The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (film)

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The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Spy cold.jpg
Theatrical release poster by Howard Terpning
Directed byMartin Ritt
Produced byMartin Ritt
Screenplay by
Based onThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold
by John le Carré
Music bySol Kaplan
CinematographyOswald Morris
Edited byAnthony Harvey
Salem Films Limited
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • 16 December 1965 (1965-12-16) (US)
  • 13 January 1966 (1966-01-13) (UK)
Running time
112 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office$7,600,000

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a 1965 British Cold War spy film directed by Martin Ritt and starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Oskar Werner.

Based on the 1963 John le Carré novel of the same name, the film depicts British agent Alec Leamus' mission as a faux defector to East Germany who is tasked with sowing damaging disinformation about a powerful East German intelligence officer. As part of a charade, Leamus pretends to quit British intelligence and live as an embittered alcoholic. He allows himself to be recruited by East German agents in England and is taken to continental Europe to sell his secrets for money. His mission seems almost complete when his charade crumbles and he is revealed to still be working for British intelligence, a revelation that achieves the real objectives of the mission, much to his surprise.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was a box-office success, receiving positive reviews, and several awards, including four BAFTA Awards for Best Film, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction. For his performance, Richard Burton received the David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Actor, the Golden Laurel Award, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. The film was named one of the top ten films of 1966 by the National Board of Review in the United States.[1] The screenplay was written by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper.[2]


The West Berlin office of "The Circus", under station chief Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), has suffered from reduced effectiveness. He is recalled to London shortly after the death of one of his operatives and is seemingly drummed out of the agency. In reality, a carefully staged transformation of Leamas has been arranged by Control (Cyril Cusack), the agency's chief. Appearing to be depressed, embittered, and alcoholic, Leamas takes work as an assistant at a local library. There, he begins a relationship with coworker Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), a young and idealistic member of the English Communist Party. Leamas spends most of his small salary on alcohol, leaving him constantly low on funds. He drunkenly assaults a shopkeeper who refuses him credit and is briefly jailed. His predicament draws the attention of the East German Intelligence Service, who sees him as a potential defector.

Leamas is approached by a series of operatives, each one passing him up the chain of the East German intelligence service, and he expresses a willingness to sell British secrets for money. He eventually flies to the Netherlands to meet an agent named Peters (Sam Wanamaker), who decides that his information is important enough to send him on to East Germany. At a German country house, Leaman is introduced to Fiedler (Oskar Werner), who becomes his main interrogator. Leamas' information seems to suggest that a powerful East German intelligence officer named Mundt (Peter van Eyck) is a paid informant of the British, but the evidence is circumstantial, and Leamas repeatedly insists that Mundt could not have been a British agent without his knowledge. However, Fielder is able to confirm and expand upon on Leamas' information and comes to the conclusion that Mundt, his supervisor, has indeed been a secret asset of British intelligence for many years.

Mundt unexpectedly arrives at the compound and has both Leamas and Fiedler arrested. Once Fiedler explains his findings to his superiors, the tables are turned and Mundt is arrested. A secret tribunal is convened to try Mundt, with Leamas compelled to testify. Fiedler presents a strong case for Mundt being a paid double agent. However, Mundt's attorney (George Voskovec) uncovers several discrepancies in Leamas' transformation into an informant, suggesting that Leamus is a faux defector. Leamas' credibility collapses when his English girlfriend, Nan Perry, who has been brought to East Germany for what she thought was a cultural exchange visit, is forced to testify at the tribunal and unwittingly reveals that she has been receiving payments from British intelligence. Leamas' reluctantly admits that he is still a British agent, Fiedler is arrested as a complicit dupe, and Mundt is vindicated.

Leamas initially believes he has failed in his mission and fears severe retribution from Mundt. But in the middle of the night, Mundt releases Leamas from his cell and provides an escape plan for himself and Nan, who was also being held. Mundt explains that Leamas' real mission has succeeded: Mundt actually is a British agent, and Fiedler had been the target of the operation all along, as he had grown too suspicious of his supervisor. This comes as a shock to Leamas, and the complex web he has been drawn into and the risk he has been placed in by his own superiors become painfully clear. He explains the entire plot to still idealistic Nan as they drive their borrowed car toward the border, and she berates him for being involved in what amounts to the murder of a man, Fiedler, who was only doing his job. Leamas, agitated by her naiveté, erupts in an angry, self-loathing confession:

What do you think spies are? They are a bunch of seedy squalid bastards like me, little drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong? Yesterday I would have killed Mundt because I thought him evil and an enemy. But not today. Today he is evil and my friend.

