The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) – Martin Ritt

Richard Burton turns in a solid, and believable performance in this adaptation of John le Carre’s classic thriller novel. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is the next recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book following my screening of Dr. Strangelove.

Burton is Alec Leamas, a spy in charge of the German section during the height of the Cold War. Following a foul-up at Checkpoint Charlie Leamas returns to London, and is offered a desk job, but he elects on one last mission.

His assignment to appear bitter and disillusioned with the west, and defect. Once there, and in the hands of Fiedler (Oskar Werner), he is to give disinformation, and help disrupt operations, including making Eastern agents, such as Mundt (Peter van Eyck) look like traitors.

Shot in black and white, and feeling gritty, this film, like le Carre’s novels are the antithesis of Fleming’s superspy, James Bond. Based more in reality, the characters are banal, filled with faults and foibles and the incidents of the film are seemingly small and insignificant against the political backdrop, but they are all machinations of agencies moving against one another.

The last half of the film follows a tribunal held to investigate Mundt, but things turn quickly against Leamas, and we are left to wonder if he will escape from East Germany, or will he be another nameless and unclaimed body making a run for it?

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Leamas begins to realise through all he goes through, he’s just a piece being moved about the board. He does’t see the whole picture, only what he is supposed to, and that his higher-ups, and Control (Cyril Cusack) and spy-master, and le Carre’s iconic character, George Smiley (Rupert Davies) have more going on than he is privy to.

In the end, Leamas makes the human decisions, and in an arena that dehumanises and puts country against country it’s a noble but doomed action.

This dirty and gritty film puts a different kind of spy on screen, and it makes for a different experience in the thriller genre. Yes, it’s been visited since then, with varying levels of success, but this one blazed the way.

Burton is perfectly on point in this film, and he captivates with every moment he’s on the screen.

The use of black and white film almost lends a documentary feel to the film, and consequently added a layer of realism to the film as the tale unfolds.

It’s a great thriller and serves as a great introduction to le Carre’s works if you’re unfamiliar with them.

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