Cult Movie: Burton on fire in Cold War classic The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
Ralph McLean

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

I'VE been on something of full-blown Richard Burton trip in the past few months. As lockdown lumbered on I found myself hooked by those magnetic eyes as they've scowled out from a whole range of varied filmic delights.

I've watched the Welsh wonder dazzle in Look Back In Anger, chow down on the scenery in the hysterical horror The Medusa Touch and come on like one of the Kray's crazed cousins in Villain. Best of the bunch, though, was undoubtedly The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

Director Martin Ritt's nihilistic cinematic recasting of John Le Carre's Cold War thriller is a seriously chilly watch but Burton is on fire in every scene. Bleak barely covers this 1965 beauty of lies, deceit and danger in barren Berlin and Burton's performance is perfectly judged throughout. As Alec Leamas, the tired and dejected “spy” at the film's cracked core, he is simply incredible.

Of course, playing a drunken, disillusioned man can't have been much of a stretch for Burton in this period – his personal battle with the bottle and his festering disgust at how his professional and private life had turned out were public knowledge even then – but he brings a truthfulness and tired empathy to the role of the disgraced MI6 station chief that is hugely impressive.

Discarded ruthlessly from the secret service, Leamas is a man stripped of purpose. Confused by his demotion, his life crumbles rapidly on his return to London. He winds up a hopeless drunk working in a small library where he meets a sympathetic figure in the shape of Nan (Claire Bloom), a young and enthusiastic but hopelessly naïve member of the Communist party. As his life spirals downwards he makes an ill-advised deal to tell all he knows to East German Intelligence for money. I won't spoil the twists and turns that await Leamas but suffice to say it doesn't end well for the defector

Watching Burton in his prime is quite the cinematic thrill ride, however. He glowers malevolently at every ministry minion sent to face him, he strolls through the stark Checkpoint Charlie world of 60s espionage with effortless ease and that rich voice drops an octave or two when he's really spilling out the self-loathing in close up.

A classical actor of the highest standard who felt reduced to working on material he often found below him but that he found impossible to refuse when he realised he needed the money, he seethes with disgust on screen and it's genuinely impossible to take your eyes off him at times.

Just like his Leamas character here, you get the feeling his contempt for the situation he finds himself is all consuming. Sardonic and angry at how his life, once so positively charged with potential, has now chugged to a stalling point way below expectations, he becomes the hollow liar we see on the screen.

It may smack of life imitating art but it gives us one of the greatest Cold War thriller performances ever committed to celluloid.

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