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Martin Ritt’s 1965 movie of John le Carré’s first great novel (and first best seller), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, declares “a plague on all your houses” to capitalists, Communists, and ruthless intelligence operatives. It’s one espionage movie that neither comes on like gangbusters nor sneaks up on you like a cat burglar. Instead, it creates an atmosphere of anguish, fear, and rage that intensifies each pause in the action and gesture of the actors, leaving viewers hanging on every word of the sometimes cryptic, sometimes eloquent dialogue.
Le Carré’s book arrived in 1963, at the crest of transatlantic James Bond fever: not only had JFK declared himself an Ian Fleming fan but the movies Dr. No and From Russia with Love had already delighted series followers, and Goldfinger was right around the corner. Le Carré’s view of espionage as an extension of the ugly, soul-grinding side of Cold War politics was more than a slap at the Bond books’ Byronic derring-do and the movies’ glamour, gimmickry, and jet-setting. It read like an exposé of the spy game’s dirty little secrets, linking the spiritual and emotional calamities of a burned-out fiftysomething British agent to the crises of values that plagued East and West in the mid-twentieth century.
Ritt understood le Carré’s vision and was the right director to bring it to the screen. He had come of age in the socially conscious New York theater world of the thirties and forties, including stints in the radical Theater of Action and the Stanislavsky-influenced Group Theatre. He served stateside in World War II, mostly in Special Services as an actor and a director, and was working on live TV shows, such as Danger, when in 1952 he was blacklisted from the small and big screens. (“It was known that a lot of my friends leaned toward the left,” he once summarized. “I had a humanistic bias.”) But throughout the midfifties, he continued acting and directing in the theater, and when he staged the first production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, he drew the attention of liberal talk show host and film/TV producer David Susskind, who hired him to direct a movie version of Robert Alan Arthur’s 1955 teleplay A Man Is Ten Feet Tall. It came to the big screen as Edge of the City (1957), a rough beauty of a picture about the friendship between a family man (Sidney Poitier) and a drifter (John Cassavetes) in a corrupt and racist pocket of the New York docks.
Ritt immediately proved himself the rare American director able to tackle contemporary themes without melodrama or preaching. Indeed, when he made a movie condemning a cynical modern cowboy, Hud (1963), audiences loved the character for his comic bluntness (and for Paul Newman’s dynamite performance). Ritt’s ability to build distinctive atmospheres—and give his characters time to catch their breath in them—made him simpatico with rural, often southern settings. His sureness liberated his actors. It enabled Newman, Patricia Neal, and Melvyn Douglas in Hud; James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander in The Great White Hope (1970); Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson in Sounder (1972); Geraldine Page in Pete ’n’ Tillie (1972); Sally Field in Norma Rae (1979); Rip Torn and Alfre Woodard in Cross Creek (1983); James Garner in Murphy’s Romance (1985); and, of course, Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to deliver performances that would garner Oscar nominations. (Neal, Douglas, and Field won their awards.)
Ritt could at times be heavy-handed, as in the union-organizing drama Norma Rae. But like his artistic mentor Elia Kazan (with whom, however, he parted ways over Kazan’s willingness to name names during the blacklist), he had a feeling for characterization that imbued his best films with an irreducible individuality. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is one of them. It follows the eternal question of whether ends can justify means to a nightmare conclusion: here, awful means alter virtuous ends. Ritt’s use of suspense can’t be separated from his underlying humanity. The movie doesn’t chill the soul or paralyze one with dread. On the contrary, its unblinking realism heightens our hopes as well as our fears for its characters. Ritt hired three key talents—Burton, Claire Bloom, and the cinematographer Oswald Morris—who had previously worked together on the initial angry-young-man movie, Look Back in Anger (directed by Tony Richardson). Ritt knew he was making an angry-middle-aged-spy movie. He peoples the film with adults who recognize from the start or come to learn that their actions have uneasy consequences.
