Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, Sam Wanamaker, George Voskovec, Rupert Davies, Cyril Cusack, Peter Van Eyck
Director: Martin Ritt
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 112 Minutes
Release Date: September 10, 2013

What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx?”

Film ***1/2

Watching a film like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, I was aware that I was seeing a totally different type of espionage thriller unfold before me. Any fan of the spy thriller genre, which I clearly am, knows that when watching such a movie, you come to expect some deal of CIA lingo, along with the occasional thrilling sequences of action and pursuits, a la The Bourne Identity or any of the James Bond films. This 60s piece, however, presents a much more intriguing alternative.

Based on the novel by thriller novelist John le Carre, the movie is nicely paced tale with espionage unfolding in nearly every scene. This may be the most realistic use of the Cold War setting I’ve come across yet. The story centers in on Alec Leamas (Richard Burton, masterful as ever), an aging operative who has one thing on his mind; retirement. However, the powers that be insist that Alec remain out in “the cold” a bit longer.

It is at this point where our lead spy begins a lengthy masquerading act that leads us, the viewer, into a life of consistent espionage. Alec has apparently left the agency and taken an entirely new job. In addition, he sets his sights on the lovely Nan Perry (Claire Bloom). Nan, as it turns out, turns out to be a communist. Although it may have bothered Alec’s former spy associates, it doesn’t bother him a bit, since he has fallen for her.

Following a brief stint in jail for disorderly conduct, Alec is contacted by a communist group, who want him to defect to the Eastern Bloc. Alec, with some reservations, comes to accept his given task and becomes a defector. His defection then leads to the pursuit of East Bloc agent Fiedler (Oskar Werner), who was a bureau chief who was suspected of a double cross by his superiors. The rest of the story I will not reveal because it contains a few surprises, especially the film’s last scene, which very much surprised me.

For fans of intriguing, top level espionage, loaded with double cross from here all the way to the foggy streets of Prague, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is a stellar spy thriller that is able to entertain in the ways you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a movie in this genre. Although I have to confess I haven’t seen most of Richard Burton’s work, his performance here is a most accomplished piece of work. It’s one of the more complex characters I’ve seen in a spy movie, where upon which you tend to find many a complex individual.

Rich with character and atmosphere, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is true to the spy genre, as well as the theme of the time in absolute form.

Video ****

This film has enjoyed a tremendous increasing of quality ever since its initial bare bones DVD release nearly ten years ago. Criterion’s initial DVD offering provided the first outstanding presentation, and now this Blu-ray release has taken that pristine quality one step forward. So it should come as no surprise that the result is an even more magnificent looking black and white anamorphic presentation! Oswald Morris’ cinematography has never looked more authentic! The blacks are in excellent form, and overall there are no glitches in the picture at all. Phenomenal job all the way!

Audio ***1/2

The same can be said for the audio quality in terms of quality increase between DVD releases. Though this remains a strictly dialogue powered spy saga, the Dolby 2.0 mix does provide some cool boost in the surroundings every so often, and dialogue delivery is handled terrifically from beginning to end!

Features ****

The 2-disc DVD release that surfaced from Criterion in 2008 is now a fully superb one disc Blu-ray release, meaning you don’t have to pop an extra disc in to access the excellent supplements. To start with, there’s a wonderful video interview with author John le Carre, a well as a selected-scene commentary featuring director of photography Oswald Morris, an extremely well made documentary from the BBC titled “The Secret Centre: John le Carre” (from the year 2000), as well as a 1967 interview with Richard Burton from the BBC series “Acting in the 60's”, which is conducted by film critic Kenneth Tynan. Rounding out the extras is a fascinating audio conversation from 1985 between director Martin Ritt and film historian Patrick McGilligan, a set design gallery and the film’s Trailer.

And true to the Criterion way, we get an insert booklet. This one features an essay by critic Michael Sragow.


Criterion’s Blu-ray release of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is yet another one of a kind HD upgrade from the top studio contributing to the format. It’s a film made specifically for those who are easily enthralled by stories involving the spy underworld, such as I am. Just like other le Carre film adaptations like The Constant Gardener and The Tailor of Panama, this espionage-laden classic will have you hooked in for every second.

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