Has there been any other theatre actor as poorly served by film as Richard Burton? He has a beautiful voice, but he often seems disinterested or hammy in his film appearances. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is an exception, and it’s no coincidence that it’s one of his best performances. A definite precursor to films like The Ipcress File, itself a singularly unconventional spy film.
Based on the John le Carré book of the same name, Burton plays Alec Leamas, a down-on-his-luck former agent who is drawn back into a labyrinthine plot to oust German communist operative Mundt (Peter van Eyck) by gaining the trust of his chief rival, Fiedler (Oskar Werner).
It’s a bleak film, but meticulously constructed – the shots of the Berlin wall (actually shot in Ireland) look beautiful and very noirish. Martin Ritt isn’t a name that comes up much when discussing great directors, but he made some solid films over his career, and this is one of his best. He has a knack for composition and combined with the crisp black and white cinematography this gives the film a striking look, rendered wonderfully in this Blu-ray release.
By all accounts Burton and Ritt did not get on during filming, with Ritt insisting on Burton playing down his sonorous voice and the result is a subtle performance that leaves a lasting impression. Burton only lapses into his recognisable voice in his climactic tirade against his profession, where he drops all pretence. It’s a great moment, perfectly written and even more effective given his previously low-key delivery.
Claire Bloom is quietly brilliant as Leamas’ love interest. Idealistic and morally guided, she’s the perfect foil for Burton’s cynical agent and their relationship is convincing, but more interesting is the way her character is handled. Both as a female character in a spy film and as a communist, she is written with much more dignity and respect than either is normally afforded in this genre.
This also features the first onscreen appearance of le Carré’s most enduring character – George Smiley. As played by Rupert Davies he is an appropriately amiable and anonymous character. Even better is Cyril Cusack as the implacable Control. Cusack’s dry delivery and casual ruthlessness are perfect, sending agents to their potential doom while bemoaning the lack of a tea cosy. In a wry bit of casting, Bernard Lee (who played the Control equivalent in the Bond series) crops up here as an irascible shopkeeper, serving as a neat reminder that this is a vastly different world to that of Ian Fleming’s stories.
As the various links of the communist spy network, Michael Hordern, Robert Hardy and Sam Wanamaker each give added layers to their characters. This oddly playful sequence has each of them unceremoniously dismissed by their successor, who is invariably better dressed than them, until we reach the top of the chain, the scruffy but principled Fiedler. Oskar Werner makes his character incredibly humane and likeable, full of impassioned emotional speeches. He’s presented in stark contrast with Peter van Eyck’s controlled, villainous Mundt, who is clearly coded as a Nazi – complete with peroxide blonde hair.
The pace is a little plodding and straightforward in places, but it’s really the only way to keep track of the constantly twisting story, thanks to le Carré’s dense plotting. I had seen The Spy Who Came in From the Cold before and admittedly wrote it off as a solid but unremarkable film, however on a – I was struck by the charismatic performances, stunning cinematography and the remarkably downbeat ending. Simultaneously mundane and beautiful, it captures the unglamorous tone of le Carré’s work perfectly, showing you don’t need action sequences to make a riveting espionage film.
Rather sparse for Eureka, this release comes with a collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by Richard Combs, as well as a commentary with film scholar Adrian Martin, and a video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns.