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The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

Being the Head of Station for MI6's Berlin Department in 1962 is no picnic, but it's Alec Leamas's job to do. Leamas (Richard Burton), who came up through the ranks of the elite spy agency after joining the War Department during the Second World War as a German linguist, has been running moles and counterspies on the other side of the Berlin Wall for nearly a decade, but after one of his prize agents is gunned down at Checkpoint Charlie on orders of East German intelligence chief Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck), London thinks it may be time for Leamas to come in from the cold. MI6 spymaster "Control" (Cyril Cusack) offers the weary agent a place in the banking division, but Leamas refuses — either he runs agents or he walks away with his pension. But Control soon develops a different plan: Taking advantage of Leamas's fatigue and well-known love of whiskey, the spymaster has his player "dismissed" from MI6, after which Leamas takes a temporary job in a local library, drinks during the day, and has a few scrapes with the law. Leamas also romances fellow librarian Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), but she's not the only one interested in the former agent — before long he's targeted by Communist moles, who shuffle Leamas up the chain of command until he defects to East Germany, where he will provide authorities with evidence from MI6's banking records that will have his arch-nemesis Mundt put on trial and shot for treason. That is, if all goes according to plan. Based on John le Carré's breakthrough novel, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965) is everything an espionage movie should be — somber, subtle, and with a handful of about-face twists that only a master plotter like le Carré could devise. If Ian Fleming created a superspy for adolescent boys, le Carré's world is strictly for grown-ups, where agents playing the Great Game don't do battle with sportscars or hi-tech weapons, but instead criss-cross Europe's dark cities and sunlit countrysides in a battle of wits that — like grandmaster chess — simply means that the man who can accurately predict his enemy's moves and have one more in his own pocket will dominate the battle. Richard Burton, who often was criticized for making too many bad films for too much money, comes up with one of his creditable performances this time around (and was Oscar-nominated for it). Burton always said that he couldn't play drunk scenes whilst actually drunk, but he convincingly conveys Leamas's ennui, a burnout at 40 who's tasked with acting a drunkard, and at times may not be faking. In fact, the chief pleasure to be found from Burton's performance is that it must actually convey the art of acting itself. It's difficult to say how much of Leamas's alcoholism is just a ruse. And at a later scene in Holland when it's clear the spy has been "betrayed" by his Communist handlers and will be forced to defect to the East, Leamas casts a long, haunted gaze at the English Channel before launching into a verbal tirade against his interrogator. Of course, he'd been planning to give this speech for weeks — but the wild look in his eyes in the preceding silence seems so genuine that one has to wonder if Leamas learned his Method at the knee of Stanislavsky, or if in fact he secretly believes that he's made a bargain with the devil himself. Paramount's DVD release of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a black-and-white source print that has very good gradient detail and film grain, although not without some collateral wear, while audio is available in a restored monaural track or a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. No extras, keep-case.
—JJB



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