DVD Review Of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/26/09


  The Criterion Collectionís latest release is the 1965 black and white spy classic, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, directed by Martin Ritt, whose best known films include the Woody Allen Blacklist film, The Front, and the Sally Field union drama Norma Rae. Like those, this is a very well directed and taut film. And, like those later films, this one also misses out on greatness. For those expecting a James Bondian sort of thriller, forget it. This film is an espionage character study, loaded with monologues, dialogues, and philosophic introspection. As such, I can say that there really is not a single genuine action sequence in the film. A few people get shot and die- including the hero and heroine; but, by stating such, up front, Iím really not giving anything about the film away. Why? Because this is one of those films that depends upon the how of its action rather than the why.

  Itís an almost 2 hour long film (112 minutes), yet never drags. The cinematography is reminiscent, at times, of The Third Man, and other low budget, experimental Orson Welles films from the 1940s and 1950s; even though it was a high profile project based upon the bestselling novel of the same name by John Le Carre. The scoring is understated and precise, the acting by Richard Burton, as Alec Leamas, and Oskar Werner, as Fiedler, is superb, and the plot is twisted, but all makes sense in the end. I will not detail that, even though I have given away the deaths of two of the main characters, because the plot directly relates to a few of the superb exchange sin the film about the ethics of espionage.

  And this is why the film is so good. It is the internal machinations, especially in the mind of Leamas, that make this film work. A lesser actor simply could not have sold the part as equivocally as Burton does: is he in the dark or not? Is he an agent on the way down (because of a failed operation) or merely playing one? The title of the film is usually thought to mean that Leamas has finally gained insight into the machinations of the Cold War, but it could also mean the man finally realizes his worth to his employers, the world, and himself. Or, more accurately, his lack of same. The cold that he hits is realityís noríeaster. And, despite his own reputation as a brilliant rouť, Burton proves he truly was a better actor. There are full scenes where the camera just resides its gaze on his mien, and the viewer is riveted. Then there are some bravura editing choices made by Ritt, where scenes end anywhere from a few seconds to a minute or more before they would in conventional Hollywood films. These elisions propel the film forward, narratively, because the audience knows what will occur, and also displays an unusual confidence in the intelligence of the filmgoer.

  Yet, despite al that, the film is not great. Neither in the manifest way that a 2001: A Space Odyssey nor a Tokyo Story are, nor in the more subtly great way that a similarly dark tale like The Third Man is. And, I suspect that is because the whole thrust of the tale is small. Yes, it is a Cold War thriller, but compare it to other films that came out in that era- the David Lean epics, the revolutionary pyrotechnics of a Bonnie And Clyde or The Wild Bunch, the aforementioned 2001 or even The Planet Of The Apes. Iím not stating that a film has to be write large to be great, as my prior mention of Tokyo Story proves; but it should resonate to a larger audience, in space and time. The dilemma of Alec Leamas simply does not. His world is a small one, with Byzantine codes of conduct that outsiders cannot grasp, such as his librarian lover, Nan Perry (Claire Bloom). And, while I mention her, Bloom is one of the drags on the film. Itís not so much that she badly acts her part, but that her part is simply one of the few key roles that is not well written. Yes, sheís the love interest, but, wisely, Ritt does not hammer that point home in the film with mushy love scenes. But her character always acts like a lost puppy dog- a Communist Party member that, even in the mid-60s, a decade after the revelations of Stalinist terror, is still a true believer, and utterly naÔve about the Communist systemís flaws and horrors. This becomes excruciatingly painful to watch in the East German military courtroom scene where Fielder, Leamas, and British counter-spy Mundt (Peter Van Eyck), have a set-to, while Perry stands doe-eyed. Itís simply not plausible because a) of the aforementioned time frame the film takes place in, and b) Bloomís age. She was in her mid-thirties at the time of filming, and her character looks that age, too. Were Perry a naÔf coed, her reactions, character-wise, might have some credulity, but not at her age.

