Who doesn’t love a good spy film, right? “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” (1965), is more than a good spy film, it’s a great one. Richard Burton stars as the British spy, Leamas, working in the West Berlin office. Things haven’t gone well recently, including the loss of one of his operatives, which leads to Leamas being summoned to London. In appearance, Leamus is demoted, but in reality he becomes involved in an elaborate plot to become a defector, in exchange for money.
While waiting to be approached, Leamas meets a young communist woman, Nan (Claire Bloom), and the two begin a relationship. When the East Germans find Leamus, he agrees to go with them to the Netherlands for an interview, and leaves without explaining anything to Nan. During the interview, Leamas learns that his disappearance is known in England, which means he can’t return. His interviewer, Fiedler (marvelously played by Oskar Werner), transports Leamas to East Berlin, where a tribunal is held, in which Fiedler has accused a high ranking intelligence officer (Peter van Eyck) of being a paid informant of the British government. Fiedler’s plan is to use Leamas as his star witness, unaware, of course, that Leamas is here with plans and orders of his own.
At times “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” can be one of the most confusing spy films in memory. It is difficult to keep track of everything that is happening because of the very involved story. The novel on which the film is based, written by John le Carre (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), is a 200+ page spy story, and in order to adapt it for the screen, writers Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper had quite a task. The screenplay moves at a frantic pace, trying to keep everything clear for the audience, without leaving out any of the crucial details. I wouldn’t call this screenplay “one of the best,” but I believe that the adaptation was remarkable.
Aesthetically, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” is flawless. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Art Direction, and it is easy to see why. This is one of those movies that transports you into another world, full of mystery and intrigue, hope and despair. Most of this is possible for the audience because of the tremendous work accomplished by the uncompromising team of art and set decorators.
Cinematographer Oswald Morris is outstanding, which is no surprise considering his filmography is filled with great pictures. But when you go through each film on which he worked, it’s his big-budget musicals (“Fiddler on the Roof”, “Scrooge” and “Oliver!”) and his spy films (“Sleuth”, “The Mackintosh Man”) that stand out. Morris really had a feel for the darkness of the spy world, and his passion for this genre shows in this film.
It would be negligent to talk about this remarkable film without mentioning Richard Burton’s Academy Award nominated performance. Looking back at his career, Burton gave outstanding performances, one after another, but “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” is the finest piece of raw, unadulterated acting in his career. His acting in this film could be used as an entire lesson plan in a drama school. Like this film as a whole, his acting is truly something that shouldn’t be missed. Burton and director Martin Ritt made an unfailing team that created what is even now, almost fifty years later, one of the most gripping and poignant spy dramas of all time.