A master of the spy novel whose work inspired some of the most memorable films of the genre, John le Carré died on December 12, 2020. We honor him with Andrei Gorzo’s fine analysis of Martin Ritt’s 1965 film version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and associated subjects.
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- “A grim exposition of the ignoble art of double-bluff”
John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was published in 1963 and became a huge best-seller throughout the capitalist camp of the Cold War. It was le Carré’s third novel. Unlike some of his later work, which would grow inflated, it was short and taut, making use of spare, unaffected prose (and considerable finesse in the business of witholding crucial information from the reader) to unfold a plot that has become justly celebrated. (Kenneth Tynan once described it as a “grim exposition of the ignoble art of double-bluff.”1)
The year is 1962 – before the Cuban Missile Crisis and not long after the Berlin Wall came up. Alec Leamas works for British Intelligence. He has been stationed in West Germany. (Le Carré wrote the novel while working as a British junior diplomat – and, of course, spy – in Bonn.) Called back to London, he is asked by his Control to play a part in an elaborate charade: he has to pose as an agent who has been kicked out of the Secret Service and has consequently gone to seed; full of resentment, he would be open to a proposal from the Communist side. Once he has defected, his mission is to discredit Mundt, the ex-Nazi who runs East German counter-intelligence. Leamas is to plant false information about him, making it appear that he is really a traitor in the pay of the British; of course, he is to do this in a non-obvious way, laying out clues in a pattern that would allow Mundt’s second-in-command, Fiedler, to draw the conclusion.
But this is only what Leamas believes he is doing; this is what he’s been told about his mission. His true role is to strengthen Mundt’s credibility with the Communist side, because Mundt really is a double agent working for the British, and, as a high-ranking figure in the Abteilung, he is a great asset for them. So Control’s scheme is designed to save Mundt’s skin by making it appear that there is a British conspiracy to frame him – a conspiracy involving Leamas and Mundt’s own number two, Fiedler, who is a Jew and hates his ex-Nazi boss. It is Fiedler who has to be eliminated, because he has started to suspect the truth. As for Leamas, who was told that his job was to discredit Mundt, it is he who must be discredited – by letting the East Germans know that the British Secret Service, which he is supposed to have betrayed, is still making payments to his London girlfriend. (This plan would work even if Leamas didn’t have a girlfriend: the payments would then be made to a random acquaintance or colleague of his, making it look as if they were romantically involved. Leamas makes things easy for them by truly becoming involved with someone.)
So it turns out that “superior” interests – the interests of those acting in the name of the free world or Western civilization – dictate that the Jew should be killed while the anti-Semitic ex-Nazi should prosper. It’s a justly celebrated plot twist – it explodes the good-versus-evil polarities of Cold War propaganda, radiating moral and political complexity.
- “A quiet American story”
At the time the novel was published, le Carré described it in a letter as “a sort of quiet American story set in Berlin.” Much later he would tell his biographer, Adam Sisman, that he no longer knew what he had meant by that comparison.2 But there’s nothing very mysterious about le Carré referencing Graham Greene’s 1955 novel: Greene was le Carré’s acknowledged literary model; and it was in The Quiet American – a novel in which the well-meaning American exporter of democracy turns out to be murderous, while, in order “to remain human,” the British neutralist helps the Communist side get rid of him – that Greene turned against the Cold War rhetoric of the Western side. It was also Greene who, a few years earlier, had scripted the first great cinematic representation of a city divided by the Cold War – The Third Man (1949), directed by Carol Reed on location in Vienna. When Martin Ritt came to shoot his 1965 adaptation of le Carré’s Spy, he had to build his replica of the Wall in Dublin, but his reconstructed Berlin (shot in black-and-white by Oswald Morris) is nonetheless atmospheric in the tradition of The Third Man and Reed’s later, Berlin-set The Man Between (1953): a nocturnal vision of soft rain, glistening pavements, gleaming cars, street lamps in the mist, lonely sentinels in cabins and raincoated spies walking moodily, it exudes a similar kind of melancholy grandeur. And compare the name of Leamas, which suggests a slug-like creature – slippery and also shell-less, perhaps repulsive – with Greene’s Wormold – the antihero of Our Man in Havana (1958), a novel which for le Carré was no less formative than The Quiet American.
