The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was the first adaptation of a John le Carré novel, and some people consider it the best one. It was directed by Martin Ritt, a good director who is probably best known for this film and Hud. Ritt was blacklisted for five years, although he was working in TV at that point. He did a lot of films with either Paul Newman or Joanne Woodward.
One of the problems with this movie—which is a problem with so many spy films—is that there is way too much exposition, and that’s easy to get lost in. It’s a real slow burn of a movie, not a fast-paced thriller. That’s in tune with what le Carré does, but it doesn’t translate that well to film here for me. What the film does have is a fantastic performance by Richard Burton as Alec Leamas, a British agent who is supposed to defect to East Germany as part of a plot. But as things go along, he starts to feel he’s just a cog in a bigger plan by the British Secret Service—which of course he is.
It’s very beautifully filmed in black and white, and has a fantastic ending. It’s good, but at times it’s a little hard to follow, and the pacing is really slow. Who knows, I may not have been in the right mood for it. I’ll give it another shot at some point. For le Carré adaptations, I prefer Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or the more recent TV version of The Little Drummer Girl.
Claire Bloom plays a young librarian who is a member of the British Communist Party. They start a relationship, but it’s more complicated than Leamas may realise, and she ends up testifying against him. Oskar Werner has a small part in it as well, and he’s always good. Rupert Davies plays the first on-screen version of George Smiley, but as one of Leamas’s handlers, he is only a small part of the machinery of the movie, not the main character. Smiley was not in any of the other Le are adaptations until the Alec Guinness mini-series. While Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair was an adaptation of Call for the Dead, Smiley, played by James Mason, was renamed as Charles Dobbs. That’s because Paramount owned the rights to the name “George Smiley.” When the The Looking Glass War was adapted, they just dropped the character of Smiley from it completely.
A new version of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is expected this year as a TV film, allegedly it will be out in September. In more recent years, although there have bee several good films made using le Carré’s books, the fact that his stories are sometimes sprawling has meant that the mini-series is often the best match for his work. le Carré, and then his estate, had been pushing for more mini-series adaptions in recent years, no doubt due to the success of The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl.
Fans of the film might want to get both the US Criterion, which has a lot more extras, including documentaries and interviews with cast, crew and le Carré, as well as the Masters of Cinema release. The Masters of Cinema release includes a commentary by Adrian Martin, a video essay by David Cairns, and a booklet with a new essay by Richard Combs. If you don’t have an all-region player, the German release has all the Criterion extras.