This film is considered a classic of its genre. I knew this ahead of time, with two consequences:
- My expectations were quite high, perhaps unreasonably so.
- The ending is rather famous, so I was aware of it before I sat down to watch the movie.
I anticipated that the second issue would be a bigger problem than the first, but it was the other way around: The ending (which I won’t mention explicitly in this review) is practically a foregone conclusion that I would have predicted even if I hadn’t known about it. I’ve read that critics were disappointed with it at the time, but I think they missed the point: Large swaths of the plot are all about how individual spies – and people – are expendable, and that it really doesn’t matter how nice you are or what your cause is: the rules of the game state that no one is safe. The film has to end the way it does, to drive home that central message.
That said, the movie isn’t predictable in its entirety. In fact, for a while there I was wondering when the espionage would start. The main character, Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), is a spy alright, but one his superiors consider burnt-out and ineffective. He’s offered a desk job, but he refuses and leaves the agency. Leamas does not adjust well to civilian life; he has difficulty holding down a job, drinks too much, has anger management issues, lands in prison for a short while.
The viewer is given no explanation for this, and it led me to wonder whether this would be a different kind of spy film: one where we see what happens after the agency has chewed you up and spit you out. Even after the above plot is revealed to be a ruse to lure in foreign agents, the way Burton plays the character makes you wonder whether there isn’t some truth to the first assumption: that Leamas really is burnt-out and disillusioned, an empty shell of a man.
The movie’s atmosphere adds to this impression with its stark black-and-white photography, its melancholy and sparsely-utilised score, Burton’s perpetually down-trodden expression, the murky and often rainy sets. The mood is dreary and downright chilly at times, illustrating “the Cold” from the title, a coldness you can’t escape as the viewer, and you can’t escape as a spy, no matter how hard you try.
This brings me to the other danger I mentioned above of watching a movie with such a splendid reputation: expectations can be unrealistic. I can admire what the film does on an intellectual basis, but I just wasn’t engaged emotionally. You could argue that this was by design, to keep the audience at a distance, but I’m not so sure. It seemed to me as if I was supposed to empathise with Leamas, or at the very least with his girlfriend, Nan (Claire Bloom). That never happened. Speaking of, their whole relationship isn’t really made clear at all, and seeing them treated as a couple towards the end of the film when there was almost no such development earlier was surprising, to say the least.
Curiously, the same issue plagues the previously-reviewed A Dandy in Aspic, released two and a half years later (though at least in Cold the love interest eventually plays a part in the main plot). There are other similarities in tone (bleak), setting (Berlin), the aloofness of the protagonist, the attempted realism in portraying the world of espionage (shades of grey, amorality). The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is a better film in every respect, but it is still not entirely successful. The two BBC miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and Smiley’s People (1982), both also adapted from novels by John le Carré, just like Cold, do a better job (though admittedly, at over 5 hours each, they also have more time to tell their stories; something that bodes ill for the upcoming movie adaptation of Tinker).