The Spy Who Came in from the Cold


Released at the height of the James Bond heyday, this sober, gritty adaptation of John le Carré’s novel seems like a deliberate antidote to the increasingly fanciful adventures of Ian Fleming’s superspy. There are no outlandish gadgets or glamorous locations and the only significant female character dresses like a librarian (Of course, that might have something to do with the fact that she’s a librarian). For those who like their espionage somewhat grounded in reality, this movie is a three-course meal.


The story begins in West Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie as a British intelligence agent named Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is waiting for another agent to cross over from the Soviet section of the city, and apparently has been waiting for a couple of days without sleep. When he finally appears, something goes wrong and the man is gunned down by the East German guards. The very public loss of a valuable agent causes Leamas, who was the Berlin station chief, to be recalled back to London. His boss, Control (Cyril Cusack), suggests that he’s burned out and pressures him to take a desk job. Leamas says he’d rather take his pension.

Out of work, Leamas finds a menial job in a library, and has taken to drinking heavily. The only bright spot in his life is an idealistic young co-worker, Nan Peters (Claire Bloom), who is also active in the local Communist Party.

Leamas hits rocks bottom when he assaults a shopkeeper over his bill and winds up in jail. After leaving, he is contacted by a man named Ashe (Michael Hordern), who claims to represent a worker’s aid organization. The reality is that they are East German agents who have targeted the disgraced ex-intelligence man as a candidate for recruitment. Initially resistant, he eventually comes around and accepts their offer.

After the meeting, Leamas meets again with Control, who explains the rest of his assignment. They identified a man named Mundt (Peter van Eyck) as being responsible for the loss of Leamas’ agent in Berlin. Leamas’ defection is a ruse intended to discredit Mundt and allow his ambitious second-in-command, Fiedler (Oskar Werner), to force him out.

The movie’s barren black-and-white photography and Burton’s frosty performance are in perfect synch with each other and the art director gets the dreary look of Cold War East Berlin just right.

This is definitely not a movie for a short attention span. Chase scenes and other actions are non-existent as the conflict plays out in verbal chess matches rather than gunfire. No one here is trying to save the world. LeCarré’s world is one of cynical gamesmanship and double-dealing. It’s not pretty, glamorous or light-hearted fun but it makes for a damn good movie.

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