Behind the Scenes: “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (1965)

Shooting might have been less stressful and cheaper if director Martin Ritt had stuck to his initial schedule but when the shoot start-date was pushed back from late fall 1964 to January 1965  he lost original star Burt Lancaster (planning to play the original Englishman as a Canadian). At relatively short notice, Richard Burton stepped in, but for an eye-watering fee of $750,000, at that time the biggest salary paid in Hollywood. (Due to Ritt’s involvement there had been rumors Paul Newman would star.) And although Burton pushed for his wife Elizabeth Taylor for the small role of Nan, he was overruled on the issue of cost, and that audience expectations would be unfairly raised.

It didn’t matter, though, if Ritt refused to cast Elizabeth Taylor. He got her anyway, and her vast entourage, generally happy to remain out of the way but occasionally arriving on location in the middle of Dublin in her white Rolls-Royce sending fans into convulsions. There were two schools of thought as to which woman caused more disruption: the jealous wife exerting 24-hour surveillance on a husband with a wandering eye or one of his previous lovers, Claire Bloom, who was playing Nan. (The name changed from Liz in the book.)

“It was not a happy picture and the central reason fort that was: Claire Bloom,” averred Burton’s biographer Melvyn Bragg. “The real problem was not from Bloom but from Elizabeth Taylor’s jealousy,” claimed Sam Kastner. That Burton incurred Bloom’s wrath was not without doubt. But it wasn’t the first time. Prior to Taylor, but while he was married to Sybil, Burton and Bloom had been lovers.

Burton was “not prepared for Bloom and found it very difficult to handle.” The pair had met on a touring production of The Lady’s Not for Burning in the 1940s but their romance remained unconsummated. A few years later in the early 1950s the affair began in earnest and continued on and off for five years. When both were cast in Look Back in Anger (1959), Bloom expected them to pick up where they had left off. But that notion was dashed when Burton appeared, still married, on the arm of Susan Strasberg (Sisters, 1969).

The other elephant in the room was, of course, Burton’s alcohol intake. A very heavy drinker, verging on the alcoholic, his hand had begun to tremor until he received liquid sustenance. If Burton had an equally boisterous co-star as in Peter O’Toole in Becket (1964) or a very indulgent director as with John Huston in The Sandpiper (1965), his drinking would not attract comment. But “Martin Ritt did not approve of Burton’s heavy drinking and Burton resented that.”

Never mind Burton’s issues with ex-lover and wife, he was having difficulty delivering the performance Ritt demanded. The director wanted a stripped-down character, minus the oratory which had made the actor famous, the acting so flattened as to “make him anonymous.” Author John le Carre would have preferred James Mason or Trevor Howard for the “embattled” personas they presented, and which would have fit more into the director’s perception of the character. “For Burton this time there would be no strong sex, no oratory, no action, no charm.” The director wanted that Burton intensity, but coiled, not sprung. As the production wore on, director and star were barely speaking. “Ritt had come to despise Burton whom he saw as a spoiled and self-indulgent actor who had dissipated his talent.”

The initial screenwriter Guy Trosper made changes that seemed out of kilter with the book, for instance sending Leamas to psychiatric hospital rather than jail for punching the grocer. When he became ill he was replaced by Paul Dehn who did not veer so far from the book. Le Carre was brought in at the last minute at Burton’s insistence to do rewrites. But that merely added to the existing aggravation. While waiting for nightfall to shoot the escape sequence, Le Carre was obliged to keep the  actor company, trying to consume most the available whisky so that Burton did not go on set drunk. While little of Le Carre’s rewrites found their way into the finished product, he did provide a new scene for Fiedler (Oskar Werner).

Ritt had a revolutionary picture in mind, not just filming in black-and-white to downplay the glamor of the espionage business as evidenced by James Bond, but to employ “a point of view that’s never been found before.” He was not a believer in the end justifying the means nor of depicting the enemy as rabid. “Most of the time,” he explained, “you have actors playing Communists as if they’d just switched over from playing Nazis in World War Two pictures…the Communists in this picture are people and one of them at least …is an honest, ethical man.”

While the decision to film in black-and-white was a creative decision, intended to give the film a realistic edge, he knew it would not necessarily go down so well with the end user, the exhibitor. “The needs of creative people and the needs of exhibitors are completely different. Exhibitors want pictures and creators want to express themselves and those two factors don’t always satisfy each other.” Although the movie was Oscar-nominated and critically well-received and did well in key city first-run, it was condemned by exhibitors in small towns, one of whom discouraged others from booking it and complained that the black-and-white aspect made the film impossible to view on old projectors.

Author John le Carre was an unknown, two previous books published to no great sales. But The Spy Who Came in from the Cold proved a phenomenon.  Debuting in the number spot in February 1964, the book spent 35 weeks topping the hardback bestseller chart. It ended up the hardback number one title in the U.S. during 1964, a quarter of a million copies sold, winner of the Edgar Award for Best Mystery, initial paperback order topping two million copies, five million books in print by the time the film appeared. So it seemed all the more astonishing that the movie rights had been snapped up for a mere $21,000 (with escalating clauses based on sales that took it up to $38,000). Martin Ritt claimed glory for that astute purchase, making a bid to a hard-up author when the book was in galley form. “When I bought it nobody else was running to buy it,” claimed Ritt. But it turned out the real star was Kay Selby, a Paramount story editor, who had dug it out of a pile of novels submitted.  Le Carre did not make the same mistake again, movie rights for his next book The Looking Glass War were sold for $400,000 and the paperback rights for the same

When the film had still been a relatively low-budget production, Paramount planned to film exteriors in London and interiors in Hollywood. But Ritt wanted “to capture the full brunt of the winter atmosphere for dramatic emphasis” and there was very little Hollywood could bring to the party to recreate an actual bleak British weather.

