Sunday, May 1, 2016
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
This film, released in 1965, directed by Martin Ritt, and based on John le Carré’s novel, starts with a shot of the barbed wire atop the Berlin Wall. Ritt gives us an image which emphasizes the divide between not only East and West Berlin, but the separation between eastern and western cultures, and their respective economic systems, communism and capitalism. The barbed wire symbolizes how dangerous and ragged the divide was during the Cold War. As the story progresses, the notion that those on one side of the fence hold a moral advantage over the other comes into question.
Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), a British spy who is head of intelligence in Berlin, waits at Checkpoint Charlie on the western side of the wall. He is expecting an East German agent, Karl Riemick, to escape to the west. However, the agent is killed, as have other agents, by the East German counter-espionage head, Mundt (Peter van Eyck). Back in London, Leamas’ boss, Control (Cyril Cusack), tells him that spies have to live without “sympathy.” But, one can’t stay outdoors all the time. Everyone has to “come in from the cold.” Leamas protests, not wanting a desk job. But, Control wants to assign him one more job to get Mundt, and asks him to stay “out in the cold a little longer.” Control says that even though one’s country is peaceful, their work requires them to do disagreeable things. In order to succeed, they must be as ruthless as their enemies. He asks Leamas if he still drinks alcohol. In this scene, even though we do not yet know Control’s plan, we realize that the West is equated with the East in an ethically downward spiral. And, Leamas will be an exploited tool in the process.
We next witness a disheveled Leamas at the Labor Exchange (unemployment office). It appears that he has been fired as a secret agent and has left several subsequent jobs. He is drinking heavily and needs money. He begins work at a reference library where he meets Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) who he discovers is a member of the British communist party. She says that one must believe in something, and even though she is an atheist, she believes in an ideology. Leamas voices the despair in following one political movement or the other when he says that in the clash between capitalism and communism, “it’s the innocents who suffer.” The two, however, become lovers.
Leamas spends time in jail after assaulting a grocer named Patmore (Bernard Lee) because the man won’t continue to extend Leamas credit on his purchases. (There is an ironic bit of casting here, since Lee played “M” in the early James Bond movies, where good and evil are very distinct forces). Leamas appears ready to be recruited by the other side. He meets with Control at the house of agent George Smiley (Rupert Davies). Leamas’ assignment is to provide enough information that will make Mundt’s deputy, Fiedler (Oskar Werner), who is Jewish and hates the ex-Nazi, accuse his superior of being a spy. A man named Ashe (Michael Hordern) approaches Leamas and there is another meeting with his superior, Dick Carlton (Robert Hardy). Leamas makes it clear that he despises his old bosses and is ready to give up information for money. The meeting with Ashe is at a restaurant that has drawings on the walls which depict people having sex in various positions. And, the meeting with Carlton is at a strip club. Also, Ashe is a homosexual, and at the time the movie was made, his sexual preference was seen as depraved. The settings for these dealings are made to emphasize the sleaziness of the activities of these men as they try to buy traitors.
But the business of these men on both sides gets even more despicable. Leamas thought he was only supposed to go to Holland to be interrogated and divulge information about the payment of funds to an unknown agent in an operation called Rolling Stone. Leamas was told that the plan was to implicate Mundt as a double agent working for British intelligence. But, Leamas was left out in the “cold” concerning aspects of the plan because, as we later learn, London went public with Leamas’ disappearance, making him look like a defector, and thus sought after by the authorities. He cannot return home from Holland, and must now go to East Germany and be interrogated by Fiedler. (It is interesting that the plane on which Leamas is a passenger is called “The Flying Dutchman,” a bad omen, since it suggests those who are condemned for their sins). During their meetings, Fiedler asks Leamas questions similar to those posed by Nan about his beliefs. Leamas’ sarcastic reply about adhering to an ideology is “I reserve the right to be ignorant. That’s the Western way of life.” He may be playing the part of a collaborator, but his statements echo the cynicism about the tactics employed in the Cold War. Fiedler echoes Leamas’ early statement about the fate of “innocents” caught in the middle of this war, but adds his own twist. He says, “Innocent people die every day. They might as well do it for a reason.” This statement is chilling in that it reverberates with the activities carried on in the present, where guiltless people are killed by terrorists because of their self-righteous knowledge that their way is the only right way. Perhaps Fiedler should reflect on how his Jewish kin were murdered for an evil “reason.” In contrast, Leamas’ statement about being ignorant of a so-called right way is more benevolent, if the only choices offered are both destructive.
From the evidence Leamas supplies, Fiedler concludes that the German named agent drawing from bank funds must be German in fact to avoid suspicion. That because Control was the only one handling the agent, he must be of importance. Mundt was in the countries at the time there were withdrawals from the banks. Leamas says it is impossible for him, as the head of German counter-espionage, not to know that Mundt was a double agent. Of course, his adamant attitude only convinces Fiedler that Leamas is on the level. Mundt returns and arrests both Fielder and Leamas, but Fielder has enough proof to put Mundt in front of a tribunal.
At this hearing, Fielder presents evidence that shows how Mundt promoted Riemick, who could then supply the British with better and better intelligence. Also, Control met Riemick alone. He relates that when Mundt was in England as part of a diplomatic mission, he killed someone and yet escaped the country despite the authorities being on high alert. Fiedler hypothesizes that Mundt was turned into a western asset in exchange for his freedom. Fiedler had suspected Riemick, and Mundt killed him before he could be broken and implicated him. However, Mundt’s representative questions Leamas, who supposedly collaborated for money because he was broke. He was followed to Smiley’s house, and George Smiley later visited Nan (who Leamas made clear to Control was not be involved). Nan, who thought she was going to East Germany in an exchange program, is introduced as a surprise witness. Ignorant of the reason for the proceedings, she admits that Smiley, a known British agent, visited her and purchased the lease for her apartment for one thousand pounds, because she was involved with Leamas. At this point Leamas admits to the plan to implicate Mundt, and urges that Nan be let go as she was not part of any conspiracy. Fiedler is arrested and will be executed for his conspiring to get rid of Mundt. As he is taken away, he tells Leamas that he is protecting Mundt. Leamas now realizes that the real objective was to get rid of Fielder, and that Mundt was, indeed, Control’s Rolling Stone double agent.
In the night, Mundt frees Leamas and Nan, saying he will blame Fiedler’s sympathizers for their escape, rooting out those who suspected him of being a British agent. On the way to escape over the wall, Leamas explains how he was sent to discredit Mundt, and she was used to discredit Leamas. All this double-dealing “to kill the Jew.” By making Fiedler a Jew and Mundt an ex-Nazi, the story indicts western interests for having now joined themselves with their hated enemies to kill a member of race the former enemy tried to exterminate. Leamas explains the current way of things in his speech to Nan:
"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, hen-pecked 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've killed Mundt because I thought him evil and an enemy, but not today. Today he's evil and my friend. London needs him. They need him so that the great moronic masses you admire so much can sleep soundly in their flea-bitten beds again. They need him for the safety of ordinary crummy people like you and me."
When Nan questions Leamas how he can ally himself with people who would hatch such a plot, he tells her that history has shown communism has not provided anything better. "There's a few million bodies on that path," he says. As they begin to scale the wall spotlights reveal their escape. Nan is shot and killed, because her knowledge of Mundt’s complicity with England makes her a liability. Leamas now understands the scope of the treachery surrounding him and goes back down on the east side to join the slain Nan. He is also killed.
It is fitting that these two should die at the wall that divides the two worlds shown in the film. For both of them at this time neither the east nor the west can be called home.
What is your favorite Richard Burton role?
The next film is Doubt.