Home Video Hovel- The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, by Tyler Smith
When we think of spy movies, we’ll likely jump to James Bond first. We think of attractive men and women in nice clothes, driving even nicer cars. Their knowledge of the international underworld makes it easy for them to have a cleverly fatalistic approach to life; like they’ve got life all figured out, and find it very amusing. They are very capable; no situation gets the best of them. In many ways, they are the people we’d like to be.
I’m not a part of the covert world, so I can’t be certain, but I get the feeling that the actual life of a spy is a little closer to Martin Ritt’s wonderful The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. In it, we get a tired, cynical man occupying a drab, morose world. He takes no more pleasure in his job than a janitor. After years of operating off the grid, our protagonist hardly has any patience or interest in the real world anymore.
Played by Richard Burton with the kind of weariness that he would start to embody in his later career, our main character, Alec Leamas has been a British operative for several decades. He understands his duties and he performs them to the best of his ability. As the film starts, he is given one last field assignment. He will allow himself to be recruited by the Communists as a possible double agent. In doing so, he will reveal just the right “secrets” that will cause the Communists to suspect one of their own of treason.
Leamas is the perfect choice for this mission, as everything about him seems like the type of man that would drop all loyalty to his country. He is overworked, underpaid, drunk, and cynical. In many ways, the very fact that the higher-ups thought of him for this job could be considered an insult. And as the story unfolds, the character becomes more and more resentful of the mission.
We often feel as though some of Leamas’ actual bitterness is slipping through, even while talking to the Communists. He sometimes seems to actually believe what he is saying when he venomously dismisses the concept of national loyalty. While we are sure that he is doing all of this for the purpose of his mission, it actually starts to feel like he might genuinely be entertaining the idea of defecting. We start to question what we know about the character, and that is exactly the point.
I would imagine that, to be an effective undercover agent, a person must try to convince himself that he actually is what he is pretending to be. And, if there is any actual overlap between the image and the reality, all the better; it will be easier to sell. However, after being at this for as long as Leamas has, it is probably only a matter of time before the line between the image and the reality starts to blur. To live in that constant limbo, while always trying to keep a strong focus on one’s goals, must get to be exhausting.
Then, of course, there is the fact of putting country before oneself. This is a noble pursuit, but one that undoubtedly can get a bit morally dubious. Leamas is required to hate and oppose people that he might not otherwise, all because he is ordered to. He might not have any feelings at all toward these people and, in fact, he might have more in common with Communist operatives than he does with most British citizens. After all, they, too, are required to lose themselves in their duties; what does it matter what country they represent?
It is this kind of overriding disillusionment that separates The Spy Who Came In From The Cold from your average espionage thriller. Where most spy films will only occasionally tilt towards the morally ambiguous, this film embraces it. There is no assumption of Capitalist superiority, no demonization of the godless Communists. There are only two opposing forces, and the differences are negligible.
Based on the book by John le Carre, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is engaging, suspenseful, and thought-provoking. It gets one to think about the larger implications of war and the price that it can exact on those doing the fighting. This is nowhere better represented than on the face of Alec Leamas, a craggy, tired man who looks as though he could burst into tears at any moment, had he not buried his emotions long ago.