Monday, April 22, 2013

Short Take: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (film)

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 1965 film adaptation of John le Carré’s novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, directed and produced by Martin Ritt, is a workmanlike, no-frills, and effective effort. Richard Burton plays Alec Leamas, a British intelligence field officer during the Cold War. As the film begins, he watches as the service’s Berlin operation, which he oversees, collapses. He then returns to civilian life, and appears unable to adjust. The truth is he is marking himself as a target for defection by East German operatives in Britain, His ultimate aim is to manipulate the upper echelon of the Communist country’s intelligence corps. As the scheme progresses, he discovers the full extent of how he and the woman he loves (Claire Bloom) are pawns in the double-dealings of intelligence officials in both countries. The script, credited to Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper, does a capable job of adapting le Carré’s novel. However, one may wish it had followed the book’s lead of letting the audience discover the specifics of Leamas’s mission instead of explaining it up front. But Ritt and the screenwriters maintain the book’s uncompromising view of the dirtiness and amorality of espionage work. One might wish Ritt were a more imaginative filmmaker, but he keeps the story tense and clear. The main reason to see the film is Burton’s fine performance. He foregoes his usual dramatic ostentation, and his restraint makes him all the more forceful. He superbly conveys the character’s misanthropy, and the nuance he shows in the character's more manipulative moments is remarkable. There is also no doubting his cold fury when the caring for others he thought behind him is used as a devious weapon. Burton is ably supported by the warmth and sympathy Bloom brings her role, and Oskar Werner is quite compelling as the protagonist’s principal German interlocutor. Oswald Morris’ gritty black-and-white cinematography serves the material well.

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