A personal reflection in which revisiting a seminal story, forty years on, is like returning to an old neighbourhood to find it both familiar and lost to a time that can never really be recaptured.
Sometime in the mid 1970s my schoolmasters in England objected with alarm when it became known that I was carrying with me the novel that made of MI6 employee David John Moore Cornwell the career novelist John Le Carré — John ‘the Square’. Their concern, they said to me, was that the concepts in the book were too complicated for a boy my age. They were a different lot to the masters who had told me a couple of years earlier that reading Ian Fleming was unsuitable for someone of my tender years. I suspect what both lots of schoolmasters really meant was that if there ever were modern existentialists battling despair, ennui, and the pain of choosing between flavours of mediocrity, it would have been the English between the 1930s and 1970s (and beyond?). Their high priests were not French philosophers or beret-wearing poseurs, but authors like John le Carré. Maybe my schoolmasters didn’t want me to know that. Or maybe they were concerned I would interpret le Carré’s contempt for the Germans in his novel as a general British prejudice. As if I had not immediately noted a British contempt for all who came from across the waters, as soon as I arrived precisely from there. A contempt made self-conscious by loss of empire, agency, and confidence.
Fortunately my father did not react the way the masters had hoped, refusing to upbraid me for the temerity of choosing my own reading material, and reinforcing thereby the already mentioned British disdain for ‘those bloody Germans’. Sometimes couched in significantly more earthy language. I wonder whether that memory from such a long time ago coloured my perceptions of the novel. I might never know. My affection for the British school masters and their entire class grew over the decades despite their sado-masochistic proclivities, their horror of people like me being loosed on the civilized world, and their own failure to inject more ‘civilization’ into their world.
Today I realise my teachers might have had some point in their concern for unprepared minds. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1961) is a bleak, depressing, tortured confession of personal and institutional failing, and the certainty that everyone pursuing what they think is good and worthy will serve instead the corruption and evil that arises from all crusades. Especially the crusades conducted in service of the state. I think le Carré very much thought of the Cold War as a crusade, with all the hypocritical sloganeering, and the inevitable perversion of any honour or principle that might have existed to begin with, but with the dogged persistence that ‘our god is right’.
I saw in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold a kernel of an unvarnished, unglamorous truth that was also the reason the novel made its author a literary star. I liked James Bond too, but I knew it was fairy tale stuff. With The Spy Who Came in From the Cold I thought I was at last getting some of the real story about Germany’s ‘der kalte Brüderkrieg’ (the cold civil war) that seemed infinitely worse than just a wall dividing ‘us’ and ‘them’.
I didn’t understand it all, at first. But I’m glad I read it early and revisited it later, after having read more le Carré, and much, much more besides.
In the character of Alec Leamas, we gain access to a hardboiled professional spy who is both a trained tough guy and an office clerk, no matter he didn’t like the idea. Not at all glamorous or indestructible like James Bond, but tough in a human way, and imperfect because he was troubled by conscience, the way Bond rarely was. It seems almost ironic that only the greatest monsters in le Carré novels ever resembled James Bond. Not the Bond villains, but Bond himself.
I always thought Richard Burton was miscast in the film (1965). I never thought of him as at all like the Leamas of the novel, and over the years I think Stanley Baker would have been a better, more convincing choice. Or James Mason. Or even Alec Guiness himself. But Burton had the box office pull the others didn’t. And he did a reasonable job, even if overplayed, like most of his work. He had a difficult task. He needed to portray the dissolute, querulous drunk, at which he was a natural. But he needed to play him with an underlying steely resolve and tradecraft that just isn’t in Burton’s performance, here or at any other time.
The Leamas of the novel is a man made cynical by experience of idealism thwarted, and especially by personal failure at the cost of lives. But he is given an unexpected opportunity to take a parting shot at his archenemy, Hans Dieter Mundt, the head of East German counterintelligence, or the ‘Abteilung’ (‘the detail’ or ‘the department’). In le Carré’s emerging fictional universe, Mundt had appeared once before, in the novel Call for the Dead, in which he is a murderous East German operative who almost kills George Smiley (see my review of the film The Deadly Affair). He is the unseen hand at the beginning of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold who kills the last East German double agent working for MI6 West Berlin station chief Alec Leamas. A disaster that effectively ends Leamas’s career. But not quite. The head of MI6, ‘Control’, sees in Leamas the potential tool for the demise of Mundt. Or so we are led to believe.
We are told in the book that Leamas is a solid agent, unassuming and all business. Fifty years old, and after his network has been rolled up, headed for a desk job to sit out the interval to his pension. The name Leamas isn’t too far from the word lammas, the name of an English Christian harvest festival coinciding, until 1969, with the celebration of St Peter in Chains, commemorating the story of the apostle being rescued from gaol by an angel. Leamas is no saint, but he’s Control’s apostle all right. And the young librarian, Liz Gold, is a rather fragile angel, but she does come to deliver him, in a way, from the clutches of the iniquitous.
