Cold Warrior Spy: Richard Burton

DATELINE: Don’t Make’em Like This Anymore

 Dazzling Burton!

The extraordinary 1965 film of John le Carré’s classic,The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, has been listed on Prime as an action thriller. Of course, it is neither. It is a bleak, sober, cold and dreary film about moral turpitude among the espionage community.

John le Carré himself was an agent of MI-6 who turned into a novelist.

This was a seminal Richard Burton performance: and no one ever, even today, can convey the dissipation and ennui as he can. To watch him staggering around (as a double agent) in rainstorms and walking around bleak streets, avoiding a tail is in itself remarkable. We even see him in a Volkswagen, as an M-6 agent pretending to defect to the East.

George Smiley, the most famous of all the LeCarre agents, is here in the form of an unimpressive figure (actor Rupert Davies) working for Control. We believe it is the first Smiley appearance in a movie, as he later became known for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spyin several movie incarnations (Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman, notably). Here he is a plot key, but mostly as a spoken name.

Claire Bloom is the female lead. It was one of the few movies that Elizabeth Taylor simply could not play with her then husband. She would not make a convincing demure librarian—and had to pass on the role when director Martin Ritt put his foot down and said, “NO!”  Bloom is perfect. Burton was peeved and Taylor hung around the set causing mischief.

Oskar Werner has the other smallish but central part as the nemesis to the British secret agent. He is the elusive and dangerous East German spy that has hamstrung MI-6—and must be discredited to the Soviets.

That’s Burton’s job: not glamourous or exciting, but could mean his life is up for Cold War grabs.

Climax is at the Berlin Wall where double-crossing takes on a double meaning.

 

Burton’s angry speech near the end is worth the entire film.