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The Spy Who Came in from the Cold


1965
Directed By Martin Ritt
Starring Richard Burton, Oskar Werner and Claire Bloom

Most films dealing with espionage are steeped in jingoism and rarely approach characterization with a natural style. The characters are mostly one dimensional super humans possessing abnormally well-developed strength or intelligence, depending on the film. Martin Ritts film is based on the John Le Carre novel by the same name. Le Carre was renowned for his brutally realistic look at the world of counter intelligence.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold follows Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) a British counter intelligence officer who is sent to East Germany to frame a German spy. He is tasked with spreading false information about the German officer by appearing to confess during interrogation. The plot is fairly straight forward but this is not one that you can be distracted while watching. Put away your iPad and make sure the kid is in bed before you start this film.

For a film from 1965 I was surprised to see a communist and drunk atheist as our pseudo-sympathetic leads. While the characters may have felt like honest portraits in 1965 now they feel just a bit off. I never believed in the “love” story at the center of the film. What did she see in him? Why would she try to make out with him after he laughed at her political beliefs? Why would she show up to pick him up from jail after one date? Why did he go back to her after he knew she was being watched? If he cared about her safety why didn’t he break up with her? Both actors give fine performances but the writing is just…. weird. For a movie that attempts to be grounded in reality, the central romance of the picture is utterly false.  

This film is at its best when dealing with the boys. Oddly enough the exposition scenes are some of the more interesting in the film. When the plot and characters are being propelled forward the filmmaker’s confidence is stepped up and the film begins to shine. The camera work on display here is nothing short of remarkable. Photographed in lush black and white with innovative transitions and fluid movement the camera is truly one of the stars of this film.

Parts of this film I really loved and other parts I really wanted to love but I was always on this films side. I never felt insulted or talked down to by the picture. The filmmakers never take the time to explain the Berlin wall or the Russian involvement in East Germany. The cold war is never distilled down to a digestible little speech for you.   A certain level of pre-existing knowledge is expected of the viewer. It’s always nice to see a movie that was intended for adult audiences, something that is sadly lacking from the mulitiplexes these days.


The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is streaming on Amazon and is free for Prime members  

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