The second movie in our cold war trilogy, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, is a lot grittier than Ice Station Zebra. Based on the Novel by John le Carre, which is actually the pen name for David John Moore Cornwell, who in the 1950’s and 1960’s who actually work for British intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6, and wrote a series of very successful novels presumably based on his experiences. His novels are often contrasted with Ian Fleming’s sexy superhero type 007 James Bond movies and films, le Carre’s providing a more accurate portrait of cold war espionage.
The film describes secret agents as “seedy, squalid bastards,” and none is seedier or more squalid than Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), the weary semi-alcoholic brooder sent by British intelligence to East Germany. The mission into East Berlin is slowly revealed as a complex, table-turning operation that involves Leamas’s idealist Communist librarian turned lover (Claire Bloom) and his vicious, Teutonic counterpart (Peter Van Eyck). Purposefully going against the grain of a genre known for thrills, glamor and beautiful women, the film’s director Ritt crafts a sober, weighty atmosphere of moral ambiguity in which spies from both sides are bound by their ruthlessness both against the enemy and each other.
With the cold rain pouring at Checkpoint Charlie, in this transition zone stands Alec Leamas the head of the East German British desk waiting-no hoping for the successful defection of one of his spies. The man in question appears and makes a run for it but is cut down by gunfire. Leamas is then recalled to London by his boss, Control (Cyril Cusack), expecting to be fired. Instead Control decides to keep Leamas “out in the cold” for a devilish plot. Supposedly, Leamas is soon looking for work and ends up as of all things as a menial librarian. With booze as his only friend, he broods and builds up resentment against the British Secret Service. He hooks up fellow librarian and British secretary of the communist party Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), but soon assaults a shopkeeper and ands up in jail.
Nan must like him though, and vice versa, since she meets him on his release from prison. Interestingly, there is another chap there to see his return to society and he approaches him in the park. Claiming to be from a charity which helps ex-convicts, Carlton (Robert Hardy) takes Leamas to an expensive lunch. This is all double-talk of course — in reality it’s an approach from the enemy, checking out a disgruntled ex-spy and finding out if he’ll defect. Leamas seems to feel that he doesn’t owe Britain anything and, somewhat grudging, seems to accept (purely for the $15,000.00). Then Leamas circuitously makes his way to Smiley’s (Rupert Davies) house, for a meeting with Control. Everything becomes clear as Control outlines the plan, a devious and cunning attempt to discredit the top East German spy, Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter Van Eyck). With haste, Leamas is flown to Holland for de-briefing by Fiedler (Oskar Werner), the second in command to Mundt. The crux of the plan is that Fiedler detests Mundt and would do anything to destroy him and tries to but is burned in the process as we discover Mundt is actually a British agent working deep under cover.
The skills that Leamas has for espionage based on his years of experience, keep him alive as he weaves a convincing tale for Fiedler. Realizing the “truth”, Fiedler bundles Leamas back to East Germany, where he hopes to bring down Mundt in a closed trial. Leamas is an added complication though since he insists that Mundt couldn’t have been a double-agent (he was head of East German operations and would have known). Fiedler still manages to force a trial though, absolutely convinced that Mundt is betraying his country, and the closed session begins. It seems as though the tribunal will rule against Mundt, resulting in his execution, until his defense lawyer presents an unexpected witness—Nan the librarian, whose testimony puts Fiedler into his grave.
Mundt, though detested by Leamas and vice-versa, arranges for his and Nan’s exfiltration. They need to get over the wall. Everything is arranged, the guards are told to keep their spotlights away from a certain part of the wall long enough for the two to climb over. However, as Leamas and Nan are climbing, their driver shoots Nan in the back (probably because she could prove to be a liability and expose everything) who falls to the ground. Leamas is standing on the top of the wall as the alarms go off and spotlights shine on the area. He is urged by fellow agent Smiley to jump. Leamas does jump, but back to East Germany where he is shot by the guards before he hits the ground.
As the flip-side to the cartoonish antics of James Bond, this movie is both a welcome antidote and a snapshot of the now elegantly departed Cold War era. The script has believable dialogue (most of the time the characters talk in metaphors, never actually voicing the real meaning) with a slow, wary pacing which reflects the nature of spying (the movie lasted about 90 minutes but felt like 3 hours—a good three hours though). However, Richard Burton’s acting as the burnt-out, disillusioned, semi-alcoholic, shambling agent is fantastic. The supporting actors are good, but their performances pale in comparison. The technical aspects, such as the cinematography, are noteworthy, working together to create an atmosphere where human lives are somehow worthless, where information is all that matters. In summary, a cracking story with superb acting which reflects on a lost but not forgotten period in history.