In the 1960s if you were referring to a movie director as Marty you would’ve been talking about Martin Ritt, not Martin Scorsese. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (Criterion Collection, 9/10) combines the precise direction of Ritt, the great acting of Richard Burton, the spy versus spy skullduggery of master novelist John le Carré, and the evocative photography of Oswald Morris. I’d seen The Spy Who Came In From the Cold as a wee lad on television in the ‘60s but a couple of scenes had never left my mind. Certainly I am more of the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy generation, feeding on the late-70s BBC version with Alex Guinness or the 2011 movie starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley. le Carré was himself an agent of the British secret service and in fact the name is a pseudonym since he was still employed by the British government when The Spy Who Came In From the Cold was published. We now know John le Carré is the nom de plume of David John Moore Cornwell.
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold starts at the Berlin Wall and ends at same. In between our hero Alec Leamas goes from active fieldwork to a desk job to alcoholism to defecting to the Russians. Only we know that Leamus is actually a double agent, spilling false information to his Communist interrogators at the behest of his handlers in an intricate plot that demands concentration and concludes with a daring escape from Berlin after a brutal closed court trial; Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, Sam Wanamaker, Cyril Cusack, and Peter van Eyck co-star.
There are some stunning speeches in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and obviously Burton is more than up to the task. Even so, you cannot take your eyes off Burton as he acts with his stares and his glances and his movement as well as his grand sense of elocution. Burton lived as a tax exile of England and therefore could only be in the country 90-days a year without incurring tax penalties. Such information about the behind the scenes is included in the multiple extras that include featurettes or interviews with Ritt, le Carré, Burton in a 1967 interview from television, and an especially detailed segment with cinematography Morris who pours forth with factoids on everything from lighting to the politics of filming.
The espionage of le Carré is every bit as packed with detail as James Bond (Ian Fleming) only in le Carré’s world the emphasis is on bureaucracy rather than action. There’s two featurettes focused on le Carré, one a BBC documentary and the other a lengthy interview taped in 2008.
The detail of the blu-ray transfer makes the cross-hatching and texture of the sports coats and winter coats just pop off the screen. By the time The Spy Who Came In From the Cold comes to its unforgettable conclusion at Check Point Charly you realize that this is a timeless movie.
- Michael Bergeron