LE CARRÉ DIEM: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

6 May, 2016 at 10:49 pm (film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: What’s this all about, Smiley?

CURRENTLY: There’s no easy way to abbreviate the title of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Spy is minimalist to the point of confusion, and The Spy Who Came lends itself to parody, whether in the Hustler vein or whether one merely dillies about in a more Austin Powers realm. (As Kelly Sue once said about smirking every time she heard the chorus to Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why”, “I am a child.” I find it hard not to succumb to equally juvenile impulses here.) And I feel compelled to avoid “TSWCIFTC”, if only because of a gut prejudice against the gutturally unpronounceable.

The film may teeter on a similar obscurity for long stretches. I suffer from that particular blindness of being unable to distinguish between the average features of Caucasian second-lead actors. And when I first watched this film as a teenager, I wasn’t at all sure that the Leamas who was waiting for his contact at Checkpoint Charlie, the Leamas who worked with Claire Bloom at the cryptophenomenology library, and the drunken, haggard Leamas at the corner store were all the same person. I wasn’t sufficiently familiar with Richard Burton to recognize him in all his guises, and the film doesn’t exactly work hard to connect those scenes together in tone, location, or time. The transition from Leamas’ debriefing by Control in his offices in The Circus (Le Carré’s consistent codename for what seems, to our modern eyes, to be MI-6) to his visit to the unemployment office gives us almost no idea as to how much time has passed and what are the circumstances of this seeming change of fortune. The director seems to want the viewer to be unsure as to whether Leamas actually fell from the graces of the secret services, or if this is all a cover. The equally abrupt subsequent shift to Leamas’ disheveled aggression toward current shopkeeper and future “M”, Bernard Lee, is hard to reconcile with the cold control of Leamas at work.

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“No, fork ’andles. Handles for forks.”

We are eventually provided with context, and the extended stint of deep cover ambiguity gives way to some rather on-the-nose exposition about loyalty and spycraft, about allegiance and sides. Leamas’s cover as a former agent dissatisfied with the service then proceeds to gradually reveal itself as less of a skin, and more of the whole of the man. This becomes the ultimate trope of most of Le Carré’s protagonists: they are unable to disentangle the professional and the personal. With Smiley, this will be that his opposite number will have gone so far to destabilize his opponent, that the Soviet mole has had an affair with Smiley’s wife, thus emasculating him so that any political or intelligence victory is hollow. In The Russia House we have the unfortunately trite declaration that Katya Orlova is the only country that Barley Scott-Blair now calls home.

But back here at the beginning, before any other characters are established and explored, really the second thing the film does is provide Leamas and the audience with an extended treatise on how, in the name of moral certitude, England will and must do terrible things, things that would not hold up to scrutiny by the morals the country is protecting.This is done so early on, and in such a dry tone, that it seems almost like a truism not worth examining in any particular depth. But it leads to the ending, where Leamas sacrifices himself rather than save himself, even though it’s too late to help the victim of the Circus’ moral absences. (I’m being coy, even if, during a 1965 New York Times article about the production of the film, writer Stephen Watts declares that “Since millions have read the book, it is no leak to say [how] Leamas dies…”)
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The ending is bleak, but not because of the deaths, but because of the betrayed hopelessness and futility that lead to them. That the man tasked with protecting national virtues isn’t able to live as his master does, separate from what he is protecting. Years later, we have the Operative in Serenity helping to classify this for TVTropes in a way that this film refuses to explain verbally, but presents only through a few bleak, sharp actions.

The new Penguin edition paperback of The Spy Who (part of a 50th anniversary series which universally have magnificent cover art) declares it “A George Smiley novel”. It’s been about the same number of years since I read the novel as I last saw the film, so I can’t prove with certainty my instinct that this falls neatly under the heading of false advertising. Certainly Smiley is in the film. Cheery, looking like a the bastard love child of Lewis Carroll’s Walrus and the Carpenter, he doesn’t jive with the Smiley we spend whole books with later, and he certainly doesn’t look like he would age into either the rheumy disillusionment of Obi-Wan Guinness or the non-Euclidean paranoia of Commissioner Oldman. However, since he is the last person (besides an East Berlin sharpshooter) to see Leamas alive, to see him decide that there is No Place For Him over the wall, that perhaps some of Leamas’ choice indeed haunted Smiley enough to lead him to similar conclusions down the line.

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Two minor nerdy follow-ups, the first is that while I love the Times‘ wayback machine of facsimile articles, but I also love it when the typeset doesn’t quite translate into accurate character recognition. Please enjoy the following biographical sketch of author John Le Carré:

John Le Carré is the pseudonym of a Brit­ish civil servant employed in one of the hehheerhhe asa persorral experlenrce ot iatellggence operations is an ttntriguing questton. If he hasn’t, he should be recruited at once by some sinister hush‐hush outfit.

[New York Times]

And secondly, I do love that this little lending library of spiritualist nonsense is catalogued in a way that is seemingly only compatible with it’s contents and its clientele. There’s a subject heading for “metamorphosis” with a subsection on “lycanthropy”. Mevil Dewey would be banging his head against the wall.

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“This book is inscribed, ‘To Lucky eBay Bidder, Much Love, Nostradamus.'”

NEXT: The Deadly Affair, a title that wouldn’t look out of place on a ’90s Shannon Tweed romp. However, this being Le Carré, it’s likely to be a very different kind of tweediness.

Related Links:
+ The Spy Who Came in from the Cold from Le Carré’s official author site
+ 2 January, 1966: The New York Times says director Ritt promises, “No action, no chases, no sex.”
+ The Spy Who Came in from the Cold essay by Michael Sragow in the Criterion Collection release
+ The Spy Who Came in from the Cold from Jamie S. Rich’s Criterion Confessions review site

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