The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (Ritt, 1965)

Calm, crisp, and efficient, Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold exhibits a disturbing professional cynicism toward Cold War deception and espionage. The opening shot, that of tangled barbed wire a top the border fence between East and West Germany, implies the harsh and dangerous web of lies to come. Ritt’s credit sequence (done in a beautiful one take craning back, revealing more of the border infrastructure) immediately indicates the complicated and tense relationship between the dueling ideologies. The title of the film could refer to any number of characters, but Ritt’s protagonist Alec Leamus (Richard Burton) is the obvious center of this group of spies. As he waits for a secret agent to cross the border in this opening sequence, his experience can be seen on the wrinkles his face wears like a mask. When death arrives, it’s not a surprise to him, just a part of the game. While back in England, he’s asked to undertake another mission. Leamus is sent into East Germany as a double agent with the desire to implicate the head of the Communist counterespionage department named Mundt (Peter van Eyck). Playing on the power trip of Mundt’s second in command, a Jew named Fiedler, Leamus begins a game of cat and mouse meant to disrupt the inner core of the Iron Curtain. Ritt’s mise-en-scene consistently illicit the many psychological layers being displayed by the narrative – Noir shadows, low angle camera set-ups, long tracking shots, and a hypnotic score by Sol Kaplan. As the complex story unfolds, governments and ideologies become more transparent, both Capitalist and Communist vying for leverage in an doomed game. No matter who pays for it with their life, and many end up doing just that, the heads of state will never get their hands dirty. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold carries on a little too long, but proves itself as a hard-nosed expose into a world of double-crosses and sacrifice. Burton’s performance is brilliantly one-note, sufficient as a human being but even more so as a spy. The last shot, once again based at a border crossing, symbolizes a struggle for freedom from the oppression of both sides, one that cannot be won without the greatest loss. According to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, there’s little warmth available to the sacrificial lambs on Earth, just the anticipation for the inevitable fires of hell or light of heaven.

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