Theaters: May 1965
Streaming: July 2004
Runtime: 112 minutes
Genre: Action – Classics – Drama – Mystery – Suspense – Thriller
Amazon: 4.3/5 stars
Rotten Tomatoes Critics: 7.7/10
Rotten Tomatoes Audience: 3.7/5
Metacritic Metascore: NA/100
Metacritic User Score: NA/10
Awards: 1 Golden Globe
Directed by: Martin Ritt
Written by: Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper (screenplay), John le Carré (book)
Music by: Sol Kaplan
Cast: Richard Burton, Oskar Werner, Claire Bloom
Film Locations: Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, UK
Worldwide Box Office: $7,600,000
Alec Leamas (Burton), station chief for the British “Circus” in West Berlin, has just lost one of his operatives and is recalled to London. He is given a new mission in London to play the part of an angry alcoholic, drummed out the secret service, desperately in need of money to get by, and to make his plight as public as possible. The East Germans take notice of his condition and entice him to defect; trading state secrets for a cushy retirement. He agrees and is whisked off to East Berlin to be interrogated. His cover story quickly nabs a double agent in the East German spy office but Leamas finds himself a pawn rather than the checking knight.
Germany after WWII was divided into 3 sectors in which Britain, the US and the Soviet Union administered starting in 1944. From 1944 to 1948, Berlin was administered jointly by the 3 powers but in 1949 the Soviets claimed sole possession of East Berlin and declared it the capital of Germany Democratic Republic. The post-war East Berlin economy was ruined, as it was in West Berlin, but because of Soviet control it was excluded from the Marshall Plan used to rebuild the rest of western Europe. East Berlin’s centrally planned economy had supposedly the highest standard of living in the Soviet controlled sphere of Europe and Asia but the inhabitants were leaving the city and country in droves, with estimates of 1000 per day leaving in 1960. To stop the emigration and retain skilled workers, up went the wall in 1961 and the East German soldiers were instructed to shoot to kill anyone trying to escape. The East Germany security forces, the Stasi, formed in 1950, tightened their grip on the East German citizens, spying on everyone to break up any dissent. Additionally the Stasi extensively infiltrated West Germany to obtain industrial, political, and military secrets, eventually bringing down West German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1974 because his personal secretary was an East German spy.
David John Moore Cornwell, a British writer of mysteries and spy novels under the pen name of John le Carré, worked for the English secret service until his 3rd novel in 1963, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, became an international best seller. He quit the service in that year and devoted his time to writing, mainly cold war spy novels dealing with the psychology of gamesmanship and spy craft rather than James Bond type action. His stories usually center around the moral cost of attempting to contain the communist empire without absorbing the stain of their criminality and depravity. Prior to his 1963 novel being published, Heinz Paul Johann Felfe, a German double agent that spied for everyone, Nazis, Soviets, West Germans, Brits; was caught by the West Germans, while in their employ, in 1961, and sent to prison for treason.
Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper wrote the screenplay for the movie and it follows the novel very closely. Dehn was a writer of plays, musicals and movies. His first screenplay in 1950, Seven Days to Noon, won him an Oscar. Guy Trosper was a writer and producer from Lander, Wyoming best known for this movie and the 1962, Birdman of Alcatraz.
Martin Ritt, actor, director, writer, and producer, gives the viewer a somber message of spy craft without any glamour or gadgets. Presenting a story about dubious principles and ugly spy results, he sticks to script and makes one of the best spy movies of all time. This is his 2nd best movie, his 1963 Hud is his best. The rest of his 30 or so movies are just a rehash of communist talking points and politically correct drivel. Nominated many times for Best Director he never managed to pull down Oscar or a Golden Globe.
The acting in this movie couldn’t get any better. Richard Burton and Claire Bloom team up to create a tragic series of dichotomies revolving around youth and age, communism and freedom, innocence and cynicism, idealism and debauchery. In the end they are both occupying the same poles, one learning nothing, the other wanting to learn no more.
This is a movie you need to add to your “Must Watch in My Lifetime” list.