John le Carré writes spy stories for depressed people. Contrary to the sun- and color-blasted vistas of the James Bond novels (and films), le Carré tends to focus on the hazy, gray urban decay that characterized Cold War-era Europe. His protagonists boozed about as much as Bond, but the only thing that cut their drinks was a dash of soda at the most. These are frumpy, middle-aged men who have none of the athleticism we've come to expect from international men of mystery, and whose defining feature is a stubbornness that allows them to persist in the dreary world in which they've come to dwell. Films based on le Carré's work are tired and deeply unhappy.
Martin Ritt's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the first adaptation of the former MI6-er's oeuvre and it was the bitter tonic to the mounting craze for splashy entertainment featuring Sean Connery as a secret agent who told everyone who he was when he first met them. It focuses on Alec Leamas (Richard Burton, whose glamorous misery never seemed less glamorous), a Secret Service operative who refuses to take a desk job after a mission to bring home a German double agent hits the skids. Control (Cyrl Cusack) orders Leamas to pose as a defector to the Germans so that they can plant intel that would incriminate Mundt (Peter van Eyck), MI6's German on the inside who double-crossed their other man.
As part of his cover, Leamas must pose as an unemployed, not-so-borderline alcoholic who's been discharged from his work, putting him in the way of Miss Nancy Perry (Claire Bloom), the young librarian who becomes his co-worker and lover. Leamas's boozy behavior catches the attention of the Germans, who see a disaffected Englishman who just might turn on their Western enemies, and he gets brought in.
I won't spoil where the film goes from there. Like the 2011 adaptation of le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that succeeded it, Spy isn't interested in holding the audience's hand as it proceeds from one event to the next. The screenplay by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper dispense just shy of the amount of information we'd need to assemble the intricate plot, so we're kept guessing as we watch Leamas's life implode. Based on Burton's heavy-lidded, thousand-yard-stare performance, we're not sure that Leamas isn't actively wishing this upon himself: he really seems like a man who has not much to live for. That has nothing to do with any background we receive about Leamas: he's an enigma to us as much as he is to the people around him. But we do see that he is a man of action, and without action to accomplish, then he'd simply perish, like a shark who suffocates after failing to move in the water.
Ritt's direction fills in the gaps where the script remains mum. We read the motivations of the characters on their faces and in their voices. Oskar Werner is particularly valuable here as perhaps the liveliest character on screen. He's a true believer in his cause and admirable for it, even if he ostensibly an enemy to our protagonist. The rain-soaked streets and dingy bars that Leamas favors cue us into the tone Ritt is aiming for, and that these people can be headed nowhere but down the stony end. Even when the film offers a bit of hope, it is snatched away mercilessly. Some critics have lobbed the word, "dour," at The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I disagree. I feel that it's more truthful and accurate about the anxiety the world lived in at that time. We may not have been in all-out war, but good people still died all the time. They still do.