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Non-Review Review: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

Spying is a damn dirty business. Don’t let James Bond and his fancy Union Jack parachutes or underwater cars fool you. According to The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, it’s an empty and depressing little existence where the players are all confined to the role of pawns on a chessboard. I can’t help but feel that there’s something symbolic about the scene where Alec Leamas, played by Richard Burton, assaults an elderly shopkeeper, played by Bernard Lee – the actor who was playing Bond’s paymaster, M. Given the character’s growing sense of disillusionment, it can’t help but feel strangely potent to see him lash out a symbol of the other – far more romanticised – series of adventures built around British Intelligence.

"I, I can remember... standing by the wall... and the guns, the guns shot above our heads..."

One can pick up a lot of John le Carré’s favourite themes in this 1965 adaptation of his Cold War novel. Written from his own experiences as a spy, le Carré’s stories reek of bitter disillusionment with British Intelligence, and with the Cold War in general, an attempt to pick apart the sort of glamour that many people had come to associate with the profession through things like Ian Fleming’s James Bond. While the Bond novels were a lot grittier and darker than the films, they still played into familiar fantasies of class – with Fleming name-dropping products and materials as symbols of status, cushioning his lead’s ultimately vacuous lifestyle with all the luxuries of Western living. And I say that as a fan of both the books and the films.

In contrast, there’s nothing romantic about le Carré’s world of underground espionage, seemingly conducted from George Smiley’s living room. The film opens with an unarmed man getting shot to death by armed guards along the Berlin Wall, a firm reminder of the cost of the ideological conflict dividing East and West. “What the hell do you think spies are?” Leamas asks a civilian at one point. “Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?”

Being held to account(er)...

The beauty of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, as with all of le Carré’s work, is the way that it plays on basic assumptions of trust. The X-Files has nothing on the type of paranoia that these stories invite – and often it’s not the enemy’s misinformation you need to be afraid of. The characters are uncertain of how much they can trust one another, a factor that extends to the audience, and creates a fascinating moral ambiguity to it all. Although the plots are remarkably straight-forward, le Carré’s stories invite us to pay attention to the characters, in the hopes that we may come to recognise their familiar tells or their poker faces – we know that some (or most or all) are lying, but we don’t know why or what about. That’s the grim fascination that makes these stories so compelling and fascinating.

At their best, le Carré’s novels are about real people trapped in terrible situations, which is what makes them so interesting to watch – and why the actors are so crucially important. Alec Guiness and Gary Oldmanhave both played George smiley, which sets a considerable standard for the leads in a film like this. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold boasts two absolutely brilliant central performances. Richard Burton lends his wonderful presence to the role of the coming-apart-at-the-seams Alec Leamas, a man who is believable as a Soviet defector because he’s genuinely tha close to the edge. Burton gives the whole thing a sense of class, playing the tired and worn-out Leamas perfectly, creating the sense of a man who doesn’t have to fake his bitterness to the Soviet agents attempting to recruit him.

On yer bike...

The other great performance comes from Oskar Werner, who would go on to play the lead in Fahrenheit 451 a few years later. Werner is superb as the interrogator sent to manage this potentially high-profile double-agent, a Jew who has his own motivations for mining an inside man at the Circus, mostly centring around his boss, a former member of the Hitler Youth (“quite the other thing,” as Leamas dubs him). It’s fascinating to watch the interactions between the pair, as each attempts to figure out with the other is thinking.

Le Carré’s book does well in translation, with some superb lines, including the rather brilliant, “Do you like birds? The ones with the white collars are wild. The others are domesticated. With people it’s the other way around.”The direction is subtle and understated, with clever recurring uses of mirrors and a rather wonderful sense of isolation and desolation by the Wall. The ending is brutal and brilliant, in all the right sort of ways, and something that almost makes me want to go back and watch the film all over again.

They all dance to the same music...

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is a classic, and well worth a look – especially if you’re looking to get in the mood for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

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