Burton, as agent Alec Leamas, transforms resignation and ruefulness into something forceful, even magnetic. He uses his stout body and bagged eyes to create a multihued miasma. Cyril Cusack, Oskar Werner, and Bloom nearly match him. Cusack, as Leamas’s boss, Control, can give a simple intake of air hidden meaning. Werner brings refreshing jauntiness and a whiplike brilliance to the role of an East German Jewish intelligence officer named Fiedler. Bloom exudes both naïveté and sensuality as Leamas’s British Communist lover, Nan Perry. The director achieves the seedy elegance essential to the intricate story’s impact with the help of his seamless ensemble, Morris’s keenly modulated black-and-white camera work, and the uncluttered, realistic production design of Tambi Larsen and Hal Pereira. What Edmund Wilson wrote about a Raymond Chandler novel applies to this movie: “It is not simply a question here of a puzzle which has been put together but of a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy.” The Spy Who Came in from the Cold boasts a fire that flickers beneath the malaise. Days after you see it, one of Burton’s distinctive ravaged looks or sardonic verbal turns will surface in your consciousness. (Le Carré himself had a hand in sprucing up the script.) When Burton declares to an East German interrogator, “I’m a man, you fool. Don’t you understand? A plain, simple, muddled, fatheaded human being. We have them in the West, you know,” what he says is profound. Luckily, Ritt has the savvy and the wit to play the movie’s higher meanings close to Leamas’s vest.
From the start, when Leamas, head of Berlin operations for British intelligence, waits at Checkpoint Charlie for one of his East German spies to cross over (and defect) to the West, this film’s superficial mysteries unfold with a deceptively formal, easy-to-read clarity that balances the underlying chaos. Morris’s camera makes a geographic survey of official boundaries before settling on the back of Leamas’s head as he stares through binoculars at the East German gate. Leamas responds with contempt to a CIA op who urges him to get some sleep. This weathered Brit views Americans as callow and presumptuous. Without any cheap tricks, Ritt immediately puts viewers on the side of a man of experience who is also, underneath his crust, a man of feeling. Crisp arc lights split the dead of night and mark the way for Leamas’s imperiled agent. Unfortunately, they also allow the East German guards a glaring view of him when they realize he’s made a break for freedom. The agent’s bicycle can’t race fast enough to escape their bullets. And the West German soldiers can’t give him protective fire: they can fire back only if they are fired upon. Ritt bookends the film with this tragedy and another. In between, he conducts a master class on the vitality of bitterness. Leamas tries to live with his knowledge of the worst that humans can do—and his knowledge that he is a part of it.
Called back to Britain, Leamas drives into London with a slick young fellow from personnel who hints that a harsh fate awaits him but says Leamas should hear it from Control. The inner workings of the agency, or as le Carré calls it, the Circus, really are a game to this boy. Not to Control: when Leamas enters Control’s office, the atmosphere is hushed and momentous, freighted with blandishments and threats. There’s something funny and unsettling about Control’s complaint that a secretary hasn’t warmed the pot when serving tea, just as there’s something empathetic and menacing about Control’s observation “We have to live without sympathy, don’t we? We can’t do that forever. One can’t stay out of doors all the time. One needs to come in from the cold.” After goading Leamas subtly about giving him a desk job and gauging the fierceness of his reaction, Control says, “I want you to stay out in the cold a little longer.”
In the ensuing scenes, those who haven’t read the book must wonder whether Leamas becomes a drunken has-been or is merely playing one to snag the attention of Mundt (Peter van Eyck), his East German opponent. Burton is remarkable in these scenes; he knows that certain kinds of drunks enjoy playing rough and acting supervirile, so it’s hard to know when Leamas is putting everyone on, or where the put-on ends and the real Leamas begins. As the action veers into the Netherlands and East Germany, Burton and Ritt know just when to pull Leamas into focus. Burton’s expressions of irony, pride, disdain, and fright do something rare in a spy movie: they give the film a complicated consciousness.
