The perfect riposte to the James Bond phenomenon. By comparison, a kitchen sink spy drama that challenges the glamorous version of espionage promoted by 007. Had the film been made as soon as the source novel by John Le Carre hit the bestseller charts in 1963 it might have stopped the Bond bandwagon, which didn’t really kick off until Goldfinger (1964), in its tracks. Realistic to the point of cynicism, the innocent are sacrificed in a ruthless chess battle for espionage supremacy.
Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) infiltrates the East German counter-espionage system after purportedly becoming a defector. His intention, however, is to stitch up Mundt (Peter van Eyck), the head of the East German unit, so that he is overthrown. Mundt has been causing too much grief to the British spy network in East Germany, the film opening with Leamas at the Berlin Wall watching an escaping agent being shot trying to pass through Checkpoint Charlie. At the behest of Control (Cyril Cusack), the head of the British spy organization, Leamas pretends to quit the outfit, and playing the embittered card, ends up in prison for assault, on release being surreptitiously recruited by the East Germans as a potential defector.
Initially, the British appear almost too gentlemanly for the vicious spy game, Control almost apologizing (over endless cups of tea) about having to take such ruthless steps. Leamas has a tale he hopes will incriminate Mundt largely through the envy of his subordinate Fiedler (Oskar Werner). But once Leamas falls into the enemy’s hands, the game does not go according to plan. After initial gentle interrogation by Fiedler, the arrival of Mundt causes Leamas to be arrested and then tried for treason. Along the way, Leamas’s naïve girlfriend Nancy (Claire Bloom) is implicated and Leamas realizes he is a patsy, forced into quite a different role, that tests his beliefs.
The British, portrayed in Bond films and every other spy film up till then, as being on the side of the angels, are revealed as being just as heinous as the enemy. All through his defection Leamas is able to snigger at the abominable way the Communist superiors treat their underlings, simple demonstrations of power intended to humiliate at every opportunity, but it is soon apparent that the British are every bit as heartless. There is a very telling scene when Leamas realizes he may well be walking into a trap when his face appears on the front pages of a British newspaper. The look in Leamas’s eyes suggests he knows he has been betrayed.
If you remember Le Carre’s most famous creation George Smiley (Rupert Davies) as a humble man from the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) television series, you will be surprised to discover what depths the man will sink to here.
Oscar-nominated American director Martin Ritt (Hud, 1963) filmed this in black-and-white – even the advertising material was in mono – to remove all sense of glamour. There are no gadgets or girls in bikinis. This is the down-and-dirty version of espionage. And while the British top brass clearly regarded any staff lost as collateral damage, Leamas had a more human, more emotional, response.
Richard Burton (Where Eagles Dare, 1968) is superb, received a well-deserved Oscar nomination (his fourth), as a character destroyed by “minor human error” in a world where humanity is the last thing on anyone’s mind. Oskar Werner (Interlude, 1968) presents his character is such a way that he comes across as anything but a villain, even his costume has a little bit of the beatnik about it, and he treats his captive with courtesy. Peter van Eyck (Station Six Sahara, 1963) is a more standard German villain, complete with blond hair. Claire Bloom (Three into Two Won’t Go, 1969) has a small but pivotal role as a sweet librarian.
And there’s strength in depth in the supporting cast beginning with Cyril Cusack (Fahrenheit 451, 1966) in a deftly underplayed part. Sam Wanamaker (Warning Shot, 1967) and Michael Hordern (Khartoum, 1966) are among those routinely humiliated by their paymasters. Also watch out for Rupert Davies (television’s Maigret), Bernard Lee, moonlighting from James Bond duties, Beatrix Lehmann (Psyche ’59) and Robert Hardy (All Creatures Great and Small series 1978-1990).
Also taking time off from Bond duties was screenwriter Paul Dehn (Goldfinger, 1964) who adapted the novel with the help of Guy Trosper (Birdman of Alcatraz, 1962).
Paramount boldly opened around the same time as Thunderball in December 1965 and although the fourth Bond proved a box office tsunami, the Martin Ritt picture survived the onslaught and did pretty well.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the number U.S. hardback bestseller of 1964, according to the Publishers Weekly annual chart. That year You Only live Twice by Ian Fleming came eighth, the first time a Bond had appeared in the annual top ten. The following year Le Carre’s The Looking Glass War took the number four spot while The Man with the Golden Gun was seventh. It was the beginning of a mini-boom in spy novels among hardback buyers, and although neither Le Carre nor Fleming featured again during the decade Helen MacInnes placed fifth in 1966 with The Double Image and third with The Salzburg Connection in 1968 while Leon Uris’ Topaz was fourth in 1967.