Monday, April 27, 2009

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold: the film

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is based on the novel of the same name written by John Le Carre'. I haven't read the novel yet, but after seeing the film, I have dusted it off and moved it higher on my TBR queue (To Be Read). I have discovered Le Carre' in the past few years and have read a number of his works, especially those known as "the Smiley novels." I have also seen the three film adaptations of the ''Smiley" novels, all of which I thought were more than acceptable versions.

I thought that The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was an excellent film. Although, as I mentioned earlier, I haven't read the novel, I found the flavor, the mood, or the atmosphere of the film to be that of the Le Carre' works that I have read--low-key, quiet, tense, and somewhat dark. If one is looking for heroic deeds of derring-do, for super-villains, for hi-tech gadgetry, for catastrophic threats to a country, continent, or even the cosmos, one must go someplace else. That isn't found here. Le Carre's characters are human, with human strengths and weaknesses. They even sometimes wonder if they are doing the right thing, right in the sense of moral or ethical rightness.

His espionage tales are set, for the most part, during the Cold War and focus on the conflict between the Eastern Communist Democracies and the Western Capitalist Democracies. Both sides considered themselves to be democracies, which demonstrates just how fuzzy any term can be.

Cyril Cusack, who gives a perfect performance as Control, the head of the British Intelligence agency, warns Alec Leamas and the viewer that the methods of the intelligence agencies of both the East and West are now so similar that there really is no difference between them. It is only at the end that Leamas and the viewer realize just how deceptive is that benign, precise, and grandfatherly aura that he casts. Control is a ruthless man who believes the end justifies the means.

Richard Burton is superb as Alec Leamas, the head of the Berlin section for British Intelligence. He has just seen a friend killed as he attempts to cross over to the American sector at Checkpoint Charlie, yet another victim of the East German SpyMaster, Mundt. Leamas is called back to London where he finds that he is going out in the cold again, (jargon for going undercover), this time as a disgruntled agent who is reduced to desk work, broke, alcoholic, and vulnerable to being turned by the East.

His task is to feed spurious information and perform certain actions which will make it appear that the East German Mundt is actually a double agent, working for the British, not quite an assignment that will save England, the West, or the Planet from a catastrophe, but one that's probably closer to real life.

At least, that's what Leamas thinks his assignment is. Control, however, has a different goal, one that Leamas can't know. Leamas is being used in a way that he isn't aware of, but as Control said earlier, the tactics of the two sides are now almost identical--people aren't people, but pawns to be moved about and sacrificed, if necessary, to stay in the game. One doesn't win in this sort of game; at best one can only gain a temporary advantage. It's life: one may survive an accident or illness and therefore able to play a little bit longer, but eventually one loses.

Other notable members of the cast, all of whom were excellent in their roles, are Claire Bloom and Oskar Werner. The only problem is Rupert Davies as George Smiley. Alex Guinness plays Smiley in the three Smiley films that I had watched some time ago, and I can't see anybody else in that role. Guinness strikes me as being so much closer to Le Carre's Smiley that I found Davies irritating. But, to be fair, that's not Davies's fault.

Overall Rating: Got to go with the max--5/5 stars.

PS. I'm now going to read the novel. I wonder if my rating is influenced by seeing the film first. Would I still have given the film 5 stars if I had read the novel first?

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