The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a 1965 Cold War spy film starring directed by Martin Ritt, with a screenplay by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper. It is based upon the bestselling 1963 novel of the same name by John Le Carré. The film stars Richard Burton as British Intelligence officer Alec Lemas and Claire Bloom as Nan Perry.
I have discussed le Carré’s career at length in my review of the recent miniseries The Night Manager. A valid criticism of that review is that I spent too much time focusing on Le Carré’s long and illustrious career, both as a British Intelligence officer and novelist, when I should have been focusing on the miniseries itself. As such, I will provide a brief summary on why le Carré’s work is so interesting, while at the same time complicated, and then move on to the film.
David Cromwell was an agent for military intelligence stationed in Austria briefly following World War II, acting as a German-language interrogator for defectors from the Iron Curtain. He returned to Britain and finished up his studies on foreign languages (his specialty) at Oxford University, where he covertly informed on radical/Communist groups for MI-5. He was an MI-5 officer from 1958 to 1960 before transferring to MI-6, AKA The Circus, where he returned to Germany under the official cover as “Second Secretary” at the British Embassy in the city of Bonn. He was later transferred to Hamburg as political counsel. It was there Cromwell wrote his second novel, A Murder of Quality, in 1962 and this novel the year after, both under the pen name John le Carré, which is French for “John the Square.” The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was a momentous success. Cromwell left the intelligence field in 1964 due to disastrous intelligence leaks caused by Soviet double agent Kim Philby. le Carré has since become known as one of the best spy fiction writers of all time.
le Carré is a brilliant writer, and the adaptations of his works have been known to be equally as brilliant. However, his work as well as their various adaptations can be difficult to recommend to the uninitiated; somewhat of an antithesis to James Bond, le Carré’s work is grounded in the real world. The majority of his novels are very cerebral and drenched in true-to-life tradecraft. le Carré presents the espionage world as it truly is. It is a world of moral gray areas, trenchcoats, secret meetings, back-door politics, and very little violence. There are no climactic shootouts, gadgets, or glamour. le Carré presents the real deal, with very little handholding. As such, his work, though excellent, is potentially inaccessible to a layman, either due to confusion or a feeling things are too slow. le Carré and films based of his works are great, but you have to know what you are getting into beforehand. Don’t expect Skyfall or Jason Bourne. Much like the stereotypical Dad with a weird fascination with American Civil War history, espionage is my weird fascination, so I enjoy both le Carré’s novels and films.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold follows MI-6 officer Alec Lemas, head of station in Berlin. Lemas, a seasoned and extremely cynical man who considers himself “an operational man,” becomes exceptionally disillusioned after a defector fails to bluff his way past security at the Berlin Wall and is subsequently shot down and killed. Lemas is returned to London and resigns rather than be put to a desk job. Lemas finds a bookkeeping job in London and falls in love with a naive but well-meaning Communist named Nan Perry. Lemas deals with his inner-turmoil by getting drunk. Lemas loses his job after causing trouble at a local grocery. He is then approached by agents of German Intelligence, having been singled out for defection for obvious reasons.
This decision sends Lemas down a dangerous path of treachery, lies, truth, and betrayal. Lemas has no delusions about what he is. The very cynical and somewhat nihilistic man does not believe in “God nor the words of Karl Marx.” That isn’t why he does what he does. The protagonist in this film is so nihlistic and cynical that he believes in nothing, except perhaps love. His leanings are so in contrast with his Communist girlfriend that everything finally comes to a head in the closing moments of the film.
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 are 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?
le Carré faced endless criticism from his former peers in the intelligence community after The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was published. Former spies who turn to writing often do, but for le Carré, it was not potential violation of the Official Secrets Act, but because his philosophy on the intelligence community angered them. Many of his peers saw espionage as fighting the good fight, a moral cause, the greater good. Not him. He portrayed the intelligence world as it is: a dirty, rotten business.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold benefits from a flawless screenplay on top of its excellent source material. The film does a great job at making people think, about making you care, about making you understand how this secret world works. The dialogue is poignant and masterfullly crafted. There is also some rather brilliant cinematography on display here by Oswald Morris and a pretty great score by Sol Kaplan, too. Richard Burton is a marvelous actor. He is much more than Elizabeth Taylor’s husband, that’s all I have to say on that subject.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was arguably even more of a massive success than the novel. The film won several awards at the 1966 British Academy Film Awards, winning Best Actor for Richard Burton, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best British Film. The film was nominated for Best Picture and Richard Burton was also nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards that same year.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a intelligent, cerebral spy film, executed to the highest standard. Inspired by a spy who really did come in from the cold, this film is a look into what being one really is like, the strain it takes on your morals, your health, and your relationships, both personal and professional. It is a great classic film that I would recommend to anyone looking for a cerebral film with great acting to go along with it.