Richard Burton was always at his best playing men who were at war with the world and everyone it in, or at war with themselves. Martin Ritt’s bleakly brilliant adaption of John le Carre’s career-defining novel ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ gave him the role of a lifetime – this is something I do not say lightly – as Alec Leamas, a man at war with himself who is despatched by Control (Cyril Cusack) to undertaken a mission, the full convolutions of which are hidden from Leamas himself, in which he needs to adopt the persona of a bitter, broken, hate-filled former agent. A failure. A little man. A man at war with the world and everyone in it.
Le Carre wrote the novel in less than six weeks while still on the British Embassy staff. “It was the Berlin Wall that had got me going, of course,” he recollected in the afterword to the latest Penguin Modern Classics imprint; “I had flown from Bonn to take a look at it as soon as it started going up … I felt nothing but disgust and terror, which was exactly what I was supposed to feel: the Wall was perfect theatre as well as a perfect symbol of the monstrosity of ideology gone mad.”
He wasn’t exactly impressed with the West’s response and, as I seem to recall him stating in an interview, the novel was le Carre’s way of saying “a plague on both your houses”. This bitterness and anger is certainly there in the book. It practically scorches itself into the pages. The ending is one of the most wrenchingly bleak in modern fiction – and yet Leamas achieves a small redemption. At a huge cost.
Ritt’s film is no less unflinching. I don’t think I’ve ever seen black and white cinematography so stark. The seedy, shabby, emotionally retarded world of espionage is rendered just as starkly. That’s the thing about black and white: it shows up the shades of grey. “ What the hell do you think spies are?” Leamas snaps angrily in the film’s key monologue. “Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.” Watch Burton deliver these lines and the macho posturing of five decades’ worth of would-be tough guy actors pales into nothing. Burton’s disaffection is authentically terrifying.
His performance is balanced in a perfect fulcrum against the almost bored placidity of Cusack as Control, and the inscrutability of Rupert Davies – albeit in a very small role (like film, like book) – as George Smiley. To Davies the distinction of giving us the first onscreen incarnation of Smiley, and while he doesn’t personify the owl-like intelligence of Alec Guinness’s portrayal or the “Smiley waiting patiently to explode” (le Carre’s words again) of Gary Oldman, he’s certainly physically closer to the Smiley of the novels.
Just as distinguished are Oscar Werner as the philosophical Fielder, one of several Communist agents from whom Leamas is passed during his journey further and further behind the Iron Curtain; Peter van Eyck, giving a chilling performance as brutal intelligence head Mundt; and Clare Bloom as the heartbreakingly innocent Nan Perry, the socially-conscious librarian who Leamas gets involved with and who is played as pawn, ruthlessly, by both sides.
Even the lower echelons of the cast list read like a Who’s Who, with Sam Wanamaker, Robert Hardy, Bernard Lee, Michael Hordern, Esmond Knight and Niall MacGinnis doing sterling work. Oswald Morris’s cinematography gives the film a grim, gritty, realistic look which utterly captures the aesthetic of le Carre’s novel. Kudos, too, to Sol Kaplan’s appropriately melancholy score.
Le Carre’s fiction has always been about the ugliness of espionage, the corruption of power and the treachery of those corrupted by it. I’ve not read all of his work (although I fully intend to rectify that), but I have yet to read a le Carre novel that has anything even remotely resembling a happy ending. ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ certainly doesn’t. And yet his work is often sprinkled with humour, albeit of the blackest variety.
There’s a cynical pleasure to be had in watching the petty little power games that unfold around Leamas’s pseudo-defection: how he’s approached by Ashe (Hordern), only for Ashe to be drubbed out as soon as Carlton (Robert Hardy) takes over as Leamas’s handler, shortly after which he’s just as summarily dismissed when Fielder enters the picture, only for the most spectacular powerplay of all to occur when the villainous Mundt makes his final-reel appearance.
Ritt gets it: the novel is about stupid men given too much power playing essentially silly little games where the stakes are other people’s lives. It’s a despairing vision of humanity, rendered with equally vicious efficiency in both media: it’s one of those rare occasions where the film is every bit as good as the book.