There are few places in time as romanticised and, in some cases, longed for as London in the 1960s. In 1965 alone, The Beatles recorded two albums there, while on the other side of the city, Roger Daltrey was wailing about youth and life and death. What blossomed from a convergence of counter-culture and young, fresh idealism was a movement that didn’t so much leave the past behind as demolish it entirely.
You’d be forgiven, then, for wondering if this is the same city that we see Richard Burton wandering in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, released that same year. This figure we spot seems to be swallowed up by buildings so grey they’re almost black, while dark rain drops fall around him. From the era of Technicolor, here’s London in stark black-and-white; not caught up in the vibrancy of the Swinging Sixties, but alienated, muted, and recovering from a World War that only ended 20 years ago. If it ended at all.
Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is a British agent for MI6. His job requires him to be invisible, borderless, and totally without ideals besides the one: loyalty. But after the death of an operative in Berlin, Alec’s redistributed by the agency and begins an undercover journey of duplicity and confusion.
While it focusses on men with the same job, and may have been made the same year, Thunderball (1965) this certainly isn’t. While the ever popular James Bond franchise offered adventure and an odious amount of patriotism above all else, Martin Ritt’s film (based on the novel by John le Carré) is a dispelling of myth. It replaces the globe-trotting exoticism of Bond with a down-trodden weariness, redefining a spy as a person with a gruelling government job, a bureaucracy made up of technocrats, and men vying for power. The mechanics of it all could be translated to any other job in the country: a chain of command will always be a chain of command, and those at the bottom will be the most exploited, victims of the orders from the top.
It’s hard to know exactly where Alec ranks, but he’s certainly below the chief, known only as Control (Cyril Cusack). A scene between the two men early on perfectly demonstrates the tension between employer and employee. As Control maps out Alec’s future for him, Alec tells him “I’m an operator. Just an operator”. He hardly blinks, cutting into his boss with a stare filled with confrontation and violence. Burton’s eyes are striking, in a way the rest of his face isn’t: he’s handsome, yet ordinary, an atypical movie star for the time. One rarely catches him smiling. But his power is magnetic and undeniable, underlining a meek character like Alec with a simmering anger and bitterness. You could call it brooding, but it feels more complex than that.
It’s a performance somewhere between his magnificent turns in Look Back in Anger (1959) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). He’s not the angry young man he was in the former, but nor is he the verbose and cruel husband of the latter. Fittingly, Alec’s more subterranean than that. His job is to lie and to hide, to strip away any semblance of identity he may have had until he’s just a device to be deployed by men that he’ll never meet.
But when he talks to Control, the stare gives it all away. He’s not rid himself of emotion or opinion, no matter how much he tries. He may look ordinary but the fire in his eyes can’t be extinguished. Originally, Alec was to be played by James Mason, but Burton got the part. Mason was suave and distinguished, but it’s hard to imagine anyone in this role but Burton: who else could’ve made you feel the weight of the world with just a glance?
Throughout, one can see the corners closing in on Alec. He takes a job for cover as a librarian where the shelves are packed and the standing spaces narrow. He begrudgingly pulls out a resume and tosses it at his hopeful employer, quietly resenting anyone who has the power to tell him what to do. But he would never admit that. Before long, he’s dating a librarian, Nan (Claire Bloom), a young communist who teases him for his squareness. Over drinks at her flat, he insists he doesn’t believe in anything at all, and he says it with the authority of someone who has been around and seen too much. Or someone deep in denial. Perhaps his job has taken the luxury of belief from him, or perhaps it is knowledge of the structures of power that have left him defeated. But yet again, in Burton’s performance one senses something waiting to strike, a feeling or a belief that could rear its head and threaten his livelihood.
Meanwhile, Alec goes from one clandestine meeting to another, on park benches and in sleazy nightclubs. Like its protagonist, Martin Ritt’s direction is cagey and cool. Ritt carefully establishes a dynamic of push-and-pull in each interaction, one side against the other—not because they oppose each other’s beliefs, but because nobody has the luxury of being trusted. John le Carré’s story is twisting and purposefully withholds information, and Ritt’s direction too keeps the viewer at arm’s length. The secrecy of a government that is willing to kill to protect its power is externalised by Ritt in buildings too tall for us to see the tops of them, and ever-present shadows cast over his subjects—there’s more than a touch of noir influence not just in its visual style, but in its lonely, begrudging protagonist.