Just as Leamas draws on aspects of himself to create a plausible alter ego for a spy mission, Burton draws on aspects of himself to create a fascinating Leamas. Burton, the Welsh miner’s son with huge appetites for rugby and literature, and Ritt, the Russian-Jewish immigrant’s son with matching appetites for football and literature, should have had some basis for friendship. Instead, they locked horns. The director had been dubbed “the Orson tamer” for reining in Orson Welles on The Long, Hot Summer, Ritt’s first hit. And he appeared to be cracking the whip on Burton, compelling him to work harder to do less, stripping him of his elocutionary flourishes and the larger-than-life celebrity he was just beginning to enjoy.
Burton often credited his second wife, Elizabeth Taylor, with teaching him the difference between stage and screen acting. But Taylor’s frequent presence on Ritt’s set contributed to the tensions. Bloom and Burton had been lovers at the Old Vic in the early 1950s and had reconnected during Look Back in Anger (1959), when Bloom, according to her memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House, broke off their affair. Yet here was Burton, in the second year of his marriage to Taylor, costarring with Bloom, who was playing his romantic object. As an actor, Burton arrives at a sort of mortified tenderness with Bloom that is unique in his filmography, but the process wasn’t easy. Burton biographer Melvyn Bragg suggests that Ritt became Bloom’s protector in a cold war that developed between her and a closely watched Burton, and in Limelight and After: The Education of an Actress, Bloom hints at this special relationship when she writes that Ritt “was a big help to me.” She also ranks Ritt, Olivier, Richardson, Chaplin, and Cukor as her best directors. And Bloom here, with Ritt’s help, does achieve an artistry that seems artless. She gives Nan a generosity and kindness that are infinitely touching, whether she is reaching for sugar cubes to drop into Leamas’s tea or realizing, with a jolt, that she’s been invited to East Germany not for a comrade exchange program but for a prosecution that involves her lover.
Of course, Ritt had reasons closer to home to imbue Bloom’s scenes with an intimate sympathy. The movie’s Nan Perry (Liz Gold in the book) is a sweet-natured librarian who comes to Communism out of youthful idealism—like many of Ritt’s friends, and possibly Ritt and his wife, in New York in the thirties and forties. Ritt may not have consciously seen The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as anything more than a faithful adaptation of le Carré’s novel. But it is a highly personal film. It gets at more complicated issues of secular faith than his blacklist comedy-drama The Front, and in its own restrained way it covers more of the political spectrum. When Fiedler asks Leamas to articulate his philosophy and he responds with “I’m a man, you fool,” or Nan tells him she believes in history and he laughs, the movie resonates with the rueful humor of a director who’s learned to distrust ideology and absolutes.
Although never hailed as a visual director, Ritt racked up some mighty achievements with cinematographers like James Wong Howe, on Hud and The Molly Maguires, and John Alonzo, on Sounder and Conrack. With Morris in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Ritt uses grayness not as murk but as the ideal palette for depicting precise shades of moral ambiguity. Within this carefully calibrated range of tones, Ritt achieves a greater variety of astringent comedy and drama than in any other of his works, including a delightful dry satire of the clerking life—Leamas and Nan meet while working in a private library of psychic research. Leamas bullies Ashe (Michael Hordern), the gay Communist who first contacts him and offers money for information, the way Bogart does Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon. The sequences that ensue with a variety of Communist agents escalate into increasingly blatant and absorbing power games, culminating in the arrival of Werner’s always spruce and surprising Fiedler. Burton develops a rapport with Werner that’s comparable to the almost telepathic performing connection he had with Peter O’Toole in Becket. When the two have a talk in the open air, the film itself seems to take a deep breath, before turning into a brisk and unsettling courtroom drama.
Ritt may not have loved working with Burton, but as a director he must have loved Burton’s art. Burton’s Leamas is a great characterization that’s also a great star performance. He is like a Sam Spade who gets soft and goes to seed, a Mr. Rick without a plan to make things right. Burton brings heart as well as brains to Ritt’s most sophisticated movie: here, for one brief, shining moment, he became a Bogart for an age of disillusionment.
Michael Sragow is the movie critic for the Orange County Register, the author of Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, which will be reissued by the University Press of Kentucky in November 2013, and the editor of two volumes of James Agee’s work for the Library of America. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2008 DVD edition of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.