Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the deep concentration on character psychologies, rather than sweeping action spectacle or lengthy suspense montages – pretty much the hallmark of mid-sixties spy films. When paired against the James Bond or Harry Palmer films, Spy is quite clearly their antithesis; its focus isn’t on megalomaniacs itching to test a new death ray or conquer a country using private funds, but of two ideological worlds deeply invested in a discrete war using the same tactics of information gathering and extraction, except one party happens to be a bit more ‘politically benign’ than the other.
That’s one way author John le Carré characterizes the two worlds at war during the early sixties, and the film’s finale is an appropriate punctuation to the dreary little characters mired in levels of deceit; there is no dignity in anything these spies do, and while not a deliberate exercise in British Bleakism, one feels exhausted after the end credits softy fade up.
The finale is actually the only nod to genre convention - escaping to West Berlin via a designated space in the evil Berlin Wall – but by that point one is grasping for some hopeful finale that every delay, moment of confusion, and indecisive pause is nerve-racking. It’s tribute to the filmmakers for crafting the film without clichés to please the masses, because regardless of how miserable British spy Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is, one senses his wits, his humour, and his years of experience will help him save his life and soul from the rot endemic to playing so many false people for so long.
When he’s told by his superior, George Smiley (Rupert Davies) to lay low, assume the role of a drunkard, and wait for an approach by an East German spy, Alec clearly enjoys playing miserable, because it allows him to drink and numb his senses 24-7, with some minor moments of human contact coming from co-worker Nan Perry (Claire Bloom, sporting the worst hairdo of her career), the dowdy girl with whom he works at a minor little library, and an ideological naïf, proud of her role in supporting the everyman through the British Communist Party.
Alec’s eventual contact with Communist spies has him pretending to make the cross-over to the east purely for money, and he plays the game with robotic cynicism, except when he meets his East German handler, the GDR’s No. 2 spy, Fiedler (Oskar Werner). There’s no denying the two actors played well off each other, and director Martin Ritt knew part of the story’s power came from the topics the characters were avoiding to discuss due to mutual distrust, as well as shuttered emotions, so there’s added dramatic value in watching two great actors underplay their roles, and yet transmit a wealth of psychological sparring tactics through facial and dialogue subtleties.
A high point is a simple scene where Fiedler interrogates Alec during a beach walk, and one can feel the game at play as Leamas lards a few truths in his confessions to ensure the deception remains active and successful. Outside of the situation, both characters could probably forge a friendship, but the only evolution during the film is of respect for the other’s tactical skills; when one of them loses the game, the victor has no sadness because it’s redundant, if not pointless in the miserable world of espionage.
The romantic liaison between Alec and Nan begins out of loneliness and friendship, and their bond is solidified when she’s put in harm’s way in the final act during the trial where Fiedler attempts to prove his superior, Mundt (Peter van Eych), is a British double-agent.
Most of the film was shot in desolate, dreary locations in Ireland and Holland, and Oswald Morris’ black & white cinematography – which is neither in a glossy nor in a sprawling ‘scope ratio – radiates the damp, moldy world where spies live and work in a Spartan, if not functional environments. The cars are ugly, the clothes wrinkled, and it’s only when Alec and Fiedler take walks in natural surroundings does the film take on a restive tone.
Sol Kaplan’s monothematic score is fairly sparse, and conveys emotion through a solo sax, whereas the rest of a small orchestra plays increasingly dissonant cues to show how deep Alec must descend in the East German spy world.
Spy is also a dialogue heavy film, and the adaptation by Guy Trosper (Birdman of Alcatraz) and Paul Dehn (Goldfinger) is literate, dryly witty, and positions words in a dance-like rhythm – a suitable style for the spies who play games with their colleagues as well as rivals.
