The Spy Who Came In From The Cold: Criterion Collection Review

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John Le Carre’s third novel, is one of the finest and grimmest spy stories ever written. Heavily influenced by Graham Greene, it deals with the sad, wasted life of a ‘burnt-out case, Alec Leamas, whose involvement in an intricate MI6 scheme to undermine the KGB leads to the possibility of redemption and the potential tragedy; especially when he becomes sexually involved with Liz, a young English Communist. Le Carre’s plotting is water-tight, the twists are genuinely surprising and the characterisation, especially of Leamas, is masterly. The novel also sees him developing his decidedly jaundiced view of the British Intelligence service through the characters of the ruthless Control and his morally troubled lieutenant George Smiley.

The novel, instantly a bestseller, must have seemed a natural for the screen and it had the good fortune to end up in the hands of Martin Ritt, one of the most tasteful and intelligent filmmakers of his time. Later in his career, Ritt tended to indulge a taste for self-consciously Hollywood-Liberal schmaltz, but with this project he understood the necessity to treat the story as harshly and coldly as Le Carre wrote it. Ritt’s skill with actors and his willingness to be uncompromisingly grown-up are also vital to the success of the film. There is emotion in the film and it even manages to be genuinely touching, particularly at the end, but it’s never remotely sentimental. The screenplay by Paul Dehn, from a treatment by Guy Trosper, is very faithful to the original novel but adds some suitably dry and embittered dialogue which militates against the possibility of mawkishness.

One of the reasons that the film works is the careful and unobtrusive direction. Ritt films in long takes, often allowing lengthy and complex dialogue scenes to play out in two-shots which never seem unduly static because the dialogue and performances are so riveting. He knows when to go in close for the deliberately ugly close-up - Michael Hordern’s pathetic homosexual recruiter is particularly gargoylesque - but he doesn't shove the camera in his character's faces unless there's a very good reason for the emphasis. Indeed, some of the most effective duologues are shot at a slight distance as if to suggest a distaste for the murky machinations being played out. Ritt's approach does, it has to be said, depend heavily on the particular performances in a given scene, so, for example, Rupert Davies and Cyril Cusack fare rather better than Peter Van Eyck's heavy and obvious Communist rottweiller Mundt. But generally, Ritt's visual sense has rarely been better - the film looks quite similar to his previous film Hud - and he benefits from the inspired choice of Oswald Morris as cinematographer. Morris studied monochrome lighting as an operator for Guy Green on Oliver Twist and subsequently used his skills on some memorable black and white movies - Our Man In Havana, Beat The Devil, Look Back In Anger, The Hill and Kubrick's Lolita. The lighting for Spy is hard and chilly, suggesting the heart of purest ice at the centre of the film. Yet it can also be evocative and romantic, particularly in the cautiously optimistic rural moments with Fiedler.

If what one remembers most about the film is this frozen centre, that's not to cast aspersions on its other key element - the central performance of Richard Burton. I'm not sure that Burton is the Alec Leamas I imagine from the novel but he does dedicated, sometimes self-effacing work which only occasionally suffers from over-theatricality and the "Burton voice" which became legendary but which was presumably more effective in the theatre than on screen. Burton's biggest asset as far as this part goes is the glint of steel in his eyes which contrasts with his somewhat shambling gait to suggest that appearing burnt-out can be a way of saving oneself for the things which count.

He's great opposite his one-time girlfriend Claire Bloom and even better with Oskar Werner - an attractively relaxed actor who gets an awful lot more sympathy than his character deserves.

Indeed, most of the actors do excellent work but Cyril Cusack deserves special mention for his immortalisation of Control, one of Le Carre's most interesting but elusive characters.

Cusack's studied style of seeming to throw his lines away while directing your attention to the sentences which he judges most important has rarely been better used than here and he makes Control a relishable bastard who is almost incapable of speaking the truth without embroidering it to suit his own pattern.

