Top positive review
262 people found this helpful
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.