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Paramount Studios presents
"Communism. Capitalism. It's the innocents who get slaughtered."
DVD ReviewEspecially on this side of the Atlantic, we tend to think of the Cold War as wholly binary, and involving only the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.; The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is a reminder that this was more global than a mere superpower pas de deux, as this story involves a face-off between the espionage forces of Great Britain and East Germany. The years since the Berlin Wall has come down has taken much of the sting out of Cold War stories, but it doesn't take too much strain on the imagination or one's memory to conjure up those frightening times, what seemed like a decades-long game of global chicken between East and West, neither side wanting to seem less than manly by removing the metaphorical finger from the button. The effects of that high level of anxiety, for those who were foot soldiers in that war and for those who loved them, was a principal subject of the John Le Carré novel on which this film was based, and director Martin Ritt has provided a tangible sense of menace.
Richard Burton plays Alec Leamas, head of British intelligence in West Berlin; he watches the Wall like a hawk, not even glancing down at his omnipresent glass of Scotch, waiting for any sign or movement from his opposite number, Mundt. After a conspicuous intelligence failure, Leamas is called back to London, to meet with the chief spy known only as Control (Cyril Cusack); he has grand plans for Leamas, who is to set himself up, to make it appear as if he's been discarded by the British, and is therefore ripe for the picking by the other side. Leamas takes to the descent all too well, drinking the drink, taking a menial job, even cold clocking the local grocer and landing himself in the local gaol. It's not just the Cold War that comes back to us here; it's a return for card catalogs, too, for Leamas' job is in a research library, where he, despite himself, develops an affection for one of his colleagues, Nan, played by Claire Bloom; she's not only a lovely young thing, she's also an avowed Communist.
Too much description of the plot will spoil the fun, if you've neither read the novel nor seen the movie; but both are artful in moving Leamas up the food chain, in double- and triple-crosses, in showing us how the Cold War gets fought out on the ground. In fact, much of the movie is little more than men in trenchcoats exchanging information; but the exposition is always clear, and the story always compelling. Much of that is helped along, too, by the leading man. In many respects Burton seems like a Welsh Marlon Brando, an actor of towering talents too often laboring in projects unworthy of him, a sort of genius with apparent disdain for his own craft. But this comes from Burton's most fertile screen period—the following year, he and Liz would rip it up in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—and the word "craggy" seems to have been invented for him. He can look daggers at you, or glance at you with uncompromised tenderness; his eyes speak volumes, and his presence turns this from merely another spy story into one informed by the theater of the Angry Young Man—put Jimmy Porter from Look Back in Anger into an espionage thriller, and you've got Alec Leamas.
Bloom is fine, too, though her part is underwritten; and Oskar Werner as a German doppelganger is also very effective. The movie is notable, too, for featuring one of the first appearances of George Smiley, the spy who figures so prominently in future Le Carré novels; here he's played by Rupert Davies, but it's Alec Guinness who in coming decades would make the part his own.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The strong black-and-white cinematography still looks rich, but this print is filled with scratches, debris and bacterial decay, robbing the film of its vérité feel. The transfer is a pretty slipshod one.
Image Transfer Grade: C+
Audio Transfer Review: Stick with the mono—though the 5.1 track is fine, monaural just feels right for the period, and though the dynamics are a little too narrow, everything is audible.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 13 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Extras Review: Only chapter stops.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsChange cabs, and be sure that you weren't followed. Don't forget the password; I'll be the one with the red carnation in my lapel. A strong thriller from the height of the Cold War, with a fine performance by Richard Burton.
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