Film Reviews

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965) – Blu-ray Review

Eureka Entertainment have turned their attention to the 1965 Martin Ritt-directed The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, as the next instalment in their Masters of Cinema range.  Based – faithfully – on a John le Carre novel, our story follows Alex Leamas (Richard Burton), a Berlin-based station chief for MI5, who is thought to be of declining ability, when one of his spies dies at Checkpoint Charlie, on his watch.  Brought home by his boss (Control, played by Cyril Cusack), Leamas is relieved of his duties, and left to find work as an Assistant librarian.

Now working for little money, most of which he spends on alcohol, Alex cuts a forlorn figure, as he shambles around seemingly inebriated.  Despite getting into a relationship with a fellow young librarian, Nan Perry (known as Liz Gold in the novel, and played by Claire Bloom), a member of the British Communist Party, his descent into alcoholism ends with his punching a local shopkeeper (Bernard Lee, the original M from the James Bond series), leading to a custodial spell.

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On release from prison, he is approached by a gentleman named Ashe (Michael Hordern) purporting to be from a charity formed to provide financial aid to prisoners.  In truth, the East has been monitoring Leamas’ decline, and now sees him as a possible target for defection.  We learn that this collapse of his life has been planned all along, and that the goal was always to make Alex an attractive target for approach from the enemy, in order that he could go across, and start to hint at the presence of a British spy in their ranks.  What follows is a cerebral game of cross and double-cross, as the audience has no idea who is pulling the strings and why.

This beautifully restored film, featuring a terrific cast including Sam Wanamaker, Robert Hardy and Oskar Werner, is an intelligent piece of work, crafted meticulously, and written superbly.  The sharp script (“She was a fan of free love”, “that’s all I could afford at the time”) is well-acted and designed marvellously, with the fact that there is not one shot taking place outside of a soundstage being not at all obvious.  Burton is restrained, and underplays his usual screen tendencies in a similar way to Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor, Solider Spy from the same author – in fact, the character of George Smiley appears here, portrayed by Rupert Davies.  The running time is utilised well, and the story – at around 112 minutes – never outstays its welcome.

The Blu-ray release, on the other hand, is somewhat of a disappointment, arriving as one of the skinnier offerings from this line.  There is an audio commentary from Australian film critics and historian Adrian Martin.  As with a similar commentary he provided for Eureka’s release of Criss Cross last year, it is a track full of trivia about the film, its participants, and their careers and lives, but it also brings observations about symbolism, set design, shot-making and acting choices.  He is an enjoyable, unpretentious commentator, and he feels natural, unscripted, yet deeply well-informed.  It is easy to see why he is engaged by Eureka, and others, on a regular basis.

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Sadly, there isn’t a great deal else provided on-screen, merely a 22-minute long video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns.  It is fine, as far as it goes: nicely shot, with some catty observations from director Martin Ritt (long-dead, but voice-acted here) about Burton’s frittering of his talent.  His lack of regard for a man he believed blessed by genetics, only to drink away his abilities is probably the stand-out memory from the set.  Along with this, we have a trailer for the film, and that’s about it.  Little here is worth the investment, if a cheaper streaming option is available, though deep appreciation is owed for the quality of the restoration.

With the first press of this release is the now-standard booklet.  At 20 pages in length, it features the essay ‘Circus Squared’ by Richard Combs, along with viewing notes.  Although an interesting read, recent releases have gone further with multiple essays and direct quotes from those involved.  As with the set as a whole, it is just… fine.  The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is a terrific film, beautifully presented, with an atmospheric stereo soundtrack.  However, with Eureka providing far more detailed offerings on much older films, this set has to be put down as a little disappointing.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is out on Blu-ray on 17th May from Eureka Entertainment.

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