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John le Carre #3: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

October 2, 2012

This is my third review of a movie based on one of John le Carre’s novels that’s being featured at BAM through this Wednesday. Unlike the first two reviews, this one is not a reprint from somewhere else, but is original.

The West Berlin checkpoint at the beginning of the film.

Of all of the symbols of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall was probably the most visible. Erected in August of 1961 to separate East Berlin (the Soviet side) from West Berlin (the U.S., British and French side), it ostensibly was supposed to keep so-called “fascist” elements out of East Berlin (and, by extension, East Germany and the Soviet bloc), but in reality was built to stem the tide of those defecting to the West. Until it finally came down in 1990 when the Soviet bloc became free and East and West Germany reunited, the Berlin Wall was an area where both real and fictional spies sneaked in to either side to carry out operations, recruit potential defectors, smuggle secrets, and all sorts of other operations. So it’s appropriate the Berlin Wall is where both John le Carre’s seminal and career-making novel The Spy who Came In from the Cold, and director Martin Ritt’s terrific film adaptation of it, starts out.

Alec Leamas (Richard Burton – back to the camera, center) waits for his contact, while the CIA agent (Tom Stern, left) and a border guard (right) look on.

Graham Greene, considered one of the finest spy novelists of the time (as well as novelist, period), had written a novel called A Burnt Out Case (ironically, not a spy novel – or as Greene called them, entertainments – but one of his literary novels), and that certainly describes le Carre’s hero, Alec Leamas (Richard Burton). When we first see him, he’s in a trenchcoat waiting inside a checkpoint station at the Wall, while a CIA agent (Tom Stern) brings him coffee. Leamas is waiting for Karl Riemeck, an agent he’s running; the last agent, in fact, that hasn’t been killed by Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter Van Eyck), the ruthless head of the East German SDS (the German KGB). Leamas wearily assures the CIA agent Riemack will come, and that the agent can go home if he wants. Leamas is pale, his eyes are hollow, and his voice is raspy. He soon has one more reason to worry; though Riemeck does show up, and seems to be free and clear at first, he’s eventually shot down by the East German guards.

Control (Cyril Cusack) explains the plan.

Leamas, bitter and bone-weary, goes back to London to meet up with Control (Cyril Cusack), the head of British Intelligence. After perfunctorily offering Leamas a desk job (which Leamas refuses, calling himself a field man), and pretending to sympathize with Leamas losing all of his agents to Mundt while in reality being pissed about it, Control then offers Leamas another option. He’ll go back out into “the cold” one last time for an operation against Mundt. Given how much Leamas hates Mundt for who he is and what he’s done – and when Control asks Leamas what he thinks of Mundt, Leamas replies simply, “He’s a bastard” – and given it’s not a desk job, Leamas jumps at the chance. At first, Leamas seems to have been drummed out of the service. He gets a job at a library run by Miss Crail (Anne Blake), a disapproving woman who seems to spend most of the time on the phone with her mother (le Carre’s novel goes into more detail on this aspect), and soon gains the attentions of Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), a young, idealistic co-worker (she’s a member of the Communist Party) who begins an affair with him. But Leamas also goes on more drunken binges than usual, and gets arrested for trashing a grocery store when the owner won’t give him credit. After he gets out of prison, and Nan greets him there before going to work, a man named Ashe (Michael Hordern) approaches him, claiming to work for a group that helps ex-convicts. Ashe in turn introduces Leamas to a man named Carlton (Robert Hardy), who also claims to be with the group, and will offer money to Leamas if he leaves the country and tells him a story for his “newspaper”.

It turns out, of course, Ashe and Carlton are East German spies (along with Peters (Sam Wanamaker), whom Leamas meets in Holland) who are working for Fiedler (Oskar Werner), Mundt’s second-in-command. It’s all part of the plan Control and George Smiley (Rupert Davies) have to discredit Mundt. Through an operation Leamas participated in called “Operation Rolling Stone”, they hope to “prove” Mundt is really working for British intelligence. Leamas readily agrees, but asks Control to leave Nan (whom he spends the night with before going to Holland) out of everything. Soon, however, Leamas finds out things are not what they seem.

Leamas in a tender moment with Nan Perry (Claire Bloom).

In an interview included on the Criterion edition of the film, le Carre noted while the novel and movie (adapted for the screen by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper) were praised for “realism”, he actually was writing a romantic novel, and not in the sense of the relationship between Leamas and Nan (Liz Gold in the book; whether it was changed to Nan Perry in the movie to downplay her Jewishness or because Burton in real life was involved with Elizabeth Taylor and he didn’t want a similar name to cause a distraction, is open to speculation), though there’s that too. Rather, it’s the story of Leamas falling out of love with the Service. As noted, he’s burnt out thanks to all the agents he’s lost, but while he hides his idealism as much as he can (when Nan asks if he believes in anything, Leamas replies, “I believe the 11 bus will take me to Hammersmith; I don’t believe it’s driven by Father Christmas”), it’s still there, and what keeps him going. Without giving anything away, this is what makes it all the more heartbreaking when what’s left of Leamas’ idealism runs up against the reality of the situation.

Of course, none of that discounts how much of a corrective both the book and the movie were. When le Carre’s novel was published in 1963, the James Bond novels had become a phenomenon both in England and the U.S., and the movie versions had started to gain traction; by 1965, when Ritt’s movie came out, the Bond movies had become a worldwide phenomenon, and the image of a spy being a glamorous profession was already inside people’s minds (Sidney J. Furie’s adaptation of Len Deighton’s novel The Ipcress File, which came out several months after The Spy who Came In from the Cold, was grittier than the Bond movies, though it had its own form of cheeky humor to keep it from feeling too downbeat). Le Carre’s novel, and Ritt’s movie, by contrast, show how much of a dirty game spying is, even if it is a game. As Leamas says near the end of the movie:

What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?

