The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965) With the anticipation of the Christmas release of a film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it would do well to revisit the world of George Smiley, "Control," and the duplicity of agent-turned-novelist John le Carré's "kitchen-sink" version of spies. Although Smiley and the others would loom large in his later novels (especially the "Karla Trilogy"), they're mere background characters in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the focus of the tale being operative Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), former head of the West Berlin branch of "The Circus," who must go behind enemy lines—in fact, one of the toughest of them, the Berlin Wall—as a potential "mole"* to ferret out who, among their Cold War equivalency on the other side, might be a double agent for the Soviets, the one who is responsible for the death of one of Leamas' contacts. To "Control" (Cyrilm Cusack), the head of "The Circus" it is a rare opportunity to do some damage control and, possibly, if they can take advantage of an agency power-struggle, some harm.
His identity is kept the same—The Circus wants Leamas and his background history out in the open—but he is demoted in rank and stature, and, depressed and drinking heavily, he becomes bait for Soviet recruitment to betray information. That's the mission, become a decoy on the "inside," another "double" feeding the Soviets false information, while trying to find out if there's a player on the other side in The Circus feeding information to the Russians.**
Oh, what a tangled web the Cold War weaves.
For the fact of the matter is the Spymasters of "The Circus" are cold-hearted bastards ("without sympathy" as "Control," played by Cyril Cusack, ponders)—they have to be to combat their enemies—and they're just as capable of betraying their own as those they fight.
But Smiley (however sympathetically Guinness played him) is also a "cold-hearted bastard"—if he wasn't, he wouldn't have lost the vital clue that was exploited by his enemies. He gives as bad as he gets, and, even at his most triumphant, takes little joy in what he does.
|Davies as George Smiley in The Spy...|
And the script—now there's an interesting tale. A beginning draft was written by Hollywood veteran Guy Trosper, who died subsequently. Taking over was poet-playwright Paul Dehn. Dehn had written the final polish on the James Bond spy film Goldfinger (amusingly, as the two film could not be more polar opposite), and was the mainstay-writer for the "Planet of the Apes" sequels. But, Dehn knew the world of spies well—during the second World War, Major Paul Dehn was the "Political Warfare" officer at the BSC training headquarters "Camp X" (where among the trainees were Roald Dahl and Bond creator Ian Fleming). *** Dehn was well-versed in spy-craft, deceit, and keeping secrets and his distillation of le Carré's novel brings the moral duplicity to the fore, while keeping the audience guessing on whose side is whom.
If the film has one flaw, it is the casting of Burton as Leamas. Burton was too good, too charismatic an actor/star to play a functionary like Leamas (it's about the same as "buying" Sean Connery as a spy (which was part of the joke of the Bond series)—he's someone you'd notice walking into a room, and thus, hardly spy material. But, Burton's presence, no doubt, got the film made, so the point is a bit moot. Still, if its ideas and mysteries of the State and the heart you want more than action and fireballs (shall we say if you want to be "stirred and not shaken?"), The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is a fine, bracing tonic.
Smiley's before they were emoji's: Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman
* The term "mole" is a le Carré invention—his spy-circles code-name for a double agent hiding in plain sight within one of the other spy agencies, Soviet or british, and relaying information to "the other side."
** There has been a rich history of double agents throughout the annals of spydom, the most significant of which were "The Cambridge Five"—Kim Philby, Donald Duart Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, and a fifth (and possibly more)—who'd been recruited during their college years, passed information to the Russians during WWII, and subsequently during the post-War years through the early 1950's. "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (and the other two of the le Carré "Karla" novels) and le Carré's subsequent "A Perfect Spy" are inspired by "The Five" and their Russian puppet-master.
*** And, interestingly, one of the people who asked, and was briefly considered, to run Camp X...was Kim Philby!