This 1965 classic movie, based on John LeCarre’s gritty novel, will drag you no-nonsense through the post-World War II dirty game of East versus West.
The absurdity of Checkpoint Charlie, of the division of Berlin, of the political aftermath of the war, is all boiled down in the opening scene to a nondescript man, worn and sleepless, holding a cup of coffee—reason’s only ally. This man is Alec Leamus (Richard Burton), Britain’s world-weary spy chief in Berlin. The gunning down of Leamus’s agent -- just meters from the safety of the West -- represents a triumph of might and violence over vain cunning. The scene foreshadows Leamus’s own path, except that in his case he will reject cunning, in the person of George Smiley (Rupert Davies), and the entire architecture of espionage in favor of the respite that sentimentality provides for the disillusioned.
In his role as Leamus, Burton hardly permits himself to ham it up. Instead, he plays it close to the bone. The shamelessness of men has worn his mien and made his speech slither. Leamus guards his inner self tightly, but still values love and the rarity of sweetness in a crumby world where he has for years been waist-deep in a lousy business.
The single exception to Burton’s approach to his character is the prelude to his punch-up with his grocer. The assault serves to pad Leamus’s résumé, since it results in a stint behind bars. In the scene, an inebriated Leamus verbally abuses a Mediterranean couple, ostensibly venting his frustration at the abject failure that has been his career. Here Leamus suddenly waxes chauvinistic about “red-blooded prawns” fished out of Dublin Bay. Because Burton’s character in the film has to sell himself as a drunken bigot, it makes perfect cinematic sense for Burton to emote over the top. The poor couple in the store is shocked, and we are as well, since this Shakespearian outburst contrasts sharply with Burton’s portrayal of Leamus up until then.
Leamus has been unerringly to the point; he is flippant and condescending to the head librarian into whose employ his cover takes him, never hesitating to demonstrate his superior intellect and his thick disdain for any conventional deference to one’s workplace superiors. He is unnecessarily cruel to the homosexual agent who recruits him. Leamus must give the impression of a disenchanted veteran spy, whose years of loyalty have earned him the wastebasket of history and put an ugly chip on his shoulder.
Leamus accepts a dinner invitation from Nan (Claire Bloom), his co-worker at the library, after she refuses to be put off by his predilection for liquid lunches. On the contrary, that seems to attract her to him. It is perhaps a case of good girl drawn to bad boy, or maybe Nan cannot resist the seriousness of the man, which is evident despite his shabby accoutrements. Nan is certainly curious about the apparent dedication (but to what?) that Leamus’s hardened demeanor belies. She herself is trying to bring justice to the world through her work with the communist party.
Nan is there to meet Leamus when he is released from jail. Once again she has cooked for him. He arrives late, but her patience is rewarded with the exquisite tenderness that is often the reserve of the hard cases.
Nan comes of age during the tribunal behind the Iron Curtain. Afterward, her failure to comprehend why she would be allowed to escape attests to a more honest view of reality than Leamus himself demonstrates in the wake of the tribunal. Leamus rationalizes their flight together, telling Nan it is just part of the dirty deal that served to “kill the Jew.” Notwithstanding Leamus’s dead-on explanation of the dirty world of international relations, explained at the human level, he misses the impending raw deal coming Nan’s way. No doubt Leamus’s heart is already breaking out of its professional quarantine. The veteran spy, on the verge of retiring, has already begun to embrace the human hopes and desires of someone in love, and this development within his heart blinds his gimlet-eye to the impending reality despite decades of intimacy with the spy game.
The scenes in the car with Leamus and Nan when they are escaping from East Germany are among the best Hollywood ever rolled a camera on. Leamus’s monologue, as he explains the sordid mess to Nan, is a cynical dissection of political intrigue and a moral vivisection of our hypocritical Western society. Indeed, Burton’s scathing soliloquy in the car with Bloom rivals Brandon’s often cited “coulda been a contender” scene in “On The Waterfront.”
In many scenes throughout “The Spy Who Came In from The Cold,” director Martin Ritt relies on the facial expressions of his actors to communicate his message. While “Control” (Cyril Cusack) pulls the strings with the insouciance of the upper class, it is the very finality and ruthlessness of the game that guarantees Control his job security. Elsewhere, we see resignation on the sad face of the old queer, when he attempts to salvage a modicum of dignity in a scene at a cabaret where a nearly naked woman dances sensuously in the background, as if to mock the man and negate his deepest needs. At the tribunal in East Germany, Mundt (Peter van Eyck) looks with forced disdain at Leamus; deep down, Mundt’s Teutonic pride has been hurt by the need for this charade. Nan faces the tribunal with reserves of strength nourished by the naive faith of an innocent in love, as if channeling Joan of Arc before her inquisitors.
In the final frames, Leamus forsakes the cruel world for a lost love, after glaring with new found contempt at Smiley, whose offer of salvation has ultimately revealed itself to be just one more betrayal.