Fiedler (Oskar Werner).

Le Carre’s novel, as well as Ritt’s movie, was also one of the first works to suggest both sides were playing the spy game in equally dirty ways, and that, as Leamas says earlier in the movie, no matter what side, “it’s the innocents who get slaughtered”. At the same time, the movie also suggests the kinship that can develop between spies on opposite sides of the fence; about a quarter of it is devoted to the relationship between Leamas and Fiedler, and the respect they develop for each other despite their differences, even though it’s never said out loud.

In the same interview on the Criterion disc, le Carre also mentions one of the reasons he thinks the movie was a failure at the box office – aside from the fact it was a downer, even though the novel was a best-seller – was because of Ritt’s decision to shoot the movie in black-and-white, and he thinks the movie might have played better in color. All due respect to le Carre, but I think he’s dead wrong. Perhaps in a couple of years, when cinematographers were starting to be able to get away with shooting color movies where the color was more faded and less garish, Ritt and cinematographer Oswald Morris might have made color for the film. But I don’t know if Ritt would have been able to buck the system to make it in color that way, and in any case, the black-and-white photography lends a starkness to the movie, adding weight to the somber tone of the movie.

Speaking of Ritt, at first glance, I thought he was an odd choice to direct this movie, given the fact most of the movies I knew him for when I saw this, like Sounder and Norma Rae, seemed in their humanistic tone to be a far cry from le Carre’s cynical view. But le Carre clearly cared what happened to the major characters of Leamas and Nan (Liz in the novel), even as he put them through the wringer, and Ritt obviously seized on that. Having been blacklisted for having Communist sympathies in the 50’s also meant this material struck a chord for Ritt, but he doesn’t make this a treatise on Communism, being careful to show both sides at their worst (as well as their rare best). It must also be said, of course, Ritt’s (arguably) best film, Hud, featured a cynical anti-hero at the center, so the character of Alec Leamas wasn’t that much of a stretch for Ritt.

Leamas realizes how thoroughly he’s been betrayed.

Burton was not the first choice for the role, nor did he seem like an obvious choice. The studio, Paramount, wanted Burt Lancaster, who, while he had the gravity for the role would otherwise have been all wrong for the part, and he thankfully turned it down. Le Carre wanted Trevor Howard or someone like him. As for Burton, while he certainly would provide enough box office clout for studio purposes, the feeling was in most circles he was a great stage actor (I never saw him on stage personally, but I’ve seen bits of the Hamlet performance that was turned into a film, which was excellent; also, my father always said his performance as King Arthur in the stage production of “Camelot” was terrific) who had squandered most of his talent in movies, with a few exceptions (Look Back in Anger). Also, Burton in those days was known as much for his off-screen activities, such as his drinking and tumultuous marriage to Elizabeth Taylor, as his performances. But while Burton and Ritt apparently quarreled throughout the shoot, I don’t think you can argue with the results on-screen. Burton is able to suggest the burnt-out shell Leamas has become, the bitterness at others and the self-loathing underneath, and the shards of humanity that remain, especially when he’s with Nan. And while he was known for going over-the-top in his performances, he’s capable of subtlety; at a trial scene near the end of the movie, the look Burton has when Leamas realizes what’s really going on is chilling to watch. Along with Look Back in Anger and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this is his best performance on film.

Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter Van Eyck).

As for the other performances, Bloom was older than her character by at least a decade, but she comes across as a grad student still maintaining her optimism, and she and Burton (who had worked together several times, which is why he suggested her for the role) have a believable chemistry together. Mundt may not have been much of a stretch for Van Eyck, but he doesn’t play the stereotypical ex-Nazi German (which is how Mundt was written); instead, he shows the cunning underneath. In most of the performances I’ve seen Werner give, from Decision Before Dawn to Jules and Jim to Fahrenheit 451, it seems like he’s sleepy-eyed; not that he’s sleepwalking through the role, but that his eyes are half-closed, giving his characters an air of mystery, and making them inscrutable. Here, his eyes are wide open, and with his beard and cap, he also looks different from most of his roles. He’s playing a man whose somewhat friendly and businesslike exterior hides a bitterness and anger of his own, and Werner perfectly captures that. George Voskovec (12 Angry Men) has a small but memorable appearance as Mundt’s lawyer. Finally, while he’s only in two scenes, one mustn’t forget Cusack as Control. Le Carre mentions in the interview how Control is more upper class than Leamas, and without ever being obvious about it, Cusack is able to suggest Control’s intellectual auteur (of someone behind a desk, not in the field) and slight contempt for Leamas.

As I mentioned before, despite the fact the novel was a best-seller, and le Carre’s breakthrough in terms of quality and acclaim, the movie did not perform well at the box office, though it was critically acclaimed and was nominated for two Oscars (Best Actor for Burton – he lost to Lee Marvin for Cat Ballou – and Best Art Direction/Set Direction, which it lost to Ship of Fools). In fairness, none of the movies based on le Carre’s novels have set the box office on fire – even the recent version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which did relatively well worldwide, wasn’t a bit hit. However, while The Spy who Came In from the Cold may not have been a game changer as a movie the way it was received as a novel (though, to be fair, le Carre was covering territory such writers as Greene and Eric Ambler had covered), it still holds up as one of the best, if not the best, serious movies dealing with the so-called “Great Game” of spying and how it operated during the Cold War.


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