MysteryPeople Double Feature: THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD

This Sunday, May 10th, at 6:30 P.M., MysteryPeople presents a screening of Martin Ritt’s 1965 film adaptation of the novel by the same name, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, followed by a discussion of the book and film. At each double feature event, we screen a film version of a roman noir we know and love. Each screening is free and open to the public, and takes places on BookPeople’s third floor.

Post by Molly

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold celebrates its fiftieth anniversary of publication this year, and as we were putting together our film list for the Double Feature Series, my first choice was a screening of Martin Ritt’s 1965 adaptation of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. John Le Carré wrote the novel right after the Soviet erection of the Berlin Wall, and the book was adapted for cinema soon thereafter. Although the book and film both came into creation during the height of Cold War tensions, both have a time-period defying cynicism that suggest that the minute the Cold War began, its operators already understood the difference between ideology, practicality, and expediency, and each embraced only two out of these three.

As the novel begins, Alec Leamas, head of the British secret service’s Berlin Office, loses the last and best of an entire network of agents to the East German spy who has become his nemesis – the brutal and anti-Semitic Mundt. Alec returns to England, bitter and grieving at the deaths of his agents. He is given one last mission by the mysterious entity in charge of British Intelligence and known, throughout Le Carré’s novels, as Control. Alec will go to seed, pretend to turn Soviet defector, and incriminate Mundt as a last act of revenge before his retirement. He will exploit the rivalry between the ex-Nazi Mundt and his Jewish subordinate, Fiedler, to convince the Soviets that Mundt is a double agent. As Alec spends the first part of the book drinking and delivering enough angry diatribes for the Soviets to approach him, he begins working at a library and meets a young communist librarian, Liz Gold, with whom he begins an affair. What follows is the most complex series of reversals, betrayals, and mind-blowing reveals of any novel-movie combo I have ever experienced.

John Le Carré’s writing career overlapped with the end of his own career as a spy, and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Le Carré’s third novel and first bestseller, was his last before his quit espionage and turned to full-time writing. Every bit of description, dialogue, and intrigue references back to Le Carré’s long foreign service career, which began during the 1950s and ended just at the height of the Cold War. Le Carré’s writing found quick success upon hitting his stride, filling a need in society for realistic, grey-scale depictions of the morally ambiguous Cold War.


Sick of the black-and-white, wrong-and-right world of such spy fiction as Ian Fleming’s Bond series (admittedly, far grittier than the film adaptations of Fleming’s work, yet still of the guns, girls, and gadgets mode of thriller), readers flocked to the unrelenting cynicism, basic humanism, and ordinary spies of Le Carré’s writing. Le Carré’s world is populated by agents that, rather than stand out as glamorous examples of the über-mensch, blend in to the back of the crowd, and Liz Gold, Alec Leamas’ spindly communist lover, is about as far away from a Bond girl as a spy novel can get.

The film adaption of the novel is accurate to a level I have not seen in noir cinema since The Maltese Falcon – the film does, of course, condense the dialogue and convoluted scheming to allow for a typical run-time, but the overall plot and sentiment lose nothing in the translation from book to film. Performances from Richard Burton as Alec Leamas and Oskar Werner as Fiedler perfectly capture the bitterness and cynicism of the novel, and each actor’s own context matches the character they play in the film better than any historical drama could capture today.

British cinema and theater in the 1950s and 60s was in the midst of the “angry young man” drama. Exemplified by such books and films as Look Back in Anger, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and The Sporting Life, the Angry Young Men showcased the frustrations of the immediate post-war generation of Britons as they faced a loss of international prestige associated with decolonization and the rise of America as a global power, a slow recovery from the privations of WWII (rationing continued in Great Britain into the 1950s), and a disenchantment with working-class and middle-class prospects in slow-to-evolve British society.

spy who came

Richard Burton, as Alec Leamas, perfectly captures the intensity and frustration of his generation as he mourns the loss of WWII-era certainty and rails against the exploitation of himself, his agents, and his friendships in the ever-more-ambiguous fight against an enemy against whom there will be no winning of wars, only Pyrrhic victories in small, shadowy battles. Oskar Werner, in his electrifying performance as Fiedler, also brings his own life and zeitgeist into his art. Fiedler, in his rivalry with crypto-Nazi Mundt, and in his attempts at friendship across barriers, mimics Werner’s own record of anti-fascist activity.  Werner, a pacifist, pretended incompetence to avoid serving on the Russian front during WWII, and spent the last few months of the war hiding out from the Nazis with his half-Jewish wife, whom he had secretly married.

Martin Ritt’s film adaptation takes the deep shadows and rich layering of Le Carré’s novel and translates them into gorgeous black-and-white photography, at the peak of its power in the mid-1960s. The film also uses claustrophobic framing and wide angle shots to reinforce the characters’ lack of agency and the plot’s moral minefield. Characters are glimpsed, partially obscured by shelves, windows, or barbed wire; or they are trapped and under surveillance, alone, bright lights and unseen eyes trained upon them as they look upwards, helplessly yet defiantly. Le Carré’s characters, in the book and film, make decisions, yet have few options, and are manipulated to a level generally unheard of outside of science fiction. I’ve never been so equally inspired and devastated by the end of a story before, and I can’t wait to discuss it with y’all this Sunday!

Copies of Le Carré’s novel are available on our shelves and via We screen The Spy Who Came In From The Cold on Sunday, May 10, at 6:30 PM on our third floor. The screening is free and open to the public, and will be followed by a discussion of the book and film in contrast. 

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