Revisiting ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’

Sep 16, 2022

Since we’re living in fairly challenging times, we’ve been enjoying some classic films as a form of entertainment and comfort. Recently, we thought it made sense to re-visit (and invite you to revisit) one of the great novels and subsequently great spy movies of the 1960s: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

A deliberate choice? Yes, as both book and movie are testaments to the, perhaps paradoxical, power of disillusionment to entertain, divert and illuminate.

Le Carré Transforms Disillusionment

The book was written by John Le Carré, who also made a significant contribution to the movie screenplay. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold transforms disillusionment, played out in terms of espionage, into a riveting form of cinema. It also offers visual and psychological clues into what is happening to us – now.

The Plot

Initially published in 1963 (filmed in 1965) at the height of the Cold War, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the story of a complicated act of a deadly triple-bluff perpetrated by the British Secret Service against its enemies in the German Democratic Republic, as communist East Germany was then known. (Spoilers ahead!)

At its centre is Alec Leamas (played by Richard Burton), sent on a clever undercover mission of revenge but who in fact is the unwitting tool of even cleverer British brains with other motives. He is caught, imprisoned and interrogated.

Trapped in a sinister labyrinth of plots and counterplots, Leamas eventually escapes with the help of a Soviet counter agent. Leamas is shot by a sniper while trying to scale what was then the Berlin Wall.

Unsettling, Yet All Too Real

A great many boomers – and more than a few men and women somewhat younger – will find the storyline of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold quite contemporary in an unsettling way.

The visual comparisons between bombed-out Ukrainian cities and the bleak cityscapes of what was then (Soviet controlled) East Berlin are chilling. Both book and movie are unsparingly cynical, yet all too real.

The picture painted of human motivations, human duplicities, and human frailty seems to anticipate much of what we have learned, unlearned and relearned in the intervening decades. Our television screens are filled with stuff like this, daily.

Alec Leamas vs. James Bond

Le Carré’s book hit the bookstores in 1963, at the crest of transatlantic James Bond fever. Not only had JFK declared himself an Ian Fleming fan but the movies Dr. No and From Russia with Love had already delighted moviegoers, and Goldfinger was right around the corner.

Le Carré’s view of espionage as an extension of the ugly, soul-grinding side of Cold War politics – much as we’re seeing again today – and was a slap at the Bond books’ derring-do and the movies’ glamour and gimmickry. A simple comparison proves the point:

Dialogue Excerpt from Goldfinger:

“My dear girl, there are some things that just aren’t done. Such as, drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.” Frothy, fun, and ridiculous.

Dialogue Excerpt from Spy:

“What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me…do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?” Rings all too true.

A Story That Remains Relevant Today

Both The Spy Who Came in from the Cold book and movie offer an exposé of the spy game’s dirty little secrets, linking the spiritual and emotional calamities of a burned-out fifty-something British agent to the crises of values that plagued East and West in the mid-twentieth century and, on and off, continue to plague us now.

Buy the book. Rent the movie. Be entertained by learning something about the world we live in.



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