- “A despairingly left-wing film”
In his 1998 book The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism, J. Hoberman describes Martin Ritt’s screen version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as a “despairingly left-wing film” that ends with “the Rosenberg couple of our dreams – Claire Bloom’s naïve, beautiful Communist and Richard Burton’s cynical spy-who-loves-her – shot attempting to scramble West over the Wall.”3 This reading of the film is similar to the one offered by le Carré himself in his 2016 memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel. He calls Ritt an
accomplished film director of great heart and daunting life experience. He had served in the US forces in the Second World War. He had been, if not a member of the Communist Party, one of its most devoted fellow-travellers. His unabashed admiration for Karl Marx had got him blacklisted by the television industry in which he had acted and directed with distinction. He had directed any amount of theatre, much of it leftist, including a show for Russian War Relief in Madison Square Garden. He had directed ten feature films back to back, notably Hud with Paul Newman a year previously. And he made no secret of the fact, from the moment we sat down, that he saw in my novel some kind of crossing-point from his earlier convictions to his present state of impotent disgust at McCarthyism, the cowardice of too many of his peers and comrades in the witness box, the failure of communism and the sickening sterility of the Cold War. And Ritt, as he was quick to tell you, was Jewish to the core. If his family hadn’t suffered directly in the Holocaust – though I believe it had – he personally had suffered, and continued to suffer, for his entire race. Ardently and articulately, his Jewish identity was a constant theme with him. And this became more relevant once we started talking about the movie he intended to make of my novel. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, two idealistic communists, one an innocent woman librarian from London, the other a member of East German Intelligence, are callously sacrificed for the greater good of the Western (capitalist) cause. Both are Jews.4
The film’s Control (Cyril Cusack) tells Leamas (Burton) that “we do disagreeable things, but we’re defensive. Our policies are peaceful, but our methods can’t afford to be less ruthless than those of the opposition. You can’t be less wicked than your enemy simply because your government’s policy is benevolent.” Le Carré’s novel features an almost identical version of this speech. In a searching 2018 book on le Carré, British critic Toby Manning argues that Control’s distinction between ends and means is never truly challenged by the rest of the novel, which, contrary to its reputation, is still imbued with anti-Communist Cold War thinking.5 Whether this is true of the novel or not, it is more difficult to argue the same thing about Ritt’s film.
In the course of the film, there are three characters who talk about ends justifying means. The first is Cusack’s prissy, upper-class Control, who also mentions parenthetically that “Fiedler’s a Jew, of course, and Mundt’s quite the other thing”; his use of euphemism, with its air of even-handedness, has something ineffably obscene about it. (Reading John le Carré’s 1965 follow-up to The Spy, The Looking Glass War, Richard Burton would note in his diary that “le Carré writes about that clubby class of Englishmen as well as anybody I’ve ever read.”6) Later in the film, Oskar Werner’s Fieldler remarks that “innocent people die every day” and that “they might as well do so for a reason.” He adds: “Afterwards I may draw up a purely academic balance – twenty men killed, fifteen women, nine children, and an advance of three yards [towards the goal of Communism].” Finally, Leamas himself tells his Communist librarian girfriend (Claire Bloom) that the whole sordid business is somehow for the good of “the great, moronic masses that you admire so much,” who thanks to people like him “can sleep soundly in their flea-bitten beds.”
