From the opening, dreary and drizzled scene at Checkpoint Charlie, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold creates an atmosphere of muffled, bureaucratic routine. Like all wars, the Cold War was characterised by constant waiting, a meandering sense of paranoia and anticipation, before the inevitability of cruelty and death.
The first time we see Richard Burton, we don’t confront the the Hamlet-like handsomeness of his presence, but rather his back, a rain-stained trench coat of a man in a lifeless booth, pouring whisky into his coffee. The almost contemplative, lingering shots of Burton’s concentrated gaze are then punctuated violently by a spy being gunned down after trying to sneak through the checkpoint.
Burton’s character Alec Leamas is everything James Bond is not. He manifests the strained brow and air of degeneration of the post-war British man, a rotting soul kept alive by a residual, near-forgotten sense of duty. His job is to lie and charm his way through the underworld, to forget himself, to be become a nihilistic foot-soldier, to kill, drink, abuse and deceive, all for Queen and country.
The scenes in the purlieus of Hammersmith and South Kensington are beautifully dreich, the landscape of dusty libraries, secretary’s offices, cold bus stops, dull and silent grocer shops and the Labour Exchange. Burton scowls and hunches his way through this atmosphere with a tensed, terrified glare in his eyes, the ragged emotions of a man clinging to himself.
The spies who surround Leamas are equally strained and disillusioned. ‘Control’, played with diffident subtlety by Cyril Cusack, is not the M of Ian Fleming, a far cry from the clipped, decisive, self-assured British Colonel type. Rather, you get a sense right away of a glorified clerk, a functionary, someone who is not really in control at all, but equally as beholden to murky, unspoken agendas as Leamas.
This is a theme through the whole chain of espionage. As Burton’s character travels further into the bowels of Communist Europe, he meets a string of sophisticated-seeming spies and goons, each of which turns out to be another lost soul, patronised by the next, higher-ranking link in the chain of command. The fetish of rank, and the pettiness of superiority is a subtext throughout the plot.
As a love interest, Nan Perry, played by Claire Bloom, is the only character who seems to capture anything of the idealism of the sixties. This reveals the fact that the nostalgia we have for the cultural revolution suffers from an amnesia about the boredom and ennui most people seemed to feel in that time. The Britain we see in this 1960s classic is more 1950s-kitchen-sink than the swinging London of Antonioni’s Blow Up, which came out only a year or so later.
Perry’s character is brimming with intelligence and hope, and a worldly sexuality brought to the role by Bloom saves it from sentimentality. Bloom’s kindness and womanly affection for Burton are indeed the result of an aloneness and desire for emotional adventure, and the fact that Leamas is equally drawn to her reveals the remaining streak of humanity in Burton’s otherwise tormented and condemned cynicism.
Oskar Werner plays Fiedler, in some sense Leamas’s nemesis. Werner plays what could have been a very routine and stereotype Communist flunky, as a deeply human, confused, determined and vulnerable man. He is ambitious and cruel, but Werner gives the character a positive charge, not loveable, but accessible and sympathetic. You can tell that affection for Leamas and the sense of duty that drives his own machinations are both real and rooted in a sincere vision of life. Fiedler, is far more than a product of his ideology or social conditioning.
The film is a brilliant spy movie, and a captivating example of British noir. But it is also a spiritual portrait of a society hollowed out by the collapse of empire and the punishing consequences of war. The result is a panorama of thwarted, depressed individuals who struggle to navigate a grey, prosaic Britain stripped of pretension and romance.