Director: Martin Ritt
Screenplay: Paul Dehn, Guy Trosper
Based on a Novel by: John le Carré
Starring: Richard Burton, Oskar Werner, Claire Bloom, Sam Wanamaker, George Voskovec, Rupert Davies, Cyril Cusack, Peter van Eyck, Bernard Lee
Running Time: 112 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
John le Carré’s novels have inspired a number of films and TV series over the years, many of which have proved popular with critics and audiences alike. Both the film and television adaptations of Tinker Tailor Solder Spy, for instance, are highly regarded. Among the very best adaptations of le Carré’s work, however, is the first, Martin Ritt’s film of the author’s breakthrough novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
Released in 1965, just two years after the novel was published and a few months after le Carré’s follow-up, ‘The Looking Glass War’, emerged, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold appeared to be a grim antidote to the James Bond franchise. The much more glamorous and action-packed spy series was just hitting its stride in 1965, with the fourth entry, Thunderball, released in the same month as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, making a huge amount of money (it’s still the most successful Bond film in the US, adjusting for inflation). Ritt’s much more sombre film didn’t make anywhere near as much, but it still did relatively well for such a low-key film. It was a hit with critics too and bagged a number of awards and nominations, making a big splash at the BAFTAs in particular.
Eureka clearly believe The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is worthy of praise too, as they’re adding it to their prestigious Masters of Cinema range. I got hold of a copy to see for myself.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold sees Richard Burton play Alec Leamas, an MI6 agent who heads the West Berlin office at the beginning of the film. After a fellow operative is killed at Checkpoint Charlie, Leamas is called back to London. There, Control (Cyril Cusack) tells Leamas that he believes he is burnt out and should take a desk job. He wants Leamas to take one last field assignment though.
Following this scene, we cut to Leamas signing on at the employment agency. He appears to have hit rock bottom, drinking heavily and taking a job at a strange library, specialising in books on the occult and the mystical. There he meets Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), a young Communist that he warms to. The couple hit it off and Nan stays with Leamas, even after he’s arrested for beating up a shop keeper (‘M’ himself, Bernard Lee).
However, not long after, we realise this new life is actually a ruse to attract the attention of the East German Intelligence Service. Indeed, they approach Leamas, seeing him as a potential defector. Leamas agrees to sell them information and is passed up the various ranks of the enemy. His intended target is Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck), who is believed to be the man responsible for the death of the MI6 agent at the start of the film. However, when Leamas finally finds himself face-to-face with Mundt, the plot and the agent’s fate take a sharp turn.
I thought The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was fantastic. I’ve always enjoyed this style of cleverly plotted espionage story, that focuses on deception and betrayal rather than over-the-top explosive thrills (not that I don’t enjoy a good Bond movie too). The film perfectly nails the harsh reality of being a spy and sums it up nicely in a line of dialogue near the end;
“What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not. They’re just a bunch of seedy squalid bastards like me, little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing “Cowboys and Indians” to brighten their rotten little lives.”
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is also beautifully made. Martin Ritt never became a household name (though he courted controversy during the McCarthy witch hunts, getting ‘grey-listed’ as a former Communist) but his 1963 film Hud is fondly remembered. Here he does an exceptional job of capturing the mood and atmosphere of le Carré’s writing and the Cold War in general. Shot in stark black-and-white, there’s a naturalistic look to the production design but each frame is carefully composed and there are some elegant camera moves spread throughout.
Also highly effective is Sol Kaplan’s score. Moving from a plaintive solo piano at the start to some quite abstract modernistic passages to reflect the state of mind of our protagonist, it’s a rich and rewarding listen. I was gutted that I couldn’t get hold of a copy after watching the film.
The plotting of the film is well-handled too. Like the best spy movies, the story can seem confusing at times, then revelations will clear this up briefly, before new twists and turns up-end you again. All is eventually revealed in the shocking finale though.
Le Carré’s novel, of course, must be a key component of the storytelling but, reportedly (I’ve not read the novel myself), a fair few details were changed in the transition from page to the screen. Though some baulk at filmmakers ‘butchering’ popular novels, I believe alterations are often the sign of a good adaptation. Simply copying text from a book into a screenplay doesn’t work. Novels are too lengthy and often more directly take you into the mind of a character. Plus, the beauty of cinematic language can be lost if you focus on a more literal translation.
Therefore, the screenwriters Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper must also share some of the credit for this fine piece of work. The former worked in military intelligence during WWII, in fact, so was a fine choice for the adaptation. If a piece of trivia I found on IMDB is to be trusted, le Carré, a former MI6 agent, said that Dehn knew far more about the world of espionage than he himself did, in fact.
The performances are also key to the film’s success. Every player is well cast and does a fine job, but it’s Richard Burton’s film. Ritt reportedly struggled to get him to tone down his famously powerful vocal delivery, to begin with. He must have succeeded though, as Burton is wonderfully restrained. He says so much with his steely glare, he doesn’t need any impassioned speeches. He does relish in the dry humour of the dialogue though, which offers moments of respite among the otherwise cold and grim film.
Overall then, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is an effectively bleak treatise on the stark reality of being a spy. It’s a fine distillation of Le Carré, expertly constructed and wonderfully performed. Masterful stuff.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is out on 17th May on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The film looks gorgeous, with a crisp picture, impressive detail and pleasing textures. There is some very light damage consistently found on the right-hand side of the frame but it’s barely noticeable, even when watched projected on a large screen. The audio is pleasing too.
The Limited Edition Blu-ray set includes:
– Limited Edition Exclusive O-Card slipcase with new artwork by artist Grégory Sacré (Gokaiju)[First Print Run of 2000 copies only]
– 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a restored high-definition digital transfer
– Uncompressed LPCM Stereo audio
– Optional English SDH
– Brand new audio commentary with film scholar Adrian Martin
– Brand new video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns
– PLUS: A collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by Richard Combs
It’s not a huge amount of material, but both Cairns and Martin provide thoughtful, well-researched analyses of the film. They both discuss similarities and differences between the film and its source material. Cairns also discusses Ritt’s career in general and makes more mention than Martin of some of the ‘gossip’ from the set.
You also get one of Eureka’s well-compiled booklets and it’s an essential addition, as always. It only contains one essay, by Richard Combs, but this offers a further dissection of the film that helps better appreciate Ritt’s approach.
Overall, it’s another stellar release from Eureka that comes highly recommended.