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Catching The Cold War: The Culture of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Posted November 28, 2011 to photo album "Catching The Cold War: The Culture of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"

The Cold War paranoia that permeates TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY was a focus of a series of fascinating books and films created in post-war Europe and America.

Taking the Temperature of Cold War Culture
The Moral Quagmire: THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD
Potential Fallout: FAIL SAFE
Paranoia Pulp: KISS ME DEADLY
Sex and the Soviet: From Russia with Love
Peace in a Pod: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS
Cold War Campaign: THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE
At Long Last: POINT OF ORDER
Cold War On The Rocks: TOPAZ
Cold War Meltdown: THE FOURTH PROTOCOL
The Cold War Capsized: THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER
The Moral Quagmire: THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD

The Moral Quagmire: THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD

One of the defining films of Cold War cinema, Martin Ritt’s 1965 adaptation of John le Carré’s novel, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, captures in all its dizzying complexity the topsy turvy world of Cold War espionage. Le Carré wrote the novel while working in Hamburg for M16, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, and the book’s moral confusion, existential fatigue and complicated plotting were bracing for an audience at the time enjoying the simpler, fantasy-like geopolitical world of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and movies. The critic Michael Sragow writes, “Le Carré’s view of espionage as an extension of the ugly, soul-grinding side of cold-war politics was more than a slap at the Bond books’ Byronic derring-do and the movies’ glamour, gimmickry, and jet-setting. It read like an exposé of the spy game’s dirty little secrets, linking the spiritual and emotional calamities of a burned-out fiftysomething British agent to the crises of values that plagued East and West in the mid-twentieth century.”

In Ritt’s film, a burnt-out British agent, Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), is recruited for one last job: he’ll pose as a defecting agent, crossing the Wall to East Berlin to subtly, falsely implicate an East German intelligence official as a double agent — a charge that will result in his death. As the story unfolds, however, Leamas is revealed to be a pawn in a more treacherous game. His “failure” — Leamas is exposed by the East Germans as a still operative British agent — was planned for by his superiors, who have been targeting a different intelligence official entirely. At the film’s end, Leamas and his British girlfriend, Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), an eager young Communist, die tragically, shot dead at the Berlin Wall.

While Ritt is best remembered for films boasting outsized, iconic performances and bold, sometimes simplified politics (Sally Field in his NORMA RAE, for example), THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is expert at both its human drama and political commentary. Indeed, this speech by Burton’s Leamas in the film is both an extraordinary moment of self awareness as well as an astute summation of the foggy world of the international spy: "What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: drunkards, queers, hen-pecked 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?”