Le Carré’s angel is a thoroughly modern one. A twenty-something Jewish librarian Leamas meets, as if by mistake, who is also a member of the British communist party, because she believes there has to be something better than the British post-war experience of failed empire, failed socialism, and the corrosive inhumanity of American capitalist hegemony. She is a kind-hearted and naïve young woman.
They are both lonely people and they become lovers while Leamas acts out his fall from grace: a ‘legend’ is being constructed, beginning with his ‘theft of funds’ from the ‘Circus’, as MI6 is referred to, after its fictional location in Cambridge Circus. He is dismissed and loses his pension, becoming a drunk and misanthropist, drifting from one job to another, finding himself at length as an assistant librarian at a psychical research library where he meets Liz. The legend, or cover story, is that he, as one exiled from his brotherhood, might be open to switching sides for money. His last performance to solidify the legend is to punch a shopkeeper, for which he is sent to gaol. On his release he is indeed recruited by the other side, interrogated at length, and then inexplicably betrayed by the Circus.
It transpires that the conspiracy in which he was participating to get at Mundt was a conspiracy within a greater one, actually designed to protect Mundt from a colleague, Fiedler, a young Jewish intelligence operative growing suspicious of Mundt. What we didn’t know is that sometime, in a timeline before the end of the novel Call for the Dead, MI6 recruited Mundt. What we come to realize, too, is that Mundt is a Hitler Youth anti-Semite. A Nazi in all but name. And Fiedler is served to him by MI6 to protect its own agent, apparently without concern for that agent’s provenance.
It is a painful subject for its times. The memory of the British betrayal of Jewish refugees in Palestine was still fresh, and so were questions about just how many former Nazis had been rehabilitated to run West Germany as a Cold War forward base for Britain and the USA. The theme becomes heartrending when Liz is lured into the Byzantine plot, not knowing what is being asked of her: is she to incriminate her lover, or be a loyal member of a communist party that seems to have no room for human attachments?
In an inexplicable artistic decision, the Liz Gold of the novel became Nan Perry (played by Claire Bloom) in the film. Perhaps not as inexplicable as it seemed to me. In his biography of le Carré, Adam Sisman offers this explanation:
More than fifteen years earlier, while still a teenager, Bloom had acted opposite Burton, himself then only twenty-four, in Christopher Fry’s stage play The Lady’s Not for Burning, and the two had become lovers. She had then played Ophelia opposite Burton’s Hamlet. A decade later their affair had resumed during filming of Look Back in Anger, until Bloom had broken it off. Now she was once again playing opposite Burton, as Leamas’s girlfriend. It was scarcely surprising that Elizabeth Taylor, to whom he had been married less than a year, should be jealous of her. This is said to have been the reason why the name of Bloom’s character was changed from Liz Gold to Nan Perry for the film. Calling the leading lady Liz was not an option.
It’s a plausible explanation for the name change, but not of the decision to un-mention the character’s Jewishness, which is a critical element of the tragedy relayed to us. In the book, part of the pathos of the ending is conveyed in a couple of lines that depend on Liz Gold being Jewish:
Mundt went forward alone and for what seemed an age she watched the two men standing together, talking quietly between themselves. Her heart was beating madly, her whole body shivering with cold and fear. Finally Mundt returned.
“Come with me,” he said, and led her to where Leamas stood. The two men looked at one another for a moment.
“Good-bye,” said Mundt indifferently. “You’re a fool, Leamas,” he added. “She’s trash, like Fiedler.” And he turned without another word and walked quickly away into the twilight.
If Gold/Perry were not Jewish, it would have been difficult to discern the possibility that the time they were given to make good their escape was deliberately truncated to ensure Gold would not survive. And that inference is necessary to convey le Carré’s suggestion that MI6 was complicit in continued German anti-Semitism, including anti-Semitic murder. Was that just too much of a confession, in a film, for the temper of the times?
Dante’s ninth circle of hell is a frozen lake, reserved for those who have betrayed others, and their own consciences. David Cornwell was Eton-educated, including in European literature. It is no accident that Leamas’s fate, coming in from the cold, is to be condemned to an even colder hell.
Le Carré’s writing is terse, sometimes almost frantic, perhaps reflecting the haphazard way the novel came to be — written hastily in his spare time, between assignments as a real intelligence officer. The pace suits the subject, and only the backfill, to work Liz into the dénouement, is a reason to put down the book. But it is a minor failing that doesn’t become too distracting.
Le Carré allows us to guess at what is taking place. That seems less obvious in the film. Burton as Leamas seems at all times deliberate and in control. In some ways Burton was too English, and the characterization too rooted in time and place to give full meaning to the timelessness of some of Leamas’s disillusionment hinted at by le Carré.
