At Checkpoint Charlie on the Berlin Wall, the cobbled streets wet with rain and the barbed wire catching the floodlights which sweep the night, MI6 handler Alec Leamas waits to meet his undercover agent Karl Riemeck as he makes the crossing from east and west, his final extraction from a position under suspicion, only to see him gunned down only paces away from safety.
Returning to London, depressed and bitter, Leamas tells Control that he wants out, but there’s only one way out of the spy game and it’s not retirement; unwilling to accept a desk job, Leamas is forced into an administrative position in a library to make ends meet, but he is ill-suited to the position, an antisocial man of specific skills, yet still he is watched by both sides.
Spiralling downwards into drink and despondency, an approach is made when Leamas is released from prison after a spell inside for common assault; an offer of much needed money, perhaps a new start, if Leamas will candidly share his recollections and insights. Introductions and arrangements are made, but Leamas’ hope to remain discreetly anonymous is shattered when his former employers declare him a persona non grata, presuming that he has defected.
Published in 1963, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was John Le Carré’s third novel of George Smiley and “the Circus,” though Smiley would play only a background role in proceedings, akin to herding the lambs for the slaughter in accordance with the greater plans of Control to thwart Hans-Dieter Mundt of the Abteilung, the East German Secret Service.
Filmed by Martin Ritt from an adaptation by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold premiered in December 1965, the antithesis of the excitement of Thunderball, released almost simultaneously, but a vastly more honest and damning dissection of espionage and the men who undertake it, “little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing “Cowboys and Indians” to brighten their rotten little lives,” as Leamas sums it up, his counterpart Fiedler calling traitors such as him “the lowest currency of the Cold War.”
Making its Blu-ray debut as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema collection, The Medusa Touch‘s Richard Burton is restrained as Leamas, unable to leave a job he hates and stumbling through in a haze of alcohol and permanent exhaustion, surrounded by a fantastic range of international talent at their best, among them The Haunting’s Claire Bloom, Fahrenheit 451’s Oskar Werner, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse‘s Peter van Eyck, Theatre of Blood’s Michael Hordern, Night of the Demon’s Niall MacGinnis and the great Beatrix Lehmann of The Stones of Blood.
Le Carré a former intelligence operative himself, he understood how the game was played, the hierarchies of information going up and orders going down, never to be questioned, only followed, of plans within plans and bluffs with those on the bottom working blindly, knowing so little that they can be sacrificed without danger of compromise to the greater scheme, cinematographer Oswald Morris catching every shadow, shade of grey and frozen expression as another betrayal unfolds.
A winner of four BAFTAs in 1966 including best British film and best actor for Burton, the new edition of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold also contains a new commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin with a strong focus on the film as an adaptation of Le Carré’s complex source novel and an insightful and entertaining video essay by David Cairn’s which gives a flavour of the equally complex personalities involved in the production, in particular the notorious Burton who arrived with his ego, his entourage, his wife and his (former) lover.