The Spy who came in from the Cold

Film Noir Le Carre adaption of the book by the same name made in 1965 of the Spy/Thriller genre.


Head of German station Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is recalled to London  after the death of his agents in East Germany. In apparent disgrace he then becomes a defector on the orders of Control (Cyril Cusack).

Prior to his recall during operation Rolling Stone  he has  made two very large deposits in Finland and Denmark banks  for the payment of an agent.

The plan attempts to persuade Fiedler (Oskar Werner), the  second in command (2i/c) of the East German (DDR)  counter-intelligence and an idealistic Jew, to kill his superior Mundt (Peter van Eyck) , an ex-Nazi , because he is a British agent.

Mundt is in fact arrested and tried in a tribunal and the case for his being a double agent is compelling. However, at the last moment Laeamas’ idealist girlfriend Nan Perry (Claire Bloom)   who has been enticed to the DDR implicates London, to the court, that Rolling Stone is still in operation. The 2i/c is arrested and by implication executed, Mundt is released with Laemas and the girl imprisoned. It dawns on Laemas that Mundt is actually a British agent and the operation ensures his survival  realising that Control has sacrificed his DDR agents.

Their escape is provided by Mundt who arranges for them to go over the wall. They are both killed attempting to flee into West Berlin.


This monochrome film  is tense, atmospheric and feels very real. The characterisations are credible with good back stories and motivations , however, Burton appears to be playing himself but convincingly articulates Le Carre’s personal feelings. “Communism, capitalism. It is the innocents that get slaughtered” Leamas says in the first Act then finally he describes the dirty, morally questionable work in espionage in a monologue in the closing minutes.  His realistic scenes portraying his character while drunk are  very poignant.

It is a film of three acts. Act 1 sets up the  characters and initial disturbance of equilibrium (death of the agents), Act 2 deals with the defection and gradual increase in tension as he goes from freedom to say no in London to chains in East Germany which ramps up the viewers anxiety. The final, almost unbearable twist, where Perry inadvertently implicates her boyfriend signals the beginning of Act 3.  The explanations and deaths occur in the final act a new equilibrium is achieved Mundt survives and the British have a top agent safely in place. The screenplay very closely follows the original novel’s plot and  illustrates rather than interprets it.

Using Propp’s characterisations Leamas is the hero, Control is the enabler. Smiley is the donor, Mundt is the villain.

The plot is typical Le Carre (who was actually the real  agent in Germany post war) and full of twists and turns. Burton is believable as an agent until the very end. It seems unlikely as experienced operative ( and now mistrustful of London)  that he would not think himself expendable as threat to Mundt’s identity and not wish to escape by a different route rather than the one laid on by the double-agent.

Technically the cinematography has some very demanding shots for instance where Nan runs for a bus. The camera is on the bus and there is a long pan from long shot to close up in one take while the bus is moving. The bus pulls off keeping the Michael Horden character in increasingly longer and longer shot. See further analysis here . A tiny part of the film but semiotically relevant as she crosses paths with the East German agent her ultimately disastrous entanglement in a world she is foreign to begins.

The film was a critical and box office success (Nash Information Services, no date) winning BAFTAs for best actor, art direction, cinematography and film. It was nominated in the Oscars for best actor and art direction.


The opening scenes portray Checkpoint Charlie bring back happy memories. Unfortunately it is nor a very accurate portrayal having visited it myself. I would love to get to repeat the bus scene at some time. The framing is extraordinary.


Nash Information Services (no date) The Numbers. Available at: (Accessed: 24 April 2016).

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, [television programme, online], Prod. credit n.k., Prod. company n.k., Prod. country n.k., 16:25 24/4/2016, Film4, 135mins., (Accessed 24/04/2016).


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