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on August 26, 2000
Inside a grim little room in the empty countryside somewhere east of the Berlin wall an East German agent is interrogating a defecting British spy. The defector is anxious and weary. He wants his money now. Prompting the Communist agent to say this : "You are a traitor, the lowest currency of the cold war. We buy you, we sell you, we lose you, we can even shoot you. Not a bird in the trees would stir if we did just that."
Except that Alec Leamas(Richard Burton) is not really a defector, he is only masquerading as one. On his last assignment for the British Secert Service, he is to pretend to be burnt out and jobless. Never faraway from a bottle he walks around the streets of London cynical and depressed, his "masterstroke" in this act is an ugly fight with a shopkeeper who refuses to give him credit. This ofcourse attracts the attention of the East German agants who view him as a potential defector because of his dire need for cash and his embitterment towards the British Agency for abandoning him. It is a credit to Burton's brilliant and painfully realistic performance that you are pretty sure his embitterment in not entirely an act. That he really is a drunk. That he wholeheartedly agrees with the German when he calls him "the lowest currency of the cold war", even if he is not a defector. To him, all spies, on both sides, are scum.
John Le Carre was an ex-British intelligence officer when he wrote the celebrated novel on which this film was based. It was called "the finest spy story ever written" by the writer of The Third Man, Graham Greene. And in a sense, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold starts where The Third Man left off. The lead character has already lost any faith he had in humanity. I suspect that the only reason Leamas hadn't really defected is because even money has lost its lure. Surprisingly the most sympathetic characters in the book(and the film) are the communist spy Fiedler(Oskar Werner) and naive communist librarian Liz Gold(renamed Nan Perry in the film and played by Claire Bloom), and both pay dearly for it. In the world of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold idealism is not merely misguided, it is pathetic. When Fiedler sincerely asks Leamus "How do you sleep at night without a philosophy?". Leamus's typically jaded answer is "I don't believe in God or Karl Marx. I don't believe in anything that rocks the world. I reserve the right to remain ignorant."
In adapting the novel, scripters Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper retained the icy restraint of the novel. Director Martin Ritt(who made the better known but inferior Norma Rae) shoots the film in a harsh black and white. Accompanied by a sad violin score, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is finally a sentimental film about unsentimentality. Ridiculously Burton lost out on the Oscar infavour of Lee Marvin in the frankly ridiculous Cat Ballou. The film was nominated for just one other Oscar which was for Art-Direction. A shame. With its moral and asthetic complexity, this is as far away from Bond or Tom Clancy based thrillers as you can get. Possibly the greatest film in its genre, and in its own quiet way the equal of The Third Man. The final message being that people who are driven enough to enter the world of espionage are not(and can't afford to be) driven by ideals. In that world the only motive is expediency.
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on April 22, 2002
Richard Burton's brooding performance coupled with appropriately grim black and white photography from cameraman Oswald Morris provide just the proper mood as the masterpiece thriller from former British intelligence operative John Le Carre was brought to the screen in 1965 with capable fidelity.
While a British production, the film's director was American Martin Ritt, an accomplished master of providing films of compelling seriousness with a touch of the grim, as exemplified by "No Down Payment", "Hud" and "The Front." Burton plays an intelligence operative gone to seed, hence the reference to "coming out of the cold" which, in spy talk, involves being taken out of the field of operation. Burton goes to planned seed, becoming an alcoholic who ultimately is thrown into prison for pummeling a thoroughly decent London grocer who had extended him credit and ultimately had to draw the line, incurring Burton's well orchestrated rage in accordance with plans from MI5.
As soon as Burton leaves prison Michael Hordern is waiting for him. They discuss "doing articles," a cover for what is really expected, turning allegiance and going to work for the Soviets. During this period Burton is provided with a job at a small library featuring psychic works. It is here that he meets Claire Bloom, an ideologue who attends local Communist study groups as a way of making a difference in a troubled world.
Burton operates in a realm of barely contained rage. He inveighs Hordern with scorn and is not about to disagree with Oskar Werner when the East Germany Communist ideologue refers to Burton and his ilk as "the lowest currency of the Cold War."
Burton's contempt for his role in a grimy affair is enhanced by the fact that he has been sent to East Germany to clear Peter Van Eyck of charges that he is a double agent working for Britain. Werner has shrewdly pegged him, and British intelligence does all it can to help a ruthless individual it took charge of after he murdered a man on a trip to England during an East German traveling trade exhibit. Eventually Bloom surfaces as a prop to assist the contemptible Van Eyck.
More twists and turns occur until ultimately Burton wonders just what the future holds for him, and whether Bloom, the only person he cares for in life, will be part of it. Circumstances ultimately answer important questions for Burton as he is propelled through a swirl of events masterminded by wily intelligence operatives to his ultimate destiny.
This is a spectacularly moody giant of a film. Guy Troper and Paul Rehn fashioned a brilliant script which meshes with Le Carre's chilling suspense masterpiece. "Spy" was a deserving recipient of a Best Film British Academy Award. It bristles with controlled rage and sizzling wit delivered with the proper measure of acid by Burton in one of his enduring roles.
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on May 31, 2011
The 2008 Criterion edition is here at Spy Who Came in from the Cold: The Criterion Collection. The less expensive and not-as-fine-tuned 2004 Paramount edition is here at The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Criterion's is a double disk with many extras, including a 40 minute selected-scene commentary by director of photography Oswald Morris; a BBC documentary, "The Secret Center: John le Carré;" a half-hour interview with Richard Burton; and more.

