Thursday, October 9, 2014


Film: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Format: DVD from Western District Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

Think of the spy genre, and you probably think of James Bond or Jason Bourne. Perhaps the Mission: Impossible movies are more your speed. Regardless, when it comes to subgenres, spy films tend to fall firmly in the larger category of action movies. If you don’t get a little witty banter, some explosions and at least one quality death, it feels like a rip off. That was the big complaint for many about a film like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: compared with the rest of the genre and compared with expectations, it’s just a film where men sit in rooms and think at each other really hard. Well, that’s more the speed of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as well. It’s not a coincidence that it comes originally from the pen of the same author, John Le Carre.

TSWCIFTC is a Cold War film both in terms of when it was made and in terms of the era it depicts. Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is in charge of the West Germany section of “The Circus,” the intelligence gathering organization of Le Carre’s spy world. When yet another of his spies is killed crossing over from East Germany into West, Leamas is recalled to London. He’s offered a desk job, but doesn’t want it, preferring to stay out “in the cold” as a field operative. And so he’s given another task, this time to entrap the East German agent who has been the cause of so many deaths of his own men.

Basically, Leamas is shunted into a menial job, where he works for a couple of weeks and begins a relationship with a co-worker, Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), a communist sympathizer. After some time, Leamas gets into a public fight and serves a little time in the local jail. This and his constant drinking make him a perfect opportunity for the East Germans to get to defect. That’s the plan—Leamas will be brought in by the East Germans, who are looking for a mole in their operation. Leamas, more or less, is to implicate a man named Mundt (Peter van Eyck) as the man in East Germany working for The Circus, thus getting the man killed and stopping the flow of dead Circus agents, and protecting the real mole. The target of the sting—the man who needs to get the ball rolling, is Mundt’s second-in-command, Fiedler (Oskar Werner).

But, of course, this is a spy film so nothing can possibly be that easy. There are a number of twists and turns along the way, expected only because of the genre and not the screenplay itself. And by the end, Leamas needs to choose if he wants to stay out in the cold or to come in for a desk job he won’t like and probably won’t perform well due to his disinterst and his constant drinking.

Where this film falls short, as already mentioned, is the complete lack of any meaningful action. This is another film where the main action is people trying to reason their way through a series of obstacles and problems. There is nary an explosion to b had anywhere. This is almost certainly because the film wants us to focus on Leamas and his position rather than on the exciting stuff.

In real life, I’m merely an English teacher, which means that I don’t really have a great deal to say on the reality of the spy world, but I can’t help but think that TSWCIFTC is a lot closer to the real world of an intelligence operative than fast cars, faster women, and the occasional hand grenade. Unfortunately, the fact that this more than likely is the reality for spies makes for an accurate movie, but also a fairly dull one, The film is little more than high-level chess moves back and forth, searching for a weakness in the other side.

Richard Burton is by far the best thing in this film. In 1965 he was aplly to easily pull off the role of a man who has seen too many plans fail and too many people die. There is a world-weariness to Burton’s performance that matches the character perfectly. Leamas is a man who drinks too hard and is playing a role within the film to be disgruntled and ready to switch teams.

But the film is flat dull in terms of action. Nothing really happens but thinking or seeing the relationship between various operatives for several different countries. I can’t deny that this is a well made film over all. I’d even be willing to call this a good film despite the fact that it’s incredibly slow. It’s worth seeing for the unglamorous life of a man dedicated to the dark and seamy side of the underground.

Why to watch The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: It’s probably close to the reality of spies.
Why not to watch: It’s not that exciting.


  1. I felt like the lack of much happening was part of the point of this story (I've both seen the movie and read the book, though it's been a while for both) - the malaise and dreariness played perfectly against the Cold War backdrop of a war that isn't a war in the traditional sense but still drags on interminably with the need for spies and vigilance even though there really isn't anything happening. I found it a profoundly depressing story, in the most existential way.

    1. I think that's right. This isn't an action film despite it being in the espionage genre. It's dirty and small, and that's very much the point.