Self-consciously dour where the James Bond movies were insouciantly callous, Martin Ritt’s grim The Spy Who Came in from the Cold plays like an anti-thriller companion piece to the director’s acclaimed anti-western, Hud. Just as the earlier film mourned the disintegrating values of the modern American frontier with all the subtlety of a ton of bricks, Ritt’s adaptation of John le Carré‘s bestseller extends that ponderousness to the international arena of East-West spy games. Secret agents are described here as “seedy, squalid bastards,” and none is seedier or more squalid than Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), the weary brooder sent by British intelligence behind the Iron Curtain. Meant as his last assignment, the mission into East Berlin is slowly revealed as a complex, table-turning operation that involves Leamas’s idealist Communist lover (Claire Bloom) and his vicious, Teutonic counterpart (Peter Van Eyck). Going against the grain of a genre known for sexy, violent thrills, Ritt crafts a sober, weighty atmosphere of moral crisis in which spies from both sides are bound by their ruthlessness (“You can’t be less wicked than your enemies, can you?” Leamas’s superior deadpans). The dangers of corrupt power struggles are not lost on the politically conscious Ritt; it’s a shame, then, that his presentation boils down to a cloud of monotonous disillusionment, far less layered (and exciting) than le Carré‘s novel. Characteristically, Ritt’s strongest work is done with the actors. In full de-glam mode, Burton is stripped of his ripe theatricality, booming voice and superstar glamour (Ritt contrives to have the actor play most of his first scene with his back to the camera). Shriveling into himself until he’s a mortified lump, Burton’s Leamas is more tragic patsy than swashbuckler, and his scenes with a jaunty East German officer (Oskar Werner, who livens things up) have sharp doses of suspicion, cynicism and sadness. Ultimately, the film collapses under its own unilluminating gravitas; its dreariness becomes not an antidote to Ian Fleming’s flash, but its broken-mirror reflection.
- Martin Ritt
- Paul Dehn, Guy Trosper
- Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, Sam Wanamaker, Georges Voskovec, Rupert Davies, Cyril Cusack, Peter van Eyck, Michael Hordern, Robert Hardy, Bernard Lee