The Criterion Collection’s latest release is the 1965 black and white spy classic, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, directed by Martin Ritt, whose best known films include the Woody Allen blacklist film, The Front, and the Sally Field union drama, Norma Rae. Like those, this is a very well directed and taut film. And, like those later films, this one also misses out on greatness.
For those expecting a James Bondian sort of thriller, forget it. This film is an espionage character study, loaded with monologues, dialogues, and philosophic introspection. As such, I can say that there really is not a single genuine action sequence in the film. A few people get shot and die, including the hero and heroine; but, by stating such, up front, I’m really not giving anything about the film away. Why? Because this is one of those films that depends upon the how of its action rather than the why.
It’s an almost two hour long film (112 minutes), yet never drags. The cinematography is reminiscent, at times, of The Third Man, and other low budget, experimental Orson Welles films from the 1940s and 1950s, even though it was a high profile project based upon the bestselling novel of the same name by John Le Carre. The scoring is understated and precise. The acting by Richard Burton, as Alec Leamas, and Oskar Werner, as Fiedler, is superb, and the plot is twisted, but all makes sense in the end. I will not detail that, even though I have given away the deaths of two of the main characters, because the plot directly relates to a few of the superb exchanges in the film about the ethics of espionage.
And this is why the film is so good. It is the internal machinations, especially in the mind of Leamas, that make this film work. A lesser actor simply could not have sold the part as equivocally as Burton does: is he in the dark or not? Is he an agent on the way down (because of a failed operation) or merely playing one? The title of the film is usually thought to mean that Leamas has finally gained insight into the machinations of the Cold War, but it could also mean the man finally realizes his worth to his employers, the world, and himself. Or, more accurately, his lack of same. The cold that he hits is reality’s nor’easter. And, despite his own reputation as a brilliant roué, Burton proves he truly was a better actor. There are full scenes where the camera just resides its gaze on his mien, and the viewer is riveted. Then there are some bravura editing choices made by Ritt, where scenes end anywhere from a few seconds to a minute or more before they would in conventional Hollywood films. These elisions propel the film forward, narratively, because the audience knows what will occur, and also displays an unusual confidence in the intelligence of the filmgoer.