The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is about many things, but it’s mainly a film about Richard Burton’s face. Martin Ritt’s 1965 adaptation of John Le Carré’s 1963 Cold War novel is obsessed with the countenance of its lead, which—whether in close-up, or shunted off to the corner of the frame—expresses the heartbreaking weariness and anguish of this gloomiest of spy films. In Burton’s lined visage, often impassive beneath a tussled mop of hair and above an equally disheveled suit, there’s nothing but pain, exhaustion, and a resignation that the callous business of international espionage affords little but misery. That’s certainly true for Burton’s burnt-out secret agent, who after a stint as the head of England’s Berlin office, doesn’t get to retire, but instead is tasked with a mission to take down Peter Van Eyck’s East German bigwig, a former Nazi now working with the communists.
That plot is, per Le Carré’s standards, an intricate one that requires Burton to pose as a defector in order to be taken in by Van Eyck’s second-in-command Oskar Werner, a Jew whom Burton’s superior, Cyril Cusack, believes is desperate to (figuratively, if not also literally) stab his own boss in the back. Burton’s job is to convince Werner that Van Eyck is in fact a British spy, which will compel Van Eyck’s comrades to turn on him so that the Brits don’t have to assassinate him themselves. It’s a scheme that initially calls for Burton to act like a drunken lout so that he might catch the communists’ attention, a role that the spy—and the actor—embrace with relish, with the film’s leading man slurring his words and punching out grocers with a gusto that’s transfixing.
As is so often the case with expertly planned conspiracies, however, there’s soon an unexpected fly in the ointment: Claire Bloom’s librarian, who Burton meets, and soon falls in love with, after taking a job at her business. Bloom’s socialist ideals clash with Burton’s jaded disbelief in anything, be it Santa, God, or Karl Marx. As he confesses with furious despondency at the conclusion of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the only thing that governs his line of work, and therefore his own actions, is “expediency,” a principle that leads squalid men to commit foul acts in the interests of bottom-line victory.
That dour outlook is reflected in everything from the action’s cold, grimy locales, to the imposing hardness of the Berlin Wall checkpoints separating its combatants, to Burton, who oozes morose hopelessness with every stern stare and pursed-lip utterance. Like the werewolves he and Bloom briefly discuss, his spy is a man transformed into a monster—not of the hairy lycanthropic sort, but of the cold, emotionless, triumph-at-any-cost variety. The starkly composed black-and white visuals, courtesy of Ritt and cinematographer Oswald Morris, marginalize Burton by relegating him to the screen’s edges. Ensnared in constricting physical spaces, Burton is a figure of piercing tragedy, one whose doom—as seen in the last of many heartbreaking close-ups—is of his own doing, and inescapable no matter the course he chooses.
Also this week:
But bleak Cold War spy games aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, so the Criterion Collection offers some lighter fare this week with a new Blu-ray release of La Cage Aux Folles. Otherwise, however, this week’s classic home-video slate is a pre-Halloween collection of thrillers and scare-athons. Vincent Price stars in the original 1958 version of The Fly, Dario Argento delivers lurid frights with 1970’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, and Jason Voorhees terrorizes Crystal Lake campers—over, and over, and over again—in Friday The 13th: The Complete Collection. For those looking for less gore and more suspense, an impressive trio should do the trick: the Dustin Hoffman-Laurence Olivier gem Marathon Man, Brian De Palma’s underrated Snake Eyes, and the Matt Damon-headlined adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Far less exciting are this week’s new offerings, though Star Trek Into Darkness does afford another opportunity to experience J.J. Abrams’ dull Kahn riffing. Tyler Perry Presents Peeples offers comedy that’s slightly less ungainly than its title, and Frankenstein’s Army affords more found-footage horror, this time in the titular mad scientist’s Nazi-funded WWII lab. Fiction and non-fiction investigations dominate the rest: tireless documentarian Alex Gibney looks into Julian Assange with We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks; Paul Bettany and Mark Strong are cops probing a crime they perpetrated in Blood; National Geographic photographer James Balog examines the shifting Arctic landscape with Chasing Ice, a girl goes missing while on vacation in Cambodia in Wish You Were Here; and the mystery of the murderous music icon is plumbed by David Mamet, Al Pacino, and Helen Mirren in Phil Spector.