By the early 1960s, the spy movie had begun to supplant the Western as America’s genre of choice a transformation prompted largely by the staggeringly successful screen debut of James Bond in “Dr. No” (1962), followed by “From Russia with Love” (1963) and “Goldfinger” (1964).
The same time frame also proved fertile ground for the burgeoning sub-genre of the revisionist Western, a self-critical strand of filmmaking that had existed for many years but only became a more recognizable tendency with films like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962) and “Ride the High Country” (1962). It didn’t take nearly as long for a corrective to the romantic heroism of Connery’s Bond to show up.
Real-life spook John Le Carré (né David Cornwell) wasn’t being kept busy enough by MI6 and turned his hand to writing in 1961 with his first novel “Call for the Dead,” a relatively successful debut which introduced the author’s famous character George Smiley (later incarnated on television by Alec Guiness). The book’s second sequel, however, was the one that put Le Carré on the map as an award-winning, international best-seller.
“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” was published in 1963 and was an immediate sensation for its reported grittiness and realistic depiction of the spy business. Smiley was relegated to the background in favor of the book’s embittered protagonist Alec Leamas. Nearly burnt-out after witnessing one of his agents shot to death while crossing through Checkpoint Charlie at the Berlin Wall, Leamas agrees to take one more case, to “stay out in the cold,” in order to get revenge on ex-Nazi and East German spy-master Mundt.
Leamas isn’t a super-spy. He travels with no gadgets; he’s no master of hand-to-hand combat and is certainly not a natural Lothario. Instead, Leamas is a low-key businessman who plugs away at his job step by logical step, scratching his way closer to his goal as quietly and methodically as possible.
Le Carré’s novel was quickly purchased and handed to director Martin Ritt, fresh off the success of “Hud” (1963), for a quick turnaround. Ritt eagerly embraced the “anti-Bond” approach to the genre, but saddled himself with a unique challenge by casting Richard Burton as Leamas. Burton’s star power guaranteed an audience for the film, but also threatened to absorb the character of Alec Leamas into the blustering, booming-voiced media side-show who had just married (for the first time) the even bigger media side-show Elizabeth Taylor.
The director and the star clashed frequently but, as sometimes happens, the friction between the two creative forces produced an unexpectedly compelling performance. Certainly there are moments when Burton feels too “big” for the role, but he perfectly captures Leamas’ sense of bittersweet resignation, so well that it’s nearly impossible to tell when Leamas is acting under cover or simply being himself.
In the course of events, Leamas meets and eventually falls in love with librarian Nan Perry (played by Burton’s former love interest Claire Bloom), an idealistic Communist and all-around do-gooder who thaws Leamas’ cold heart. Any further plot summary would be superfluous. There are twists, as there must be in a spy film, but they are genuine surprises that result from planning, not from a writer/director’s whim as a cheap gimmick.
Burton’s performance netted him a well-deserved Oscar nomination (his fourth of seven, though he would never win) but Oskar Werner nearly steals the show as Fiedler, a Jewish East German agent with whom Leamas forms a halting and grudgingly respectful friendship. Werner is best known as Jules from “Jules and Jim” but his work here is much more convincing.
“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” is not entirely successful. Burton indulges his hamminess when Leamas drinks to excess, and Ritt’s stylization sometimes feels a bit too precious, at least in the treatment of such allegedly gritty material. The ending, though poignant, also feels a bit too contrived and stagy.
But these are relatively minor complaints. “Spy” did not launch an “anti-Bond” revolution in the spy genre which continued to be dominated by glamour and snappy one-liners, but it did launch the Le Carré franchise which endures in print and on both the big and small screen until today. I’ll leave it to experts in the field to determine whether Ian Fleming or John Le Carré has done more to shape the spy genre in the last 50+ years. Suffice it to say both have had an enduring impact.
The film is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, though it is listed by Criterion as 1.85. I have no explanation for the discrepancy. The transfer is as magnificent as we’ve come to expect from Criterion with sharp contrast in the gorgeous black-and-white photography by Oswald Morris.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles are provided.
The two-disc set is the “big” Criterion release for the month.
Disc Two kicks off with a revealing August 2008 interview (39 min.) with John Le Carré. Far from your typical promo piece, this in-depth conversation provides Le Carré an opportunity to discuss his many concerns and disappointments with the film. He still likes it, but he certainly doesn’t consider it a masterpiece and he was (and is) not enthusiastic about Burton’s casting as Leamas.
“The Secret Center: John Le Carré” is a 2000 BBC documentary (59 min) detailing the life and career of the author and real-life spy.
In 1985, Patrick McGilligan interviewed Martin Ritt and published the results in “Film Comment” the following year. Excerpts from McGilligan’s audio recording (49 min.) are provided here.
The disc also includes a 1967 interview (34 min.) with Richard Burton conducted by Kenneth Tynan.
Finally, cinematographer Oswald Morris provides audio commentary for five different scenes from the film including the opening and the ending (so don’t watch this before you see the film.)
A gallery of set designs finishes off the collection of extras.
The insert booklet features an essay by Baltimore Sun film critic Michael Sragow.
“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” is perhaps overrated as a “realistic” depiction of the world of international espionage, but it represents a satisfying alternative to the heroic narrative of the Bond films. It was the first of many John Le Carré adaptations, and certainly remains one of the best.
Bond fans, keep an eye out for Bernard Lee. In what I suspect was a bit of intentional irony, Bond’s boss M is cast here as a grocer who gets beaten up by Leamas.
Not to be confused with the softcore porn flick “The Spy Who Came” (1969).