(written for MovieMail in 2006)
‘This new girl, she never warms the pot. Hm. She’s called Patrice; imagine.’
The Spy who came in from the Cold is a cold war espionage film of the highest class. Richard Burton is Leamas, station head in Berlin, powerless to prevent his agents losing their lives. Control (Cyril Cusack) asks him back to London and wonders if he should ‘come in from the cold’; then invites him to stay out in it, just for a little longer. He says, ‘Our work is based on a single assumption that the West is never going to be the aggressor. Thus, 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.’ So begins a poker-faced section of elisions and uncertainty over Leamas’s actions – which is the last I’ll say about the plot.
Burton’s presence is magnetic – but crucially not at the expense of the overall atmosphere of the film, which is one of shabby existential torpor. He plays a man who has been too long in a world where the only loyalty is to expediency. Ever-watchful, at points his self-composed stillness explodes into a snarling intensity. Spies are ‘a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me’ he says. Claire Bloom plays the earnest, perkily innocent librarian who gets drawn into his connections. There’s no glamour here though – his is a world of smoky boozers and rain, the labour exchange and tinned tomato soup from the corner shop.
Other elements of the film maintain the atmosphere. A superb cast means that even relatively minor roles – Pitt, Ashe, the Personnel officer who picks up Leamas from the airport – are clearly delineated and carry conviction. Peter van Eyck’s Mundt too is impossible to forget, his characterisation based on a line from le Carré’s Call for the Dead in which he is described as having the ‘look of complete negation that reposes in the eyes of a young killer’. Oswald Morris’s camera roams softly around, laying out the geography of offices, cells and the puddly courtyards with an oily darkness to their ground. This seemingly picks up on a line from le Carré’s novel when Leamas reflects that he and the girl from the library ‘might have been anywhere – Berlin, London, any town where paving stones turn to lakes of light in the evening rain, and the traffic shuffles despondently through wet streets.’ Sol Kaplan’s score is sparing and appropriate; often though there is no sound at all except the quietness of a room in which two people try to second-guess each other, wondering how much the other knows and how much they should tell.
However, the most impressive element of the film for me is Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper’s screenplay, from John le Carré’s source novel of the same name. Their script is in fact even more impressive when compared with the original book. Their changes are wholesale – of necessity they have removed anything that would muddy or lengthen the narrative too much but they have then added scenes, such as Nan meeting Leamas when he comes out of prison, as ways of covering these gaps. Pieces of description are transposed from one scene to another and names are changed; Liz Gold becomes Nan Perry for example. Overall however, Dehn and Trosper manage to preserve wholesale the atmosphere and the integrity of the original.
Sure, in a couple of places they dot the i’s and cross the t’s (for example with regard to ‘operation Rolling Stone’, but this is evened out by those places where they leave the viewer to join the dots. As with the appearance of Mr. Pitt at the Labour Exchange. Leamas gives him a glance as he enters the building. When called he says, ‘The last time and the time before I was seen by Mr. Melrose’ to which he gets the reponse, ‘My name’s Pitt, Melrose has ‘flu.’ And that’s it, but it’s just enough to set the doubt in our minds that he is a plant and part of some larger plan. The mention that Melrose has ‘flu is the key detail though. It’s extraneous to the plot but it aids the damp and down-at-heel atmosphere of this section of the film. It’s these apparently offhand details that do so much for the atmosphere of the film.
There’s another good example of this early on, in the scene already mentioned between Control and Leamas. The line is, again, simple and offhand: ‘This new girl, she never warms the pot. Hm. She’s called Patrice; imagine.’ Everything in it is entirely an invention of the screenwriters. Le Carré’s novel makes has no mention of the girl’s name and Control serves coffee instead of tea. Yet the line works. It locates a certain time and place perfectly, marrying a certain quaintness (warming the teapot) with notions of exoticism – the name Patrice. I think the reason it really sticks though is down to Cusack’s delivery, which is masterly; his pause after ‘pot’, his nod as he says ‘Patrice’, his brief sniff at the end. And all the while Burton is staring at him intently, wondering why he’s there, trying to see past this preamble and waiting for the point of the meeting. Burton fixes our attention on Cusack and as he waits for the point, so do we and hang on his every word.
Further comparison with the book also reveals that nearly all of the memorable lines in the film are the screenwriters’ invention too. This is partly due to the difference in format of course, as long conversations need replacing with shorter, pithier remarks, redolent with meaning. Nevertheless, it’s impressive that so many stick in the mind. Near the end, Mundt tells Leamas and Nan of the the plan to get them back to their own side, adding: ‘the boy meets you there. He’s quite young but he knows the war.’ It’s another casual remark that slips by almost without notice, but it assumes terrible retrospective meaning. You could call it the conversational equivalent of a loaded gun.