The bulk of the film was shot in Ireland at the defunct Ardmore studios in Bray – Ritt rented them from the Official Receiver, the first production there since November 1963 – and on location in Dublin, the historic Cornmarket standing in for Checkpoint Charlie while with the  addition of breezeblock, barbed wire and an iron ladder, Dublin Square was transformed into the Berlin Wall, though some scenes set in East Berlin were shot in the London Docklands.

However, shooting kicked off in London, at Shepperton studios on January 9, 1965, before switching for two months to Ardmore, wrapping up there a week early, heading for location filming in Amsterdam (briefly) and 9-10 days in Garmisch (Germany) before returning to Shepperton in April. Ritt brought the picture in under budget.

Paramount launched a teaser campaign in November 1965 New York – the idea stolen by United Artists for A Fistful of Dollars the following year – with a 1,000-strong two-sheet poster campaign in the city’s subway, promoting the film but missing out the opening date and the cinemas it would play, that information supplied closer to the launch which took place over the lucrative Xmas period in 1965, coincidentally just in time to qualify for Oscar consideration.

And also in time to face a spy box office tsunami called Thunderball and the roadshow epic Doctor Zhivago among the 20-plus movies launched for the festive season. In fact, the Bond films had triggered a resurgence of spy pictures. As the Ritt picture got underway, others on the starting grid include “The Matt Helm Project,” The Ipcress File, James Garner in Welcome Mr. Beddoes (A Man Could Get Killed) and Masquerade starring Cliff Robertson. In addition the potential line-up also included female spy Christy O’Hare, Aaron Rosenberg’s Smashmaster and Strangers on a Bridge; the first two were never made, the last one taking over half a century to hit the screen as Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.   

Burton was Oscar-nominated, but in the year when Thunderball (1965), Torn Curtain (1966), The Silencers (1966) and Our Man Flint (1966) all featured in the top ten films of 1966, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold did not prove a counter-programming smash, sitting at 32nd in the annual chart with $3.1 million in rentals. Although the movie was critically well-received and did well in key city first-run, it was a bust in smaller towns. Don Stott of the Calvert Drive-In in Prince Frederick, Md, complained “it was one of the lousiest pictures I’ve ever had my displeasure to exhibit and lose my shirt on…the print was so dark…it was barely visible.” Added Arthur K. Dame of the Scenic Theater in Pittsfield, N.H., “it comfirms the fact that we are not going to do well with spy films.”

SOURCES: Adam Sisman, John Le Carre, The Biography (Bloomsbury, 2013) p258, 266, 273, 277-280; The Richard Burton Diaries (Yale University Press, 2012), p79-80; Melvyn Bragg, Rich: The Life of Richard Burton, (Hodder and Stoughton, 2012) p200-203; Sam Kashner, Furious Love (Harper Perennial, 2019) p120-131;  “Burt Lancaster Plans More Pix Of His Own,” Variety, January 1, 1964, p27; “Bestseller at $20,000,” Variety, March 25, 1964, p15; “Broadway,” Box Office, April 20, 1964, pE5; “Director Martin Ritt: Big Dig Is Scripts You Can Sell to Producers,” Variety, May 13, 1964, p13; “Six for Paramount in Alien Locales,” Variety, July 15, 1964, p18’“Richard Burton Receives Role in Spy by Martin Ritt,” Box Office, August 24, 1964, pW1; “Voices in the Diplomatic Pouch,” Variety, December, 9, 1964, p7; “Ritt Starts Spy Who Came in from the Cold in London,” Box Office, January 18, 1965, pE5; “Spy Success Sires Speedy Sequel, Le Carre Learning Loot Lesson,” Variety, February 17, 1965, p3; “Martin Ritt May Wind Berlin Wall Episodes on Spy This Month,” Variety, February 24, 1965, p28; “Paperbacks Up their Covers and Advance $,” Variety, March 3, 1965, p1; “Burton Winds Irish Shooting Spy Film,” Variety, April 14, 1965, p20;  Maxwell Sweeney, “Harassed Irish Studio Revives,” Variety, May 12, 1965, p54; “Kay Selby’s Coup,” Variety, August 11, 1965, p3; “Subway Posters First Step in Promoting The Spy,” Box Office, November 29, 1965, pA2; “Review,” Box Office, December 20, 1965, 1965, pA11;  “Three Paramount Pix To Open in N.Y. Dec 23,” Box Office, December 20, 1965, pE16; “Martin Ritt Is Promoting His Spy for Paramount,” Box Office, December 20, 1965, pE12; “Espionage Shown in Its Dirty Clothes,” Variety, December 22, 1965, p4; “The Exhibitor Has His Say,” Box Office, June 13, 1966, pA4 and October 10, 1966, pB4; Big Rentals of 1966,” Variety, January 4, 1967, p8.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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