Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The (1965)

Review #1,560

Director:  Martin Ritt
Cast:  Richard Burton, Oskar Werner, Claire Bloom
Plot:  British agent Alec Leamas refuses to come in from the Cold War during the 1960s, choosing to face another mission, which may prove to be his final one.

Genre:  Drama / Thriller
Awards:  Nom. for 2 Oscars - Best Leading Actor, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration
Runtime:  112 mins
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be PG13 for some violence)
Source:  Paramount Pictures

“I'm a man, you fool.  Don't you understand?  A plain, simple, muddled, fat-headed human being.  We have them in the West, you know.”

I have never heard of Martin Ritt prior to watching The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but judging by the quality of the film, one could really make a case for him as one of the most composed and sensitive of American directors of the ‘60s and ‘70s, at least that was what most who appraised his body of work had said about this criminally underrated filmmaker.  Now I’m intrigued to explore his other films, including more ‘famous’ ones like Hud (1963) with Paul Newman, and Norman Rae (1979) with Sally Field.  

Courtesy of the Criterion Collection, Spy is as good an introduction to Ritt’s cinema as it could possibly be—from the first frame of the opening credits, we are entranced by the precision of the camerawork and mise-en-scene as it sets the scene of a heavily guarded border between East and West Germany.  It is one of the greatest opening shots of any spy movie, accompanied by Sol Kaplan’s haunting, melancholic music (which is used sporadically but to telling effect through the film).  

To label Ritt’s film as a spy movie is a misnomer—it sets unfair expectations that it is one of those James Bond-type pictures, full of high-octane action, incredible gadgetry, and an egomaniacal villain.  Perhaps the setting of the Cold War does help to neuter that thought.  Think more of Bridge of Spies (2015), if you need a more modern incarnation, where intrigue and conspiracies define the film’s plotting, and where the spy operates (almost nearly passively) in the grey, vulnerable to the ambiguity of human connivances.  

The screenwriters have John le CarrĂ© to thank for in what could be the first ever film adaptation of the famed author’s works.  Richard Burton plays British agent Alec Leamas in one of his finest performances.  His weary face and almost nonchalant (or one could read it as play-it-cool) approach to navigating his field tells us a lot of about his attitude.  The fact that a nondescript librarian (played with grace by Claire Bloom) becomes smitten by him and offers him the prospect of love—and possibly a life outside of ‘fieldwork’, very much confirms that Alec is a man who could be reined in, or as his boss puts it, “come in from the cold”.  

Oozing with heavy atmosphere, Ritt’s film doesn’t just impress with its craft and characterisations but find humanity (marked by emotions of guilt and redemption) in the unlikeliest of places—at the intersection of politics and ideologies.     

Verdict:  Oozing with heavy atmosphere, this Cold War suspense-drama impresses with its craft and characterisations, and gives us one of Richard Burton’s finest performances.





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