The Spy Who Came In From the Cold
In the central role, Richard Burton plays Alec Leamas, a burnt-out officer in the British Intelligence who is given a final assignment before his retirement: to find and expose the "mole" in their own organization who is operating within a communist cell in East Berlin. Leamas is given a new identity - as a hard-drinking, political dissident who wants to defect from West Germany - and, as part of his cover, finds work at a library where he meets Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), a Communist Party member. Eventually, Leamas manages to infiltrate the secret organization run by former Nazi Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck) but quickly learns that his own role in the affair is a convenient smoke screen for his superiors; he is actually a pawn in an elaborate double-cross.
Prior to filming The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Richard Burton had just completed The Sandpiper (1965) with his wife Elizabeth Taylor, and was ready to take on more challenging material after the soap opera histrionics of the latter film. The role of Leamas was unlike any previous character Burton had played: he was depressive, non-communicative and spoke in monosyllables. There were no grand speeches or passionate explosions of emotion. Burton told an on-set interviewer, "The others do all the acting. As Leamus, I just react." Interestingly enough, Burton, who was playing a habitual drinker in the film, was a well-known imbiber off the set but the director discouraged his bad habits with the exception of one scene. Burton recalled, "I had to knock back a large whiskey. It was the last shot of the day, and I decided to use the real hard stuff. We did 47 takes. Imagine it, luv, 47 whiskies." Despite his flippant remark, Burton gave one of his most memorable performances in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, winning himself a Best Actor Oscar nomination (he lost to Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou). But during production, the actor was miserable. His immersion in the gloomy character he was playing began to affect him deeply as well as those around him. He drank more heavily and he found the various film locations - Shepperton Studios outside London, Dublin, Ireland, and Bavaria - cold and depressing.
Burton's co-star, Claire Bloom, also found the actor unfriendly and distant. Years before, during the making of Look Back in Anger (1958), they had been lovers but upon their first meeting on the set of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Burton snubbed her. In retaliation, Bloom needled him on the set by doing wicked imitations of Elizabeth Taylor. Later she would mock him to the press as well, remarking on his career arc: "It was obvious that he was going to be a huge star, which is not the same as being a great actor. He has confused them." Yet, in spite of her feelings about Burton, Bloom would later cite The Spy Who Came in From the Cold as one of the few films she was actually proud of; the others being Limelight (1952), Richard III (1954) and Look Back in Anger.
Critics were likewise impressed with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and lavished praise on everything from the ensemble acting to the atmospheric art direction (It was also nominated for an Oscar) and Martin Ritt's skills as a producer-director. The New York Times wrote that "it looks as though Mr. Ritt has slipped in with a handheld camera and started recording the movements of a British secret agent at the Berlin wall." Probably the most accurate assessment of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is this review by Geoff Andrew in the TimeOut Film Guide: "John Le Carre's novel about betrayal and disillusionment in the world of East/West espionage is treated with intelligence and a disarming lack of sentimentality or moralizing....What finally impresses, however, is the sheer seediness of so much of the film, with characters, buildings, and landscapes lent convincingly grubby life by Oswald Morris' excellent monochrome camera work."
Producer/Director: Martin Ritt
Screenplay: Paul Dehn, Guy Troper, based on the novel by John Le Carre
Production Design: Tambi Larsen, Ted Marshall, Hal Pereira
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Costume Design: Motley
Film Editing: Anthony Harvey
Original Music: Sol Kaplan
Principal Cast: Richard Burton (Alec Leamas), Claire Bloom (Nan Perry), Oskar Werner (Fiedler).
by Jeff Stafford