50 Years Ago This Week – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

Producer/Director Martin Ritt’s outstanding The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, based on the John le Carré novel, opened in America on December 16 1965.  The liberal-humanist Ritt (who was blacklisted in the 1950s) had a reputation for often wearing his politics on his sleeve, which is not typically a recipe for dramatic intrigue.  His first film, Edge of the City (1957) has an outstanding cast (including John Cassavetes, Sidney Poitier, and Jack Warden) and makes excellent use of New York City locations, but it is held back by the audience’s knowledge throughout that we are going to learn a lesson here, and that lesson is—racism is bad.  Some of his other efforts are similarly blunt.

But not The Spy, which is just infused with an uncompromising, uncertain, and relentlessly downbeat disposition from its first images to its last—events which take place not far from each other, geographically, efficiently capturing the film’s cul-de-sac of despair.  A British production, it can nevertheless be seen as sitting alongside those handful of great films produced in the hinge-years of 1965-1966 that reflected the shift in sensibilities from the old Hollywood to the New.   

Spy was, quite purposefully, a subversive film—not subversive of America, but, perhaps even more radically, of James Bond, a franchise that this film powerfully exposed as “a sugarcoated lie,” to redeploy the phrase Pauline Kael used in her dismissal of The Sound of Music.  (Don’t get me wrong, I love most of the Sean Connery Bonds. Heck, I even have a soft spot for the Roger Moore years.) The Kennedy-cool Bond: dashing, stylish, culturally omniscient, and the world’s greatest lover, fought the cold war with élan and always saved the day.  But Spy has more wisdom about the Cold War—and about espionage: that there are more pawns than knights, that many are sacrificed, often casually, and that the old adage about choosing your enemy wisely rings true, because both sides seem to be playing very much the same game.

Like most great films, this one is the product of great collaboration.  The source material is outstanding, as are the performances, from top to bottom; above the line are Richard Burton (never better), Claire Bloom, and Oskar Werner (best known for his work with Truffaut, and a middling episode of Colombo).  In addition to Ritt, and fine, fitting music by Sol Kaplan, the contribution of cinematographer Oswald Morris – who also shot The Hill (1965) for Sidney Lumet and enjoyed a collaboration with John Huston that stretched from Moulin Rouge (1952) through The Man Who Would Be King (1975) – can scarcely be overstated, as the screen-captures below suggest.  Essential viewing.


Spy 1

Alec Leamas (Burton) approaches Checkpoint Charlie


Spy 2

Which is quite forbidding


Spy 3



Spy 4



Spy 5

Not Quite how James Bond closes the case