Adapted from the John le Carré novel, this is a black & white spy thriller that personifies cold war paranoia in ways that Bond never could. Richard Burton is an operative working in Berlin before being demoted to a librarian job. It looks like our narrative is heading in a direction hardly fit for a spy film. Its intentions are not so obvious at first, and it keeps its audience working for the rest of the film.
Alec becomes fond of his colleague Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) who is a young member of the British communist party, but he’s also prone to drink and outbursts of anger. He’s become the perfect target for defecting, and the enemy reaches out to him just as would be expected. They send him to the Netherlands promising payment for the disclosure of British secrets. In these moments there is a great deal of dialogue that feels somewhat trying. It ends up being a slow burn for Burton and the viewer as new layers and wrinkles are added to this whole espionage affair. Only does it get interesting when the girl winds up back in the equation. All of the sudden, the stakes are a lot different, a lot more hangs in the balance, and a lot of new twists present themselves.
As an audience, we are thrown into the tension of the moment, and we become utterly befuddled by all that is going on around us. It’s as if when we finally prick up our ears in anticipation we no longer know all the ins and outs of what’s going on. Where do the allegiances lie? Who is “good?” Who is “bad?” Or is everyone just a muddied shade of gray?
Perhaps the most disconcerting revelation is only alluded to and remains more prominent in the original novel. Here we have a storyline where the sadistic German ultimately survives and the Jewish agent is destroyed. It’s a cruel bit of irony that hardly needs to be explained, but the implications are decidedly troubling. With such an observation we cannot help but recall the pogrom-filled past of European history — most devastatingly the Holocaust a mere 15 or 20 years before.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a dour, misanthropic picture of the Cold War era. A narrative perfectly matched for Burton’s pair of somber eyes, cynicism, and brooding. He’s a man who speaks of Peter Pan and God in the same breath — they are both fairy tales. His role as a spy is never glorious, instead besmirched by conspiracy and lies. When you put it that way it’s not very appealing at all, and it shouldn’t be. Director Martin Ritt, unfortunately, is a greatly under-appreciated director and his films are often tinged with moral and political undertones that follow troubled characters.
Notably, this film felt like a precursor to The Three Days of the Condor, except this time it’s about the British organization Control that pulls the wool over the eyes of the enemy. The conspiracy runs so deep it’s almost difficult to even comprehend it. Maintaining its tone, the story ends much like it began, very bleak indeed. This is a film that deserves your time and demands your full attention.
“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, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?” ~ Richard Burton as Alec Leamus