Patron Pick – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Bekah Lindstrom.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965)
Written by Paul Dehn & Guy Trosper
Directed by Martin Ritt

One of the most destructive forces on the planet since World War II has been Western intelligence agencies. The CIA. MI6. These orgs have devoted themselves to an increasingly insane ideology that sees the upholding of a system that crushes the most vulnerable as “noble” and “good.” Regular people exist as pieces on a board, to be manipulated and moved about, with little regard for their lives. This espionage lifestyle has been glamorized in films, mostly the James Bond series, with fanboys thinking they too could be a dashing spy in a tuxedo bedding buxom women at every turn. The reality is much like what we find in a John LeCarre novel. The lives of spies are ones riddled with paranoia & alienation. When you master being a manipulator, how can you trust that other people aren’t doing the same to you?

Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) has been recalled to London from the West Berlin MI6 station. He’s becoming increasingly ineffective, leading to the death of one of his own operatives. MI6 needs Leamas to take on a new role. It begins with them constructing a reality where he’s let go and where Leamas appears to spiral into alcoholism & loneliness. He gets a job working at a local library and finds love with Nan (Claire Bloom), another librarian. Then the East Germans take the bait and contact Leamas, seeing him as a potential defector. MI6 needs Leamas to work his way up the ladder to get to Mundt, their informant on the other side of the Wall. He is not to be trusted. Leamas is eventually handed over to Fiedler (Oskar Werner), an interrogator, and here is where the spy begins intentionally seeding false information about Mundt. This will ultimately lead to a trial for Mundt, and it seems like everything is going according to plan. But not everyone is who they seem, and Leamas has been manipulated at every turn.

This brutal story never needs to be gratuitous to make the audience feel on edge or have their stomachs sink in dread. It puts the cold, manipulative nature of anticommunism in the spotlight, a movement utterly unconcerned with the well-being of anyone. It was merely a hobby of the wealthy that resulted in hundreds of millions dead simply because they didn’t want to live by the standards set by Western ideology. There are no flashy set pieces (a la Mission Impossible) or tense shoot-outs. People die in very unglamorous ways. You shoot them; they fall and don’t get up again. No one dies heroically or takes out “the bad guys” as they go. Death, in this manner, is ultimately hollow. Your piece gets taken off the board, and who you were meant nothing to the people making the moves. The Communists we meet aren’t much better than the Capitalists. It’s because they all come from the same vein of espionage, of spycraft that dehumanizes. 

LeCarre’s novel and this film touch on the spiritual deficit in the post-War period. Wealthy, influential people saw only themselves as worthy of shaping the world to be. To do that, they had to dramatically unmoor long-standing “undeveloped” cultures’ foundations and stomp out the sparks of revolution. The only goal was to maintain & increase control and widen the net of exploitation. Director Martin Ritt was directly affected by the anticommunist fervor of post-War America. He was blacklisted in 1952 due to the House on Un-American Activities Committee. Ritt’s strength in all his films has been to tell stories set in a grounded reality that don’t shy away from the horrible things people do to each other. He never needed to be explicit in his use of gore because the cold inhumanity on display was more than chilling enough. 

I was a little suspicious when the love interest was introduced. This feels like a movie where a love story would clash with the overall themes, yet it absolutely does not. This love that Leamas gets to have is the only thing keeping him going at certain points. It’s even more interesting when Nan reveals she’s a member of the British Communist Party and likes to share her ideas with the loyal Leamas. Her worldview seems refreshing to the jaded spy; she truly believes people can rise up and build something better. She lifts Leamas out of his depressed & drunken stupor, something we can see doesn’t feel like an act. Leamas is a man ground into the dirt by devoting his soul to this machine of endless war, and through Nan, he remembers there is light in the world, young idealistic hope. Richard Burton is the perfect vessel for this character, carrying his own sunken melancholy so beautifully. 

The sophistication of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is profoundly admirable, especially for the period it was released in. Even by today’s standards, this is such a thematically adult film that it doesn’t feel the need to handhold the audience and over-exposit every piece of worldbuilding. Characters are who they are, and we meet them at specific moments. The audience’s responsibility is to piece things together and understand the more significant meaning Ritt is attempting to communicate. It’s not a film that will make you feel great about the world, but it is a picture that says something true about what has happened to humanity. He may not know how we pull ourselves out of this mire, he may even not believe it is possible, but regardless we can’t begin to think about fixing the state of the planet until we acknowledge the psychic warfare we’ve done on our own species.


One thought on “Patron Pick – The Spy Who Came In From the Cold”

  1. Pingback: Fall 2022 Digest

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