John F. Kennedy may have loved Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, but the true literary spymaster of the ’60s was John Le Carré. Under his real name, David Cornwell, he worked for MI6, the British foreign intelligence service, in Berlin and then Hamburg, where he wrote The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. Its publication in 1963 alerted readers to the morally gray nature of espionage and the very un-Bondian nature of its players. “They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me,” says Le Carré’s MI6 protagonist Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) in the movie version. “Little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.” Fiedler (Oskar Werner), the East German agent who interrogates Leamas when he pretends to defect to communism, has an even worse opinion: “You are a traitor… the lowest currency of the Cold War. We buy you, we sell you, we lose you. We even can shoot you! Not a bird would stir in the trees outside.”
The bracingly bleak film version easily the most famous Berlin Wall movie was scripted by Paul Dehn (who had co-written the Bond film Goldfinger) and directed by the American Martin Ritt, taking a break from his ’60s run of five Paul Newman movies (including Hud and Hombre). Burt Lancaster was originally cast as Leamas until sanity intervened, and the newly-hot Mr. Elizabeth Taylor got the part. Burton’s black-Welsh eloquence proved an ideal match, and Ritt pulled similarly impressive-depressive performances from Werner and Claire Bloom, who plays Nan, an English librarian of communist ideals who is drawn into the deadly game.
Like the novel, the movie (shot in England and Ireland) starts and ends at the Berlin Wall. At the beginning, Leamas watches as his prize double-agent is shot as he tries to cross, thus forcing the English agent into his own double duty “in the cold.” Discovering a residue of ethics through his love for Nan, Leamas decides that capitalism and communism are equally bankrupt and returns with her to the Wall still a spy, but no 007, and still a man who would risk his life to be with his woman.
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