But we have to take such statements on trust. The film neither shows us nor makes us feel any connection between society – capitalist or socialist – and the scheming of those pretending to protect it. The socialist society being defended by Fiedler remains invisible: the East Germany that he and Leamas pass through feels depopulated – a wintry abstraction. And the actual content of Fiedler’s beliefs – the Communism that he feels he’s advancing toward – is never actually expressed: we have to take it on trust from him that it’s a worthy goal, that an advance of three yards in that direction can justify the killing of nine children. Thanks in part to Werner’s casting, Fiedler is not an unsympathetic character: he is hound-like, but with an open-faced youthfulness behind the beard and the beret and the revolutionary severity and the chilling talk about purely academic balances of lives sacrificed against yards gained. But this element of personal warmth doesn’t compensate for the fact that we are not made to see or feel what he’s actually defending.
We see rather more of the London that the British Secret Service pretends to be protecting – and it is certainly no glamorous advertisement for the Free World. Shot by Oswald Morris in stark black-and-white, it’s resolutely pre-Pop Art, pre-Swinging London. It’s a depressed, chilly, lower-middle-class London of Labor Exchange offices, small shop grocers, and wan librarians. It hasn’t left the 1950s yet. Its dreariness could be said to prove Leamas’s point about the drab, ignorant masses sleeping while they are being protected by sordid little spies like him. But these are just words – which Burton, who excels at self-lacerating sarcasm, hisses with a powerful suggestion of self-hatred. In fact, we don’t see the greater good, the supposed utility of operations such as the one he’s been (blindly) involved in. This is John le Carré’s essential sleight of hand: it abstracts the confrontation between secret services, making it look as if it has lost all connection to competing political causes, to rival models of society; the secret services have become completely absorbed by the traps they set for each other – it has become scheming for the sake of scheming, and they have become monstrous excrescences. Accepted at the time by many as the antidote to Bondian glamorization, this vision allows the secret services a different kind of glamor: to the extent that the mystique of spies is a mystique of competence, this vision feeds it – it allows them to be masterminds, infinitely subtle schemers. At the time, le Carré himself seemed to worry that he had consolidated the mystique of spies and spying instead of debunking it. His penitence was The Looking Glass War – a bitter comedy of ineptness, full of spies who can’t even get breakfast right. If The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was “a quiet American story,” The Looking Glass War was an Our Man in Havana sort of tale.
Once Leamas realizes that he and especially his innocent girlfriend have been used as pawns in a kill-the-Jew-and-save-the-Nazi scheme serving a dubious “greater good,” the only move left to him – the only way to assert his humanity and rebuke the ruthless schemers – is self-destruction: climbing down from the Wall on the Eastern side instead of jumping to Western safety, choosing togetherness in death with his shot girlfriend. Le Carré’s construction makes this suicidal act inevitable and beautiful – the only gesture through which despairing humanism can assert itself against the inhumanity of the (Western) cold warriors.