There are some very powerful scenes that come from sharp dialogue and soft performances. When Alec slams Fiedler’s queries with insults on a hilltop, Burton is very reserved because Alec’s words are viciously sharp, and it’s a rare film where Burton isn’t indulging in verbal belches or screeching emotive delivery, or grandly theatrical hand gestures. Werner also builds his character – who doesn’t appear until the film’s midsection – by energizing his dialogue with lovely nuances. Bloom’s character is really more functional to the plot; she’s integral to the downfall of an East German spy, and she exists to open up and humanize Leamas in a way a male colleague or rival simply couldn’t.
Spy is a rare gem because it’s based on a book that startled even real spies for its psychological authenticity. Director Martin Ritt and the scriptwriters convey the book’s physical dimensions through a bleak, realist style, and that’s a chief reason why the movie has withstood the test of time and provides a sharp, unadorned snapshot of the Cold War at play.
Criterion’s DVD sports a gorgeous transfer of the film, and most surprisingly, a mix with true stereo music tracks, and mildly ambient sound effects.
Although Criterion didn’t create a commentary track, they’ve included some very complimentary interview materials.
The newest extra is a 2008 Q&A with John le Carré (real name: David Cornwell) where the author speaks more specifically about the novel, its sale ‘for a song’ to Paramount, and a good overview of the film’s production, and the author’s own views on what aspects were faithful to the book, and those too divergent.
The most intriguing material is le Carré’s own observations where, as a young writer, was sent on location to Ireland, asked to write some additional material by star Richard Burton, and was privy to the emerging conflict between director Martin Ritt and Burton – mostly because Ritt tried like mad to get the star to ratchet down his performance style. In the end, Burton’s quite excellent as a man slowly disintegrating on camera, but Ritt’s persistence eventually strained the actor-director relationship. Le Carré also comments on the film’s superlative cast, and his opinion that Burton somewhat squandered his talent in later years. (Witness 1968’s Candy.).
There’s also some additional material on le Carré’s experience as a spy while working as a government aide, and co-screenwriter Paul Dehn, who once worked for Britain’s secret service as an assassin!
A broader perspective of le Carré’s life can be found in John le Carré: The Secret Centre, an hour-long BBC documentary from 2000, which has the author discussing with host/narrator Nigel Williams his formative years at schools in England and Switzerland (as a ‘refugee from England’), his father, his real-life role as a spy, and how these events shaped and formalized a controlled, emotionally neutral persona.
Williams makes some comparisons between le Carré and infamous spy Kim Philby (dramatized in the 2003 BBC teleplay Cambridge Spies), wherein le Carré was similarly part of a class of educated, British men who were often courted by various competing spy agencies for action during their university years. More importantly, though, are le Carré’s own explanations on how the spy game never really generated more than a stalemate among rival agencies, and how his increasing displeasure with the ethics and morality found their way into his novels.
There’s also a particularly detailed focus on the character of George Smiley, in terms of the character’s DNA, as well as his appearance in Spy, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979), Smiley’s People (1982), and A Murder of Quality (1991). Smiley also appeared under the name change Charlie Dobbs in The Deadly Affair (1966).
Interviewed subjects include le Carré’s ex-wife, as well as an ex-GDR official, an ex-KGB official, and some of the important figures from his early school years. Director Randall Wright globe-trotted from England to Switzerland, Germany, and Russia, and the locations add some vivid background imagery to le Carré own words from the overlaid interviews, as well as short segments where the author reads some of his gleaming prose.
The voice of director Martin Ritt appears in a lengthy series of edited interview extracts with author Patrick McGilligan, and while a small portion deals with the making of Spy, there’s plenty of info on Ritt’s career, the stigma of being a blacklisted Hollywood director/actor in the fifties, and the career risks in being a liberal filmmaker who tends to put all his efforts into politically simpatico projects which don’t often attract studio interest.
Portions of the Q&A do drag on – a segment on contemporary films (circa 1985), MTV, and such is more conversational that factually notable – but it’s a rare opportunity to hear words from one of the few directors who stood up to Burton because it was necessary for the film’s artistic success.
