The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (UK, 1966)

1965_-_The_Spy_Who_Came_in_from_the_Cold_Movie_PosterDirected by: Martin Ritt. Knowing next to nothing about Martin Ritt, and knowing very little about Richard Burton (other than that he’s Richard fucking Burton), but having gone through a major Le Carré phase last winter, I was shocked that I hadn’t yet seen this damn thing, and so I decided to see it (and the special features on the delightful-as-usual Criterion set). They say that this novel is the greatest spy story in the English language, and to my limited knowledge (mostly confined to Le Carré himself), I have to agree. I can also see how this movie would have been a great relief to some of the older, war-experienced generation of Brits whose upper lips would have been a bit too stiff for that new, cartoony, unrealistic James Bond franchise that would have been taking the world by storm at the time. (It was a nice little detail to cast Bernard Lee—M from 007—as the kindly shopkeeper who Burton drunkenly wallops in order to stage an arrest.) The books and the movies, all of them, really couldn’t be further apart, and Bond fan though I am, it was really satisfying to get Le Carré’s mature, in-depth, puzzle-like, grown-up version of the spy world, and told in a way that’s still very compulsively readable. As for the translation from book to film—not bad! Overall quite good. The whole pitfall with the reader creating images in their head, imagining the characters as people, imagining a tone, etc, is a very real pitfall, but whether by accident or by intelligent design, this film matched fairly well with my mental projection of what the story would be. Even amidst all of the cutting they did (the interrogation period with Fiedler was a touch short for my liking), it was a really compelling story that kept intact all of the murkiness, the double-crossing, the shadowy ground that the characters are standing on, and to a great extent because of Burton’s acting. I know that Burton was a bit of a scenery chewer, and that Ritt’s great success was reigning him in, and in doing so turning out this incredible performance where Burton’s manic, Shakespearean, tortured energy is kept under wraps but always threatening to burst at the seams. To me, this was the true miracle of the movie, that Burton was able to convey in a few facial expressions what the book conveyed with the elusive omnipotent trickery of written language—we’re never sure how much Leamas knows, what he’s supposed to let on, at what point, and how exactly everything is unraveling from his control at any given point. Most movies fail utterly at this: the juggling act between what the reader knows and what they don’t, the conveyance of subtle emotions, the weaving of the narrative world through minuscule sleights of hand, whereas the film has the handicap of the visual medium, wherein, even with incredible grace and intelligence, you must show us something, the characters must speak, and we can’t see their thoughts except through words or facial expressions, or camera angles, lighting, etc. And this film definitely, like all films, presents us with a less nuanced range of emotions and narrative adeptness than the novel does (like a colour wheel of 100 shades compared to one of 25 shades). But this is a very effecting film in its own right, and I remember a few key images (most of them early in the film), where the framing and editing, the montage choices are very striking, showing tremendous competence and individual character in making this a film in itself, instead of just an adaptation. For example, the shot of Leamas getting off the plane in Europe, the camera placed beneath the plane’s staircase, ominously hovering over us and dropping down towards us, just as Leamas crosses the point of no return. Even though I was imagining David Thewlis in the role (wouldn’t that be great???), Burton is obviously no slouch, and he really makes the role his own. The role of “Nan” who for some reason they changed from “Liz” in the book, was not at all the mousy, unconfident figure of the novel, and I felt the movie suffered a bit from Claire Bloom’s movie-star-ness, but to be fair, she was playing opposite Burton. The way Fiedler was represented was a bit weird—that leather beret thing and short beard made him look like a beatnik hippie amongst all of those suit-and-tie wearing, severe, Cold Warriors. And again, I was imagining August Diehl, so maybe I’m just fantasizing a modern-day remake. I was definitely imagining Gary Oldman’s Smiley, and even accounting for the fact that this film was made in 1966, the depiction they made of Smiley as a curly-haired, round, moustachioed, quasi-sinister bus driver fellow kind of threw me off, although, to be fair, in the book, Smiley is open for interpretation as a shady, untrustworthy, morally complicit and ethically compromised agent in the deaths of these people, even though we fans know that he’ll go on to get his redemption in Tinker, Tailor. The ending was really a bit on-the-nose for me, and captured none of the flustered, heart-pounding chaos and confusion of the novel’s ending, but I guess that’s a concession to the times maybe, as much as the medium: the kinds of experimental, hyper-montage, Godard-via-Brakhage techniques that I’m thinking could possibly capture the book’s energy wouldn’t be absorbed into mainstream cinema for some time yet. Ah well. It’s still a great movie, I’d say—one of the great spy movies, anyway.

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2 responses to “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (UK, 1966)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2015 | Offhand Reviews·

  2. Pingback: Bridge of Spies (USA/Germany, 2015) | Offhand Reviews·

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