Daily Archives: January 17, 2021

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965)

*. The 1960s, being the height of the Cold War, were also the height of the spy movie. Of course the figure who bestrode the cultural landscape like a colossus was James Bond, whose franchise kicked off with Dr. No in 1962. After that the floodgates truly opened, with more Bond movies, then Bond rip-offs, Bond parodies, and also a whole genre of what we might think of as anti-Bond spy movies.
*. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is very much in this latter camp (despite the screenplay being written by Paul Dehn, who was just coming off doing Goldfinger). As Michael Sagrow puts it in his Criterion essay: “Le Carré’s view of espionage as an extension of the ugly, soul-grinding side of Cold War politics was more than a slap at the Bond books’ Byronic derring-do and the movies’ glamour, gimmickry, and jet-setting. It read like an exposé of the spy game’s dirty little secrets, linking the spiritual and emotional calamities of a burned-out fiftysomething British agent to the crises of values that plagued East and West in the mid-twentieth century.” And there’s even Bernard Lee, Bond’s M, showing up as a corner grocer.

*. So, no exotic locations, no over-the-top Ken Adams sets, no bombshell Bond girls. Leamas (Richard Burton) even calls out such fantasies in trying to explain the business to his lover Nancy (Claire Bloom): “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.”

*. Honest? Maybe. But realistic? Perhaps in terms of its moral tone. But I don’t find the events here very probable. Still, that air of Cold War-noir seems to have been enough for most people, helped along by the stagey ’40s photography. Aside from that . . .
*. Was Richard Burton really all that good? I don’t just mean that I don’t think I’ve really liked him much in anything, but was he that good an actor? He did, after all, win the Golden Turkey Award for the Worst Actor of All Time. Mostly, I think, for his over-emoting. Which was, in turn, his signature style. Did he ever play light?
*. He came from the stage and maybe that deep-voiced presence worked better in theatre. On screen he always seems like he’s playing some variation of the angry drunk (a role that he may have been playing offscreen as well). He was actually Leamas’s age at the time (39), but looks at least ten years older. Though people did age faster in those days. Even movie stars.
*. I didn’t find him all that credible as Leamas. I didn’t find Nancy credible either, but I think that’s the fault of the part, which doesn’t make much sense to me. I did, however, enjoy Oskar Werner as the too-earnest and hapless East German pawn, and Peter van Eyck as an impassive and untouchable force of . . . evil? Well, everyone is compromised.

*. Sure there are nice subtle touches that capture the bureaucratic nightmare everyone is caught up in. I love how each successive figure Leamas meets on the other side humiliates the previous underling. That has the ring of truth even more than the dingy sets.
*. But while there’s a lot to like I still come away unsatisfied from this one. A lot of the dialogue which is supposed to sound cynical now just seems precious (“I’m a man!”, “What about love?”, etc.) I appreciate the low-key atmosphere, but I think it also contributes to my lack of interest in the climaxes. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to think Leamas has actually fallen in love with Nancy or if he only feels a sense of duty toward her at the end. But then I never really bought Burton as a spy, burned out or otherwise. Martin Ritt also presents it all as a drama, with characters playing different roles off against each other in a series of one-on-ones culminating in the trial. Building suspense seems to have never entered his head. So while I’ve praised the photography, which looks great, this just doesn’t feel like a movie.
*. The title has gone on to become famous, even if the movie is less well known. Maybe even less well known than the novel today. I think it’s mostly well done but I just don’t find it that involving.