Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

John Le Carre has long been the master of the intelligent spy novel, the kind that seems to exist in a separate world from the likes of James Bond. Presenting the world of the cold war spy as a dark, treacherous place with realism at its core, today's flick of the day is one of the best adaptations of Le Carre's work outside of the BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness.
Starring the inimitable Richard Burton in the Oscar nominated role of the ageing tired British operative in Cold War Berlin, Alec Leamas. After losing another agent in a failed operation, Alec is recalled to London for a meeting with "Control", the head of the "Circus". He is to be pulled from field operations, but only for a special purpose, an elaborate plan to cause chaos on the other side by operating as a double agent. In order to make his defection appear plausible, he is stripped of his job, becomes an alcoholic and is imprisoned in a humiliating manner. Before long, the East Germans make contact and Alec switches sides. Like all great stories, all is not as it seems and there are a number of twists in the tale before a thrilling and tragic finale.
The main thrust of this story is that the activities engaged in by Western intelligence agencies can quite often not be squared with the supposed democratic values of their countries. The film is hard hitting and bleak throughout but has a powerful message at its core with Burton's portrayal of a disaffected and burnt out agent carrying the film throughout. 

Alec Leamas: [Yawns] 
Peters: Tired? 
Alec Leamas: Aren't you? 
Peters: No, I didn't have any drink with my supper. 
Alec Leamas: I didn't have any supper with my drink.

Though Ireland and Britain stand in for East Berlin, the film feels authentic throughout, a hallmark of the work of Le Carre. This gritty realism did not transpond to success at the Box Office, but it has meant that the film has stood the test of time unlike so many of its contemporaries.
Indeed the stark black and white photography does build an oppressive mood which is only released in the final scene. The film lives or dies with Burton's portrayal however and he is a rock throughout, never wavering in the belief system that he lives by.

Alec Leamas: What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?

This is one of the finest spy movies of all time, led by a grandstanding performance, and a realistic portrayal of a profession. This is a genuine must see for any fan of the genre.

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