Leamas and Nan arrive at the Berlin Wall and are given instructions to climb over to the West on a particular ladder while a searchlight is purposely turned away. While Leamas is atop the wall pulling Nan behind him, the searchlight suddenly shines directly on them, alarms sound, and Nan is shot dead by Mundt's operative, preventing her from revealing what she knows about the operation to anyone. Leamas freezes in shock and horror and is urged by agents on both sides to return to the West. Instead, he climbs down towards Nan on the eastern side of the wall and is shot dead as well.



The film closely follows the plot of the original source text. One exception is that in the novel, the name of the principal female character, Liz Gold, is changed to Nan Perry, reputedly because the producers were worried about the potential confusion in the media with Burton's then wife, Elizabeth Taylor.

Ardmore Studios in Ireland and England's Shepperton Studios were used for the shooting of interior scenes.[3]


The Spy Who Came in from the Cold took in $7,600,000 at the box office.[4]

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, "After all the spy and mystery movies of a romantic and implausible nature that we have seen, it is great to see one as realistic, and believable too, as 'The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.'"[5] Variety called the film "an excellent contemporary espionage drama of the Cold War which achieves solid impact via emphasis on human values, total absence of mechanical spy gimmickry, and perfectly controlled underplaying."[6] Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "It is not an easy, certainly not a pleasant, picture to sit through; too impersonal, too objective, to move us to weep, so that its ending can only leave us tremendously depressed."[7] Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post declared, "Not having shared the evidently widespread admiration for 'The Spy Who Came In From the Cold' in its original form as a novel, I nonetheless find it a wholly absorbing picture."[8] Brendan Gill of The New Yorker called it "in every respect an admirable translation the screen of the fantastically popular thriller by Jean le Carré."[9] The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "Concentration is demanded; and earned by the tension and accuracy of the dialogue and the high level of performance ... [the cast] all give performances of a kind which instantly engage attention, even if the characters scarcely develop beyond the point at which we first meet them."[10]

The film currently holds a score of 86% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 14 reviews, with an average grade of 7.7 out of 10.[11]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Award Category Nominee Result
Academy Awards, 1966 Best Actor Richard Burton Nominated
Best Art Direction Hal Pereira, Tambi Larsen, Ted Marshall, Josie MacAvin Nominated
BAFTA Awards, 1966 Best British Actor Richard Burton Won
Best British Art Direction Tambi Larsen Won
Best British Cinematography Oswald Morris Won
Best British Film Martin Ritt Won
Best Film from any Source Martin Ritt Nominated
Best Foreign Actor Oskar Werner Nominated
British Society of Cinematographers, 1966 Best Cinematography Award Oswald Morris Won
David di Donatello Awards, 1966 Best Foreign Actor Richard Burton Won
Edgar Allan Poe Awards, 1966 Best Motion Picture Paul Dehn, Guy Trosper Won
Golden Globe Awards, 1966 Best Supporting Actor Oskar Werner Won
Laurel Awards, 1966 Dramatic Performance, Male Richard Burton Won
National Board of Review, 1966 Top Ten Film Won
Writers Guild of America Awards, 1966 Best Written American Drama Paul Dehn, Guy Trosper Nominated

Home video[edit]

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was released by The Criterion Collection as a Region 1 DVD on 25 November 2008 and on Blu-ray on 10 September 2013. Extras for this version include: digitally restored picture and sound; an interview with John le Carré; scene-specific commentary by director of photography Oswald Morris; a BBC documentary titled The Secret Center: John le Carré (2000); an interview with Richard Burton from a 1967 episode of the BBC series Acting in the '60s; a 1985 audio interview with director Martin Ritt; a gallery of set designs; the film's theatrical trailer; and a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Michael Sragow.[12]


  1. ^ "Awards for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 22 March 2013.
  2. ^ Erickson, Hal. "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 March 2013.
  3. ^ "Review: 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold'". =Variety. 31 December 1965. Retrieved 25 October 2016.
  4. ^ "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  5. ^ Crowther, Bosley (December 24, 1965). "Screen: Richard Burton Portrays 'The Spy Who Came in From the Cold'". The New York Times: 24.
  6. ^ "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold". Variety: 15. December 15, 1965.
  7. ^ Scheuer, Philip K. (December 21, 1965). "'Spy Who Came In From Cold' Chills With Frigid Outlook". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 18.
  8. ^ Coe, Richard L. (December 24, 1965). "Cold Spy Warm on Film". The Washington Post: A18.
  9. ^ Gill, Brendan (January 1, 1966). "The Current Cinema". The New York Times: 46.
  10. ^ "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 33 (385): 20. February 1966.
  11. ^ "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 18, 2018.
  12. ^ The Criterion Collection

External links[edit]