The Paramount release has no extras and an image that's mostly clean and sometimes scratched.

The original was released for Christmas, 1965.
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on October 6, 1999
Finally! A gritty, gutty portrayal of the most integral (and expendable) piece in the Cold War match: the spy. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold abandons the glitz and gadgets of the James Bond genre in favor of gray, minimalist trappings. The result is one of the best, if underrated, dramas of the 1960's. Richard Burton should have won Best Actor Oscar for his role as the burned out spy Alec Leemas, whose initial bitter denial that he's too old to work as a field agent gets him into the biggest jam of his career. The script is excellent, relying largely on metaphors and terse, but profound, arguments to define its characters instead of guns and special effects. The plot's pace is adult and intricately woven, not wasting a moment. But overall, the use of black and white film (and the minimalistic atmosphere it envokes) is perhaps the biggest asset. The viewer gets a sense that there is really little difference between the hunted and the hunter, between East and West. That in the end, as the saying goes, "we've seen the enemy and he is us."
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on July 29, 2004
The first thing you must know about this film is that it is nothing like James Bond. Bond films are full of gadgets, sex, Martinis and flashy action sequences...

...While this film presents you a whole different vision (that one might think is a lot more closer to reality - if such could be achieved concerning the espionage theme).

It tells the story of an older british spy stationed in Berlin who refuses to come home and accept a job behind a desk. What he does instead is go on a very dangerous mission the ends up nothing like you may expect.

This film has many great things. First it looks closely at the sometimes wicked world of espionage, where good people sometimes do horrible things. In such world, spies

are nothing but pawns (unlike the hero imagem displayed on most espionage thrillers). Here, you will find a lot of broken down people and moral dilemas.

The second great thing about this film is the cast. Richard Burton is the perfect man for this role: his performance is a powerhouse. After seeing the film, I got the impression there are no more actors today with such a strong, commanding face. He really makes you believe such spies exist. The whole cast shines with Claire Bloom, Cyril Cusack and Oskar Werner.

Third great thing: the black and white cinematography by Oswald Morris is superb! It gives enhances the bleak, cold vision of a political world where truth and good are just a matter of point of view.

This is not a James Bond-like action thriller full of escapades and mad scientists. This is a film about people (who happen to work on the espionage business) and the way they can possibly be used.

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VINE VOICEon March 1, 2006
Based on the novel by the acclaimed British author John Le Carre (who gave us the excellent SMILEY'S PEOPLE and the less steller CONSTANT GARDENER) this bleak look at Cold War espionage is actually compulsive viewing. I started watching the movie late one night fully expecting to stop about halfway through yet, there I was at 1 a.m. still transfixed at the unfolding drama.