In the novel, the killing of the girl is narrated ambiguously: Leamas has been told that the East German border guards have been bribed to allow them 90 seconds for climbing the wall, but the searchlights turn on them before they’ve finished climbing; shooting starts – it’s logical for the reader to assume that it is East German shooting – and the girl dies. In a 2010 article on the book, the novelist William Boyd proposed a different reading, in which the British Secret Service
always intended that Leamas should escape – should come in from the cold – and that Liz should die on the wall. She knows too much: free in the west, she would be too much of a liability. […] George Smiley, off-screen mastermind of this devilish brew of bluff and counter-bluff, is waiting for him. Leamas hears Smiley shout: “The girl, where is the girl?” But what Smiley wants to know is not whether the girl is safe but whether the girl is dead. That is the key implication (or so I read it) – that she’s never coming over and was never meant to. Leamas suddenly understands this – it is the final betrayal he suffers – and he climbs back down to the east and meets his fate.7
It’s interesting that Boyd doesn’t mention Martin Ritt’s film, which, long before Boyd’s article, had come up with the same interpretation of le Carré’s ending. As Gabriel Miller puts it in his study of Ritt’s films, “the director makes a departure from the novel by showing the face of Nan’s [le Carré’s Liz] executioner: he is the same man who gave them the escape instructions. He is Mundt’s man and, by extension, London’s.”8
- A Paul Dehn film
The film’s screenplay is credited to Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper. According to Miller’s The Films of Martin Ritt: Fanfare for the Common Man, it was the American Trosper who wrote the first draft, “attempting to solidify the novel’s emblematic characters by providing background details that only fuzzed the clear political-moral implications of the story.”9 (Le Carré was alarmed by these changes – and also by Ritt’s intention to cast Burt Lancaster as Leamas. According to le Carré, Ritt tried to reassure him by insisting that Lancaster could “play it Canadian.”10) But Trosper fell ill and died soon after (The Spy would be his last credit). To le Carré’s relief, he was replaced by Dehn, an Englishman who, apart from being a poet, award-winning screenwriter, and veteran film critic, had been an instructor for covert Allied agents during World War II, writing The Complete S.O.E. [Special Operations Executive] Counter Espionage Manual and, according to le Carré, particpating himself in covert missions to occupied France. In an interview featured on a 2008 DVD of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, le Carré describes Dehn as “a professional assassin.”11
Dehn was also a humanist who had emerged from World War II with a strong apprehension about atomic power. Nuclear paranoia permeates his 1961 poetry collection Quake, Quake, Quake: A Leaden Treasury of English Verse (illustrated by Edward Gorey). American producer Mort Abrahams, who would hire Dehn in 1968 to script the Planet of the Apes sequels, would maintain that he had hired him as much for his poetry as for his previous screenwriting.12 Apart from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Dehn’s screenwriting included by then a number of expensive jobs: Goldfinger, which came out a year before The Spy (and features a nuclear bomb); The Deadly Affair (1967), another John le Carré adaptation (directed by Sidney Lumet), which he was hired to do on the strength of his work on The Spy; and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1967 The Taming of the Shrew (which also starred Richard Burton).
But, apart from The Spy, Dehn’s most personal work is to be found in two earlier, relatively modest English pictures: the Boulting brothers’ Seven Days to Noon (1950), for which Dehn co-wrote the original story with composer James Bernard (who was to be his life partner until Dehn’s death in 1976), the script itself being credited to Frank Harvey and Roy Boulting; and Anthony Asquith’s Orders to Kill (1958). These films and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold make up a trilogy dramatizing the dilemmas of humanism in the contexts of dirty secret service work and atomic armament.
In Seven Days to Noon, a British atomic scientist suffers a nervous breakdown (he is distressed by the apocalyptic implications of his work), steals a bomb, and threatens to detonate it in the center of London if the government doesn’t stop producing such weapons. This mad scientist is not demonized; on the other hand, his desperate pacifism is kept at a safe distance from the viewer. In spirit, Seven Days to Noon is still very much a WWII picture: it celebrates consensus; as the city is being evacuated, it shows everybody doing their duty with amiable stoicism. It is chiefly memorable for its documentary-like representation of an evacuated London – the haunting shots of empty streets and abandoned pets whimpering in their cages.
In the World War II drama Orders to Kill, a member of the French Resistance is suspected of actually working for the Germans. A young American bomber pilot (Paul Massie) is sent on a secret mission to eliminate him. First he is sent to a training camp (presumably similar to the one in which Dehn had instructed agents in – among other things – the niceties of bare-hands killing). This section of the film is disconcertingly jaunty: the training is done with a touch of macabre humor, and the immature young man tends to treat his mission as a lark. It is only when he gets to France and meets his target (who may be innocent after all) that he develops doubts. Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966) has a celebrated scene dramatizing the gruesomeness and sheer difficulty of taking a single life – the weight of life. Orders to Kill plays like an extension of that scene – the entire film is a dramatization of that theme. It is an earnest and memorably anguished inquiry.
