The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)

by | Sep 16, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)

Starring: Richard Burton, Clair Bloom, Oskar Werner, Sam Wanamaker, Peter van Eyck, Cyril Cusack
Director: Martin Ritt
Studio: Paramount DVD 06509
Video: Enhanced for 16:9 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DD mono
Length: 112 minutes
Rating: ****

Based on John Le Carre’s dour novel of spies and counter-espionage, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold provides a somber tonic to the fantasy-world of James Bond and the slickly packaged tale of intrigue. Richard Burton plays Alec Leamus, an embittered Irish “civil servant” who works for the British Secret Service. Dowdy, morose, cynical, Leamus refuses to yield to Control (Cyril Cusack, who would work with Oskar Werner again in Fahrenheit 451)), who insists the burnt-out Leamus should retire, come in from the cold of the front lines. “We live without sympathy,” commiserates Control, “but no one can go on forever.”  Leamus wants one more job: this is to sow misinformation in East Berlin to an inquisitive Jewish agent, Fiedler (Oskar Werner) about a suspected double-agent, Mundt (Peter van Eyck), working for London. In the midst of these sordid labyrinths, Leamus finds love in a naïve Communist librarian, Nan Perry (Clair Bloom).

Director Martin Ritt adapts a distinctly film noir approach to Le Carre’s narrative, using gloomy, wet streets and overcast skies to convey the dreariness, even the sliminess, of this Cold War moral universe. Shadows lay in wait everywhere. Even in the daylight, Leamus returns to Britain on a plane called The Flying Dutchman. The film opens with a thoroughly botched attempt by another agent to cross the East German border on a bicycle. Leamus watches with a combination of resignation and sang-froid as the rifle bullets bring the frail bicycle and its rider down. Wearing the same sorry trenchcoat in the constant rain, Leamus looks like a psychological husk which all the rains cannot revive. Bloom’s Nan enters his life with the wide-eyed innocence of Audrey Hepburn, believing in History, Honor, Justice, and the vision of the Communist Party. Leamus sets her straight on that score later.

Werner’s character Fiedler is just as naïve in his virtue on the other side, convinced that good evidence will bring down the former Nazi, Mundt, whose only philosophy is expediency. But it is not to be: Britain needs the Nazi; the Jew can go to Hell. Veteran Peter van Eyck, who came to my attention first in the 1943 Billy Wilder thriller Five Graves to Cairo, plays Mundt with cold fury – an unapologetic devil. We have cameos from character actors Niall McGuiness (Zeus in Jason and the Argonauts and the repentant German baker in The 49th Parallel) as a border guard; Bernard Lee (M in ten James Bond films) as a grocer; and Beatrix Lehmann as the East Berlin tribunal director. A relatively young Sam Wanamaker interrogates Leamus in Holland. Michael Hordern plays a blatantly gay recruiter for Leamus’ supposed defection to the Russians out of bitter disillusionment. “What do you expect?” Leamus baits Nan. “We’re a dreary, shabby race of frustrated and henpecked husbands, drunkards, perverts.” Who else could negotiate this netherworld where moral values collapse into each other?  When Leamus climbs the Berlin Wall with Nan at his side, he finally realizes the inevitability of the choices he has made. That much of the dialogue bears an uncanny suggestion of Macbeth is no accident. Leamus’ demise is not a dusty one, but a sodden one, a last-minute commitment to something decent; not a gallant gesture, but a shrug. Great ensemble acting.

— Gary Lemco

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