Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5.
United Kingdom, 1965. Salem Films Limited. Screenplay by Paul Dehn, Guy Trosper, based on the novel by John Le Carre. Cinematography by Oswald Morris. Produced by Martin Ritt. Music by Sol Kaplan. Production Design by Tambi Larsen. Costume Design by Sophie Devine. Film Editing by Anthony Harvey. Academy Awards 1965. Golden Globe Awards 1965. National Board of Review Awards 1965.
John Le Carre’s spy novel and this subsequent film adaptation came out at the perfect time to give the world the ultimate James Bond antidote. Where Ian Fleming’s hero is besotted with martinis, girls and guns, Le Carre’s protagonist Alec Leamas (Richard Burton in a marvelously intense performance) is the victim of these indulgences. Drink is the method by which he destroys himself as part of his cover, sexy girls reside in the seedy underbelly of clubs and bars he must frequent to get the job done, and guns are used against his colleagues and friends. After Burton witnesses a fellow spy get shot down while returning from a mission in East Germany, his superiors ask him if the event hasn’t forced him to face the fact that he is burned out. Following his objections, he is assigned to fake a defection in order to assist a field operative who is undercover behind the Iron Curtain. When an innocent young woman (Claire Bloom) gets involved and her life is placed in danger, Burton realizes that he is just a meaningless pawn in an endless game that has no morality or glory, only ambition and greed. Martin Ritt directs the entire thing with a lot of integrity and strength, particularly in never giving into any temptation to glamourize anything (other than the fact that the sharp black and white photography is gorgeous). Le Carre’s plotting, however intelligently it might read on the page, makes for dry film viewing, and even at its most admirable the film is a rather low-burn experience. It insists on reality to the point of sometimes being mundane, but it is still worth watching for its many good qualities.