The Spy Who Came in from the Cold April 20, 2018
1 Hr., 52 Mins.
lec Leamas (Richard Burton), the greying spy at the center of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), is miserable. Sometimes, he’s consciously, semi-fictitiously so: As part of the mission on which he embarks in the film, he is instructed to make outsiders think he’s become a suicidal alcoholic ruined by his job to enhance a shady charade.
But other times, when he’s the candid, unfiltered version of Alec Leamas, this ever-present misery is obvious to us but maybe not to him. Perhaps he’s compartmentalized his anxieties and his disaffections so
much, he’s gotten used to his anguish. His frown lines deepening, his eyes progressively drooping, and his hair unctuous, he looks like a man ruined by his job – one who’s spent too many years being used and abused, pushed around to satisfy the ambitions of another. Other cinematic spies, from the almighty James Bond to the nimble Harry Palmer, often make ultra-secret surveillance appear glamorous and noble – an action-packed pastime with big payoffs. Leamas just looks drained.
And in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, he will lose any dedication he’s managed to keep in pocket. (Though this doesn’t happen until the final triple cross is revealed and nihilism proves victorious.) Arguably, this pessimism makes the film all the better.
The movie, based on the popular 1963 novel of the same name by John le Carré, is almost fanatically determined to undermine the conventions of the kind of modish, colorful spy movie so popular during the era. It is bent on reminding audiences that the world of espionage is not a frolicsome land of guns, girls, and gadgets but rather a dour wasteland where self-fulfillment prevails and nothing you ever do is much valued. Martin Ritt’s stark direction, Oswald Morris’ phlegmatic cinematography, and Burton’s forlorn albeit piercing performance accentuate this. And such helps make the feature one of the most essential of all spy movies: it is as captivating and thrillingly anfractuous as any, but maintains a sort of clear-sightedness that makes its goings-on feel plausible.
The film principally works off a long-planned, thorny scheme whose true intentions are not revealed the final act. Key to its success is Leamas, who, as the film opens, is revealed to be in the midst of baiting treacherous East German enemies. As carefully mapped out by his London superiors, Leamas has been told to act like a down-and-out defector and get the attention of the communist state, who’s hoping to somehow get their paws on British intelligence secrets. Once in, he’ll presumably be able to help his superiors make more informed power plays.
Of course, none of this is quite as facile as it seems, and Leamas soon discovers that he’s been misled. In actuality, he’s being used as a pawn for reasons I won’t reveal here. One of the pleasures – or strengths, as little about The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is exactly “pleasurable” – of the movie is its rather hushed delivery of the “nothing is what it seems” principle. It features a head-scratching, elaborate triple cross, but it unravels slowly and subtly, and is explained not via overcomplicated exposition but rather a succinct, tenable explanation.
Without pause, the movie wears on with us thinking we’re in the know, only to jerk our necks ever so slightly to keep us reminded that naturalism doesn’t mean we’re completely safe from cinematic deception. Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper’s screenplay is exquisite: The movie is as strong a character study as it is a brainy spy picture, with just the right amount of gloom to keep it firmly rooted in reality. Burton’s pellucid, increasingly rattled performance reinforces the movie’s hold over us, and is one of his best.
The movie’s sobered, downcast presentation might prove to be a turn off for some. Fans of the novel, unread by me, have noted that the le Carré work downplays the nihilism and the moral uncertainty and heightens the intrigue, which I’m certain makes for more orthodox entertainment. But I’m fond of Ritt’s take. Because The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is part of an era so defined by randy, almost-cartoonish spy movies, it is refreshing to watch a genre piece that takes out the fantasy component and strives for logic. A-