[Film Review] The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold poster

Title: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Year: 1965
Country: UK
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Director: Martin Ritt
Paul Dehn
Guy Trosper
based on the novel of John le Carré
Music: Sol Kaplan
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Richard Burton
Claire Bloom
Oskar Werner
Peter van Eyck
Sam Wanamaker
Cyril Cusack
George Voskovec
Michael Hordern
Robert Hardy
Anne Blake
Bernard Lee
Beatrix Lehmann
Rupert Davies
Warren Mitchell
Rating: 8.5/10

Martin Ritt’s cinematic transposition of John le Carré’s sensational spy novel, is a sombre pièce-de-résistance countervails the much sought-after James Bond franchise (which, over 60 years later, is still a juggernaut groovy train), de-glamorizes its Martini, shaken not stirred screen preconception, and adjusts an intractably realistic spin on the treachery and disillusion of the Janus-faced veiled by the Cold War paranoia.

One year after the erection of the Berlin Wall, Alec Leamas (Burton, supremely jaded and miffed) is devolved from the head of UK’s West Berlin office after one of his best double-agent is shot dead in the chilling opening long shot. Back to London, a dispirited Alec is reassigned as an insignificant librarian, and strikes up a romantic liaison with his younger co-worker, the self-effacing Nancy Perry (Bloom), although they hold different political persuasions, Nancy is a communist, the idealistic type. After an impulsive physical assault on Patmore (Lee, the first“M” in the Bond series), a grocery shop owner who possibly holds a racist animosity towards Alec’s Irish lineage, he is put in prison, and after his release, he is contacted by the member of the East German Intelligence Service, deemed as a potential defector on the face of his demeaning situations.

Soon the story reveals that everything aforementioned is a front, in fact, Alec is undertaking a clandestine mission designated by Control, the chief of UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (an inscrutably poised Cyril Cusack, not minces word about the vocation’s seedy modus operandi), to act as a faux-defector to East Germany and deliver incriminating information to frame a high rank East German officer Mundt (van Eyck) as a paid informant, so that Mundi will be executed by his enterprising deputy Fiedler (Werner). So Alec assiduously climbs the pecking order to gain the trust of his enemies (where Ritt knowingly jeers at the callous rank superiority in the communist party) and finally reaches East Germany where he is under personal interrogation by Fiedler, he tactfully doles out spotty disinformation and gradually earns Fiedler’s trust.

Everything goes well according to the plan, during a secret tribunal where Mundt is tried, Fiedler’s impassioned accusation seems spotless, but one person’s appearance tips the scale, but that is not all, the film still pulls the wool over our eyes, until a final twist, in the fashion of Billy Wilder’s WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957), clears the ulterior motive, and casts an unnerving pathos when Alec delivers the revealing condemnation about the true nature of spy, he and Nancy are given the chance to scramble that damned wall for safety, but at that point, all bets are off.

Unflinching in foregrounding its source novel’s ingrained skepticism and fatalism, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD sustains a compelling narrative arc without resorting to action spectacles (gunshots only being fired in two occasions), meanwhile DP. Oswald Morris’ expressively noir-ish cinematography and Sol Kaplan’s indelibly enthralling score speak volumes of the bleak context where the world is governed by sinister conspiracies and people like Alec and Nancy, however diligent or innocent, are expendable pawns who can never outrun their sorry fate,

In retrospect, the film should have been Mr. Burton’s crowning point to take that Oscar golden statue which would elude his entire life, he is nominated but loses out to Lee Marvin’s Manichaean turn in CAT BALLOU (1965), which as time goes by, looks like a travesty to an increasing extent. Mr. Burton is absolutely at his most impenetrable in limning Alec’s flinty carapace during his high-wire act, and most poignant in emoting his smoldering frustration and self-loath when he realizes that he has accidentally consummated his assignment, but at the expense of his conviction to humanity.

The supporting cast is also exceptional, significant players like Bloom and Werner, instigate great two-handers – the former plies the story with a tinge of well-balanced warmth whereas the latter is memorably eloquent and radiant to fight for his noble cause, respectively with Mr. Burton, without being overshadowed by the latter’s incandescent flair, and a solemn-looking Peter van Eyck ekes out a transfixing about-face moment, with a bloodthirsty dagger nevertheless in his hands.

An outright engrossing spy thriller, pulls no punches in challenging its indulgent audience, and steadfastly establishes its growing cachet as a film par excellence in its own genre.

Oscar 1965  The Spy Who Came in from the Cold


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