For years Alec Leamas has been in charge of deploying British agents in West Berlin and the GDR. One day his opposite number from East Germany carries out a successful coup and destroys the complete network of British agents in the GDR. The British then decide to engineer Leamas' social decline in order to turn him into an interesting decoy for the East. And thus begins for Leamas and his lover Nan Perry a complex game of illusion and reality between the two fronts.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is both a classic spy film and classic spy literature. The book, by John le Carré, was published in 1963, two years after the building of the Berlin Wall. From the mid-1950s, le Carré worked as an agent for MI5 – the British domestic intelligence service – then later for MI6, the foreign intelligence equivalent. His experience with the secret services was the backdrop to the authentic atmosphere he was able to reflect in his writing: he lays out in spare, pithy detail the harsh and unforgiving world of espionage in the divided city of Berlin.
About the MovieThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold
United Kingdom 1965, 112 min.
Director: Martin Ritt
Cast: Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, Peter van Eyck et al.
Two years later, in 1965, Martin Ritt made the film version of le Carré´s novel; the screenplay was written by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper. Thus, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was released just as the popularity of spy films was at its zenith in Western Europe. By the mid-1960s, four James Bond epics had been screened and had broken box-office records across the world; untold numbers of action-packed, cheap imitations came in their wake. For audiences in the West, the spy film had become a symbol of the way the world was...a world defined by a simple division into two opposing forces: good versus evil, Capitalism versus Communism, setting the world free versus enslaving the world: and the essence of it all was West Berlin and East Berlin.
By the time the Berlin Wall had been erected in 1961, the political and social atmosphere in Europe was dominated by these hostile forces. The Iron Curtain was their material and potent expression, the dividing line of two implacably opposed ideologies. And this division was perfectly reflected in the mainstream spy films of the period: the elegant swagger of James Bond on the one hand, the uncompromising malice of his opponents on the other. These were the images created for the cinema-goer: an entertaining, if tongue-in-cheek and exaggerated version of the ideological confrontation, which governments were happy to have their citizens believe in.
These cinematic versions of the secret agents and spies of the West were conceived as adventurers, who could move back and forth between the two hostile worlds. And while they were fighting for good against evil, they enjoyed all the things West Europeans longed for: fast cars, beautiful women, travel to exotic places. The Secret Agent of the Western World was the embodiment of the capitalist dream: the man who got everything he wanted.
This, then, was the basic concept of the spy film in the mid-1960s, when The Spy Who Came in from the Cold appeared on the cinema screens of Western Europe. But Martin Ritt's film stands in stark contrast to this traditional image and it was precisely that contrast that made it the classic that it remains to this day. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is different because it doesn't simply assume that one side is "good" and the other "evil". Whilst the archetype of the so-called 'Eurospy' film portrays the world as overwhelmingly back-and-white, for Martin Ritt, it is all shades of grey. The British agent Alec Leamas – played by Richard Burton – and his colleagues are disillusioned men on a political chessboard: the game is played dirty, they're moved hither and thither across the board by unseen hands, to be sacrificed as and when required. Espionage is a corrupt affair, with no room for heroes and no winners. This is the message of the film, a message, which showed the world of the spy and the secret agent in a totally new light. But it wasn´t what cinema audiences at the time were looking for.
Even so, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold never departs from a western perspective on the world of the spy. Its principles are "ours", not "theirs"; it has a clear standpoint on what is "right" and what is "wrong", and that standpoint is a western one. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold may look askance at its origins, but it in no way repudiates them.