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The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

The grim, dangerous work that makes up the core of spying is displayed in exquisite and fascinating detail, in this excellent adaptation of John Le Carre's novel. With the cold rain pouring down on the murky streets of Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie doesn't seem to have much to recommend it. Yet this symbol of the Cold War represents hope and freedom to those oppressed in the East and, conversely, the malignant presence of Communism to the West. In this transition zone stands Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), a British agent waiting for the defection of one of his spies. The man in question appears over the border and looks set to make his escape when, suddenly, he is cut down in a hail of gunfire. Leamas is recalled to London by his boss, Control (Cyril Cusack), expecting to be fired. Instead Control decides to keep Leamas "out in the cold" a while longer. However, Leamas is soon looking for work and ends up with a menial librarian job. With his only friend, whisky, for company, Leamas stews in his own thoughts, building up resentment against the British Secret Service. Nothing seems able to penetrate his shell (built up over the years as a spy) although his fellow librarian, Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), takes a liking to him. Unfortunately, Leamas assaults a shopkeeper and ands up in jail.

Nan must like him though, and vice versa, since she meets him on his release from prison. Interestingly, there is another there to see his return to society and he approaches him in the park. Claiming to be from a charity which helps ex-convicts, Carlton (Robert Hardy) takes Leamas to an expensive lunch. This is all double-talk of course -- in reality it's an approach from the enemy, checking out a disgruntled ex-spy and finding out if he'll defect. Leamas seems to feel that he doesn't owe Britain anything and, somewhat grumpily, seems to accept (purely for the money). Then Leamas circuitously makes his way to Smiley's (Rupert Davies) house, for a meeting with Control. Everything becomes clear Control outlines the plan, a devious and cunning attempt to discredit the top East German spy, Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter Van Eyck). With haste, Leamas is flown to Holland for de-briefing by Fiedler (Oskar Werner), the second in command to Mundt. The crux of the plan is that Fiedler detests Mundt and would do anything to destroy him.

By dropping subtle hints during his conversations with Fiedler, Leamas allows the agent to draw his own conclusions without injudicious prompting. The incredible skill that Leamas has for espionage, and his years of experience, hold him in good stead as he weaves a convincing tale for Fiedler. Realising the "truth", Fiedler bundles Leamas back to East Germany, where he hopes to bring down Mundt in a closed trial. Leamas is an added complication though since he insists that Mundt couldn't have been a double-agent (he was head of East German operations and would have known). Fiedler still manages to force a trial though, absolutely convinced that Mundt is betraying his country, and the closed session begins. It seems as though the tribunal will rule against Mundt, resulting in his execution, until his defense lawyer presents an unexpected witness. This pastes a whole new complexion on the proceedings and the fate of everyone involved.

As the flip-side to the cartoonish antics of James Bond, this movie is both a welcome antidote and a snapshot of the now departed Cold War era. The script itself is tremendous, combining believable dialogue (most of the time the characters talk in metaphors, never actually voicing the real meaning) with a slow, deliberate pacing which reflects the nature of spying. However, Richard Burton's acting as the burnt-out, disillusioned, semi-alcoholic, shambling agent is nothing short of incredible. He full deserved his Oscar nomination and, in my opinion, should easily have triumphed. The supporting actors are really quite good, but their performances pale in comparison. The technical aspects, such as the cinematography, are noteworthy, working together to create an atmosphere where human lives are somehow worthless, where scraps of information are all that matter. In summary, a cracking story with superb acting which reflects on a thankfully-passed period.


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