Plot: What’s it about?
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is easily one of my favorite novels of all time. I love spy fiction. I can’t get enough of it. My love for spy fiction came from watching all the James Bond films growing up, and from a Sydney Pollack picture, 3 Days Of The Condor, that my parents let me watch at a young age. As I grew older my love for Fleming novels also led me towards older grittier spy fiction such as Graham Greene novels. From Graham Greene I eventually found my way to what would easily be his spiritual successor, John LeCarre. I was fortunate enough to read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It was a life changer. When I saw that a film version existed and it was also a Criterion Collection film, I was extremely excited. Luckily, my excitement was rewarded past my very high expectations.
The plot of the film is the same as the novel and revolves around an agent of the British foreign intelligence that goes by the name of Leamas. The film begins by showing Leamas leading an operation to transport an informant from across the Berlin Wall. Things turn for the worse, when the informant is shot dead. Leamas is burnt out. He is a man full of rage at the horrors that he is continually forced to watch and the stupidity of it all. Luckily, this man is played by the electric Richard Burton. Meeting with the head of the service, Leamas is told that he must stay out in the cold. From this point forward, the film will constantly test your abilities to understand exactly who is playing who and to what purpose. Leamas begins working at a library and dating a sweet Communist sympathizer played by the lovely Claire Bloom. From there he goes into meetings with the Russian communists including Fiedler, a Communist Jew played by the absolutely unforgettable Oskar Werner. I can not say another word about the plot except that it is a bit tricky and every step that occurs in the film reaches logical and extremely believable conclusion.
This film, much like the book, is a much more realistic look at espionage than many other attempts. In some ways, Leamas is the antithesis of Bond. There are no gadgets to speak of. There are no beautiful locations. LeCarre focused on the real world of espionage where people betray trusts to gain the upper hand. LeCarre knew this world first hand, as he served in the MI5 as a spy and did not let the public know this fact for a number of years. The writing of both the novel and the film is top notch. The acting in the film is for the majority fantastic, but Oskar Werner steals the show. Just wait until you see his scenes in the courthouse. You will not forget them. This film is a certifiable classic and I would give my highest recommendation that you seek it out and watch it.
Video: How’s it look?
Criterion does a stellar job on the transfer of the film using an MPEG 4 AVC codec. I owned the previous Criterion DVD release, which at the time was one of their better transfers on DVD. There is a notable improvement in picture quality. The film looks fantastic. Working with a film nearly fifty years old, I think it would be near impossible to do a better transfer of this movie. The film is shot in black and white and the detailing is remarkable. Outstanding.
Audio: How’s it sound?
Audio is presented in an English LPCM 2.0 track. The mix itself is relegated to the two front channels. Clarity and fidelity are excellent. I never had any trouble making out a word. This movie relies more on silence than on anything else. I did not detect any noticeable pops or distortions. This track serves its purposes well.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Trailer – original trailer for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. In English, not subtitled. (2 min).
- John LeCarre – This feature alone is worth the asking price. John LeCarre sits down and gives a lengthy interview focusing on the filming, the actors, and the writing process, along with his thoughts on the film. As a huge fan of LeCarre’s work, this was an absolute joy to watch.(39 min, 1080p).
- The Secret Centre: John LeCarre -This BBC documentary on LeCarre is absolutely fantastic. This tells the story of how LeCarre became a spy in real life and his rise to fame as an author. Most of the story is in his own words. DO NOT SKIP THIS FEATURE. This is easily one of the best features I have ever seen on a Criterion disk or any other disk. (60 min, 1080i).
- Martin Ritt – This contains audio excerpts from an interview with director Martin Ritt by film historian Patrick McGilligan in 1985. The interview is pretty interesting stuff. Ritt talks about his lengthy career and at length about liberalism and being blackballed during the McCarthy era. (49 min, 1080i).
- Oswald Morris – Cinematographer Oswald Morris describes working on the film and how certain scenes were filmed. This feature is fantastic for anybody who loves Morris’s work (including the Kubrick masterpiece Lolita.) Unfortunately, Morris has passed away since the interview. This is great stuff. (40 min, 1080i).
- Set Designs – Sketches for set design of the film. Pretty neat.(1080p).
- Acting in the 60’s: Richard Burton – This is an interview with Richard Burton conducted by critic Kenneth Tynan broadcast on the BBC series Acting in the 60’s in 1967. I highly recommend watching this feature, especially if you are a fan of Richard Burton or watching Richard Burton smoke cigarettes. He talks about his career and acting on stage. Great stuff.(34 min, 1080i).
The Bottom Line
The film The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is an excellent film, and an excellent thriller. They managed to do justice to one of my favorite novels of all time. Criterion put in the dedication to give a beautifully realized transfer and the supplementary features are absolutely jaw dropping. Buy this film at any price. Cherish it and show it to friends. They will thank you for showing it to them. This earns my absolute highest recommendation.