Last October, “Bridge of Spies” was released in cinemas. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie is a solid spy-thriller set in the 1960s. It portrays James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a New York attorney assigned to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who was accused of committing espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. If you’re looking for sheer entertainment with something slightly more compelling and cerebral than the 007 series, Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” satisfies. But if you’re looking for a spy-thriller that digs deeper into the complexities and ambiguities of the Cold War, you might want to reach further back into the catalogue for a masterpiece that emerged in the midst of those global tensions and popular fears that defined the period.
It was 1965 and the Cold War was in full swing. The Cuban Missile crisis was fresh on everyone’s mind. President John F. Kennedy had only recently been assassinated fueling myths that the Communist leader Fidel Castro or some other Soviet agent had murdered the leader of the free world. Meanwhile, the John Birch Society, created by the owner of a powerful oil company, Koch Industries, was accusing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of being a Communist agent and denounced desegregation as a communist plot. Overseas, the United States was escalating its military presence in Vietnam as Communist insurgents led a nationalist revolt throughout the country.
This was the backdrop to the 1965 release of “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”, a bold film rendition of the John le Carré novel by the same title. The story tells the controversial tale of one agent’s experience operating in the dangerous espionage world of West Berlin and the brutal hypocrisies of the Western intelligence services in their efforts to combat communist influence. In 2006, Publisher’s Weekly declared The Spy Who Came in From the Cold the “best spy novel of all time.”
Of course it is quite safe for modern critics to write rave reviews of the tale today but in 1963, when the novel first appeared, exposing the dark side of the Western intelligence service was a brave and dangerous gamble taken by the author. John le Carré was in an incredible position to take such risks, after all, the author was in actual fact David John Moore Cornwell, an agent of the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6 during the 1950s and 1960s.
When the film debuted in 1965, it received positive reviews and several awards, including four BAFTA awards for Best Film, Best Actor, Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction. Richard Burton’s performance also received the David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Actor as well as the Golden Laurel Award, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. The film was also named one of the top ten films of 1966 by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures.
“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” makes James Bond films seem cartoonish as it delves into the real world of Cold War spies in a way that only those with firsthand experience in that life could. Undoubtedly, the gravity of the story was made even more profound by the fact that the director, Martin Ritt, had been blacklisted after an anti-communist newsletter, Counterattack, mentioned him by name as a communist sympathizer. Counterattack was formed by three former FBI agents under the auspices of an organization calling itself American Business Consultants (ABC), a front organization funded by rightwing extremists associated with the “Church League of America” and the John Birch Society. For Ritt, these experiences revealed the true nature of the anti-communist crusade in the West and provided him firsthand understanding of the torments of living like a fugitive.
December 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the film release of “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” now available in a fully restored Blu-Ray format from the Criterion Collection. Shot in stark and beautiful black and white, the movie features magnificent performances by star Richard Burton, and captures the dark world of its subject with elegance.
By J.D. Thomason