October Issue 2013

By | Here and Now | Published 6 years ago

Martin Ritt’s 1965 adaptation of John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold gives viewers an insight into the murky world of espionage — the hidden, secret exchanges that occur behind the apparent one of politics, rhetoric and ideology during the Cold War era.

The film’s unlikely protagonist is Alec Leamus (Richard Burton at his finest), who is a far cry from the James Bonds and Jason Bournes of popular culture. An administrator of the West Berlin office, Leamus is called back to London after the death of one of his agents and is put off-duty for an unknown period of time.

The film’s unlikely protagonist is Alec Leamus (Richard Burton at his finest), who is a far cry from the James Bonds and Jason Bournes of popular culture. An administrator of the West Berlin office, Leamus is called back to London after the death of one of his agents and is put off-duty for an unknown period of time.

He is soon befriended by co-worker, Nancy (Claire Bloom), and the two become romantically involved. At a dinner at Nancy’s house, they discuss the ‘causes’ they support. Her face lights up as she says, “partly history…partly freedom,” only to stop suddenly when he bursts out laughing: “Nan, don’t tell me you’re a bloody communist!” Indeed she is, and contrasts in the different world-views are embodied in their conversations: idealism and pragmatism, youthful optimism and jaded cynicism, the collective and the self…

Leamus doesn’t have much of a belief system; he’s done and seen it all. But despite their ideological differences, the two grow close. Nancy may be naïve, but she has a good heart; her optimistic outlook on humanity is what leads to her to reach out to Leamus, a gesture that is appreciated by him.

After a drunken sprawl, which lands him in a jail, Leamus catches the attention of East German Intelligence Service agents, who approach him to reveal top British intelligence secrets, in exchange for cash. He is flown to Holland to speak to an agent named Fiedler (Oskar Werner), and it is here that the film — thus far slow-paced and slightly tedious, despite the sharp dialogue — really picks up. Leamas, who holds information that could incriminate an East German intelligence officer named Mundt as an undercover British agent, regains his confidence as he is put to use once again, even if it’s for the ‘enemy’s’ side. Fiedler refers to him as “a wanted, spent, dishonest man. The lowest currency of the Cold War.”

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is recommended to anyone with an interest in contemporary politics, international relations and, of course, human nature.

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.