His compositions are simple and unfussy, and allow the actors, settings, and contrasted lighting to take centre stage—and, of course, the ferociously brilliant dialogue. Burton’s crisp and forceful delivery gives some terrific quips a human truth. “She offered me free love. At the time, that was all I could afford” is the kind of line that you might hear in a Raymond Chandler novel, and Burton weights it with sorrow and sting. Later, he tells a contact “I reserve the right to be ignorant. That’s the western way of life.” Ritt and Burton allow us room to ponder the words. We might decide that Alec is being facetious, but Ritt’s film has such a confident ambiguity that we might never know.
It’s when the film shows its hand that it loses some of its power. Alec’s mission takes him from London to the Netherlands and, finally, to East Germany, where the full scope of the mission is finally unravelled. The volume of information dispensed in these scenes is handled incredibly well by Ritt and the cast, but such unambiguous answers remove the film’s mystique, and seem to work against Ritt’s fixation on the murky and unknown. Though gripping and well acted, a scene set in a secret tribunal seems as if it may have been reluctantly filmed by Ritt, like a magician being forced to reveal how his trick works.
And ultimately, that is the difficult thing about the film. It’s less interested in showing how the government apparatus works, and instead attempts to zero in on the toll it takes on the individual—but, much like Alec, the film becomes ensnared in chess-board moves and double-crossings, which is inevitably less interesting than when the film examines the cost of trading in your humanity for your job. But, perhaps like the London artists of the day, Ritt felt compelled to present an answer to the question “what the hell is going on?”
The film reaches its climax, fittingly, at the Berlin Wall. A city torn in two that seemingly cannot be reunited. Each city has its divisions, but they are often less visible. There are the wars that destroy buildings, and there are wars that are hidden and ongoing. There are cultures and subcultures, and stretches of earth beneath our feet torn out for tunnels to be built. They’re down there, but we don’t think about them much. There are people we’ve never met making decisions for us. The tension of the 1960s is what makes The Spy Who Came In From The Cold tick. The desire to uncover secrets; the knowledge that there will always be more of them. The distrust and seemingly inevitability of a new mode of capitalism that seemed to placate our worries that the world could end at any moment.
“I’m a man, you fool. Don’t you understand? A plain, simple, muddled, fat-headed human being”, Alec professes. Elsewhere that same year in London, a popular song was recorded. The lyrics went: “He’s a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody”. It’s hard to imagine Alec caring much for popular music, but the words fit him, a plain, simple nowhere man. Against the popular idea at the time that the world could come together as one, the film suggested an alternate theory, that nobody knew anything, that each person was alone in their own battles, and that London as a vibrant city was just a front for a colossal seat of power. It might sound despairing, but surely, Ritt’s film says, there is hope and potential in exposing the spies and secrets that lurk in the dark. The chain of command remains, for now, unbroken.
UK | 1965 | 112 MINUTES | 1.66:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH
Blu-ray Special Features:
- Limited Edition Exclusive O-Card slipcase with new artwork by artist Grégory Sacré (Gokaiju) [2000 copies].
- 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a restored high-definition digital transfer. The film looks excellent in its original 1:66:1 aspect ratio. The black-and-white photography is stunningly reproduced, with the darker scenes looking deep and textured.
- Uncompressed LPCM Stereo audio. Sol Kaplan’s score is a real highlight and sounds terrifically ominous. The dialogue is clear and sharp.
- Optional English SDH.
- Brand new audio commentary with film scholar Adrian Martin.
- Brand new video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns. This is an in-depth look at the film with fantastic resources and a wealth of information.
- A collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by Richard Combs.
Cast & Crew
director: Martin Ritt.
writers: Paul Dehn & Guy Trosper (based on the novel by John le Carré).
starring: Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, Sam Wanamaker, George Voskovec, Rupert Davies, Cyril Cusack, Peter van Eyck, Michael Hordern, Robert Hardy, Bernard Lee & Beatrix Lehmann.