My first exposure to
John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was in
a BBC audio drama adaptation of the book that runs approximately an
hour longer than the film. I have to say, with that additional hour, the
drama packed in a greater element of credibility and depth than this
nonetheless admirable film.
Le Carré's story deals with Alex Leamas (Richard Burton), an apparently down on his
luck former secret service operative, discharged after a disastrous
operation in which one of his agents in enemy territory (East Germany) was killed when
defecting to the west. While Leamas is reduced to working a barely-paying library
job (and accepting the friendly advances of his fellow employee Nancy - Claire Bloom -
an ardent believer in communism), he is picked up by a shadowy
agency looking to persuade him to part with important covert information
for a fee. This is in fact a ruse: Working on the advice
of his superiors Control and George Smiley, Leamas is a 'mole' leaking
out false information devised to topple Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck), a dangerous
agent from the enemy side. It is imperative for the success of the plan
that the enemy must believe they are extracting this information from an
embittered defector, and so Leamas must live the part of a
hard-drinking self-loathing reluctant traitor.
As I recall, in the audio drama, the reveal of Leamas being a 'double agent' comes out gradually in the form of repeated flashbacks to when Smiley is advising him on the strategy to be followed. The film puts it up quite early, and there is no ambiguity about Leamas' position. But till he is actually contacted by the enemy, he must for all intents and purposes be nothing other than a perpetually intoxicated bitter failure. Into this sad lonely existence, the affections of his library colleague come as a warm breeze to the man perpetually "out in the cold" and even as he otherwise faithfully plays his part, he cannot resist getting into a relationship. And it is then that the enemy gets in touch.
The next phase of the drama is when Leamas is passed on from one handler to another, each probing him for information and stringing him along with a bottle, and promises of payment and asylum. He is eventually met by Fiedler (Oskar Werner), a top party member of Jewish origin with a grudge against the former Nazi Mundt. In a careful series of revelations, bolstered by frequent temper tantrums and demands for his payment, Leamas plays Fiedler, always making it look like he is parting with the information against his conscience. In a conventional spy thriller, this deception would have a triumphant climax with Leamas redeemed as a hero. But both Le Carré in his book and director Martin Ritt in his film adaptation looked to present a more murky reality of espionage and without being explicit, one can say that Leamas in turn finds that he may himself be a pawn in a larger game. The ending is a poignant tragedy that makes the story far more memorable.
Although Richard Burton's theatricality still occasionally surfaces in
the lead role (apparently he and director Martin Ritt clashed bitterly over the latter's continuous instruction to "keep it down, Rich"), his real life struggles with tax exile and alcohol (and stormy
marriage to Elizabeth Taylor) play into his identification with the part.
Plus, he is able to convey a certain charisma even in a disheveled
state, making Nancy's attraction to a drunk loser more plausible. Martin Ritt helms with knowing understatement - the settings are dreary and the speeches are in low, measured tones (Cyril Cusack's interpretation of Control tutoring Leamas is a masterclass). The most showy scene is a visit to a nightclub with a cabaret performance, and even that is executed with admirable subtlety. Tambi Larsen's evocative set design and Oswald Morris' gritty B&W
cinematography effectively capture the murky proceedings. Also worth
mentioning is the moody Sol Kaplan score.
Even if it suffers a bit in terms of condensing its source, this film of is by itself an excellent noir-inflected bleak spy drama.