The Spy Who Came in from the Cold might be one of the coolest movies ever made, in all senses of the word. Literally, because the characters always seem to be pulling their jackets against their necks while tucking into offices or bars for refuge from the wind. Figuratively, because director Martin Ritt orchestrates the film’s ebb and flow of emotions with a finesse that’s chilling. The characters could be discussing tea, or liquor, or a brilliant plot to indirectly assassinate a German Intelligence Officer or his ambitious underling interrogator, or something else altogether, and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference from a cursory evaluation of the conversation’s tone. You would have to look deeper at inflection and context, and you’d have to probably be familiar with decades of global politics and theoretically suppressed British intelligence gathering, in order to fully understand what anyone is actually saying.
The despairing joke, taken straight from the John le Carré bestseller that inspired the film, is that no one really does totally know what anyone else is saying. Spy fiction often allows a reader to indulge an empowering fantasy of possessing otherwise unattainable knowledge, but Le Carré’s books expose that notion for the wishful thinking it probably always is. To be a spy in Le Carré’s fiction, and the author famously lived a bit of what he writes, is to have knowledge that alienates you from the rest of the world. The knowledge you possess, as a Le Carré spy, only underlines how much you still don’t know, and this realization transforms life into a series of stifling paradoxes: The world is huge, yet claustrophobically contained in an endless procession of anonymous bars and backrooms, and every problem reveals a hundred more upon its solution, like a great hydra. In other words, the Le Carré spy ultimately knows that he knows nothing, and that perhaps there’s no overriding Something to know, which might be as close as a bureaucracy can come to proving that God doesn’t exist.
Ritt, as Le Carré himself astutely observed, leans too heavily on the familiar aesthetics of an art film noir as a means of expressing the author’s view of spies as sad, pretentious cogs trading euphemisms in operations that are frequently revealed to be beside the point anyway. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is one of the most beautiful of all black-and-white films, but the stark expressionism tends to overshadow the author’s tendency for bone-dry gallows humor, which is often concerned with the hideous disconnect between the characters’ behavior and the (often probably justified) immoralities they’re actually orchestrating. There’s usually a hint of the farcical in Le Carré’s work, explicit in both The Tailor of Panama and the terrific film that was made from it, and Ritt mostly eschews that element, with the notable exception of Cyril Cusack’s wicked portrayal of Control.
But The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is still a fabulous, distinctive movie that revels in the precision and density of conversation as warfare. Talk and gesture are the characters’ livelihood in Le Carré’s world of Cold War espionage, and Ritt affords his superb cast the room to invest the language with the full virtuosic hall-of-mirrors ambiguity it deserves, partially by achieving a painterly atmosphere of emptiness that ironically contrasts with the complicated thicket of ever-shifting loyalties that propel the story. Terrible things happen in this film, quietly, while people talk to one another in even tones in drab, hollow rooms.
The exception in this world is Circus operative Alec Leamus, who doesn’t do anything quietly, mostly because he’s played by Richard Burton in a performance, uncharacteristically subdued by his standard, that nevertheless impressively sustains the illusion of gloriously upsetting Ritt’s careful tonal arrangements. Burton particularly contributes, poignantly and somewhat unintentionally, to the film’s ironic exploration of Leamus as a man who’s forced to theatrically accentuate his own demons in order to coax down the enemy’s defenses, an assignment that eerily resembles Burton’s assimilation of his own reputed proclivities (namely, the alcoholism and aversion to authority) into the role. In his greatest performance, Burton turns Le Carré ’s thriller of heightened protocol into a song of the damned, merging Le Carré’s fictionalized pseudo-autobiography with his own.
This transfer improves upon Criterion’s already sturdy DVD print, further clarifying the subtle contrasts between the film’s blacks, whites, and grays. Image detail is also outstanding (check out the fibers on the characters’ coats and sweaters) and the grain ratio ideal. The English LPCM 2.0 track minimizes the white noise that was audible even on the DVD, while enhancing nuance and dimension. This is how you upgrade a prior edition for a newer medium.
The supplements primarily highlight the pair of artists who are obviously presumed to be the authors of the film, director Martin Ritt and novelist John Carré, while also parsing democratically through the contributions of the actors and other technicians, most prominently director of photography Oswald Morris. The exclusive interview with John le Carré is the highlight here, as he impressively answers almost every obvious and not-so-obvious question about the film’s context in an eloquently breezy 40 minutes. The author discusses the political context that partially informed the novel, Ritt’s own distinctly American reasons for tackling the story, the director’s contentious relationship with Richard Burton, and Le Carré’s subsequent role as an on-set liaison between the two while even allowing a little room for a perceptive and fair critique of the film itself. The extras would rate highly for this piece alone, but the other docs are also terrific, and it’s particularly refreshing to hear the interview with Ritt, a gifted director who’s often underrated by auteurists who seem to embrace only those directors who manage to more obviously plaster their personality all over their work. Rounding out the package is a booklet with a fine appreciation by critic Michael Sragow.
It’s worth braving the winds of the harsh merciless world to obtain this upgrade of a stone-cold espionage classic.