Tuesday Editor’s Pick: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

by on September 20, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue Sept 27 at 8:00 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]


“Film Comment Selects” a John le Carré Cold War double bill for your viewing pleasure. Purchase tickets online for Spy and The Looking Glass War at a discounted price.


Josef Braun sets the scene at his blog The Phantom Country:

Peering out from below a broad, heavy brow, he has the pale face of a man thoroughly eaten up inside. The London he moves in looks damp, grey and bone-chilling. He wears his trench coat tucked up around him like a blanket, and puts away half a bottle of whiskey a day. He has no friends and speaks as little as he can get away with. He takes a menial clerical job at the library for the Candahar Institute for Psychical Research, where he works alongside a pretty, confident young woman. She explains to him what lycanthropy means in a weirdly sexy way that suggests he might just be some sort of werewolf, and she likes the idea. What matters, perhaps, is that he is so clearly someone other than he claims to be. It may just be the starkest romance in movies, and it really works.



Braun continues:

I’m startled. Ritt, who also made Hud (63), Hombre (67) and Norma Rae (79), may not have a reputation as a master stylist, or even a master of anything in particular, but here, in collaboration with cinematographer Oswald Morris, production designer Tambi Larsen and editor Anthony Harvey in particular, he produced something of marvelous texture and specificity. It’s transfixing. Burton, whose Leamas now reads as part of the formula that gave birth to Daniel Craig’s Bond, may brood to excess for some—including, reportedly, Ritt—yet the character’s near-suicidal desperation, his immersion in his soul-crushing vocation, lies at the very heart of the story. And morose as Burton is, the overall gloom is greatly tempered by Bloom, so charming and smart, whose every nuance is so exactingly turned. She’s the sole woman in the movie, as well as the sole outsider to Leamas’ world, and she’s nearly its only source of warmth. Yet Oskar Werner, just a few years after Jules and Jim (62), plays Fiedler, a Jew in German intelligence with a massive grudge, and also possesses a certain air of inner life and excitement. And he also connects in his way with Leamas. Cusack, too, is wonderful, vampiric in his stillness, and so very English. So the cast inhabits rather than simply populates this world.


Ritt’s method of taking it all in includes a great deal of god’s eye views to heighten the alienation, balanced by two-shots that constantly emphasize the coded negotiations taking place in smallish rooms. The camera prowls, always. Lamps hang from chains in one location, from thorny antler-like mounts in another, all dangling with portent. There are beautifully timed fades to black, like the one near the start where Leamas sits with un-sipped tea in hand in Control’s office. Near the end there is a superb, ambiguously menacing exchange of gazes between Leamas and the ex-Nazi Mundt, and its after this exchange that we begin to understand how the whole narrative builds to a point of proving Nan’s ideological distinctions meaningless just as it completes Leamas’ moral perdition.



Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

Without his customary good liberal message to hang on to, Ritt is forced to rely on pure professionalism, and as a result turns out one of his better films. John Le Carré’s novel about betrayal and disillusionment in the world of East/West espionage is treated with intelligence and a disarming lack of sentimentality or moralising, while Burton gives one of his best screen performances as the spy out to get even with an East German counterpart. What finally impresses, however, is the sheer seediness of so much of the film, with characters, buildings, and landscapes lent convincingly grubby life by Oswald Morris’ excellent monochrome camera-work.


Dave Kehr for the New York Times:

“The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” an adaptation of John le Carré’s best-selling novel about a reluctant British double agent, offers effectively restrained performances by Richard Burton, in the title role; Claire Bloom, as an idealistic British Communist who becomes the spy’s lover during his undercover operation; and Oskar Werner as an East German interrogator. The drab cold war atmosphere is deftly evoked by Oswald Morris’s elemental black-and-white photography and the cramped sets designed by Tambi Larsen and Hal Pereira.


But Ritt’s film means less without its popular foil. Released the same year as “Thunderball,” the fourth of the phenomenally successful James Bond films starring Sean Connery, “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” consistently positions itself as a rebuke to the glamorous, action movie ethos of the Bond films: no fancy gadgets or bikini-clad beauties here, only a pinched and dingy universe in which the moral compass spins without direction.



Michael Atkinson for IFC:

Here’s one earthly place that is forever lodged in my brain pleats, from years of black and white moviewatching on middle-century suburban TV: the Euro cities of the Cold War, sunless and cold and gray and wet, comprised of decaying historical buildings and ancient alleys but fraught with up-to-the-minute mortal dread, inhabited by stone-faced men in trenchcoats without hearts. Espionage was such a gift to cinema: once ordinary urban locations became electrified with international import, and the criminal schmucks of noir became romanticized existentialist figures, lost in the patterns of political force like mice in a maze. No movie better pegs this vibe than “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (1965), adapted from John le Carré’s genre-defining bestseller, and hewing so closely to the dishonest and soulless quotidian of spy work that the effect is thoroughly grown-up, a bracing whisky shot after drinking gallons of James Bond-brand pink lemonade. Richard Burton is a misanthropic and drunken field agent going undercover as, essentially, himself, and getting played from every side across Europe, and the actor’s sour, plummy glamour has never been as effective. His character’s natural, bottomless insolence is not only his best cover story, but is what makes him genuinely hate what he does. Martin Ritt directed with his customary lack of personality, but also with a degree of modesty and clarity; the discovery of layers of machinations and double-crossing are complex enough to demand a certain understanding of Cold War politics, and of the day-to-day nature of espionage. (Le Carré’s genuine spymaster past is unmistakable, just as Ian Fleming’s is puzzlingly absent from his fiction.)