The decision to film in black and white is a little puzzling, but may have been as simple as budget. All the same, if forced to shoot in black and white, director Martin Ritt and his cinematographer Oswald Morris could have striven for a slightly more atmospheric use of lighting than the flat grayscale they delivered for most of the scenes. It is not a major flaw, and I think Ritt, a Hollywood blacklist director, got pretty good footage out of the dreary Dublin sets, almost capturing le Carré’s intention in the sentence:
They walked to her flat through the rain and they might have been anywhere—Berlin, London, any town where paving stones turn to lakes of light in the evening rain, and the traffic shuffles despondently through wet streets.
‘Almost’ because you needed to have known European post-war cities in the early 1960s to have made sense of it. The flavour of unresolved consequences and looming disaster that followed the hot war and made the new, cold one, an oppressive ever-presence.
To the credit of scriptwriters Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper, they did not destroy or mishandle another, less subtle theme in the book: that communism as prescribed by ‘the East’ was not a reasonable human path to anything but pain and debasement. The message is still there, in the film, that the kind and good Nan Perry is carelessly bullied and discarded by her own party. As proof that good intentions have no greater home in communism than in American imperialism. And that was really the theme that underlay all of le Carré’s Cold War fiction: the loss of a sense of purpose, of direction, of certainty in ethics, ends, and means. Your own side seems no less villainous than the enemy. You betray every one of your much-vaunted values to win the game, and then you are betrayed by your own side the way you have almost come to expect. It is indeed a bleak and despairing confrontation with British loss of empire, the failure of British socialism, and the anguish of working for a brash, brutal, self-destructive American vision in which nothing has any value at all if it is not loud, expensive, and, most importantly, new.
Quite apart from everything else, it was ingenious to show us a young woman doing what she thinks is right in a world indifferent to her loneliness and fragility. And to follow that portrait through by allowing her to become aware, perhaps as a fleeting and belated glimpse, just how much she is as responsible for the ugliness of the world as the men and women who make it ugly by intention or default. Just by being a party member, hoping to do some good. Just by being someone who could be exploited by both sides, to perpetuate the death and hatred she desperately wanted to stave off.
Some time after my schoolmasters had objected to me reading the novel, my father advised me against going to see On The Beach at the Hampstead Everyman, where it was playing in a double feature (I think the other was The Forbin Project). His concern was that the film presented a pretty grim perspective on the Cold War. I guess my father thought it might depress me. But, like my teacher,s he made a fundamental error of judgement: both they and he didn’t realize that the world I was born into was already the world they dreaded and found depressing.
It is as if parents forget they were children once, and that not the best efforts of censorious adults could keep from childish eyes and ears the truth encapsulated in all that was on show.
It’s true that I had been spared the horrors of the second world war, but that just meant it would take entirely different fears and realities to scare and depress me in a way similar to, if not the same as, the nightmares that haunted my father’s generation. It’s a timeless cycle of experiences, I think, which means that the specifics of one’s pre-history cannot make sense until similar and concrete experiences, including passage of time to create distance from the overshadowing influence of parents, allows for personal insights. The kind of insights that reveal the universal and timeless nature of living in the world. See that photo and recognise the look in those eyes as something you have seen in life. Read that line and recognise in it a sentiment or sensibility you have run across in your own days and nights. For those insights to occur at all there must also be an impetus to re-examine the past as valuable and worthwhile; that my schoolmasters instilled that knowledge in me is the biggest reason I did not come to despise them, the way some of my peers did. I believe this is not a universal experience of education, which probably also means that neither the novel nor the film will find favour with contemporary audiences.
There is a generation of adults born after the end of the Cold War, and the 1960s are now so distant that contemporary audiences might not be able to make much sense of the novel or the film, but both have a place in literary history that remains unassailable for portraying a Zeitgeist that was palpable, even if exclusively non-American. One must envy the young not to be beholden to the crimes of the past, I suppose. But there is a warning in there also, that too much ignorance of the past creates the crimes of today and tomorrow.
It is for that reason alone that we could all do worse than to stop every now and then to contemplate what lay behind the concerns of the past. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold stands up well in comparison to the faddism of its contemporary fictions, and might yet have some value to audiences taught to uncritically reject all but the latest, disposable nonsense.
John le Carré (1963). The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. London: Victor Gollancz.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965). Salem Films/Paramount. Black and white, 112 minutes.
Directed and produced by Martin Ritt. Written by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper. Cinematography by Oswald Morris. Editing by Anthony Harvey. Music by Sol Kaplan.
With Richard Burton as Alec Leamas, Claire Bloom as Nan Perry, Oskar Werner as Fiedler, Sam Wanamaker as Peters, Rupert Davies as George Smiley, Cyril Cusack as Control, Peter van Eyck as Hans-Dieter Mundt.
See also my other reviews of John le Carré novels and adaptations.