Although Ritt has often been a very American director, he does particularly well with his view of England in the mid-sixties; a cold, grey country, still half stuck in a post-war funk, populated by forelock-tugging grocers, dead-eyed clerks, emotional cripples like Miss Crail the librarian and the unseen Brigadier who runs the seedy psychic library where Leamas finds work. There's a scene in a London park between Burton and Hordern which sums up both the beauty and the strange insularity of Britain in a single image. Le Carre's views of both his country and his countrymen are decidedly negative although given his position at the time as a secret agent, he presumably had plenty of evidence for his negativity.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold might be described as one of the definitive feel-bad movies, so cynical and despairing is its depiction of humanity. Leamas and his girl, Nan (the name was changed to avoid confusion with Liz Taylor), are pawns in the giant game of the superpowers and their sacrifice means little in the overall scheme of things. Yet if Leamas' hatred of both himself and his masters is bracingly misanthropic, his renewed impulse towards love and feeling is just the chink of light that the end of this particular tunnel needs. Hope for the individual is never entirely extinguished. Equally, the skill and style with which this film is made leaves the viewer feeling braced and excited with the feeling of a job well done.

The Disc

Martin Ritt's film has been released on DVD before, back in 2004 by Paramount. That release offered a perfectly respectable transfer but was light on supplements and left room for improvement. That improvement has now been tackled by Criterion, that most reliable of companies which has done a superb job on The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

The film is presented at its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. The black and white transfer is an absolute triumph with deep, pure blacks and a dazzling array of greys throughout. The level of detail is exquisite and there is a slight, attractive film grain in evidence. The soundtrack - allegedly stereo but to my ears, two-channel mono - is also excellent - pristine, crisp and clear. This DVD lacks the 5.1 remix offered by the Paramount DVD but the film really doesn't need artificial "improvements" to make it an attractive purchase.

Where this disc really scores is in its array of carefully chosen special features. The first disc doesn't offer anything except the film and a theatrical trailer, and the absence of a feature length commentary is surprising but not entirely unwelcome since some of Criterion's commentary tracks are less than inspiring.

The second disc, housing the special features, does include a selected scene-specific commentary from DP Oswald Morris and it's excellent, concentrating on forty minutes worth of scenes and offering plenty of insights into his working methods. This is accompanied by another new feature; a video interview with John Le Carre, recorded in 2008. Le Carre, the same age as my father, is a lucid and engaging fellow who is candid and funny about his views on the making of the film. He offers particularly valuable insights into the distinctly dysfunctional relationship between Martin Ritt and Richard Burton which he credits with producing Burton's particularly edgy performance.

This interview leaves you anxious for more from Le Carre and Criterion doesn't disappoint. Also included is the full version of the 2000 BBC documentary The Secret Centre in which the author talks to Nigel Williams about the ways in which his life, including his long-denied past as a spy, impacts on his work. It's a great programme with sad, nostalgic reflections and a sharp sense of the difference between loving the idea of one's country and loving the actuality. The questions, although not generally included, were obviously very probing and there's a sense in which Le Carre is finally revealing more than he ever has done before - although a man as clever and evasive as this is never going to fully reveal himself. This is presented at 1.85:1 and looks a bit tight - the clips from BBC adaptations such as A Perfect Spy are obviously cropped from fullscreen.

The second disc also contains a 30 minute interview with Richard Burton from the 1967 BBC series Acting In The 60s. This is conducted by Kenneth Tynan and suffers as a consequence from Tynan's somewhat distracting mannerisms. But Burton is highly entertaining and the speeches he recites are riveting. Equally interesting are extracts from a 1985 audio interview with Martin Ritt who talks revealingly about his career and his politics. Finally, the disc also contains a gallery of set designs from the film.

As usual, Criterion include an interesting essay about the film, this time by Michael Sragow. Subtitles are included for the main feature but not, regrettably, for the extras.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is one of the most ruthless and riveting films of the 1960s and a must for lovers of serious spy stories. Criterion's DVD presents the film beautifully and places it firmly in context. Highly recommended.

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Last updated: 18/04/2018 21:22:15

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