Oh, What A Circus: ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’

Agent Ken Shinn re-evaluates John le Carre’s creation, immortalised by Richard Burton.

“1965 was the year that, finally, a Spy who could truly be called realistic finally appeared in the fleapits. One of John le Carre’s many creations, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’s Alec Leamas was very real, you see… unlike Fleming’s throbbing little slices of juvenile wish-fulfilment, le Carre’s writing was grounded. Ordinary. Real.”

What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not. They’re just a bunch of seedy squalid bastards like me, little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing “Cowboys and Indians” to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong? Yesterday I would have killed Mundt because I thought him evil and an enemy. But not today. Today he is evil and my friend.’

Thus spoke Alec Leamas.

Consider the 1960s, Agent. A decade when, across the World, a new dawn of enthusiastic optimism seemed to be born. And the Spy came to sudden prominence in popular culture. Also, when I say ‘Spy’, I could of course be speaking of a Spy, a Secret Agent, or a Special Agent. You and I both know that such resources are not the same as each other, but, to the populace at large, such people were effectively interchangeable. For the purposes of convenience, we’ll do the same.

Of course, the Spy had already proven an enduring figure in literature and cinema, but it took our old friend Fleming to bring him to prominence. In the 1960s, James Bond hit the big screen, and a glut of other Spies followed him there, and to the small screen. Within a few years of his celluloid debut, he was accompanied by Harry Palmer, Modesty Blaise, Boysie Oakes and Derek Flint, while the cathode ray tube introduced us to John Drake, John Steed and the Gale/Peel/King triumvirate, Napoleon Solo, Ilya Kuryakin, Honey West and April Dancer. Espionage networks with catchy, sometimes frivolous, acronyms: UNCLE, SPECTRE, ZOWIE.

And the Spy, it seemed, was always a figure of Glamour. Of Fantasy. Whether the muscular, masculine handsomeness of Patrick McGoohan, Sean Connery, and Robert Vaughn, or the epicene, masculine beauty of David McCallum, James Coburn, or the younger Michael Caine. Women – Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson, Monica Vitti – were beautiful and sometimes exotic, especially if they stood on the supposed side of Good. Evil women – Lotte Lenya, Ilse Steppat – were almost inevitably ugly, or at best what would be considered conventionally unattractive. The most fantastical were the likes of Bond and Flint, yes, with their ridiculous supervillain opposition and increasingly ludicrous gadgets for all occasions. Aston Martins made into rolling armouries, cigar lighters with 82 different functions. But it was always understood, probably even by the small boys who were their most enthusiastic audience, that there was something inherently unbelievable about them.

A new strain of Spy began to appear on the cinema screen: the supposedly realistic Spy. Boysie Oakes, rugged, handsome, and too squeamish to kill, employing an unassuming but efficient hitman – played with unnerving conviction by Eric Sykes – to carry out the executions that ensured his reputation as The Liquidator. Harry Palmer, not even named in his source novels, more often on the receiving end of a beating than dishing one out, forever fretting over his expenses and decked out in unflattering NHS spectacles.

But even these more mundane Spies were always at least a step removed from the actuality, from the truly real. They remained figures of Glamour. Oakes, grinning in triumph like some Soviet monument to victory as he returns experimental aircraft to dear old Blighty. Palmer, rarely able to afford luxury, yet still a self-taught gourmet cook. If you want a single point that sums up just how unreal such figures actually were, then consider this. It took Bond, supposedly so much more far-fetched, until 1973 to acquire a real coffee maker. Palmer had one in 1965.

Ah, 1965. A significant year, you realise. Because that was the year that, finally, a Spy who could truly be called realistic finally appeared in the fleapits. You must surely have heard of Alec Leamas…

Yes, him. One of le Carre’s many creations – or so the World at large thought. Leamas was very real, you see, and arguably a good man.  Like Leamas, and indeed like Fleming, le Carre had worked for the Circus: unlike Fleming’s throbbing little slices of juvenile wish-fulfilment, le Carre’s writing was grounded. Ordinary. Real. Between you and me, Agent, we had a bit of a moral struggle with the man. Although hidden behind the mask of Fiction, his stories came closer to the Reality of our work. More so than Fleming, Deighton, O’Donnell or Gardner. And so, when we learned that a film was being planned that would recount Leamas’s exploits, we came very close to having a friendly word, having the production closed down. In the end, Irony was our ally. As convincing as the film ultimately was, it was still, crucially, regarded as Fiction. The general public has remained blissfully unaware that our Reality is far more complex than even the most convincing Fantasy.

That being said, when The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was finally released, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d made the correct decision. Martin Ritt, the director, was under observation for some time. He understood our World. Saw it with so much more clarity, arguably, than any other film-maker before or since. With his cinematographer, Oswald Morris, he made one decision that remains telling. Other Spy stories on the big screen had been gloriously, garishly, Technicolor – splashy, gaudy phantasmagoria. Ritt’s film, you understand, was regarded as a prestige production: well-known stars, renowned screenwriters, released by a major studio. By 1965, only the ‘quota quickies’ weren’t made in colour: but Ritt and Morris made what was surely a conscious choice. Monochrome. The only hues on display in their film would be black, white, and, of course, seemingly endless shades of grey.