  There are a few other areas where the film falls short, such as the injection of an Anti-Semitic subplot that, while it worked in the novel, seems just tacked on in this abridged form. As example, the Nan Perry character, in the book, is called Liz Gold, thus the whole use of that trope has a deeper resonance that is lost in the film. Also, while the courtroom and escape scenes finally reveal the real intricacies of the plot and counter-plot, they occur so quickly that most viewers will likely be lost. Whereas other moments of the film stop and allow revelation through intensity and cogitation, the film rushes through revelation to bloody denouement like a downhill locomotive, only to have its sudden end leave viewers feeling shell-shocked. This did not bother me, but itís definitely something Ritt should have given more pause to; especially how Leamas dies, which is, given all we learn of the character, up to that point, simply implausible, and a bow to not a Hollywood ending, but a Shakespearean one which is just as contrived as a Hollywood ending would have been. Of course, that Le Carre was really a spy lends this film, and much of his work, a gloss of realism simply for not being James Bondian; how much of it was really real is not knowable. The screenplay by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper is solid, thus succeeds and fails mainly on the strength of its source. The reality, however, does not matter, for the aesthetics are what carry the film.

  That stated, the film and DVD are highly recommended. Iíve lamented the growing lack of DVD commentary tracks on recent Criterion titles since adopting their new C logo, but, this film manages to counter that loss with a bevy of great features. Before I detail them, however, I wonder why the company would put this all out on a two disk version- Disk One with the film (in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio) and trailer, and Disk Two with the features. They could have all been easily fit on a single disk. Perhaps marketing it as a two disk DVD might lead fans to think more is offered? Still, quality trumps quantity. Disk Two has some great features. The best is a 1967 interview of Burton by film critic Kenneth Tynan, called Acting In The 60s: Richard Burton. It is brilliantly conceived and executed, probing, and reveals depth of Burton rarely seen. It is one of the best actor interviews on film. A hour long interview with Le Carre is almost as good, but more focused on the book, the film, and aspects of the authorís pastís influence on both. Le Carre speaks of the proprietary feeling most writers have toward their characters, and how he, by contrast, always sought to rewrite his books in their film adaptations, because he always found flaws he wanted to fix. Also, the revelation that screenwriter Paul Dehn was also a British spy and contract killer is startling. Whether true or not, one cannot know, but such hyperbolic gems are usually only found in DVD bonus features on Werner Herzog films. A BBC documentary- The Secret Centre: John Le Carre, is also excellent. Cinematographer Oswald Morris gives some selected scene commentary, but it does not make up for the lack of a full audio commentary. One small problem occurred while trying to listen to the three part radio interview with Martin Ritt. Part one seemed not to work, and it seemed to skip directly to part two. I tried this several times, on both my DVD players, but it always skipped. Whether this is simply a problem with the review disk I received, or with the product for general sale, I do not know, but it is worth mentioning for consumers. The DVD booklet has an interview and an essay. Overall, despite the audio commentaryís lack, a very good set of bonus features.

  There are some other good and interesting aspects of the film, such as the appearance of George Smiley (Rupert Davies)- the protagonist of many other Le Carre novels; as a friend of Leamasís. Also, the performance by Cyril Cusack, in only a few scenes, as Leamasís boss, Control, is superb. His tits for tats with Leamas are filled with the subtle interplay of men who know each otherís flaws and strengths, from years of experience, and who both know how to get what they want from the other. It is looking glass moments they share, embedded in a looking glass world where there is only gray, not the stark blacks and whites of an Ian Fleming tale. Overall, whether or not you are a fan of espionage films, this is a film to see, for it is primarily a character study, and a damned good one. Its main character simply happens to be a spy; one whose portrayer is simply nonpareil in the role. There are, as mentioned, a few nits to be picked, but this is one of Rittís finest films, of one of the best thriller novels ever written. Just lose the expectations that genre entails and you wonít be disappointed.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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