J.D. Lafrance
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold: Criterion Collection DVD Review

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold: Criterion Collection

December 9, 2008

Director: Martin Ritt,
Starring: Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, Sam Wanamaker, George Voskovec, Rupert Davies, Cyril Cusack, Bernard Lee,

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DVD Review

J.D. Lafrance

Based on John le Carre’s best-selling novel of the same name, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) is a classic example of the cold war espionage tale. It also provides a decidedly sober, more realistic antidote to the James Bond films that were all the rage at the time.

Alec Leamas (Burton) is a veteran spy on, what he hopes, will be his last assignment, in East Germany. After seeing a fellow agent gunned down at the border, he finally acknowledges that he’s burnt out and wants to retire. He wants to come in from the cold to use the parlance of his profession. However, his superior (Cusack) wants Leamas to go one more assignment: find and kill Hans-Dieter Mundt, the man responsible for the border crossing killing. Leamas is given a cover identity and assigned an assistant, Nan Perry (Bloom), an attractive librarian. They have dinner at her place one night and he finds out that she’s a Communist. They become romantically involved.

Leamas builds an impressive facade: he’s an alcoholic and it gets him in trouble after he attacks a shop owner (Lee) in a drunken rage. We soon find out that this is all done in order to get close to Mundt and the agency he works for. Leamas gains the confidence of the rival agency by posing as a defector unhappy with his current lot in life. He undergoes a series of interrogations with his handler, Fiedler (Werner) where he cleverly builds a case against Mundt so that his own people mistrust him.

Richard Burton delivers an impressive performance as a rumpled burnt out, alcoholic spy who is jaded but very good at what he does. The veteran actor conveys the melancholic resignation of a man at the end of his career by the way he carries himself in every scene, complete with a defeated posture and forlorn facial expressions. Leamas is a thoughtful man and Burton conveys an intelligence and a sophistication befitting of this mature spy thriller.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is an excellent example of a top notch cold war spy thriller with all kinds of intrigue and danger as Leamas tries to punish a rival spy within the enemy agency. It’s all about the dirty secrets that organizations within countries keep and kill to preserve. The film also poses the age old dilemma: does the end justify the means?

Special Features:

The first disc includes a theatrical trailer.

The second disc starts off with an interview conducted with author John le Carre done exclusively for this DVD. He talks about his novel and the film. He was still a spy when the book was published and so he used a pen name to protect himself. At the time, Le Carre was excited at the prospect of Hollywood adapting his book into a film. He speaks with refreshing candor and tells some engaging anecdotes.

“The Secret Centre: John le Carre” is a 2000 BBC documentary about the life and career of the author. He talks, at some length, about his stint with British Intelligence. The author also talks about his childhood and how it influenced his adult life. This is an excellent profile.

Also included are excerpts from an audio interview with the film’s director, Martin Ritt, conducted by film historian Patrick McGilligan. Ritt talks about his extensive career in theater, television, and film.

There is a selected-scene commentary for five scenes from the film by its cinematographer Oswald Morris. He talks about the approach to the look, including things like camera movement, and why these scenes were shot the way they were. Not surprisingly, he speaks highly of Ritt’s direction.

Also included is a collection of set design sketches for the film.

Finally, there is “Acting in the 60’s: Richard Burton,” a candid BBC interview done in 1967 with Kenneth Tynan. Running a little over 30 minutes, this featurette goes into fascinating detail about Burton’s views on the craft of acting. He comes across as humble and honest about himself.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance


Rating: 88%

Website: http://www.criterion.com/films/860


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