Oct. 9, 2009

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
Grade: 75/100

Director: Martin Ritt
Stars: Richard Burton, Clair Bloom, Oskar Werner

What it's about. Gloomy British spy Richard Burton is given an undercover assignment designed to provoke the East Germans into killing one of their own best operatives. Burton is "discharged," grows embittered, takes to drink, and is sufficiently impoverished that he takes a low paying job at a third rate British library. His travails attract the attentions of pretty librarian Claire Bloom, and more importantly, local Soviet bloc operatives, who believe that he can provide useful information.

Burton is recruited into defecting to the East. He meets Oskar Werner, a passionate Jewish communist anxious to prove that his immediate boss, Peter Van Eyck, a Christian, is a traitor working for the West. Burton and Bloom become witnesses in a hasty trial put together by the East Germans. They escape, but can they make it over the Berlin Wall in time?

How others will see it. A depressing and intellectual black and white British movie will hardly appeal to a broad American audience. Its best hope is among those who favor mysteries and spy capers. The user ratings at imdb.com are higher than I expected, and show a slight rise with increasing age. This comes from classic film viewers, who appreciate the presence of Burton, Bloom, and Werner. British viewers may recognize the supporting cast of veterans, most of whom were cast by Burton himself. He rewarded cronies such as Warren Mitchell, a former R.A.F. buddy.

How I felt about it. Paul Dehn's screenplay (Guy Trosper is also credited, but had died in 1963) was expertly adapted from John le Carré's bestseller novel. Wisely, an American director, Martin Ritt, was brought on board. Ritt was then known for his despondent movies with Paul Newman (The Long Hot Summer, Paris Blues, and, especially, Hud).

The central character, of course, is that of Burton's. He is agreeably complex. He's only pretending to be a hard-drinking man with a grudge against his former employer, but he is nonetheless world-weary and has no illusions about whether the ends justify the means. They probably don't. It is a job, and it's far less dull than paper on a desk. If the game is played correctly, perhaps a few innocent people can even be saved.

Also interesting is Werner, the devoted and patriotic East German who for years has built up a grudge (and a case) against his humorless boss. He finally "has the goods" on Van Eyck, but his own energy works against him. In a twist reminiscent of Witness for the Prosecution, Burton is unknowingly served up to be discredited, so that the guilty can go unpunished. If Burton is the straw man destroyed, does that prove Van Eyck is innocent? It does, if momentum is the sole indicator. Which goes to show, a wise judge (Latina or otherwise) must look beyond the ripples on the surface of the water, to ascertain what lurks in the depths below.