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.
Quite a superb transfer. The many shades of gray in Oswald Morris's cinematography and image details are on vivid display, with the sound on almost the same level.
Offering an unusually intelligent collection of interviews, Criterion's two-disc package runs the risk of having the extras outclass the feature. Author John le Carré is droll and insightful in an extended video discussion about the novel's origin and his trip to Hollywood for the film version, not shying away from criticism (he admires Richard Burton's performance, but admits he would have preferred Trevor Howard or Alec Guinness playing his "faceless" character). Much of the same material is covered in The Secret Centre: John le Carré, a very informative BBC documentary from 2000. A 1985 audio interview with Martin Ritt finds the lucid, articulate director looking back at his career and his situation then as a dedicated left-winger in Reagan's decade. Equally candid is Burton's talk with critic Kenneth Tynan in a 1967 episode of the BBC series Acting in the Sixties, in which the actor is surprisingly critical of his own career, praises Elizabeth Taylor, pisses on Brecht and throws off a killer Shakespearean reading as if it were a little magic trick. Finally, Morris gives terrific stylistic insights about the film's look in a scene-specific commentary. A gallery of set designs, a solid essay by Michael Sragow and the theatrical trailer round things up.
A fabulous package for a frigid Cold War chestnut.