The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

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.


The Night Manager

The Night Manager is a 2016 miniseries jointly produced by BBC and AMC. It is based upon the novel by prolific spy fiction writer and former British Intelligence author John le Carre. The miniseries stars Tom Hiddleston (Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), Olivia Coleman (The lead in the excellent BBC police drama Broadchurch), Hugh Laurie (House on House), and Elizabeth Debecki (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). The plot of the novel takes place in 1993; the miniseries was adapted for present-day 2016 by David Farr. All episodes were directed by Susanne Bier.

I have always had a peculiar fascination with the world of espionage. It has been extremely interesting to me from a very young age, it’s my version of your Dad’s American Civil War figurines. I have read a few of le Carre’s novels and really enjoyed the 2011 adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Gary Oldman. When it comes to the mainstream audience, though, many find le Carre adaptations to be slow. They are, but slow does not have to mean boring. Let me explain by talking a little bit about le Carre’s career in espionage.

David Cromwell was born to a petty criminal in Liverpool, England and had a very tumultuous home life. He was academically gifted, though he dropped out after butting heads with a school headmaster. Cromwell studied language at the University of Bern in Switzerland before joining Military Intelligence as an interrogator of Germans who crossed over the Iron Curtain via the Berlin Wall. Afterwards, he returned to teach at Oxford where he covertly worked for MI-5, observing radical leftist groups for information on possible Soviet operatives. He became an official MI-5 officer in 1958. He ran agents, tapped phone lines, conducted interrogations, and effected break-ins.While an active agent, Cromwell wrote his first novel under the pseudonym John le Carre (French for “John the Square”).

In 1960, Cromwell transferred to MI-6 (commonly known by the euphemism “The Circus”, conducting operations while working under the cover of “Second Secretary” at the British Embassy in Bonn, and was later transferred to Hamburg. While in Hamburg, he wrote his breakout hit, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was adapted into a 1965 film starring Richard Burton. The film won and was nominated for several awards. It won Best Film, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction at the British Academy of Film and Television Awards in ’66 and was nominated for Best Actor and Art Direction at the ’66 Oscars, and won several other awards at other publications. In 1964, due to the damage caused by Kim Philby, Cromwell had all of his covers, assets, and active operations compromised by the KGB, and retired from the Service to become a full-time author.

The unique thing about le Carre’s novels (that make him, in my personal opinion, the best in the genre) is the unflinching dedication to realism. Le Carre’s most famous protagonist is George Smiley. Smiley was introduced around a time when people were more welcoming of realistic depictions of espionage, in contrast to James Bond and more “exciting” spy stories. He is wiry, unassuming, unattractive, and distinctly average. Smiley is, however, a master of tradecraft with stunning intellect.

Most of le Carré’s novels are spy stories set in the Cold War (1945–91) and feature Circus agents—unheroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work and engaged in psychological more than physical drama. Le Carré’s books emphasise the fallibility of Western democracy and of the secret services protecting it, often implying the possibility of East-West moral equivalence. Moreover, they experience little of the violence typically encountered in action thrillers and have very little recourse to gadgets. Much of the conflict is internal, rather than external and visible. (Wikipedia)

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold tells the story of a disgruntled Circus employee, Alec Lemas, who defects, revealing secrets to the East German Intelligence Service. Lemas is, in reality, still working as a triple agent  The story is a complex tale of deceptions and lies with little to no action or violence, filled to the brim with equally complex tradecraft terminology.

le Carre’s magnum opus, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the first in a trilogy of novels detailing Circus spymaster George Smiley’s hunt for his sinister Russian counterpart, Karla. In the novel, Smiley hunts for a mole at the top of the Circus. His recently deceased boss Control had it narrowed down to five people, codenamed “Tinker,” “Tailor,” “Soldier,” “Poor Man,” and “Beggar Man.” The story is an equally complex and confusing tale grounded in the real world of espionage with le Carre’s distinctly accurate terminology.

All of le Carre’s tales are slow-burning and methodical, as they should be. Unfortunately, this leads to many mainstream audiences (who thought they were to be thrilled out of their seats) to dismiss both The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (which was nominated for over 100 awards from various outlets during the 2012 awards season, winning several) as slow, boring, dumb, and overrated. I rather enjoyed this film, as I mentioned, but when my parents watched it, I remember my Mom asking incredulously “Didn’t this get five stars?”

I was worried The Night Manager miniseries would be a similar situation. I am happy to report that it is not. The plot of The Night Manager involves Jonathan Pine, a former British soldier now working as a night manager for a hotel in Cairo. He meets Sophie Alucan, the mysterious and seductive mistress of Freddie Hammid, a member of the royal family. Sophie tips Jonathan off to an arms deal involving billionaire Richard Roper. On the surface, Roper is a charismatic, charitable, kind philanthropist with a loving wife and child.In reality, Richard Roper is a brutal and pragmatic international arms dealer who will exploit both sides of a conflict as long as there is money involved.

Pine relates information about this arms deal to the proper authorities. Angela Burr is an MI-6 counter-terrorism operative that has been hunting Roper for quite some time. Her attempts to get the intelligence community to investigate Roper have been continually stonewalled. Burr contacts Pine and tells him to get Sophie to safety; she is found murdered, leaving Roper and Hamid in the wind. The event traumatizes Pine, who leaves Cairo for the Swiss Alps.

Two years later, Pine encounters Roper in person for the first time and alerts Burr. Butt senses the anger and rage inside the former soldier and uses that to persuade the young man to go undercover and infiltrate Roper’s inner circle. Burr, aware of the corruption in the intelligence community, assembles a very small team of people in order to carry out this operation. While Pine attempts to work his way into Roper’s good graces and gain information, Burr must keep the operation a secret from prying eyes in both the British and American intelligence communities.

Unlike most of le Carre’s spy tales, The Night Manager, though fairly complex, is extremely simplistic in comparison to his other stories. Though still grounded and filled with accurate spycraft, this story, the first post-Cold War story le Carre published, is free of many of the geopolitical complexities that came with that era. Whereas most of the protagonists of that time period were morally ambiguous, tired, and cynical (as I’m sure was true back in the day), Jonathan Pine is a charming, attractive, fit protagonist with his heart in the right place. This adaptation has ample tension and suspense throughout, relying on the familiar but refreshing built in tension that comes inherently with a character who claims to be something that they are not. It is perhaps the most accessible to mainstream audiences an adaptation of a John le Carre novel will ever be. The locales are vibrant and beautiful, all the cast gives great performances, especially Hugh Laurie.

The Night Manager seems to take aspects that were once a staple of le Carre and turn them on their heads. The characters are young and passionate instead of old and cynical, the locales are colorful and full of inherent beauty,  swapping the murky streets of West Berlin for an island in the Caribbeans. I believe this sudden change in le Carre may have come from the conflict that engulfed the entirety of his professional intelligence career and the majority of his life finally coming to a close.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that, with near universal acclaim, this miniseries is a contender for several Emmys in the 2017 awards season. Le Carre has stated that, while the miniseries does take some liberties with his novel, he found it very enjoyable, and so did I.