Spy flicks (i.e. international intrigue movies) generally fall into one of two major categories. There’s the big budget action adventure type, with gadgets galore, eye-popping stunts, and exotic locations. Then you’ve got the low-key types that rely more on mood and the personal challenges and drama of the characters. The former are the James Bond and Mission: Impossible movies; the latter are the lesser known relics of the Cold War era that are generally treated as more like mysteries than tales of international espionage.
John le Carré is a master of the second type. Like Ian Fleming, he worked for British Intelligence, but rather than write what are little more than glorified “Mary Sue” stories, he got down and dirty in all the more boring and unpleasant aspects of the game.
“Spy” is one of his best works, and was turned into one of the best movies of the genre.
Alec Lemas (Richard Burton) is one of Britain’s senior field agents who is burnt out and wants to retire (“come in from the Cold”). But before he is allowed to do so, his boss has one last assignment for him.
We’re not immediately told what it is, or even if he accepts it. What we do see is him being broke and alcoholic, even needing government help to find a menial job. He falls in “like” with Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) a young coworker with political ideas more to the Left of what society can openly accept (hint, hint). A drunken tussle with a shopkeeper results in his getting a short stint in jail. On his release, a mysterious charitable organization offers him more cash than you think they’d have at their disposal, and over lunch and drinks at upscale establishments, a very lucrative job offer where all he’d have to do is talk about his experiences on the Continent – especially in Berlin. Their “interviewer” would polish the interviews up into articles for the “general public” in unspecified publications.
If you’ve guessed that Soviet agents are trying to turn him, you win!
Ah, but it turns out this is all part of his assignment! He is to pretend to be turned, so he can plant false information about a key figure in the East German spy agency, resulting in that person being executed for treason – or at least discredited and fired.
But even something that risky isn’t so simple – or what it seems.
Director Martin Ritt and Cinematographer Oswald Morris did a great job with this. And it’s held as one of Burton’s best performances (though to be fair, playing a sullen drunk wasn’t that far out of character for him at the time). The acting is all downplayed; there’s no yelling or villanous cackling. There isn’t even a single hidden microphone or miniature camera. It’s shot in black and white, which makes everything look gloomy and miserable. The sets all have a seedy, run down look, and the outdoor scenes appear to have been filmed on overcast days, just after it rained. There’s nothing sunny and bright about this movie.
The Bond movies represent what we’d like spying to be. Action, adventure, and gadgetry, all in the service of saving the world. The novels and movies of le Carré (and Len Deighton) better represent what the spy game is actually like. Questionable people doing questionable things without knowing the full picture of what they are involved in. And if innocent people are used as “pawn sacrifices” for some greater good without their consent or even knowledge, so be it.
Our work, as I understand it, is based on a single assumption that the West is never going to be the aggressor. Thus, we do disagreeable things, but we’re defensive. Our policies are peaceful, but our methods can’t afford to be less ruthless than those of the opposition, can they? You know, I’d say, uh… since the war, our methods – our techniques, that is – and those of the Communists, have become very much the same. Yes. I mean, occasionally… we have to do wicked things. Very wicked things, indeed. But, uh, you can’t be less wicked than your enemies simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you?
In the world of Cold War espionage, there weren’t very many “victories”. More often than not, what counted as a success was the stopping of a loss. The real depressing thing about it all is that once the game started, you had to keep playing. For while “winning” the game was essentially impossible, you could certainly guarantee that you would lose. And that would happen once you stopped playing.