The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



19 December



Birth of Leonid Brezhnev, 1906

On this day in 1906, the very last old-school leader of the USSR was born.

Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was born into Tsarist Russia, the son of workers. Thanks to an education at a technical school he became a metallurgist, joined Komsomol (the Communist youth movement) and started to make his way in the party, becoming a political commissar in a tank factory by the age of 30, and eventually party secretary in Dnipropetrovsk, a Ukrainian city intimately connected to the arms industry.

As a result of Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s, Brezhnev advanced rapidly into suddenly available positions. He was tasked with important work in the Second World War and acquitted himself well.

Brezhnev had been Nikita Khrushchev’s protégé since the early 1930s, and as Khrushchev’s star rose, so did Brezhnev’s. Stalin appointed him a member of the Presidium in 1952. In 1953 Stalin died and Khrushchev took over. Brezhnev’s time had come.

When Khrushchev was removed in 1964, partly as a result of Brezhnev’s manoeuvrings, Brezhnev took over, on a ticket of restoring collective leadership of the USSR.

However, by a series of quiet strategies he managed to collect power around himself.

Brezhnev’s era was marked by the suppression of Khrushchev’s political liberalism, a strengthening of the power of the KGB and the restoration of the cult of the leader.

Some experiments were made with free-market principles (in Hungary, for example). Until 1973 the USSR economy continued to expand rapidly (as it had done since the Revolution) but after 1973 spending on the arms race as well as a general intransigence of the leadership began to act as a drag on the economy – the standard of living started to fall, services began to deteriorate. By that time Brezhnev had also become a pill-popping drunk.

For the last seven years of his life Brezhnev was not a well man – he suffered strokes and heart attacks, had emphysema, gout and possibly leukaemia. He was brought back to life several times before, in 1982, dying of a final heart attack aged 76.

Having presided over a Kremlin increasingly full of old men while he lived, Brezhnev was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, aged 70. Yuri Androprov only lasted 15 months before he too was dead. 13 months after that Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, was dead too, aged 73.

Enter Mikhail Gorbachev, aged 54.




The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1964, dir: Martin Ritt)

Written by a former spy, John Le Carré, and shot in a style borrowed from British kitchen-sink miserablists, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is probably the best Cold War film ever made, not least because it eschews the glamour of spying and spies – no James Bond heroics. In fact there aren’t even the tawdry delights of tinned mushrooms, one of the small luxuries available to The Ipcress File’s Harry Palmer.

This is spying as nasty, brutish work, where your own side is so out of control of the situation that there’s a good chance you’ll die as a result of their efforts.

It is also, probably, the best screen performance by Richard Burton, as the spy being courted by the other side because they believe he might be happy to change sides now he’s been demoted to a desk job. But the communists are worried that he is in fact a double agent, a notion that the film spends some time being a bit cagey about too.

It’s a good one, but I’m not sure that plot is really what this film is about. Atmosphere seems more director Martin Ritt’s concern – in bleak meetings on park benches or in shabby hotel rooms, or simply in shots of Burton’s Alec Leamas drinking himself senseless in his shabby bedsit, Ritt is after a feeling you didn’t get in spy films of the era, of compromise, muddy morality and of the end justifying the means.

In the centre of this we have Burton, the embodiment of that atmosphere, craggy, hollow-eyed, a husk. The decision to shoot in black and white always requires justification, but none is required here: this is a drab world of buses and drizzle, of barbed wire and rough grey blankets, and cinematographer Oswald Morris’s noirish tones are exactly what is required.

And so, from a different perspective, is Claire Bloom, playing the sweet idealist who believes that communism might actually be the solution to the world’s problems. Not because she’s a communist but because the alternative, believing in nothing, is what makes people like Alec Leamas.



Why Watch?


  • The greatly under-rated director Martin Ritt (The Sound and the Fury, Hud)
  • Oswald Morris’s cinematography
  • A support cast including Oskar Werner, Cyril Cusack, Michael Hordern
  • First cinematic appearance of Le Carré’s spymaster George Smiley


© Steve Morrissey 2013



The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – at Amazon


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The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold



Based on the breakthrough novel by former spy John Le Carré, shot in black and white to suggest that espionage is unglamorous, dirty work and starring a hollowed out Richard Burton, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is as far from James Bond as it’s possible to get – further, even than Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer of the Ipcress File. Telling the story of a jaded spy who is busted to a desk job in London and then recruited by East German intelligence – or that’s what they think – it’s a bleak marvel, as redolent of the drab side of the 1960s as the smell of a wet duffel coat. Martin Ritt directs, and you’d not guess from the portrait painted of life behind the Iron Curtain that he’d been blacklisted in the US, for supposedly having Communist sympathies. Mind you, the picture he paints of life in Britain, just emerging from economic lockdown after going broke fighting the Nazis, is hardly sympathetic either.

Though critically rated, the film did not do overly well at the box office, the public being still in the first flush of love with 007 and finding the lack of car chases, gadgets and no-strings sex something of a letdown. And Ritt’s determination to keep the boomy theatrics out of the performances by Burton and his co-stars (including Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner and Peter Van Eyck) probably didn’t help sell it to the glamour-hungry either.

Not everyone loves this film. Some find it too dark, too grey. But in its depiction of an almost heretical character – the spy who seems ambivalent towards his country – it takes a type established by Graham Greene and adds several dollops of bleak. Le Carré, Ritt and Burton know exactly what they’re about, and they’re all facing in exactly the same direction.




Trivia hounds might like to note that the film also features the first screen appearance of Le Carré’s most famous creation, George Smiley (played here by Rupert Davies), who’d go on to be played in later films by James Mason, Denholm Elliott, Alec Guinness and, most recently by Gary Oldman.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – at Amazon