Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Almost religiously determined to make the ultimate anti-007 movie, Martin Ritt filmed The Spy Who Came In
from the Cold as a dank, morose and defeatist tale. Only the complicated plot keeps it from being a
documentary close to what real Cold War spying must have been. There's nary a blink of sunlight
in the sky or hope in the life of resolute 'field operative' Alec Leamas, played with a sallow-faced
cheerlessness by Richard Burton. Backed by excellent support and a fine production, this B&W
thriller won the approval of dedicated espionage fans but lost a lot of the public. In 1965, the
kind of spy that hangs around grocery stores and gets pushed around by most everyone he encounters, was
not the kind of spy that would draw a crowd.
With an assignment in Berlin resulting in yet another agent shot by Soviet spymaster
Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck), humorless Brit agent Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is anxious for
his "control" (Cyril Cusack) to send him back into the fight. Leamas has to first discredit himself
enough to convince the Commies that he's a candidate for defection, and he makes contact with
a series of agents (Michael Hordern, Robert Hardy, Sam Wanamaker) who whisk him off to East Berlin.
There he attempts a clever espionage coup: by planting false evidence, he'll provoke KGB underling
Fiedler (Oskar Werner) into arresting Mundt as a British double agent. Complicating Leamas' plans is
Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), the librarian he meets while hitting the skids in London. Exactly why is
she headed for East Berlin as well?
John Le Carré's series of "Smiley" spy novels have only one flaw: If these spies are so darn
sophisticated, able to construct con games and stings with more levels than a 3D chess game, how
come normal Intelligence work in the real world is so bone-headedly lame?
Actually, that's not anybody's flaw, as The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is a perfectly fine
thriller for the kind of filmgoer who enjoys a crisp and realistic mystery. Naturally, the story
hook is that preconceptions are not to be trusted. What
we come away with is the feeling that the Cold War remained an impasse because the overpowering
weaponry of the West was countered by diabolically clever spy work in the Soviet Bloc.
Alec Leamas is just another gloomy cog in a series of dedicated but spiritless men whose business
it is to almost certainly be liquidated by the opposite side. Leamas is offered a desk job but has
the foolish notion that his life's meaning can be redeemed through vengeance against Mundt, the main
Soviet bad guy. Although it's hard to tell if it's a ruse, Leamas drinks like a fish, gets himself fired
from job after job and attacks a local grocer (Bernard Lee, about as far from "M" as one could get)
in the effort to degrade himself. The enemy soon considers him a candidate for defection, and the gay
contact man Michael Hordern is cruelly slighted by both Leamas and his own superior. Just before he is
to flee to the Netherlands, Leamas falls in love with Nan Perry, an openly communist librarian
(finally, a librarian character who isn't a stereotype).
In Holland, Leamas is hoodwinked by another agent, Peters (Sam Wanamaker of
Christ in Concrete) and whisked off
to East Berlin where the ice-cold chess game begins in earnest. Charming Oskar Werner's
ambitious assistant spy is a little too eager to see his superior Mundt eliminated, and Leamas'
carefully presented misdirections work well - too well.
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold paints a dark set of emotional characters trapped in roles
that require them to be ruthless calculators of complicated schemes. Le Carré's spymaster
George Smiley has a very limited role here, giving Rupert Davies little screen time. Cyril Cusack
is suspiciously practiced in his concern and we even wonder if Bernard Lee isn't some kind of a spy
plant. Only Claire Bloom's sensual librarian seems to have any life in her, and she is the dupe of
the Communist party, cheerfully promoting ban-the-bomb pacifism and blind to the fact that the Russians
are using her.
In the end, it looks as if the double-cross is actually a quadruple cross, with Leamas a patsy.
Everyone tells him that the nature of the business requires a willingness to do horrible, nasty
things. If he had only listened.
The production is fine, making good use of bad weather in London and a nicely-constructed security
gate at the Berlin Wall. Imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain, Leamas carries on discussions in
drab rooms and in pretty parks. The only question mark (?) in the design is how they expect us
to believe that there's a piece of the Berlin Wall maintained as a way of killing agents who think
they are escaping. I mean, there's an iron ladder built into the wall at the appropriate point.
You'd think Leamas would instantly suspect a raw deal when he saw that setup.
Richard Burton looks suitably puffy and miserable and plays most of the film with a limp poker face.
Claire Bloom still looks like she's twenty; Oskar Werner and Peter Van Eyck are excellent as opposed
rivals on the other team.
The presence of several previously blacklisted talents (Wanamaker, for one) testifies to blacklistee
Martin Ritt's continued opposition to the scourge that crushed his career for six years of the
Paramount's DVD of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold isn't restored, but the fine encoding of
a mostly perfect element ensures a great-looking disc. I'd only seen the film in so-so television
prints and this widescreen and enhanced presentation will please the collector. As with almost all
Paramount releases, there are no extras.
There is a remastered 5.1 audio option. The cover art looks interesting but I miss the harsh
graphics of the original theatrical campaign.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 7, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson