Alec Leamas (Richard Burton in one of his greatest film performances) is a British spy sent to East Germany by his controller, George Smiley (Rupert Davies), to pretend to be a defector and to undermine a senior intelligence officer. Burton brings a world-weary characterisation to his role, and perfectly captures the morally ambiguous nature of what it is to inhabit this most shadowy of worlds. With support performances from Claire Bloom as Nan Perry, a communist sympathiser in London, and Oskar Werner. “Easily the masterpiece of a long storied career. This film clearly shows the ambiguity and betrayals of those who toil in the world of espionage.” (Scott DiMarco, huffingtonpost.com)
Dir: Martin Ritt 112mins UK 1965
Director Martin Ritt’s scintillating, nerve-jangling version of the 1963 novel by John le Carre provides Richard Burton with an unforgettable opportunity to be fascinating. He gives a great workout to his main strengths as an actor, a masterclass in how to be wrecked, remote, morose, haunted and intriguing. He is stupendous in one of his best performances as the embittered, tormented English spy Alec Leamas, who is sent to East Germany, under cover of being supposedly dismissed as a traitor, to ensnare an old foe called Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter Van Eyck).
Ritt goes for heightened realism and captures the bleak, world-weary mood and desperate atmosphere of the tawdry spy game perfectly through Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper’s compellingly dour screenplay and Oswald Morris’ strikingly stark and masterly black & white cinematography. Partly set in Berlin, and thanks to an engrossing story, the film exerts a tight hold from early on and never gives up its white-knuckle grasp.
There is also resoundingly striking work from Oskar Werner as Leamas’ German contact Fiedler, from Claire Bloom as his lover Nan Perry and from George Voskovec as the East German defence attorney. Also in the sterling ’60s cast are Sam Wanamaker, Rupert Davies, Michael Hordern, Cyril Cusack, Robert Hardy, Bernard Lee, Beatrix Lehmann, Esmond Knight, Niall MacGinnis and Warren Mitchell.
This is the first filmed adaptation of a John le Carre story and the first appearance on film of Le Carre’s famous George Smiley character, here played by Rupert Davies.
Le Carre worked for MI5 and MI6 in the 1950s and 1960s and was in Berlin when the Wall was being built. He drew on his real-life experiences there for the story, the events in the novel being set about a year after the Wall went up.
Acknowledgments: Derek Winnert, derekwinnert.com
“The Spy […] is a hard-edged, and finally tragic, thriller suffused with the political and social consciousness that defined [Martin] Ritt’s career” Gary W Tooze, dvdbeaver.com
Richard Burton – Alec Leamas
Claire Bloom – Nan Perry
Oskar Werner – Fiedler
Peter van Eyck – Hans-Dieter Mundt
Rupert Davies – George Smiley
Director – Martin Ritt
Producer – Martin Ritt
Screenplay – Paul Dehn, Guy Trosper
Cinematography – Oswald Morris
Original Music – Sol Kaplan