By 1965, when Martin Ritt's adaptation of John le Carré's breakthrough novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was released to theaters, Sean Connery was already three movies into his stint as James Bond, and the Bond version of a spy's life had become entrenched in the popular imagination. That's unfortunate, because the image Richard Burton cultivates in Ritt's film—cynical and world-weary, yet crafty, brave, and patriotic—seems closer to the real thing, as does the stuffy bureaucracy of the spy game. Yes, it's still a dangerous occupation, but it's neither glamorous nor action-packed; in most instances, Burton's job is to outsmart his adversaries and devise how to navigate the Cold War's shifting allegiances and subtle treachery.
In a tense opening standoff at a checkpoint between East and West Berlin, Burton's weathered British agent watches in horror as East German troops shoot down a valuable operative. After he's recalled to London and demoted to a desk job in his agency—by appearances, anyway—East German intelligence officials sense they have a potential defector on their hands, and work to woo Burton to the communist side. In concert with a pushy interrogator (Oskar Werner), Burton seeks to implicate another East German as a double agent working for the British, but of course, he has ulterior motives. The one major wrinkle is his romantic relationship with a British librarian (Claire Bloom), which figures in at a pivotal moment.
Shooting in a black-and-white that registers more as an appropriately overcast gray, Ritt perhaps goes too far in capturing the somber, heady tone of le Carré's novel, losing some suspense as a result. But he and Burton get the dry wit of le Carré's work just right; many of the film's best lines are pressed through Burton's perpetual fatigue, like "If ever I have to break your neck, I promise to do it with a minimum of force," or "She offered me free love. At the time, that was all I could afford." The Spy Who Came In From The Cold introduced a new spy archetype: the man (almost) without a country.
Key features: The highlight is a terrific new interview with le Carré, who remembers the making of the movie as if it were yesterday. Vintage interviews with Ritt and Burton, plus another doc, round out the package.