Four Non-Bonds: THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD

 You don't have to wait for SKYFALL to watch a thrilling spy film about a burnt-out British agent.

A haggard, middle aged spy wanders London, looking hungover and in need of a shave after botching an important mission in the film's opening sequence:

No, that's not it. Back up. A haggard, middle aged spy wanders London, looking hungover and in need of a shave after botching an important mission in the film's opening sequence:

There we go. This is The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the first film to be adapted from a John Le Carré novel. It occupies the same universe as Le Carré's other works (both George Smiley and his boss "Control" are supporting characters here) and introduced film audiences to the author's dense, dry, unglamorous take on the spy game. The film follows Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), British operative in charge of the agency's Berlin section. After watching helplessly while the opposition guns down his last double agent at the Berlin Wall, he's called back to "the Circus" (aka MI6) by his supervisor and is told it might be time to retire from field work. He refuses a desk assignment, and instead ends up with a crap job at a library, drinking too much and spending time with a young librarian (Claire Bloom) who gives him timidly idealistic speeches about her affiliation with the Communist party. We seem to be watching a man in free-fall, a miserable wreck who can't even adapt to such civilian simplicities as buying groceries without making a mess of things.

But it's all a ruse: Leamas is establishing a very public cover as an embittered, drunken ex-agent in order to pique the interest of enemies who might encourage him to defect and sell his secrets. Once he's in their hands, he's to leak false information in order to frame (and thus bring about the execution of) an enemy agent. As he moves up the pecking order of the enemy's ranks, in which we observe a great running gag involving the "bad guys" taking great delight in shitting on their respective underlings, only to be given the same treatment by the next guy up the chain, Leamas begins to realize he himself might not be privy to the real goal of the mission.

For a script that could very well be performed as black box theater, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold makes for a pretty enthralling film, a unique blend of international espionage and British "kitchen sink" drama. Burton is magnetic as the grizzled 40-year old burnout case forced to accept his role as "the lowest currency of the Cold War", and forced also by circumstance to acknowledge what a scuzzy job this really is, attracting the most unsavory of human beings who will change alliances at the whims of their superiors, carrying out orders with no regard for any sort of internal moral compass. James Bond wouldn't have that kind of introspection (on film, at least) for another 22 years. It's especially intriguing to watch this film knowing it came a year after Bond completed his transformation into indestructible superhero in Goldfinger in 1964. This film seems almost a response to that one, and indeed much of its critical praise at the time pointed out how the movie presented a warts and all view of espionage, in stark contrast to the sexy, colorful escapism of 007. Every element of the film throws the Bond universe into sharp relief: Burton looks like absolute hell for a 40 year old, his face illustrating the toll such a life must take; the sexy femme fatale is replaced here by a quiet librarian with communist leanings and a crush on her co worker, a combination that makes her as much of a deadly prospect in this world as Luciana Paluzzi was in Thunderball (in theaters that same year); and the film (like its source novel) shocked readers with its frank depiction of the amorality of espionage, shattering their Ian Fleming-orchestrated preconceptions that spies were some sort of noble defenders of the realm. (But lest anyone think the movie can claim to be more wholly morally nuanced than the world of 007, the film is full of horribly racist and homophobic comments that would have Ian Fleming beaming with pride.)

Some of the film's connections to the Bond universe are less thematic: it was co-written by Paul Dehn, who performed the same duties on Goldfinger the year before (and who would go on to steer the storyline of the Planet of the Apes franchise). The original M (Bernard Lee) is moonlighting here as a blue-collar grocer who winds up on the receiving end of Leamas' drunken rage. The film was nominated for several Oscars, won a bunch of BAFTAs, and was given the Criterion treatment in 2008. It's at the moment available to watch streaming in high-definition via Amazon's Instant service. It's not only a great companion piece to the recent adaptation of Le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but with its themes of self-doubt, depression, duty and patriotism, it's potentially a more appropriate appetizer for a new Bond film than a lot of actual Bond entries.

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