Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"Spy" Is Not Bonded, but Rates 100 Proof

Cleveland Press February 24, 1966

"Occasionally we have to do wicked things," understates the big boss of British espionage in very proper tones. Wicked things indeed happen in this film, but not the wicked things of violence and mayhem to which we have become accustomed in spy movies of late.

This is the wickedness of viciousness and double-dealing that shatters a man's integrity, rubs raw his nerves and tears at his soul.

Seldom has any novel been transferred to film with such faithfulness as this movie version of John Le Carre's best selling "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold." Producer-director Martin Ritt has resisted the temptation of buying a title and subversing the work.

In the James Bond genre of films the spy is handsome, heroic, undefeatable and undeniably on the side of right.

ALEC LEAMAS (Richard Burton), the anti-hero of Le Carre's book and Ritt's film, is none of these. He is bitter and if he claims to believe in nothing it is because he has grown cynical through years of double-dealing.

He considers himself a technician, a man trained to play a game of wits, to accept that today's friend may be tomorrow's enemy and therefore someone to be liquidated.

He doesn't distinguish between right and wrong, but between right and wrong governments. If he has no sense of values it is because he cannot afford one in this private little world in which values shift and each new experience erodes his spirits a little more.

SUCH A MAN is Leamas, apparently burned out and bitter, a man whose qualifications now amount to nothing more than a half bottle of whisky a day, a once trusted agent ripe for defection.

Leamas is bait in an attempt to discredit and remove the chief of espionage of the East German forces. Communist agents directed by the East German second in command (Oskar Werner), a man almost insanely jealous of his boss, pick up Leamas and the machinery begins to move.

Those who have not read the novel will be in for several surprises as one doublecross is piled atop another. For those who have, the pawns that are moved about in this espionage chess game will be easier to follow.

BURTON'S performance is one of subtle nuances. He underplays (as does almost everyone in "Spy") and in so doing comes up with a portrait of man embittered and weary in both flesh and spirit.

Even his most dramatic speeches are restrained, given a tone of cynicism as he explains, for example, that a spy is someone filthy, a drunk, a queer, a henpecked husband -- not some man carefully balancing philosophies of right and wrong.

Burton is not heroic but is human as is everyone in the movie. Claire Bloom is prettier than Le Carre's mousey little British Communist, but also turns in a compelling performance as an idealist suddenly tricked into facing the brutal realities of the cold war.

Werner adds a little more menace to his performance as does Van Eyck as the East German boss, but neither are typical movie villains.

The black-and-white photography adds to the feeling of realism as does the low key lighting. There are no gimmicks, no gadgets and some in the audience may miss the dash and daring that are a part of most spy tales.

But where the Bond films are fairy tales for adults, "Spy Who Came In From the Cold" is a drama of human values, not without a moment or two of melodrama, but nonetheless one in which the emphasis is on realism.

Put "Spy" on your must-see list.