There is the famous E.M. Forster line that goes: “If I were forced to choose between my country and my friend, I hope I would be brave enough to choose my friend.” The esteemed Roger Ebert employed this line when discussing “Casablanca” and how Rick forsook his love for Ilsa in the name of Laszlo’s fight against the Nazis. “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”, Martin Ritt’s adaptation of a John le Carré novel, is like the bizarro wielding of that Forster line. If in Michael Curtiz’s language choosing country over friend is viewed as valorous then in the language of le Carré and Ritt it is seen as cowardly, a waste, orders fulfilled by a company man, nothing more. Indeed, the title is not lost. If coming in from the cold suggests retirement from the life of espionage then being out in the cold is espionage, and that is how Ritt makes the spy life look – cold.
Ritt, working with cinematographer Oswald Morris, shot “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” in monochrome at a time when more and more films were in color. But this movie in color would have been all wrong. This is a movie that belongs to the gray. This is a movie where every cup of coffee drunk is flavored with a little whiskey – and there are a lot of cups of coffee that get drunk. This is a movie that always feel overcast, in every frame, as if the forecast for every spy out in the cold is cloudy with a chance of rain.
That intelligence operative out in the cold is Alec Leamas (Richard Burton). In the film’s opening scene, set at the border between East and West Germany, where Ritt drums up myriad suspense not with the aid of emotionally cuing music but simply from the echoes of shoes and boots on the cobblestone streets, Lemas loses a man in the field. As he does, he is forced to stand there and simply watch, he and his men on orders not to fire unless fired upon, beholden to higher-ups, responsible yet unable to act. Leamas is subsequently summoned by the chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, the mysteriously monikered Control, played by Cyril Cusack in a splendid performance, telling you everything in a little curl of the lips or in a dry, all-knowing line reading, that befits his character’s name.
Leamas remains in the cold, though he’s tasked with acting like he’s come out of it, pretending to be a drunkard, which he basically is anyway, low on funds, all as a means to get recruited by East Germany as a possible defector. Sure enough, he is, squired to the Netherlands for questioning and then to the GDR itself for even more questioning, the spy game presented as escalating power games. The climatic sequence is something straight out a courtroom drama but many of the scenes building to it feel akin to courtroom interrogations too, with suspicious men locked in various forms of verbal combat.
The courtroom interrogation also hinges on the presence of Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), Leamas’s girlfriend, of sorts, who he is counseled to forget about the deeper his plight goes lest he bring her into danger. Sure enough, that’s just what happens, as she, an idealisist and a communist, though it’s possible (depending on your viewpoint) that I repeat myself. If narratively this romantic relationship feels born of plot necessity, Burton’s performance, so wearily at his wit’s end that you do believe he might be libel to simply latch onto whoever he finds.
This weariness also means that his character’s deliberate feint as a man lurching toward a life dead end feels entirely real, so much so that with each step along his deep cover path the more the viewer feels like the men interrogating Leamas, wondering if he really has turned coat, so tired with it all what does he really have to lose? After all, the deeper he goes, the more it becomes apparent that his own side has sold its soul as much as the enemy, a perhaps unorigional cynicism that is nonetheless convincingly evoked, brought home effectively in a sequence that momentarily strands Leamas literally atop the Berlin Wall, stranded in an ethical no man’s land, left with no choice really but the one he makes.
You can see that choice brewing in an earlier moment when Nan earnestly asks him “What do you believe in?” Leamas laughs, and Burton fuels that laugh with nothing but exhausted derision.