The Spy Who Came in from the Cold Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review
It’s the Cold War. East and West Germany are divided by the Berlin Wall. Paranoia lurks in every shadow. Spies are kept busy.
British agent Alec Leamas (Richard Burton, who earned his fourth Academy Award nomination for his turn) has been tasked by his boss (Cyril Cusack, WALTZ OF THE TOREADORS) to serve as a defector and help incriminate an East German officer named Mundt (Peter van Eyck, THE LONGEST DAY) by playing his second-in-command, Fiedler (Oskar Werner, who would later portray Guy Montag in François Truffaut’s FAHRENHEIT 451), like a fiddle.
He’s to drink and think as he normally would. He is to complete the mission and then collect his money. Of course, only so much can go according to plan.
THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is based on John Le Carré’s 1963 novel of the same name (which TIME Magazine ranked as one of the 100 greatest novels ever) and has an atmosphere of impending doom that the James Bond franchise could never prepare viewers for. THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD may be too straight and even complicated for those used to the scenarios Ian Fleming put 007 in. This is not one of the glamorized or romanticized spy stories that depends on chases, shootouts and colorful characters. (Try to picture Sean Connery or Roger Moore walking through these ominous streets or delivering this monologue: “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?”)
THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, instead, is an incredibly tense look at the job and the era. The opening scene ropes us in through excitement, but really the film is delicately paced for the duration (almost to a fault, as it takes more than a half hour for Alec to receive his assignment).
While Martin Ritt (1963’s HUD, for which he earned an Academy Award nomination) shows a steady hand can make all the difference in a film like this, much of the success of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD belongs to the crew. There is Sol Kaplan (1953’s TITANIC), whose at times unnerving score guides the story over the Berlin Wall and back; cinematographer Oswald Morris (John Huston’s MOULIN ROUGE, Stanley Kubrick’s LOLITA), whose photography allows the viewer both to feel closed in and to exhale when necessary; and the team of Tambi Larsen, Josie MacAvin, Tambi Larsen, and Ted Marshall, whose collective work earned the film’s second Oscar nod (for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White).
THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD also boasts a terrific supporting cast, including Claire Bloom (Charles Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT) as a librarian with communist, Sam Wanamaker (1978’s HOLOCAUST) and the aforementioned actors.
Video: 1.66:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. “This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine from a 35 mm composite fine-grain master positive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Image Systems’ DVNR was used for small dirt, grain, and noise management.” THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is given an absolutely stellar high-definition transfer. The video features flawless blacks and whites and is crisp throughout without taking away from the filmic look.
Audio: English Stereo. “The original stereo soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm optical soundtrack print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.” The audio transfer is also very strong, with clean dialogue and a strong Sol Kaplan score.
John Le Carré (39:00): Le Carré sits down for an interview initially recorded for Criterion’s DVD of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. In it, the author discusses the novel and its adaptation.
THE SECRET CENTRE: JOHN LE CARRE (59:17): This feature-length documentary from 2000 looks at the life and career of John Le Carré.
Martin Ritt (48:59): These interview excerpts from 1985 feature director Ritt discussing his career in theater, television and film.
Oswald Morris (39:55): Here, cinematographer Oswald Morris looks at and chats about a number of scenes from THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD.
Set Designs collects a number of sketches.
ACTING IN THE 60’S: RICAHRD BURTON (33:39): In this interview that aired on BBC in 1967, actor Burton discusses his acting career and Elizabeth Taylor.
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is a 16-page booklet featuring an essay by critic Michael Sragow.