The anti-007 Bond movie, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was one of the first to present espionage as something less than honorable and far from glamorous. Based on the John Le Carré novel—Le Carré is a former intelligence officer—casts Richard Burton as the tired, but determined Alec Leamas, a longtime field operative who has no interest in the safety and security of a desk job.
The longtime head of British operations in East Berlin, Alec has seen it all; the loss of fellow agents and rules that strictly forbid him from lending a helping hand to a defector running across Checkpoint Charlie until he’s already reached the safety point. When that policy results in the death of one of his agents, Leamas is called back to England, where he believes he’ll be fired. As it turns out, Alec’s boss (Cyril Cusack) allows him to stay out in the cold a bit longer, to get revenge on East German agent Hans Deiter Mundt (Peter van Eyck) ; the man responsible for the deaths of several agents. What follows is a complicated cat-and-mouse game that involves several double crosses. Without giving too much away, Alec is taken behind the Iron Curtain where a power struggle erupts between communist agents Mundt and Fielder (Oskar Werner) with Alec as the pawn between them. To give away much more would risk ruining the film for those that haven’t seen it.
Released in 1965, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold technologically could have been filmed in color, but here, the use of black and white makes things more effective. From the melancholy opening to the dreary London Streets, right until the emotional ending, the lack of color helps to reinforce the mood of the characters and the tone of the story. The introduction of color would have decreased the feeling of dread that exists from start to finish.
Though director Martin Ritt and Richard Burton didn’t get along, Burton’s performance is one of the best of his film career. Alec Leamas has played the part of a broken man for so long, it’s impossible to tell where the act ends and the ‘real’ man begins—but then, perhaps after all these years, there is no differentiation. Rightfully nominated for an Academy Award that he would lose to Lee Marvin, Burton plays his character as if he had identified with him on some personal level. While the rest of the cast, including Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner and Sam Wanamaker deliver fine performances, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is Richard Burton’s film.
Presented in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, Criterion’s 1080p transfer is surprisingly sharp throughout. Grayscale is nicely rendered, though blacks aren’t quite as deep as they could be. Contrast is perfect and age related defects—scratches, dirt, etc.—are nowhere to be seen.
The stereo soundtrack, LPCM 2.0, was sourced from a 35mm optical soundtrack print and the film has never sounded better. Sol Kaplan’s score is rich and full, which adds to the overall presentation of the film. Sound effects are handled effortlessly by the surrounds and dialogue has been recorded cleanly and effectively.
SDH English subtitles are available.
The following special features are included:
- Audio Commentary on Selected Scenes with cinematographer Oswald Morris: Morris candidly discusses the difficulties during production, but also points out the highlights of the film.
- John Le Carré Interview (HD, 39:00) Recorded in 2008, the author discusses the differences and similarities between the book and film, director Ritt’s difficult relationship with Richard Burton during the filming, etc.
- The Secret Centre: John Le Carré (HD, 59:17) Produced by the BBC in 2000, this documentary about writer is a must-see for fans.
- Martin Ritt Interview (SD, 48:59) Excerpts from an audio interview with Martin Ritt conducted by film historian Patrick McGilligan in 1985. The full interview was published in Film Comment in February 1986.
- Set Design Gallery (HD) A gallery of sketches by art director Edward Marshall.
- Acting in the 60’s: Richard Burton (SD, 33:39) Broadcast on the BBC in 1967, Burton discusses his early career, stage work and films with Kenneth Tynan.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 1:29)
- Booklet: 15-page illustrated booklet with an essay by critic Michael Sragow.