Review: ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’

Criterion's bonus-packed reissue of Martin Ritt's 1965 Cold War thriller "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," based on John le Carre's bestselling novel, demonstrates just how well the DVD form delivers when material, resources and imagination impressively combine.

Criterion’s bonus-packed reissue of Martin Ritt’s 1965 Cold War thriller “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” based on John le Carre’s bestselling novel, demonstrates just how well the DVD form delivers when material, resources and imagination impressively combine.

Some will raise eyebrows at a Hollywood pic’s elevation to the ranks of the highfalutin Criterion Collection, but viewing it in the context offered here raises the movie’s status to what even le Carre — in a riveting 38-minute interview on the second of this set’s two DVDs — grudgingly allows is “something close to a real classic.”

“Spy,” which flirts with noir sensibility in its depiction of ugly, divided Berlin and drab, pre-swinging London, was the first mainstream movie to turn the James Bond franchise on its head. There’s nothing glamorous about the spooks in this downbeat tale of betrayal and deceit, even if Richard Burton and Claire Bloom — reunited for the first time since “Look Back in Anger” (1958) — co-star.

Their acting is worth savoring, as are first-rate supporting and bit perfs by Cyril Cusack (le Carre’s favorite) the great Oskar Werner, Michael Hordern, Robert Hardy and Bernard Lee (M from the Bond films, ironically).

Bonus features only deepen one’s appreciation. Le Carre’s interview, recorded just a few months ago, finds him speaking frankly about the film’s tortured production, with Ritt and Burton constantly at odds. The author says he wanted Trevor Howard to play Alec Leamas, his burnt-out alcoholic spy renewed by love, but Paramount insisted on Burton, then at the height of his celebrity. His Oscar nom in the role validates the studio’s judgment.

Le Carre is also interviewed for “The Secret Centre” (2000), an hourlong BBC docu about him that includes extensive comments from Markus Wolf, the late East German spymaster, whom many believe is the model for Werner’s character Fiedler.

Even more gripping is a 1967 installment of Kenneth Tynan’s BBC series “Acting in the ’60s,” which, in 33 minutes, yields a portrait of Burton rivaling book-length biographies. Chain-smoking along with his interlocutor, the actor — by turns modest and contrary — reveals that he can’t bear physical contact while performing. He later remarks, “The only interesting parts to play are defeated men.”

Set also offers limited but insightful commentary from lenser Oswald Morris, an extended audio interview with Ritt from 1985 and a collection of sketches by the film’s art department depicting various interiors.

The demonstration-level transfer does Morris’ B&W cinematography proud, improving on Par’s excellent 2004 job. Crisper, fuller sound reps the issue’s most impressive technical triumph, with innumerable previously unnoticed nuances now readily apparent.

Running time: 112 MIN.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold


($39.95; Release date: Nov. 25, 2008) Criterion Collection Cast: Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, Cyril Cusack
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