Disillusioned spy Alex Leamas returns from Berlin, desperate to “come in from the cold” and leave espionage behind him. His masters agree on the condition he embarks on one last mission, going undercover as a defector. But he is merely a pawn in a much larger game.
No film has caught the graven inhumanity and hollow intellectual chess game of move and counter-move charted by John Le Carre’s famous spy fiction, better than Martin Ritt’s masterful, if heavy, depiction of flawed idealism. Shot in a metallic monochrome that divorces the sleek sixties of their familiar vigour, he unveils an underworld of cool-headed old gents manipulating their foot-soldiers in gestures long since removed from notions of moral right and political hope. It is the very antithesis of 007’s grandiose adventures: dour, talky, depressed, but fiercely intelligent, strikingly austere and beautifully acted.
Richard Burton, who ironically the author felt too glamourous to fill the sallow skin of his beaten hero, was always at his best when shrinking into harsh, human foibles than lending his sonorous voice to some murderously bloated epic. Leamas is emerging from a stupour, falling for shrewy librarian and proto-communist Claire Bloom, a man conflicted between what he represents and what he knows to be the truth — there is no right. As the plot stretches out, and we get to the centre of its labyrinth of betrayals and manipulations, the very concept of the enemy becomes blurred: “Before, he was evil and my enemy; now, he is evil and my friend,” shrugs the desolate Leamas at another fateful twist.
It is hard work, cold and relentlessly negative, but there is such intricacy amongst the host of eloquent British character actors who float in and out of the mission, reliable, avuncular men in tweed suits gesturing with tea cups — Cyril Cusack, Robert Hardy, Michael Horden, and Rupert Davies who, all too briefly, gives life to the fabled George Smiley long before Alec Guinness turned him into an icon. And you can’t help but admire Ritt’s dedication to long, sinewy interrogations and scenes of wordy discourse; there is next to no action. The strange, ghostly antagonism of the Cold War never felt as real.
The very antithesis of 007’s grandiose adventures: dour, talky, depressed, but fiercely intelligent, strikingly austere and beautifully acted.