Dehn’s faithful adaptation of le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (essentially, what he did was eliminate Guy Trosper’s departures from the book, steering the script back to le Carré’s story line; he also sharpened the dialogue) can be seen as the culmination of this Paul Dehn trilogy begun with Seven Days to Noon and continued with Orders to Kill. Le Carré’s story and Martin Ritt’s intentions with it clearly suited Dehn’s own concerns with humanism in extremis – humanism cornered, humanism caught in a cul-de-sac – in the atomic age. The detail of Nan (the Communist librarian who falls in love with Leamas) having taken part in anti-nuclear demonstrations could be considered a Dehn signature. Incidentally, it was Guy Trosper who changed that character’s name from Liz Gold to Nan Perry, thus excising her Jewishness and making the story’s Jews-as-victims theme less insistent (though still very prominent). It was a change that Dehn retained.13
- “A bookish movie issuing from a cinematic book”
In the not unfavorable review14 that he gave to Ritt’s Spy, Manny Farber complained that the film, though “pungent and more provoking” than Richard Lester’s Help! or Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, is visually rather pedestrian. Of course, with Leamas having to feed Fiedler all those false clues incriminating Mundt, The Spy was always going to be a very verbal affair. Still, Farber found it an excessively “bookish movie issuing from a cinematic book,” noticing, for example, that Burton’s Leamas is more of an intellectual (of the alienated sort) than he is in the book and that the filmmakers had eliminated the novel’s one action scene – the one scene in which this hero shows some physical prowess.
The truth is that Ritt was seldom an exciting stylist, and some of his films are flagrantly poor in cinematic texture. For example, in the 1970 The Great White Hope (where he is adapting a play), his mise en scène is so perfunctory that the results are cinematically listless as well as ponderously didactic. The on-location Paris of Paris Blues feels studio-bound – the film is from 1961, but it doesn’t seem to belong to the era of the French New Wave. This is partly the reason why, in J. Hoberman’s words, “Ritt (1914-90) was regarded by auteurists as a middlebrow liberal, if not a hack.”15 (His travesties of Hemingway and Faulkner – The Long Hot Summer, The Sound and the Fury, Hemingway’s Adventures as a Young Man – surely didn’t help. Nor did his 1964 The Outrage – the film he did right before The Spy – a profoundly unnecessary remake of Rashomon.) In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, scenes tend to close in an unimaginatively formal manner: a scene in a London strip joint (where Leamas is taken by the Eastern agents who want to recruit him) ends with the camera zooming in on the dancer and the music intensifying. One of the interrogation scenes with Leaamas and Fiedler is done as a walk-and-talk on a beach. It ends with the interrogator asking, “Shall we continue indoors?,” and Burton leaving the frame. For punctuation, Ritt keeps the camera on the crashing waves for two more seconds. A similar scene takes place indoors and ends with someone asking, “Would you like some fresh air?,” for no other reason than the same obvious need (which after a while starts to feel a bit desperate) to move the characters and vary the scenery. The scenery – the beach, the mountains – doesn’t register much anyway; it’s all just background for the talkers, places where they unleash rounds and rounds of plot-related talk.
But the intellectual maneuvering is in itself absorbing – and Ritt’s merits include his willingness not to simplify it. They also include the quality of his sympathy for the story’s two major Communist characters – Fiedler and Nan. The girl is not a particularly developed character in either novel or screenplay. Making her naïve while allowing her considerable intelligence and dignity was an accomplishment calling for a certain directorial delicacy – along with the luminous gravitas brought by Claire Bloom to the character’s mixture of the sexually straightforward and the demure. There certainly are Ritt pictures in which his Old Left earnestness looks square, but in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (as in the caustic “new western” Hombre, which immediately followed it), the humanistic commitment – to a notion of community, to acting altruistically, to the gesture that can rebuke and transcend cynicism – is understated to elegant and powerful effect.