Cinematographer Oswald Morris is heard over several scene extracts, and he address the film’s style, filming what was his last black & white movie, the locations, sets, multi-camera setups for the concluding courtroom sequence, and working with director Ritt. Morris also reflects on filming techniques for difficult actors (Burton and co-star Claire Bloom had had a relationship a few years before during the making of Tony Richardson’s 1958 ‘angry you man film,’ Look Back in Anger).
The last extra offers an amusing irony, if not amusing moments of candor. Criterion’s included an episode of the somewhat pretentiously-titled series Acting in the 60s, with Burton sitting down for a rare Q&A with critic Kenneth Tynan in 1967
The editing in this half-hour chat is choppy – Burton is seen lighting and puffing cigarettes prior to replies shot in close-up where he’s no longer smoking – and once in a while there are cutaways to phony footage of Tynan listening wide-eyed and intently to Burton’s replies. Burton also seems too composed, as though he’s been fed the questions in advance and rehearsed his answers, but there are some very intriguing moments which not only show Burton in a relaxed pose, but going through a bit of candid self-examination.
Tynan coaxes him into quoting a pair of passages from stage performances – including Hamlet, which he reprised in 1964 – and Burton discusses his working relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, being uncomfortable when doing ‘physical business’ with actresses (hence his preference for working with spouses, and lovers like Bloom), and his preference for an ‘undisciplined’ acting style.
The most ironic bit is actually in the program’s intro, where Tynan quotes Burton’s satisfaction in delivering a low-key performance in Spy (with no acknowledgement of Ritt’s handling). More intriguing are the actor’s views on his fifties period under contract to Twentieth Century-Fox, the role of the director as a kind of self-glorified stage manager, and early work in films such as Look Back in Anger, as well as his early stage roles, and an affinity for Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus, which he co-directed in a film version in 1967.
From both le Carré’s comments as well as Burton’s, once senses 1967 was the actor’s career midpoint; he’d already appeared in a handful of laudable films – The Night of the Iguana, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Taming of the Shrew – but was falling victim to super celebrity syndrome, and being a recognized international star, which he admits enjoying because of the added perks of the best tables, hotels, treatment, and so on.
The fact Ritt had so much trouble in directing Burton is a signal as to why the actor’s work in the seventies was so disappointing. Challenging star roles were becoming scarcer due to the change of popular genres and actors, and perhaps there were fewer directors willing to handle Burton and his entourage.
Cast & Crew Post-Script
Spy is an interesting crossing point for some of the talent involved with the film. Although Oskar Werner and character actor Cyril Cusack (playing MI-5’s Control) don’t share any scenes, the two actors would appear next in Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Actor Sam Wanamaker, another blacklisted artist, would later appear with Werner in Voyage of the Damned (1976), a dramatization of the 1939 ship the SS St. Louis that carried Jewish refugees from Germany in search of sanctuary from the Nazi regime. Werner effectively retired from films thereafter.
Claire Bloom had previously appeared in Carol Reed’s postwar drama The Man Between (1953) as an innocent (and idiotic) girl snatched by East German gangsters, and who falls in love with a scoundrel before a tense escape into West Berlin.
Richard Burton appeared in Franco Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967), a film adaptation written by Paul Dehn, and Dehn would follow Spy with The Deadly Affair (1966), an adaptation of le Carré novel “Call for the Dead.” Dehn would also scribble one more work of subterfuge, The Night of the Generals (1967), before writing the last three Planet of the Apes sequels.
Cinematographer Oswald Morris would later film Zeffirelli’s Taming of the Shrew, as well as The Odessa File (1974), another film involving postwar subterfuge in the environs of Berlin.
In 1966, Alfred Hitchcock directed the similarly plotted Torn Curtain, about an American who defects to East Germany in order to discredit the regime and bring information back to West Germany, only to find his plans aggravated by the sudden arrival of his lover. More amusingly, Paramount, who produced Spy, released The Spy with a Cold Nose that same year, as well as the middle Harry Palmer film, Funeral in Berlin – projects that could be read as an attempt by the studio to distance itself from a box office dud, and realist Cold War dramas as a whole.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan