Monday, November 12, 2012

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965): Burton's Eloquent Disgust

As I was watching the outdoor scenes of London in 1965 in the first half of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and really enjoying them, I started thinking about how I always love outdoor scenes of London in the 60’s, and maybe that’s just because I was born in London in 1967, so there’s a kind of conceited curiosity about the world just before my own existence. I’ve heard it said that we all have a special nostalgia for the decade of our birth, and that’s probably especially true for our own hometown in the decade of our birth. Whenever I watch a film showing 1960’s London I start thinking ‘There was definitely something in the air in those days’. But maybe it’s just natural human self-centeredness and the ‘something in the air’ that intrigues me was just me!

Anyway, this film is excellent first of all for its plot, which all comes from the John Le Carre Novel, I presume. It’s so fiendishly twisty that I can’t really refer to any of the story-line without spoiling the film, and I highly recommend you don’t look at the Wikipedia page or any other similar review before watching it. But let me just make two general points. There are times in the story when you realise that what you’ve been watching is not at all what you thought you were watching, and that is very pleasing. And the second half of the film has a long courtroom scene (it’s one of the best courtroom scenes ever, though often that’s forgotten when people think about these things since technically it’s just a ‘tribunal’) and there’s a surprise in it which is very effective, because it’s been so cleverly foreshadowed.

The film was directed by Martin Ritt, just two years after he made the brilliant Hud and it’s a good example of a director doing his job really well without any showing off. There is no flab, no confusion about what’s going on, no weak scenes; he just stands back and lets the actors do their job well. The cinematography is by Oswald Morris, who had already done such black and white classics as Oliver Twist (1948) Look Back in Anger (1959) The Entertainer (1960) and Lolita (1962). The look he gives the film is particularly effective in the scenes at the start and end of the film set at the Berlin Wall: rain on cobbled streets, icy-cold night air lit up by searchlights, guards standing around with machine guns. These moments are justly famous for providing what are probably cinema’s definitive images of the Cold War; they have been used again and again in film books.

Richard Burton is excellent in this role, and it’s probably his best screen performance after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, although Look Back in Anger is also a contender. Reviews of this film often note how well he conveys the alcoholic cynicism of his character Alec Leamas in the London sections of the film, yet is a completely different kind of creature in the second half. For me it was also noticeable that Burton does disgust better than almost any other actor. In scenes where others would go for plain anger, he goes for angry disgust. You see this in his interaction with Michael Hordern’s character, whom Leamas despises, and in the scene in the car with Claire Bloom near the end of the film, when he explains how British intelligence has used them both.

Claire Bloom is, as ever, wonderful and Hordern, Cyril Cusack and Bernard Miles are all good in small roles. Oskar Werner is also a great addition to the film. The way he’s done up as a beret-wearing European intellectual may be a bit corny but he gives a powerful performance and he’s far better here than he was in Truffaut's over-rated Jules et Jim. It’s also funny to see ‘George Smiley’ pop into the film half way through in a minor role. As played by Rupert Davies he’s kind of overweight and undistinguished-looking, and you can’t help thinking ‘This surely can’t be the same man Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman made famous?’

Click here to see 76 screenshots from the film

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