THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD—-ultra-bleak Cold War drama butts heads with the colorful nonsense of the Bond films, portraying the world of spies as one of continual and sordid compromise. Granted, it must be, but parlaying realism into a cinematic treatment of such a way of life makes for a relentlessly downbeat exercise.
Directed by Martin Ritt in 1965, running 112 minutes, it is well acted—very well acted— with Richard Burton believably jaded as anyone could possibly get as a man at war with himself. Oskar Werner delivers another sharp-edged portrait. Efficiently cold b&w photography from Oswald Morris adds to the gloom in this story of British agent Burton caught by East Germany while working a false identity scam in order to drive a Communist operative to the surface.
It’s supposed to be fascinating because you can hardly ever figure out just what the hell is going on. Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper adapted John le Carré’s 1963 novel. Riding the spy craze (Dehn wrote the script to Goldfinger), Burton’s popularity and the novels rep, it was a box-office hit, grossing $9,730,000, coming in 21st for the year. Reviews glowed.
Fans of le Carré’s ‘George Smiley’ books and the movies made from them revel in his labyrinthine plotting and ultra-dour characters. To me, watching this or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has too much of a dutiful feel, like a 9pm lecture from a mystic with a mumble—the tedium signifies it’s truthful? After a while I fidget and start looking at patterns on the ceiling or the shoes on people in the audience. I much prefer the Carré cinema of The Tailor Of Panama, The Constant Gardener and A Most Wanted Man. For a burned-out-spy masterpiece, give me The Lives Of Others.
Burton’s committed work was Oscar nominated as Best Actor. He and director Ritt clashed, so likely some of his character’s simmering distaste was reflective of experience as much as material. The Art Direction was up for a statue as well. With Claire Bloom, Sam Wanamaker, George Voskovec, Rupert Davies, Cyril Cusack, Peter van Eyck, Michael Hordern, Robert Hardy, Bernard Lee (‘M’ moonlighting), Niall MacGinnis and Walter Gotell.