It seems incredible that the first film to feature George Smiley is almost 50 years old especially after watching the latest Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy (2011). Stylistically the two films have a lot in common, perhaps because no one has really covered the drab, dirty drudgery of spying quite as well as John le Carré.
If The Ipcress File makes Bond look too much of an easy winner, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold makes Harry Palmer look like a character in Carry on Spying… there’s no artifice here: it’s stripped down spying and so bleak you can believe it’s almost real.
The quiet desperation of the characters reveals men at the end of their tether fighting a real war of attrition in which the side that keeps alive and loyal the longest survives and yet there’s little chance of an ending with characters so much in a fog of double think. Even the threat of violent death and incarceration behind the Iron Curtain must eventually be dulled by the mind-numbing tedium of deathly-uncertainty and of attack from all sides.
The film starts with Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), the head of operations for MI5 in East Germany, anxiously waiting for a colleague to make good their escape across to Checkpoint Charlie. He’s been up for days and will not rest until he’s sure his man has made it… but, as he wheels his push bike across the divide he’s gunned down: one more lost to betrayal…
|Richard Burton and Cyril Cusack|
Leamas returns to London where he is debriefed by Control (Cyril Cusack) who is unsure of his ongoing viability… what has Leamas got left?
Next we see him signing on at the Labour Exchange where his key competency as a fluent German speaker cuts little ice. There is however a job at a small library which, no other options available, he takes. Here he meets a young librarian, Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) who, in spite of his best intentions, begins to melt his frozen heart.
Leamas is drinking heavily though and antagonising his local convenience store owner… Persistent requests for credit do offend though and Leamas ends up assaulting the man and being sent down for a few months. A former spy failing to deal with his enforced retirement or someone trying to give that impression: what do you think?
On release Leamas is tapped up by a man claiming to run a charity helping ex-cons get back on the straight and narrow. The man, Ashe (Michael Hordern) introduces him to another, more arrogant and commanding, called Dick Carlton (Robert Hardy). They meet at a strip joint and, as the men establish their credentials and cut to the chase, Kathy Keeton – who built quite a career* – performs an expert striptease.
|Burton and Hardy with Miss Keeton in the background...|
Carlton’s the next level up in a chain of command leading all the way to East Germany… he arranges for Leamas to meet his superior, Peters (Sam Wanamaker) in Holland. Peters continues the testing of Leamas’ traitorous intentions and his role of dissatisfied and discarded secures him transport to the East after his story is broken in the British press: a deliberate ruse to force his hand or incompetence elsewhere?
Leamas had urged Control to leave Nan alone and not even to supply her with any assistance in his absence, but she does receive a visit from one George Smiley (Rupert Davies) who claims to be a “friend” of Leamas…
|Oskar Werner and Richard Burton|
Once in Germany the interrogation really hots up as Leamas is quizzed by the erudite Fiedler (Oskar Werner) and it becomes clear that Leamas may have fallen between two opposing factions in the communist secret police, one of whom may well be a traitor… Matters get considerably worse as he is used as a witness in the trial of one of the men, Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck) and Nan is dragged in as a witness for the defence…
It’s difficult to do justice to such a convoluted plot and I won’t give away the ending – not unless you get out the thumbscrews or, more likely, compromise me through the revelation of my past role as a, probably unknowing, double agent.
|Richard Burton and Sam Wanamaker|
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold makes all the other spies look like clowns and keeps you surprised right up to the end. There are no easy answers and ultimately it questions the nature and purpose of the cold war – possibly an easy, uneasy truce between sides too frightened or too tired to engage in all out combat… just picking at the selves and each other in the hope that who demoralises first wins.
Dusty verdict: Directed in monochromatic splendour by Martin Ritt, the film sets the benchmark by which all other “proper” spy stories should be measured, right up to and including today when the art of spying may have different tools but much the same aims of attrition by truth.
|Claire Bloom and Richard Burton|
Richard Burton is superb as the spy at the end of his game and leads a high quality cast with Clair Bloom playing the kind of librarian that makes a career in information science well worth considering.
It’s available from all the usual places – Movie Mail or Amazon who will no doubt record any purchase with interest…
*Kathy Keeton – who also had a bit-strip part in Expresso Bongo – became what the Associated Press termed as one of the highest paid strippers in Europe at 24. She met and later married Bob Guccione, the publisher of Penthouse magazine and became President/COO of his company launching both Viva and Omni in the seventies. An author as well as a publisher she sadly passed away all too soon aged 58 in 1997: far more than just the background stripper seen in the above film.
|Smiley calls on Nan...|