Classic Cinema Tuesday: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

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When someone thinks of a spy movie, they usually think of James Bond. A super slick ladies man with a closet full of awesome gadgets at his disposal as well as a dry wit and a sharp suit. In reality, spies are just like normal people. The missions they go on and the lives they live are usually very monotonous with only a few sparks of innate tension. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold takes this everyman approach to the spy genre and turns it into a dark and twisted world that shows the harsh effects being in espionage for too long can have.

Alec Leamas is a British spy working the East Germany and West Germany border. When we first see him, he is staking a vigil for one of his East German spies looking to defect. He is anxious and worried. As the night goes on, he becomes more and more tense. The spy must cross at a certain point where there guards for both sides present. Unfortunately for this unnamed spy, his bicycle could not outrun the East German bullets fired at him as he inches closer to the border. This rocks Leamas and shows the audience in a quick sequence just how serious this Cold War is. We join Leamas again when he is back on British soil. The boss man that he meets with, Control, expresses a desire for him to stay out in the cold a little bit longer. So he assumes a position as a drunk. He gets a job at a library and meets a young Communist librarian who takes a fancy to him. He falls for her just as his boss contacts him for a secret mission. He is to pretend to defect and feed false information to the East Germans. Things go wrong almost immediately and his girlfriend gets wrapped up in what turns out to be the most important mission of his life. It all culminates in a nice foil to the first scene, but I won’t give it away.

Once I saw Leamas drunkenly buy groceries, I had my doubts as to whether this persona was a put on or rather a result of his harsh years in the espionage trenches. This is a story of a truly depressed and lonely man. He was made lonely by his country and his career only to have both of them abandon him. It seems that he is not even capable of holding a conversation, let alone develop a relationship. It is only after a presumptuous girl who is won out by her curiosity, do you realize that he is actually human and not some morose drunk robot. Richard Burton turns in a great performance as Alec Leamas. He is subtle and understated yet monumental in the feats he is able to accomplish with this character. A particularly good scene involves him get irrationally angry in his local grocery store. One moment he is a sad drunk just wanting to get some food on credit and the next he is lashing out at the grocer and smashing anything he can get his hands on. This accomplishes his goal of getting the attention of the East Germans, but it also gives him a venue to express his pent-up anger. It is a great scene.

This movie is the perfect understated examination of jaded espionage. If you ever wanted to see a cut and dry picture as to why the Cold War should never have happened, watch this movie. You will see just how much damage has been done to the fighters of this war without any overt bloodshed or battles.

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