Adapting to the world after spy work appears to be the real difficulty John le Carré wishes to highlight with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. One last job. One last fix. Either way, they are addicted to the adrenalin, the excitement, and the fear that comes with such a line of work. Giving that up is not easy. Especially not for Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), a man refusing to come in from the cold and hang up his hat. His desire for one more mission sees him put through a horrid test that takes its toll not just on his ageing ways, but his mentality and desire to continue in a line of work that, seemingly, has grown tired of him. He is the surplus to a requirement that is no longer necessary.
That is the sad beauty director Martin Ritt captures. His opening, slow piano soundtrack and the bleak brevity of the border patrol are thrust onto the screen. Its tensions are lifted from the book, and it is, ultimately, a rewarding success. With Burton at the helm, this should be no surprise. Leamas’ reaction to being told to come out of the cold is one of frustration and fear. Burton embodies that with a striking performance, a dead-eyed glare at the man asking him to return to a life of relative stability. He is too far off the deep end, and the beautiful part of Ritt’s work is that it captures and salvages le Carré’s meaning. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a rumination on how hardened people will react to having their lifestyle and livelihood swept away from under them.
Possessed Leamas may be with the idea of trooping on as a spy, the physical limitations of his age make it an impossibility. Burton is the right age, the right build, and the right leading man to bring this book to the big screen. Ritt’s slowly encroaching camera and stuffy, British sensibilities make for a delightful inclusion and an inevitable one at that. Posh, high voices bleed from the mouths of secretaries, and the venom that hits Leamas clearly rattles him, but he remains unmoved. It is the rugged look of his face that Burton brings about so well. Sadly, that is due more to his alcoholism than any active choice of character acting. But the tragic nature of his personal life lends itself to Leamas and what he embodies. The man out of time, never able to adapt to this new and changing world, that is the tragedy Leamas, and even Burton, soon embodied.
Relatively faithful to the book it adapts, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is quite the touching feature. Ritt and Burton both carve out some level of care for Leamas, a man who is struggling to make that big step into the new world. It has rapidly changed. He is too wound up in his work to notice or care, and he certainly isn’t going to start now. Some of the cuts and fades are jarring, but not enough to shake the foundations of a thoroughly strong narrative. Few changes are made to the original text, and what changes there are come from a place of passion, a need to adapt or extend an added layer of poignancy. It works exceptionally well.