Here is revealed the genre’s greatest claim to fame: that the life-or-death stakes of espionage are almost by definition not matters of action movie heroism or physical skill, but of operations that must play out within, or secretly beneath, conventional social situations. Behavior is scrupulously examined, and alliances always under question. Even if you win at a spy game, you lose your soul. By the end of the film, where the Berlin Wall is used perhaps for the first time as a movie icon of 20th-century schizophrenia, the hope that the ends justify whatever means democracies use is dashed in the darkness.



Fernando F. Croce has mixed feelings, for Slant:

Self-consciously dour where the James Bond movies were insouciantly callous, Martin Ritt’s grim The Spy Who Came in from the Cold plays like an anti-thriller companion piece to the director’s acclaimed anti-western, Hud. Just as the earlier film mourned the disintegrating values of the modern American frontier with all the subtlety of a ton of bricks, Ritt’s adaptation of John le Carré’s bestseller extends that ponderousness to the international arena of East-West spy games. Secret agents are described here as “seedy, squalid bastards,” and none is seedier or more squalid than Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), the weary brooder sent by British intelligence behind the Iron Curtain. Meant as his last assignment, the mission into East Berlin is slowly revealed as a complex, table-turning operation that involves Leamas’s idealist Communist lover (Claire Bloom) and his vicious, Teutonic counterpart (Peter Van Eyck). Going against the grain of a genre known for sexy, violent thrills, Ritt crafts a sober, weighty atmosphere of moral crisis in which spies from both sides are bound by their ruthlessness (“You can’t be less wicked than your enemies, can you?” Leamas’s superior deadpans). The dangers of corrupt power struggles are not lost on the politically conscious Ritt; it’s a shame, then, that his presentation boils down to a cloud of monotonous disillusionment, far less layered (and exciting) than le Carré’s novel. Characteristically, Ritt’s strongest work is done with the actors. In full de-glam mode, Burton is stripped of his ripe theatricality, booming voice and superstar glamour (Ritt contrives to have the actor play most of his first scene with his back to the camera). Shriveling into himself until he’s a mortified lump, Burton’s Leamas is more tragic patsy than swashbuckler, and his scenes with a jaunty East German officer (Oskar Werner, who livens things up) have sharp doses of suspicion, cynicism and sadness. Ultimately, the film collapses under its own unilluminating gravitas; its dreariness becomes not an antidote to Ian Fleming’s flash, but its broken-mirror reflection.


Andrew Sarris loathed the film’s direction, saying “If Alfred Hitchcock, Joseph Losey, or the Carol Reed of fifteen years ago had directed it, it would have been the picture of the year.”


However, he praises the “superb” acting, in the Village Voice:

Burton is perfectly cast as the uncertain masquerader, impaled finally on his own ironic sensibility like a Hamlet who had spent the whole play mocking the concerns of others until it was too late to respond to his own. Oskar Werner’s sensibility is sweeter than Burton’s and more likely to be victimized by direct injustice than by any devious irony. Claire Bloom is not allowed to develop her role to any meaningful degree, but I can’t think of any other contemporary actress, with or without subtitles, who glows from sensuality to idealism without any harsh stops.



Jeff Stafford has the dirt on Burton’s off-camera antics, for TCM:

Prior to filming The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Richard Burton had just completed The Sandpiper (1965) with his wife Elizabeth Taylor, and was ready to take on more challenging material after the soap opera histrionics of the latter film. The role of Leamas was unlike any previous character Burton had played: he was depressive, non-communicative and spoke in monosyllables. There were no grand speeches or passionate explosions of emotion. Burton told an on-set interviewer, “The others do all the acting. As Leamus, I just react.” Interestingly enough, Burton, who was playing a habitual drinker in the film, was a well-known imbiber off the set but the director discouraged his bad habits with the exception of one scene. Burton recalled, “I had to knock back a large whiskey. It was the last shot of the day, and I decided to use the real hard stuff. We did 47 takes. Imagine it, luv, 47 whiskies.”