Starring Richard Burton in perhaps one of his most impressive roles and co-starring Burton's one-time girlfriend the entrancing Claire Bloom, this movie is a complex, intricately woven movie that keeps one guessing. It starts in Germany and ends in Germany with stops in England and Holland inbetween. Burton plays Alec Leamas, a former head of British intelligence in Berlin who poses as a washed up agent as a means of implanting seeds of doubt about the loyalty of a communist spy in the minds of that spy's superiors. After beating up a grocer he is approached by East German intelligence and persuaded to "defect" to the East. Once there during the debriefing stage he begins to lay subtle clues in the hope that they will be picked up by the authorities, who will then p[iece together the clues and come to the conclusion that one of their star agents is a traitor. Sounds simple enough right?! Well, all is not as it seems and the real motive behind Leamas' ruse is one of those twists you don't see coming until it's too late.

Burton is ably supported by a brilliant supporting cast, from the aforementioned Bloom to Michael Horden as Ashe, a gay communist agent, Sam Wanamaker as Peters, Oskar Werner as the ambitious Fiedler and Robert Hardy as Dick Carlton to name just a few.

Released in 1965, this movie was made at a time when color was available for use, however the makers decided (wisely) to film it in black and white, a decision which really helps build atmosphere and drama.

I recommend this movie to everyone who likes complex plotting and espionage thrillers.
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on July 22, 2004
The less I say the better -- I wish they had a place where people who've seen this masterpiece can discuss it. In short, everybody is lying, and the main character doesn't even realize what's going on till the very end. When that end comes, if you believe the world to be the way the movie describes it ... oh, well. Your skin will crawl at the horrific nature of the human condition.

Have fun.
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on July 30, 2003
Ritt's masterpiece is a movie about British agent Alec Leamas who gets called back from the field when too many of the double agents under his care are killed by the East Germans. Leamas is directed by British intelligence to appear as an agent who is slipping into alcoholic decadence. He assaults an innocent grocer and is sent to prison. After his release he is recruited by the Soviets.
Before going to prison Leamas meets an attractive girl who is a British communist. She becomes the only person he really cares for while his work as a spy forces him to become increasingly cynical.
As often pointed out the film lacks the gadgetry and magic of other spy movies from its era. Instead the emphasis is on reality and negative human emotions such as despair, self-loathing, greed and fear. The plot becomes quite intricate especially after Leamas returns to the field posing as a paid defector.
The cast is superb. Richard Burton stars as Alec Leamas. Clair Bloom is his girl friend Nan Perry and Oskar Werner excells as a crafty communist agent.
The film received Oscar nominations in 1965 for Best Actor (Richard Burton) and B&W Art Direction. Martin Ritt directed many other good movies in his career including THE MOLLY MAGUIRES.
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HALL OF FAMEon July 18, 2004
The world John Lecarré describes is without mercy and forgiveness. The films based on his books are not nearly as terrifying, though they are frightening enough. THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is an early adaptation of one of Lecarré's books by the same name, and in it he introduces albeit briefly, the character George Smiley.
The three main characters in this production Alex (Richard Burton), Nan (Claire Bloom) and Monque (Oskar Werner) were all very fine actors in the 1950s and 1960s. This film was one of the last Burton made (965) and in it he plays a "burnt-out" spy who has been the operations officer in Berlin for 15 years of the Cold War. Alex was recruited by British Intelligence shortly after WWII just as the East Bloc began to descend behind the "Iron Curtain" according to Western leaders like Churchill. The CIA was also spun from military intelligence during this period, and there is a brief interaction between Alex and a CIA officer at the beginning of the movie as Alex awaits a defecting East German spy at the infamous "Checkpoint Charlie".
SPY is shot in Black and White which enhances the spooky subject. Night time scenes with flashing lights and rainy London weather add to the atmosphere. I first saw this film in the theater, and I was so young I could not figure out what was going on. The plot is complex, but not as complex as that of later adaptations such as SOLDIER, SAILOR...,or SMILEY'S PEOPLE which were given ample air time for the unraveling. It is a frightening film, and some one my age might wonder why anyone would ever become a spy.
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on November 8, 1999
One gets the sense that these are the people, the scenes and the atmospherics that paraded through le Carre head as he wrote this great story. Burton is perfect as the self-hating, burnt out case, cynical, alienated, yet still possessing a darkly humorous outlook on the world. Claire Bloom is completely believable as a naive Communist. The supporting cast of British and East German espionage agents are first rate. The story is absorbing, exciting and complex without being inpenetrable. The ending is unforgettable. A great movie.
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