They were remarkably fortunate in their casting, as well. Richard Burton was already known as a very, ah, vigorous, actor, but I must confess that he embodied Leamas to near-perfection. A quiet man given to occasional impassioned outbursts. And, although he wasn’t even 40 when he played the role, physically he was spot-on. There’s a certain decayed grandeur to his Leamas from the skin down. The face is handsome, yes, but it’s already lined and pocked like a man some 20 years older at least. I’ve seen that happen to a lot of young Agents, be warned. This job is vital, but it will age you faster than any other. Claire Bloom was already one of our great actresses, of course, and she’d already played Ophelia to Burton’s Hamlet. Perfect training for playing a lovely young naïf who falls for entirely the wrong sort of fellow, and even in black and white photography she’s utterly luminous. There’s an absolute delicacy to her performance, an almost symbolic resonance to Nan Perry’s innocence and idealism. The sort of portrayal which comes close to making you believe that there is simple, unsullied Good in this World, and feel all the sadder when you realise what an optimistic dream that almost certainly will remain.

Oskar Werner as Fiedler is a fascinating presence: strong, angular, beautiful, he could serve equally well as the centrepiece of some Fascist or Communist propaganda poster on his looks alone, but he also displays the Humanity that has to lurk within even the most pragmatic interrogator. Trust me, Agent, that’s the true dichotomy of our purpose: that, in being our most ruthless, we must endeavour to remain our most Human. And, most tellingly, look at how they cast our own top men. Rupert Davies as young Smiley, and Cyril Cusack as myself. Not the monolithic, austere presences of Bernard Lee or even Judi Dench in those Bond fripperies, we resemble nothing so much as everyone’s favourite Uncle on the surface: balding, slightly chubby, almost jolly-looking. Utterly ordinary, and utterly convincing. None of us Ringmasters are Gods, always remember that. Demi-gods, maybe.

And the story? Well, that was down to Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper, working from le Carre’s novel. We had Dehn under observation as a potential subversive for a while, as well. A known homosexual – he was in a long-term relationship with James Bernard, best known as a composer for Hammer horror films, of all things – and something of a Socialist in his personal politics. That said, he and Trosper were already highly experienced screenwriters – they’d done everything from nuclear thrillers to Elvis musicals – and they remained remarkably faithful to the source material. The only real change that they made was that the book’s Liz Gold had her name changed to Nan Perry – they were apparently worried about confusion with Burton’s wife at the time, that ghastly Taylor woman. Other than that, they set about interpreting every twist, every turn, every bluff and counter-bluff, every alliance – and every betrayal. A warning, Agent. This isn’t the clear-cut, Goodies and Baddies of a Bond film. Your fists and your guns won’t mean a thing, next to your brain and your own conscience. Real Espionage is vital, yes: it’s also often sordid, tragic, and utterly merciless. You either learn that, or you fail.

Why did I have you sent in, Agent? Because I think that you show potential. And, as part of your instruction, I have a little light viewing for you. Here. Yes, it’s the film that we’ve just been talking about. It’s just been released on Blu-Ray for the very first time in the United Kingdom. And, thanks to the march of Progress, the blacks are deeper, the whites more dazzling, and the greys even more shifting and unpredictable. Would it surprise you to learn that we’d had to debate and search our souls again before deciding that we’d let Eureka go ahead with that? The World has changed since 1965, and it will keep changing. And, ironically, the film had become potentially even more contentious. But, once again, we ultimately decided that, while Truth may be stranger than Fiction, the populace at large are becoming ever more eager to embrace the latter. So we agreed to leave Eureka alone, not that they’ll ever know how close they came to having a surveillance file opened on them.

Take the film away with you. Watch it. And learn. Most of all, learn the lesson of the closing moments. Leamas’s tale doesn’t end with Sean Connery sweeping Claudine Auger into a pre-coital mid-air clinch. Not with the beautiful, enigmatic eyes of Monica Vitti gazing straight into the camera from under her Arabian veil, a fortune in diamonds at her feet. Not even with Michael Caine grinning in weary resignation and offering up a wry wisecrack to his superior. It ends with Leamas allowing himself one moment of Humanity too much. It ends with him dead, riddled with bullets, on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall.

That, Agent, is the truth of Espionage.

There are Ringmasters, and there are Ju-Ju Men: and then, the Circus has its White Knights. Its Noble Fools. Its Clowns. And Alec Leamas may have come in from the cold, but remember: he never got out again.

❉ Eureka Entertainment release ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ on Blu-ray as part of The Masters of Cinema Series from 17 May 2021, RRP £22.99­. Available to order from Eureka Store.

 Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His 55 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.

All images © Eureka Entertainment.

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