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THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD

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 Stereo
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 112 Minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2008

“What section are you in?”

“Personnel.”

“Do you like it?”

“Fascinating. You get to know everybody’s fate.”

“What’s mine?”

“Better let control tell you that. It’s not my job.”

“But you do know, of course.”

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 ****

Talk about a marvelous upgrade! But then again, it is Criterion…and they always work wonders in video restoration. The video quality on the original DVD release was not so spectacular, which didn’t surprise me since I assumed black and white films from the 60s couldn’t help but look the way they did. However, Criterion proves that theory wrong with one of the most magnificent looking black and white anamorphic presentations I’ve ever seen! All the dirt and scratches I encountered on the first release were completely gone from this restored version. The blacks are in excellent form, and overall there are no glitches in the picture at all. Phenomenal job all the way!

Audio ***

Quite impressive for a 2.0 mix on a film that’s forty-plus years old. Though mostly a dialogue driven film, several set pieces play off incredibly well. Dialogue delivery is amazingly clear from beginning to end.

Features ****

Criterion crafts yet another splendid two-disc set with this release, which is a real treat since the original DVD release included nothing. On Disc One, we have the feature itself as well as the Theatrical Trailer. Disc Two contains the meat of the extras, starting with a brand new video interview with author John le Carre, 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, an audio conversation from 1985 between director Martin Ritt and film historian Patrick McGilligan and a set design gallery. Finally, and true to the Criterion way of their DVD releases, we get an insert booklet featuring a new essay by critic Michael Sragow.

Summary:

Criterion’s marvelously restored release of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is one of true must-own releases of the year.  It’s a film made specifically for those who are easily enthralled by stories involving the spy underworld, such as I am. Acted superbly by Richard Burton and masterfully directed by Martin Ritt, this espionage-laden classic is sure to have hooked in for every second.

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