- Burton’s “brief, shining moment” as the Bogart of Cold War narratives
Manny Farber was not completely happy with the film’s Leamas: he chided the filmmakers for having overemphasized his depressed, “dull, pudgy side” while playing down the fact that, as shown in the novel, he is “a subtly talented technician” as well as a physically strong man. Still, Farber singled out a few moments in which Burton’s Leamas had touched him on his own terms – for instance, a shot in which Burton, manacled hands-to-feet in a bare cell, “manages a surprisingly truthful effect of middle-aged discomfort and defeat, like a sort of grounded, misshapen sea monster.” The stocky, broad-shouldered Burton (who was 40 when the film came out) looks both physically threatening and somewhat out of shape, with suggestions of soured natural vigor and bloodshot-eyed brutishness. Of course, he is very good at looking dissolute and dishevelled. He is also very good at the acrid, nasty intellectualism – the sneering, the contempt that can turn inward at any moment. He is often to be seen huddled against the cold, with the collar of his coat raised – the filmmakers play le Carré’s titular metaphor for all it’s worth. Kenneth Tynan wrote that, by the end of the film, his “dour and expressively ravaged face comes to resemble a bullet-chipped wall against which many executions have taken place.” In an essay on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Michael Sragow wrote that “here, for one brief, shining moment, he became a Bogart for an age of disillusionment.”16 It was a position that Burton tried to consolidate by playing another disenchanted intellectual in Peter Glenville’s The Comedians (1967), based on one of Graham Greene’s dramas of neutrality vs. political commitment, but that film was too weak and the moment passed.
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Images are screenshots from the DVD or Blu-ray.
- Kenneth Tynan, Tynan Right & Left: Plays, Films, People, Faces and Events, Atheneum, 1967, 250. [↩]
- Adam Sisman, John le Carré: The Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, ebook version, 785 and 842. [↩]
- J. Hoberman, The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism, Temple University Press, 1998, 5 and 269. [↩]
- John le Carré, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, Viking, 2016, 417-18. [↩]
- Toby Manning, John le Carré and the Cold War, Bloomsbury, 2018, 66-73. [↩]
- Chris Williams (ed.) The Richard Burton Diaries, Yale University Press, 2012, 412. [↩]
- William Boyd, “Rereading: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré,” The Guardian, 24 July 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jul/24/carre-spy-came-cold-boyd, last accessed on 16 April 2021. [↩]
- Gabriel Miller, The Films of Martin Ritt: Fanfare for the Common Man, University Press of Mississippi, 2000, 91. [↩]
- Miller, The Films of Martin Ritt, 83. [↩]
- Le Carré, The Pigeon Tunnel, 420. [↩]
- Quoted by David Kipen in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Schreiber: The Unsung Achievement of Screenwriter Paul Dehn,” VQR, Winter 2003, https://www.vqronline.org/articles/tinker-tailor-soldier-schreiber, last accessed on 17 April 2021. [↩]
- Joe Russo, Larry Landsman, Edward Gross, Planet of the Apes Revisited: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Classic Science Fiction Saga, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001, 102. [↩]
- Miller, The Films of Martin Ritt, 83-84. [↩]
- Manny Farber, Farber on Film: The Complete Writings of Manny Farber, edited by Robert Polito, Library of America, 2009, 562-566. [↩]
- J. Hoberman, “In Hombre and Kid Blue, the Antiheroes Wear Stetsons and Ride Tall on a Rebellion Frontier,” New York Times, 23 August 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/23/movies/homevideo/in-hombre-and-kid-blue-the-antiheroes-wear-stetsons-ride-tall-on-a-rebellion-frontier.html, last accessed on 18 April 2021. [↩]
- Michael Sragow, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: True Ritt,” Criterion, 10 September 2013, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/765-the-spy-who-came-in-from-the-cold-true-ritt, last accessed on 19 April 2021. [↩]