Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) -- Martin Ritt

British agent Alex Leamus (Richard Burton) is head of the Berlin station at the height of the Cold War. When he witnesses the death of a fellow agent at Checkpoint Charlie (the border between West and East Berlin), London wonders if it isn't time for Leamus "to come in from the cold," believing he may be burnt out, in need of a less stressful desk job. Leamus insists he is fine and accepts another field assignment: uncover the mole in their operation who has been passing secrets to the enemy. (A now well-worn plot device, this story may be the first to use it.)

Leamus pretends that he has been retired. Seemingly adrift, he appears to turn to drink and becomes increasingly belligerent and desperate in a effort to fool the opposition, which begins to wonder if he is ripe for defection, or at least, pliable for information. They make contact and soon Leamus finds himself trapped, a pawn in someone else's scheme.

Soldiers patrol Checkpoint Charlie in the background.

This is a magnificent film. It perfectly captures the ugly side of the spy business and shows how agents are chewed up and dehumanized by the underlying political forces at work. Agents are mere cogs in the scheme of events, disposable and replaceable.

Strip away all the espionage stuff, it's also about a man's realization that his life's work has little purpose. It's all a stupid game. He is achingly alone, wondering and fatalistic. Burton gives the best performance of his career, using his real-life alcoholism to great effect. If anyone looks a burnt out case, it's Burton. He is entirely credible and sympathetic as he channels the audience's confusion as to what is actually happening. Near the end of the film he gives a brief soliloquy that wraps up his disgust nicely:

Leamus meets a contact from the other side.

Alec Leamus: 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?

Martin Ritt directed; and except for Hud, two years earlier, he never approached this quality of work. One of his best decisions here is to film in black and white, mirroring the bleak lives of his characters. This is a far cry from the suave and sexy picture of James Bond. Ritt's opening scene is wonderful: a Dublin location served as Berlin. Wet streets reflect ominous searchlights and soldiers march on patrol, their breath visible in the cold. It is quite chilling and creepy.

Oskar Werner plays Fiedler, a dangerously ambitious Russian communist who wants to use Burton to discredit a superior, Mundt. Werner was in the middle of a three-film run for which he is best known to American audiences: Ship of Fools (1965), The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and Fahrenheit 451 (1966). His portrayal of a devoted but devious comrade gives the film an appropriate feel of quiet menace.

Werner as Fiedler.

Claire Bloom is a woman Leamus meets in a bookstore, and who accompanies him behind the Iron Curtain. To Leamus she is naive, but kind and attractive. If he doesn't love her by the end he sees in her a last chance for happiness.

As in the terrific book by John Le Carre, the film is bookended with scenes at the Berlin Wall. Leamus sits astride the top of the concrete barrier, escape to the West on one side, and freedom of another sort on the other. Le Carre would go on to become the most successful, and likely best, writer of British spy fiction. He knew the subject, having worked for British Intelligence during the 50s and 60s, and thus, has an unmatched ability to infuse his stories with authenticity.

Author Le Carre.

1 comment:

  1. Love this movie, although it isn't exactly the feel-good movie of the year. I agree with your analysis of Richard Burton - he is mesmerizing.