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John Le Carré's spy saga is a steely, paranoid thrill on this Criterion Blu-ray upgrade...
Criterion / 112 Minutes / 1965 / Unrated / Street Date: September 10, 2013
Based on the acclaimed best-selling novel by John Le Carré about a Cold War spy on one final, dangerous mission, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is every bit as precise and ruthless onscreen in this adaptation directed by Martin Ritt (Norma Rae) as it was in print. Richard Burton as agent Alec Leamus delivers one of his career-defining performances as Alec Leamas; his hesitant but deeply felt relationship with a beautiful librarian (Claire Bloom) puts what he hopes will be his last assignment, in East Germany, in jeopardy. An intelligent, hard-edged, and even tragic thriller, the film is etched with realism and suffused with genuine political and personal anxiety.
Perhaps one of the reasons this stark, dank film resonates with such unglamorous gritty, onscreen reality is that the novel’s author, John le Carré, was a British spy. His experiences with cryptic government operations and the arts of deception and the double-cross fueled his series of “Smiley” spy novels. So writing what he knows provides an authenticity and gravitas to this secretive spy story.
The challenging novel is adapted by screenwriters Paul Dehn (Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express) and Guy Trosper (Jailhouse Rock). Leamus is a semi-reluctant British agent plagued by internal conflicts; he demands his retirement pay, but obviously remains intrigued with a new assignment at the same time. Via “Control,” Leamus is sent to Holland and then East Germany. He poses as a somewhat different kind of undercover operative and brought to a “secret” trial in Berlin. Leamus is the catalyst in a conflict between two men; they had once worked together but jealousy has driven them to clash before a clandestine but legit court hearing. Leamus’ “confession” and testimony are supposedly intended to convict one man, while another is soon killed. But is this a ruse? One cannot trust assumptions in a great spy story.
With a skillful director, strong production design, and fabulous actors, it is easy to be drawn into Ritt’s fine, confident film. The seedy and quietly menacing atmospheres of the scenes are compelling. However, despite the imposing autocratic ambience, the lengthy exposition, which may all be lies, and the tense lack of trust among the characters, I found myself turning the subtitles on and reverse scanning during more than a few scenes in an attempt to understand character motivations and plot complexities.
Fans of mysteries and espionage embraced this film and hailed its greatness; they have my admiration. Perhaps that is exactly the target audience at whom director Martin Ritt was aiming; this film is the diametric opposite of the glossy, glamorous James Bond approach to espionage. Perhaps I, too, need a little sugar coating on my pill. Although I believe I understand most of the film, a few things seem to remain unsure. Perhaps some spooks that leave an intelligence agency are left with questions as well. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold remains a gritty yet sophisticated spy tale.