Judge Clark Douglas seeks to demonstrate that reviewing DVDs is neither glamorous nor fun.
Brace yourself for greatness.
"I reserve the right to be ignorant. That's the western way of life."
Facts of the Case
Alec Leamas (Richard Burton, Cleopatra) is a tired man. He has been working in the field of espionage for a long time, and he has grown weary and cynical. One of his superiors suggests that Leamas should "come in from the cold" and take a desk job. Leamas has no interest in doing this. Instead, he is sent on a mission to East Germany. He is supposed to make it look like he is defecting, but in fact his goal is to feed misinformation to the Communists. While in the middle of this, he happens to fall in love with a librarian (Claire Bloom, The Illustrated Man) who happens to be a Communist. The mission gets increasingly more complicated and the lines begin to blur, and soon only one thing is clear: this isn't going to end well for a lot of people.
You will be very hard-pressed to find a review of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold that does not contrast the film to the James Bond franchise. This is only natural, as the adaptation of John Le Carré's best-selling novel is considerably more notable for what it manages to avoid than for what it actually contains. It's "The Anti-Bond Film" or "James Bond for Intellectuals" or some such thing. Here we have a spy movie with no fancy gadgetry, no luxury, no cat-owning villains, no quips, and no fun. It's all serious business, shot in stark black-and-white by cinematographer Oswald Morris.
Le Carré's book was published in 1963, in the middle of James Bond fever. Dr. No and From Russia With Love had been big hits, and Goldfinger was just around the corner. The novel was considerably less glamorous than the tales of Ian Fleming, portraying the world of espionage as an arena full of lies, hypocrisy, and bitter heartbreak. The book was immensely popular and also garnered a great deal of critical acclaim. Quite quickly, a film adaptation was in the works.
The film was directed by Martin Ritt, a talented director with a gift with some notable titles under his belt, such as The Long, Hot Summer, The Sound and the Fury, and Hud. He certainly had a knack for creating engaging character-driven dramas, but nothing world have suggested that he was up to the task of creating a bitter and terse tale of European espionage. Ritt proved to be quite capable, creating an effective and memorable film that managed to stand out admirably in a time why the spy genre was dominated by romanticism and silliness.
Two aspects of the film stand out and linger in the mind of the viewer…at least this viewer. The first is the atmosphere provided by Ritt, Morris, and composer Sol Kaplan. The editing is methodical, leaving thoughtful and sometimes painful pauses throughout the film at many intervals. The black-and-white cinematography adds an appropriately gloomy and ambiguous vibe to the film, and Kaplan's music only appears sporadically. When the music does appear, the themes are mournful and lonely, never adding any glamour or romance to the proceedings.
The second notable element is the performance of Richard Burton. Burton's acting style has been attacked many times over the years, but in the right role, he can be tremendously effective. I'm not sure that I have ever seen a better performance from Burton than the one he gives here. Maybe Becket is at the top, but this is one of the great Burton roles. He brings such broken pain to this part, and his eyes have never seemed more expressive. His acting deservedly won him an Oscar nomination, but he is backed quite nicely by a solid supporting cast. Claire Bloom is very fine as Burton's communist love interest, and Oskar Werner (Jules and Jim) is excellent in his crucial role. Also, Bond fans should keep an eye out for Bernard Lee (aka "M"), playing a grocer who is beaten up by an angry Leamas.
Criterion's transfer is a step up from the previous DVD release, cleaning up a lot of the flaws that were present on the Paramount disc. Slight bits of damage can be found here and there, but the film looks pretty sharp considering its age. The 2.0 stereo audio is perfectly sufficient. The previous disc offered a 5.1 audio option, but you will not find that on this release. This is one of Criterion's two-disc releases, and as such, is pretty loaded with supplements. However, you won't find anything on Disc One other than the film's original theatrical trailer. Even the audio commentary is found on the second disc.
That would be the scene-specific audio commentary provided by Morris, who naturally tends to focus on his own contribution to the film. Martin Ritt can be heard in an audio interview included on the disc, conducted by Patrick McGilligan back in 1985. We also have a 1967 video interview with Burton from the BBC television series Acting in the 60s. It's quite interesting to hear all three men discussing the film and cinema in general, but I found the Burton interview most compelling. Even better is a brand-new interview with John Le Carré, who is quite critical of the film. He doesn't hate it, but he's obviously got a lot to gripe about. This sort of thing is always much more interesting than the usual back-slapping we hear on DVDs. A one-hour BBC documentary on Le Carré is also included, as is a gallery of set designs. Excellent stuff, as usual.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film swings so hard to the other side of the spy movie spectrum that it frankly becomes just a bit lifeless at times. To some degree, that's the point, but I think that the plot works better as a concept than as a viewing experience during numerous stretches. Also, we're forced to keep up with a seemingly endless supply of minor details here, and after a while it starts to feel a bit more like studying for a test than like watching a film. You've got to keep up to keep up, if you know what I mean. I'm not condemning the film for requiring viewers to think, but I'd prefer more in the way of philosophical musings and less in terms of names and locations to remember.
Though not a perfect movie, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is one of the more successful efforts from Ritt and Burton. It serves as an excellent counterpoint to something like From Russia With Love, and Criterion's top-drawer release secures the recommendation of a purchase. Add this one to your shopping cart.
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• Scene-Specific Commentary
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