unfolds. Claire Bloom is credible and sympathetic as the British would-be communist, who as Leamas puts it believes “in free love, the only kind I could afford at the time”. Leamas’ lacerating disdain for her naiveté reveals the depths of his own self-contempt: She may be immature in her politics but who after all is the one risking his life and doing horrible things in a struggle over the very same politics?
Rarely has the look of a movie more perfectly captured its mood, and that’s a credit to Oswald Morris. Without any conscious intention, I think I have recommended more films shot by Morris than any other cinematographer. He was a remarkably unpretentious professional who maintained an astonishingly consistent quality in his work for 6 decades (He lived to age 98). It was a bold and brilliant choice to make this movie in black and white, which let Oswald create a washed out look that matches the bleak tone of the story. As much as the excellent acting, what stays with the viewer are Oswald’s shots of complete desolation both during Leamas’ alcoholic, putatively free, British wanderings and his time in East German captivity.
The other delight of this film is that it never condescends to the audience by over-explaining. With each double and triple cross, rather than clumsy exposition director Martin Ritt simply gives us Burton’s face, as the mind behind it struggles frantically to make sense of the latest shift in the icy wind. A small example of the film’s understated, even at times cryptic, storytelling style is the scene where Fiedler asks for some paperwork from his underling Peters (Sam Wanamaker, memorably creepy). The seated, lame, Wanamaker extends his hand but not far enough. Rather than step forward, Fiedler waits until Peters struggles to his feet and hands it to him. Leamas chuckles derisively. The subtext which the film expects you to understand: Fiedler is the boss but as a Jew, he will never be fully respected by his German underlings. A small moment, a sly moment, a powerful moment, brought across with no comment other than Leamas’ mad laughter at Peters’ expense.
Touches like that are a key reason why The Spy who Came in from the Cold is completely engrossing. Fans of espionage films simply cannot miss this landmark movie.
p.s. If you like this movie, you might enjoy two of my other recommendations. Though not as good as this film The Deadly Affair is a solid effort to adapt le Carré’s first novel to the big screen. And the astoundingly brilliant Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the best effort to adapt le Carré to television.
p.p.s. I also recommend Antonia Quirke’s elegiac FT essay on the battered, shattered Richard Burton and his iconic dingy overcoat.