A good spy film is a rarity in this day and age. Hollywood makes spy films that are nothing but action, and Britain just wheels out James Bond. The best recent spy work has been done on tv or adapted from John le Carré novels. One of my favourite spy films, which was the first le Carré adaptation, is the undervalued and almost forgotten 1965 film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Despite being nominated for a couple of Oscars, doing sold box office business and being added to the Criterion Collection, the film has still struggled to find an audience. That is a shame because it is a cracking spy drama featuring an amazing Richard Burton performance.
British spy Alec Leamas is sent home after a spy he manages is killed in West Germany. Leamas is seemingly demoted and has to work in the banking section of his agency. Despite forming a relationship with a female co-worker, Leamas pines for spy work and gradually becomes depressed. He is constantly drunk and eventually after a couple of confrontations he assaults a cashier at a supermarket. Leamas is then called back to head office, where it is revealed that the agency has been playing him and hoping he’d go down this destructive path so that the enemy will think he is willing to defect. Leamas accepts his new assignment and is sent to Germany to work ‘for’ the enemy and spy for the Brits.
Beloved filmmaker Martin Ritt is at the helm of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Ritt is a competent filmmaker and it shows here. He never overstretches himself and instead keeps the film simple and honest. His focus is clearly on Alec Leamas, not on the Cold War or the different sides. By making Leamas the focus it makes the film a very human spy drama, there are no gimmicky gadgets, no big action sequences or over the top car chases. This is a man who is troubled by the regular world and gets depressed when he cannot lie and spy. Despite being a cold and distant character, Ritt cleverly makes Leamas easy to attach to and the film is all the stronger for it.
Going hand-in-hand with Ritt’s sympathetic direction is Richard Burton’s poignant performance. Burton fleshes Leamas out early and within the first 20 minutes we who know exactly what motivates him. His budding relationship with Nan (Claire Bloom) grounds the character in reality, making him easier to latch onto. The growth between the two throughout the film makes for fascinating viewing. It never feels like it is explored enough, but the scenes are so touching that the finale packs a mighty punch because of it. It is Burton that makes this succeed. He delivers a strong yet understated performance, he is easily endearing because it is a real performance,. Burton’s performance is hard to put into words, he never has big moments nor flashy scenes, it is just pure honesty from a highly skilled actor.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is shot in grimy black and white. The scenes in Germany and the Netherlands are beautifully bleak and shot wonderfully by Oswald Morris. The photography adds great power and foreboding to the film. As does the subtle score by Sol Kaplan. Both work in tandem to create an eerie mood that makes the audience feel uneasy. It constantly makes you feel like something is awash in this situation, there is something not quite right about either the enemy or the good guys and you constantly feel fear for the characters. Thus making the film that much more captivating.
If you are looking for a low-key spy drama than you can’t go past The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Through Ritt’s direction and the nicely structured script, the film sets up the characters with ease thanks to the real-world drama and sympathetic feelings we have towards Alex Leamas. Once the spy thriller kicks into the gear the film becomes an absorbing force, a dirty and grimy world that makes us believe it is real. It is a fantastic story and one that makes me yearn for the classier spy films made before Bond and Bourne turned the sub-genre into a form of blockbuster. Please seek out this film.