"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 11, 2012

"The Spy Who Came In From The Cold" - book and film

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is a bestselling novel written in 1963 by John Le Carré (real name David Cornwell, *1931). It tells the tale of a burned-out spy in the years that the cold war was very real in Western Europe and many people feared it would turn hot. Soviets troops were massed at the East-German border, only a 7 or 8 hour drive from Amsterdam, Brussels or Paris. In 1961, the Berlin Wall was built. The action of the novel takes place before the advent of the swinging sixties, in a period that was a sort of extension of the dour fifties and that I can only see in monochrome. People wore thick, dark overcoats. They lived in tiny apartments with few belongings. Modern amenities were still out of the reach of ordinary people.

The "hero" of Le Carré's espionage novel is Alec Leamas, a disillusioned middle-aged man working for the British Secret Intelligence Service. Disgraced because of the poor performance of his Berlin Station, and afraid of being filed away in an administrative retirement job, he accepts a last dangerous mission: he has to pretend to defect to East Germany and with a false story topple the head of the East German Intelligence Service. Leamas' world consists of lies, but unfortunately for him, there are always bigger liars: his bosses in the Service cynically use him as a pawn in a larger game, which costs the life of the only person in the world he cares about.

The early sixties with their East-West dichotomy seem a very straightforward place, as in those other spy fictions, the two-dimensional James Bond fantasies by Ian Fleming. But in fact, the chillingly realistic world of John Le Carré is very different from those vulgar spy fictions. Above all, it is startlingly contemporary in its ambiguities: to Le Carré, morally there is no major difference between "us" and "them" as both East and West in the name of national security practice the same expedient amorality. In other words, our own governments are just as cynical and devoid of ethics as those of our opponents, with at most a difference in degree.

Le Carré paints a devastating picture of human frailty and duplicity, his message is unremittingly dark and nihilistic. This, together with the skill with which the book is written and composed, lifts The Spy out of genre fiction to the level of serious literature.

The film (by director Martin Ritt) has been properly shot in black-and-white to do justice to my monochrome memories. It is a vehicle for Richard Burton, who acts forcefully with just the right amount of world-weariness and disillusionment - a great characterization. The film follows the plot of the book without any major deviations. Again, a valuable counterweight to the James Bond fairy tales with their silly action sequences which were just then starting to attract film goers. It may be difficult to stomach, but The Spy shows how the world really was... and is.