Burton was 40ish when Spy was shot, though he looks 15 years older. While his ravaged appearance was apparently due to lifestyle choices, it did help his portrayal of the embittered spy Leamas. Pulled from his post at Checkpoint Charlie following the death of an operative, Leamas delves further into heavy drinking and deep self-loathing. His boss, Control (Cyril Cusack), instructs him to lie low with the intent of attracting the attention of East German intelligence. The ultimate goal is to bring down Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck), a high level East German agent. For the complex plan to work, Leamas must become a double agent.
For a while, however, we see Leamas trying to function as an ordinary person. There’s a very dry, dark streak of humor laced throughout his existence as a librarian’s assistant. He begins a very tentative relationship with a co-worker. Nan (Claire Bloom) is a painfully naïve, hopelessly idealistic member of the British Communist Party. Leamas seems more amused by her than anything else. Though Nan is rather inexplicably taken by him, any romantic involvement is chastely downplayed. Leamas knows, given his true profession (unknown to Nan), that he can’t become too entangled. After Smiley (Rupert Davies) presents Leamas with a new assignment (sending him over the Berlin Wall), his sole concern regarding Nan is to make sure she isn’t directly connected to him.
Though it boasts a relatively straightforward narrative, director Ritt keeps the plotting deliberately murky and confusing. Only in the end do these conniving characters’ motives become entirely clear, even to Leamas himself. A basic understanding of Cold War-era politics is helpful in order to fully absorb The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Ritt himself was blacklisted during the infamous Red Scare of the ‘50s, making it easier to see his attraction to this material. The lines between good and bad or right and wrong are continuously obscured. It’s no small feat that Ritt manages to inspire sympathy for Leamas, a self-described “seedy squalid bastard.” The film’s title takes on a symbolic meaning as Leamas rediscovers what’s left of his soul.
It’s hard to imagine the starkly beautiful cinematography of Oswald Morris looking any better than it does in Criterion’s new 1080p transfer. The booklet tells us it was made using a 35mm composite fine-grain master positive. There are a few tiny instances of print damage (a few scratches are visible at times). That’s nitpicking though, as the visual presentation is film-like and satisfyingly sharp. The LPCM 2.0 stereo soundtrack is also superb, highlighting Sol Kaplan’s score. Dialogue and all other elements are free of distortion.
Lots of great features accompany Spy, some more specific to the film itself than others. A 2000 documentary, The Secret Centre: John le Carre, runs an hour and takes a broad look at the author’s career. More focused on the Martin Ritt film is a 40-minute interview with John le Carre taped in 2008. Cinematographer Oswald Morris provides select-scene audio commentary. There’s also a half-hour excerpt from the BBC’s Acting in the ‘60s featuring Richard Burton, conveniently divided into six chapters. Some 45 minutes of an audio interview with director Ritt are here as well, originally recorded in 1985.
Richard Burton was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Alec Leamas. His work is reason enough to see The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Escapist entertainment this is not. Don’t expect a typically fast-paced, action-oriented spy thriller from Martin Ritt’s film (co-written by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper). It’s a generally unhappy, cynical film, but one that is well worth the time.