You Can’t Be Less Wicked Than Your Enemy – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) Criterion Blu-ray

First published in 1963, John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was designed as a corrective against the far-fetched espionage fantasy of Ian Fleming’s popular James Bond series. A movie adaption followed two years later, released right at the height of Bond-mania. While perhaps not cultural milestones on quite the same scale as Bond would achieve, both the book and film found their audience and have endured as classics.

His third published novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was le Carré’s first international bestseller and established the author as a master of spy fiction for grown-ups. Over the course of a couple dozen more books, the prolific writer (and former operative of both the British MI5 and MI6 agencies) deglamorized the genre with intricately plotted stories characterized by their realistic details and tremendous moral complexity. A number of them were adapted to film and television, some more successfully than others. The 1965 movie version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold set the standard for all that followed.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) - Berlin Border
Title:The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Year of Release: 1965
Director: Martin Ritt
Watched On: Blu-ray
Also Available On: Various VOD rental and purchase platforms

Richard Burton stars as Alec Leamas, introduced during his time as MI6 station chief in West Berlin. Decades before its famous wall fell and the city was re-integrated, his job is to ferry spies across the heavily-guarded border. It doesn’t always go well, especially lately. Continued failure suggests that the other side’s spies are more successful and have inside info on the British operation.

After being recalled to London, the despondent Leamas is ready to give up field work and leave the intelligence community. Recognizing an opportunity, Control (Cyril Cusack), the ringmaster of their coyly-named Circus, assigns him one last, critical mission. Leamas will be officially discharged from the service and fall on hard times, then allow himself to be recruited by Communist agents as a turncoat informant. All the while, his true purpose will be to spread disinformation to the enemy and sow division between two top East German officials, Fiedler (Oskar Werner) and Mundt (Peter van Eyck), with the end goal of convincing Fiedler that Mundt is a British mole. If Leamas does his job well, Mundt will be executed, thus knocking a major player out of the game.

For a game is how both sides treat their spying, and Leamas is tired of playing. Counter-intelligence is tricky, dangerous work, and not just for the professional spies. Trapped as a pawn in this scheme is a lovely young librarian named Nan (Claire Bloom from The Haunting), with whom Leamas has developed some feelings despite being required to manipulate her. As much as he tries to minimize her involvement, collateral damage may be inevitable.

Betrayals abound in le Carré’s complicated narrative. Unlike the highly simplified and romanticized nature of most spy fiction, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold draws no clear lines between good and bad. Both sides play dirty, and the only winner is the one willing to make the most cold-hearted sacrifices.

The movie adaptation was directed by Martin Ritt (Hud). The film is very talky and moves at a slow, deliberate pace. Those expecting James Bond-style thrills should look elsewhere. Burton delivers a gruff, blustery performance that le Carré himself had mixed feelings about, but does well to convey an agent at the end of his rope. The romance subplot is not developed as well as it could be (likely condensed too much from the book), and I’m left unconvinced that a girl like Nan would fall so quickly and easily for Leamas. That minor issue aside, this is an engrossing tale, executed with skill by a master craftsman. Even about sixty years later (and more than twenty since the Cold War officially ended), its bitter, cynical treatment of the ugly business of international espionage still stings.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) - Clarie Bloom & Richard Burton

The Blu-ray

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was released on Blu-ray as spine #452 of the Criterion Collection in 2013. The technical notes inside the included booklet state that the film was transferred from a 35mm composite fine-grain master positive, but don’t specify whether the scan was performed at 2K or 4K resolution. Given the timing of the disc’s release, I assume 2K. In fact, I suspect that the master likely originated with Criterion’s DVD release in 2008. The booklet’s notation that “Black bars at the top and bottom of the screen are normal for this format” was certainly written for DVD, not Blu-ray. (The Blu-ray’s pillarboxed 1.66:1 picture has black bars on the sides of the 16:9 container, not the top and bottom of a DVD 4:3 video container.)

Despite its presumed age, the transfer holds up pretty well. The image is quite sharp, with a fine representation of detail. The texture of Leamas’ tweed coat is well resolved. Film grain is visible but usually not too obtrusive. The black-and-white photography’s gray scale looks right.

On the other hand, the picture’s contrast is rather flat with weak black levels. Some faint vertical scratches are also occasionally visible. I don’t know whether these are still the best available source elements or if something better could be dug up in the future. While I doubt that a 4K scan would uncover much more detail, should Criterion or some other label ever reissue the film on Ultra HD, a careful application of HDR might benefit the film.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) Criterion Blu-ray

Because IMDb claims (erroneously?) that the movie’s original sound mix was mono, I was very surprised to hear the musical score extend to my side and surround speakers. Criterion’s booklet says that the soundtrack is stereo and was mastered from a 35mm optical track, then encoded onto disc in PCM 2.0 format.

The music is really the only part of the track in stereo. It upmixes to surround well and has a pleasing sense of presence. The rest of the mix sounds monaural. Dialogue is clear but slightly tinny. Analog hiss has been filtered out without too much detriment. In all, it sounds appropriate to a movie of this age.

The accompanying booklet features an essay by critic Michael Sragow. On-disc features include a very engaging 2008 interview with John le Carré, an hour-long BBC documentary from 2000, a 1985 audio interview with Martin Ritt (49 min.), a 1965 TV interview with Richard Burton (33 min.), selected scenes commentary by cinematographer Oswald Morris, a still gallery of set design sketches, and a theatrical trailer.

5 thoughts on “You Can’t Be Less Wicked Than Your Enemy – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) Criterion Blu-ray

  1. Saw this late one night in college and absolutely loved it. I have the DVD somewhere but this Blu is on my list for the next Criterion sale.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s