Blog Directory CineVerse: I spy a thrilling espionage film

I spy a thrilling espionage film

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold depicts cold, hard facts about Cold War agents and operatives, sourced from an acclaimed text by an author (John le Carré) who wrote from firsthand experience. Our CineVerse group unsealed the dossier on this cinematic document last week and surmised the following reflections (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What did you find interesting, unpredictable, noteworthy, or curious about this picture?

  • This is credited as one of the first movies to depict real-world espionage as “neither glamorous nor honorable,” according to Slant Magazine writer Chuck Bowen, who called it “an uncompromising look at a dehumanizing profession.”
  • This shows the gritty, dark, unglamorous side of being a government agent, with a character, lifestyle, and mission that runs counter to the seductive and adventurous mythmaking of James Bond.
  • Richard Burton has rarely been better as a man with hidden motivations or a lack thereof: the ultimate poker-faced spy we want to trust as the man two steps ahead of everyone else but whom we learn is out-of-the-know on many crucial matters, a chess piece who gets played by Control and suffers a crushing twist of fate.
  • It was shot in black-and-white at a time when most studios were opting for color. But debatably, this monochromatic palette serves the film tonally and thematically, suggesting enigmatic shades of gray that match this world and its characters.
  • Interestingly, Burton and Claire Bloom previously were lovers; at the time of filming, Burton was married to Elizabeth Taylor. If you detect any chemistry between Alec and Nan, this may help explain it.
  • This is a convoluted plot that requires paying close attention. Consider that we know only as much as Alec, and the fact that he learns he’s “out in the cold” from what Control intends means that we also learn new information when Alec does; it’s as much a surprise to him as it is to us.
  • There is virtually no comic relief and no lovemaking scenes.

Themes found in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

  • There’s little difference between the West versus the East. They both are capable of committing unethical acts of violence and betrayal in the name of patriotic duty or national security.
  • The human casualties and collateral damage of war – even a Cold War.
  • Do the ends justify the means? What do all these espionage maneuvers gain the players involved, most of whom are not told the full truth of what they’re involved in? Knights on the chessboard like Alec as well as pawns like Nan prove expendable, which begs the question: Why do this kind of work? What’s the point? And will their efforts even make a difference?
  • You have to stand for and believe in something or life can prove meaningless.
    • Recall the story Alec tells Nan about the two trucks that converge on a road and crush a car carrying a family caught between. DVD Talk reviewer Jamie S. Rich wrote: “Though he thinks that the point of the story is that the mighty, interchangeable forces of world government always trample the innocent underfoot as they rush for power, the true message is one that everyone else is trying to teach him: You can’t stay in the middle, one must choose a side. It doesn’t have to be either of the great behemoths or even either side of the Wall they have built to separate their ideologies, it can be taking a stand against both of them in defense of the station wagon. You have to stand for something. If you don’t, you will find yourself caught in no man’s land.” Arguably, by choosing to remain on the East Berlin side of the wall with his dead lover, Alec decides to take a stand – one that he knows will end in his death.
  • Alienation, inaccessibility, and unfulfillment.
    • Chuck Bowen of Slant Magazine wrote: “To be a spy in Le Carré’s fiction, and the author famously lived a bit of what he writes, is to have knowledge that alienates you from the rest of the world. The knowledge you possess, as a le Carré spy, only underlines how much you still don’t know, and this realization transforms life into a series of stifling paradoxes: The world is huge, yet claustrophobically contained in an endless procession of anonymous bars and backrooms, and every problem reveals a hundred more upon its solution, like a great hydra. In other words, the Le Carré spy ultimately knows that he knows nothing, and that perhaps there’s no overriding Something to know, which might be as close as a bureaucracy can come to proving that God doesn’t exist.”

Similar films

  • The James Bond movies
  • Other film adaptations of le Carré novels, like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Tailor of Panama, and The Constant Gardener
  • Bridge of Spies
  • The Ipcress File
  • The Lives of Others
  • The Manchurian Candidate

Other films directed by Martin Ritt

  • Hud
  • Hombre
  • The Long Hot Summer
  • Sounder
  • Norma Rae

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