Burton’s co-star, Claire Bloom, also found the actor unfriendly and distant. Years before, during the making of Look Back in Anger (1958), they had been lovers but upon their first meeting on the set of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Burton snubbed her. In retaliation, Bloom needled him on the set by doing wicked imitations of Elizabeth Taylor. Later she would mock him to the press as well, remarking on his career arc: “It was obvious that he was going to be a huge star, which is not the same as being a great actor. He has confused them.” Yet, in spite of her feelings about Burton, Bloom would later cite The Spy Who Came in From the Cold as one of the few films she was actually proud of.



Scott Tobias for the Onion AV Club:

By 1965, when Martin Ritt’s adaptation of John le Carré’s breakthrough novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was released to theaters, Sean Connery was already three movies into his stint as James Bond, and the Bond version of a spy’s life had become entrenched in the popular imagination. That’s unfortunate, because the image Richard Burton cultivates in Ritt’s film—cynical and world-weary, yet crafty, brave, and patriotic—seems closer to the real thing, as does the stuffy bureaucracy of the spy game. Yes, it’s still a dangerous occupation, but it’s neither glamorous nor action-packed; in most instances, Burton’s job is to outsmart his adversaries and devise how to navigate the Cold War’s shifting allegiances and subtle treachery.


Ritt and Burton get the dry wit of le Carré’s work just right; many of the film’s best lines are pressed through Burton’s perpetual fatigue, like “If ever I have to break your neck, I promise to do it with a minimum of force,” or “She offered me free love. At the time, that was all I could afford.” The Spy Who Came In From The Cold introduced a new spy archetype: the man (almost) without a country.


Marilyn Ferdinand for Ferdy on Films:

The plot of Spy is tight and diabolical, though the film’s denouement is inevitable from the start. Leamas is more than tired—he’s completely adrift. Although he takes the assignment, one senses that he already is out of the game. Burton plays Alec’s disaffection so convincingly that the beginning of the film is extremely confusing. Is he on the mission, or has he really gone off the deep end? This instability makes the film a little difficult to settle into. Burton gives us a little more, however, to help us understand that Leamas is an actor almost as good as the one playing him. When Alec sees the newspaper story about himself, for example, we get a chance to witness the spy create his character before his interrogator returns to the room.


There are some interesting cinematic choices. The whoring aspects of spying come strikingly into focus as Leamas and Carlton sit across from each other in the strip club with the stage in the background and the stripper near the end of her act framed squarely between them. It’s a startling shot, even today. Throughout the film, Burton is lit to highlight a mole that sits under his right eye. It’s distracting, mars his good looks, and provides a metaphor for what his character is in an extremely subtle, archetypal way. The final shot will take your breath away with its clinical simplicity.



Michael Sragow for The Criterion Collection:

Martin Ritt’s 1965 movie of John le Carré’s first great novel (and first best seller), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, declares “a plague on all your houses” to capitalists, Communists, and ruthless intelligence operatives. It’s one espionage movie that neither comes on like gangbusters nor sneaks up on you like a cat burglar. Instead, it creates an atmosphere of anguish, fear, and rage that intensifies each pause in the action and gesture of the actors, leaving viewers hanging on every word of the sometimes cryptic, sometimes eloquent dialogue. Ritt could at times be heavy-handed, such as in the union-organizing drama Norma Rae. But like his artistic mentor Elia Kazan (with whom, however, he parted ways over Kazan’s willingness to name names during the blacklist), he had a feeling for characterization that imbued his best films with an irreducible individuality. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is one of them. It follows the eternal question of whether ends can justify means to a nightmare conclusion: here, awful means alter virtuous ends. Ritt’s use of suspense can’t be separated from his underlying humanity. The movie doesn’t chill the soul or paralyze viewers with dread. On the contrary, its unblinking realism heightens our hopes as well as our fears for its characters.


With Oswald Morris in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Ritt uses grayness not as murk but as the ideal palette to depict precise shades of moral ambiguity. Within this carefully calibrated range of tones, Ritt achieves a greater variety of astringent comedy and drama than in any other of his works, including a delightful dry satire of the clerking life—Leamas and Nan meet while working in a private library of psychic research. Leamas bullies Ashe (Michael Hordern), the gay Communist who first contacts him and offers money for information, the way Bogart does Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon. The sequences that ensue with a variety of Communist agents escalate into increasingly blatant and absorbing power games, culminating in the arrival of Werner’s always spruce and surprising Fiedler. Burton develops a rapport with Werner that’s comparable to the almost telepathic performing connection he had with Peter O’Toole in Becket. When the two have a talk in the open air, the film itself seems to take a deep breath, before turning into a brisk and unsettling courtroom drama.


Ritt may not have loved working with Burton, but as a director he must have loved Burton’s art. Burton’s Leamas is a great characterization that’s also a great star performance. His Leamas is like a Sam Spade who gets soft and goes to seed, a Mr. Rick without a plan to make things right. Burton brings heart as well as brains to Ritt’s most sophisticated movie: here, for one brief shining moment, he became a Bogart for an age of disillusionment.


Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →