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Blu-Ray Review - THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold review
A British spy fakes a defection to frame an important East German figure.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Martin Ritt

Starring: Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, Michael Hordern, Cyril Cusack, Sam Wanamaker

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold bluray

The Cold War has rarely been so frosty as in director Martin Ritt's 1965 adaptation of John le Carre's bestseller The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. Thanks to James Bond, by the mid '60s spies were everywhere in movies and on TV, but Ritt's film was one of the first to dispense with the gadgets, musclebound henchmen and bikini clad seductresses. With The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, Ritt presents the unglamorous reality of the spy trade, described by its antihero, Richard Burton's cynical spook Alec Leamas, as "civil servants playing cowboys and Indians."

When one of his operatives is gunned down while attempting to cross Checkpoint Charlie, Leamas is relieved of his duties as head of MI6's Berlin office and recalled to London. There he is tasked with taking part in an elaborate ruse to convince the East Germans that he wishes to defect to their side in order to frame a high-ranking official. This involves Leamas taking a job at a small library, getting publicly drunk in the nearby pubs and eventually being jailed for attacking a grocer.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold review

Upon his release, Leamas is contacted by London based representatives of the East German authorities, to whom he agrees to divulge the details of his work for MI6. Leamas is whisked away to the continent, but things get complicated when his librarian lover Nan (Claire Bloom) is made an unwitting pawn in the operation and it appears Leamas may have been hung out to dry by his own government.


The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is as removed from the thrills and spills of 007 as the average East German café was from a McDonalds. While handsome and charismatic, Burton's Leamas has the haunted look of a man who long ago sold his soul to the devil. Burton was 40 at time of filming, but a newspaper story tells us Leamas is a mere 30 years old. Here is a 30 year old who could pass for 50, such is the toll his profession has taken on him. Bloom's Nan is no Pussy Galore either. She's a mild-mannered librarian whose involvement in the British Communist Party makes her the perfect foil for the nefarious plot set in motion behind Leamas's back.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold review

That plot keeps us guessing as to who is being played by whom. In a later Burton film, the great war movie Where Eagles Dare, there's a memorable scene in which the rug is pulled out from under us several times to the point where we're no longer sure who the good guys are. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold takes this idea and stretches it out to feature length.


In this post Wikileaks world, nobody is naïve enough to believe that Western governments play by the rules, but in 1965 the cynicism of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold must have left quite an impression on an audience fed a black and white, us versus them view of the Cold War. Leamas has no interest in serving "For Queen and Country", and we're left to surmise whether he might actually defect if the price is right. After all, the Brits seem to have wrung the life out of him like a wet rag. Aside from Nan, he has nothing worth returning to London for, and he doesn't exactly seem head over heels in love with her either.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold review

This idea of a spy who finds himself equally disillusioned by both sides must have resonated with Ritt, who was himself blacklisted from working in American TV as a result of his involvement with unions, but like many, had grown contemptuous of communism by the mid '60s. That said, might it be more than a coincidence that East Germany, with its lakes and forests, seems far more appealing than the grim, grey portrayal of London? Think of 1965 London and you'll likely conjure up colourful images of a city in full psychedelic swing. Not so here – the UK capital is as drained of life as Leamas's husk of a face. You might be mistaken for believing Britain was itself behind the Iron Curtain.

Not the most visually oriented of directors, Ritt's film is overly reliant on dialogue to detail its twists and turns. Luckily for Ritt his Welsh leading man possesses one of the most iconic voices ever recorded. Coupled with his dead eyes, Burton's raspy brogue embodies Leamas's disenfranchisement – he doesn't so much speak lines as spit them out. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold might be a film that portrays a derisive, distanced view of the Cold War, but there's a quiet anger brimming throughout, ultimately expelled in a shocking ending that likely left many viewers questioning their faith in Queen and country on its release.


Extras:

A new audio commentary with film scholar Adrian Martin; a new video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns; trailer; and a 48-page collector's booklet.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is on blu-ray now from Eureka Entertainment.