The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Directed by Martin Ritt
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 112 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: November 25, 2008
Review Date: November 19, 2008
When Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was released at the end of 1965, America was awash with spies and secret agents. Between the worldwide furor over James Bond and TV’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Secret Agent, I Spy, and Get Smart, spies and espionage tales were everywhere. Ritt’s film, of course, eschewed the fun, glamour, and razzle-dazzle of those other variations on the secret agent mantra. Based on John Le Carré’s best seller, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was stark, decidedly unchic, and mournfully solemn. Not a hit in its day, its reputation has grown over the decades as its sad story of agents used and tossed away like so much Kleenex now rings so ominously true.
A middle-aged British spy (Richard Burton), about to retire, is given one last assignment to infiltrate East Germany and uncover information about a former colleague (Peter Van Eyck) suspected of having become a Communist traitor. Along the way of the carefully orchestrated path to East Germany, he happens to fall in love with a naïve young librarian (Claire Bloom), an attachment that’s not wise for operatives who for safety's sake normally spend their lives in singular isolation. And, as he (and we) later come to realize, the game afoot is not exactly as it appears to be.
The screenplay by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper stays remarkably faithful to the original Le Carré book, though early scenes thrust the audience immediately into situations that are initially bewildering. Some other pacing problems are also present in the early going before director Martin Ritt gets the central story underway and gets character relationships established and more involving. By the time things become clear and we feel we know the caper at hand, a series of twists rocks us back in our seats giving the movie a wonderful aura of surprise which we can share with characters in the scenes. Ritt stages the tribunal scene quite well, never allowing its testimony and examinations to become too cerebral or confusing. There is a forest walk and talk between Burton and German agent Fiedler (played by Oskar Werner) that’s straightforwardly shot and hauntingly beautiful. And that climactic dash to freedom makes for a chilling denouement, abetted by the terse instructions before it happens and the screams of sirens and the frightening crack of gunfire in its midst.
Richard Burton’s world-weary loner awakened by love but committed to a difficult mission is one of his finest, most controlled performances. His stooped, hazily alcoholic demeanor, shambling slowly through his assigned stops along the way to his ultimate end is a beautifully realized character paired nicely with Claire Bloom’s sweetly innocent Nan. Oskar Werner steals all of his scenes as the firecracker operative eager to replace his superior while George Voskovec expertly grills the witnesses mercilessly during the tribunal. Sam Wanamaker, Cyril Cusak, and Michael Horden all play agents of varying skills with expert precision. Only Peter Van Eyck as number one German spy Mundt seems underwhelming and over parted.
Though the cover art lists the aspect ratio as 1.85:1, it’s actually framed on the disc at 1.66:1 and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. The black and white photography varies from slightly soft to super sharp, and black levels are likewise variable from a milky dark gray to inky black. Overall, the contrast level is pleasing, and the picture is always involving. One slight white scratch mars an otherwise artifact-free transfer. Compared to the 2004 official Paramount anamorphic 1.78:1 DVD release of this movie, the Criterion transfer is much cleaner, has better contrast, and is a tad sharper. The film has been divided into 13 chapters.
The volume level for the Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio track has been set much too high resulting in some distortion especially with Sol Kaplan’s forlorn but sometimes bombastic score. Other than that, the track is free from audio artifacts of any kind despite the age of the picture. There is a reasonably solid amount of stereo placement of music and a few ambient effects to give the soundstage some breadth.
The original theatrical trailer is presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic video and runs 1 ½ minutes.
The majority of the bonus features are on disc two in the set.
A 2008 video interview with author John Le Carré is in anamorphic widescreen and runs 39 minutes. In it, he mentions memories of working with Martin Ritt and gives a candid critique of the entire film including the casting and his ideas about the misdirection of certain scenes.
“The Secret Centre: John Le Carré” is a 2000 documentary on the life and writings of the best selling author. Presented in anamorphic widescreen with the author reading excerpts from his works, the piece runs 59 minutes.
An audio interview with producer-director Martin Ritt conducted by Patrick McGilligan in 1985 runs 49 minutes. In it, he discusses his career as an actor as well as a director, his interest in making humanistic films, his involvement with the infamous blacklist of the 1950s, the then-current lack of really involving material, and his working relationships with actors.
Cinematographer Oswald Morris presents a selected scene specific audio commentary which runs 39 ¼ minutes. Candid about the various problems and also the highlights of the film, this is one of the best features on the disc.
There is a step-through gallery of set design sketches by production designer Tambi Larsen.
A 1967 interview with Richard Burton conducted by Kenneth Tynan for the BBC finds the actor talking about his films, his stage work, reciting some speeches from some of the plays he's performed in, and highlights of his early career. The 4:3 black and white interview runs 33 ½ minutes.
An enclosed 15-page booklet features some portraits of the leading actors as well as cast and crew lists, chapter listing, and a celebratory essay on the film by critic Michael Sragow.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a sad but satisfying Cold War espionage yarn. It features wonderful performances, expert direction, and a Criterion package with some interesting, worthwhile bonus material. Highly recommended especially if you don’t already own the original DVD release or want those well done bonuses.