I’m here to fulfill my promise of another review in December. This one bookends my previous one and the subject is at the request of our own Day Al-Mohamed. My review of “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” by John le Carré was met with the comment of “perhaps you should compare and contrast the book vs the movie (1965 starring Richard Burton, CBE).
Let me begin by saying spycraft as John le Carré writes it, and from what I understand is the case in real life from my own research, is dry, can be boring, and is convoluted with aliases, more aliases, and code names. To fully appreciate the novel and the movie, I’m convinced one must either be involved in this trade or have a deep understanding of this vocation as practiced at the height of the Cold War.
The movie starts the same as the book with the protagonist, Leamas, waiting at a Berlin Wall checkpoint for one of his spies to make the trek from the bowels of East Germany to West Germany. This is the end of his time as a spymaster in that part of the world. Alarms are sounded and spotlights blaze when his man’s credentials are closely scrutinized. Bullets fly and Leamas is left with the last action in his official career with Britain’s security services staring at the body of a man in his care knowing who betrayed him, and East German named Mundt, and realizing there is nothing he can do about it.
Burton’s performance at this point in the movie is typically Burton, lots of stoic expressions mixed with his staccato speech pattern. The scene is equally short in the movie as in the book. This pivotal event sets up the reasons for Leamas’ participation in the scheme that is the rest of the book/movie.
As Leamas returns to London, he is approached by his handlers and top security service brass. They lay out a plan to eliminate the man responsible for the death of Leamas’ agent, Mundt, and reveal this man was also responsible for several other agents’ deaths. However, this requires Leamas to live a life of shame on a pitiful salary and pretend to defect to the East German side. John le Carré spends several pages in the book describing this in detail and what all will be required of Leamas to accomplish the subterfuge. But, in the film version, Leamas spends less than five minutes of screen time on this particular and confusing scene.
Here is where I had to first admit to myself, and disappointingly early in the movie, that without having read the book, I would be lost in the direction the film was taking. Without Burton in the starring role, I most likely would have prematurely ended the film if I stumbled on this sans novel.
Leamas begins to live his sham lifestyle and meets a young lady with whom he quickly falls in love. Unfortunately, she is a communist, but this does not hinder their liaison. To lend validity to his dissatisfaction with his former employers and his mother country, he concocts a plan to land him in prison. The life he begins to lead working in a library, subsequent money and drink problems, along with his general social pariah facade, goes on for a decent chunk of the book. This is basically the “first black moment” in the story. Burton’s film glosses over the descent into that life so quickly, I had to go back and watch again to ensure I had not missed a few scenes. Even when Leamas beats a grocer for extending him credit to buy caviar among other ridiculously expensive items, the ordeal unfolds so rapidly, I did not quite understand why the protagonist’s anger built suddenly just prior to the attack. Finally, the prison time is explained in detail in the narrative, but is completely left out except for a mere mention of it when Leamas’ lady friend questions his extended absence.
Waiting for Leamas’ exit from prison is a dandy posing as a representative of an organization that wants to help ex-cons get back on their feet. This man turns out to be Leamas’ ticket to the East German “defection” he and his superiors schemed. Again, quite a detailed explanation of places and people and meetings goes into the description of this upswing in the story line. This is one part of the film I was happy with and felt held true to the story, despite its brevity. The film does leave the romantic wondering why the hero so rapidly and callously leaves behind his “girl” to further pursue his deceit.
The remainder of the story takes place in East German as Leamas is interrogated first by an East German handler, then by Mundt’s second in command, Fiedler. These interrogations lay the foundation for the race to the finish, so quite a bit of detail is thrown out to establish that groundwork. Here is one of the places I note as boring and confusing as aliases, names, descriptions of procedures and organizations, and code names are presented for one interrogator then another. Burton’s performance here is quite good as he shows how the hero must submerse himself in the persona he has created and indulge in spirits yet keep his stories straight. His anger at insisting he knows nothing more, is an emotional high point of the film.
Fiedler has taken a great interest in Leamas as he sees the Brit as the key to bringing down Mundt and assuming Mundt’s position in the East German political structure. Leamas happily leads him down that road as Fiedler is following the plan laid out by British security services as if he himself were part of the initial birthing of said design. Oskar Werner, an Austrian portraying a Jew in the film, does an admiral job of depicting the weasel of a man that le Carré creates in the book.
Leamas’ “black moment” comes when he is brought before a court where Fiedler is accusing Mundt of collaboration with the British intelligence services using Leamas’ stories as evidence and his communist girlfriend is brought in from London to testify. At that point, Leamas realizes he is not truly in control of the situation when it is revealed that his British handlers have apparently betrayed him. Leamas goes to an East German prison cell with no hope of escape.
Without giving away the ending of the movie, things rapidly escalate as they should in that “race to the finish” I mentioned earlier. However, revelations and twists in the plot happen so quickly, again, I’m at a point where I would be lost in the movie plot had I not read the book.
Overall, I will say the screenplay version of “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” was faithful to the book despite skipping some key points and rushing through others. To the director’s credit, he did not seem to take creative license and add plot points or side treks to the story to “make it more interesting for film.” If you want to see the film and are not well versed in Cold War history, I would strongly suggest you read the book prior to viewing.