Year Released: 1965
Directed by: Martin Ritt
Starring: Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, Peter Van Eyck
(Not Rated, 112 min.)
"Something there is that doesn’t love a wall." Robert Frost
This isn’t just a slap in the face to the glamorized intrigue of the spy world; it’s a punch in the gut, a leveling one that bends you over and leaves you groaning. An unflinching portrait of moral compromise that slowly eats away at a man’s soul, whether he is on the right side or not.
Based on the novel of the same name by John Le Carre, who worked for Britain’s MI5 and MI6 in the 50s and 60s, it has the distinct ring of authenticity.
The film opens at Checkpoint Charlie, that infamous crossing between East and West Berlin. We see British Operative Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) from behind, sharing his view towards the east as he waits for a defector.
He has been waiting at this grim barrier for many hours, yet he refuses to leave, and his face, when he finally turns, is as drained and lifeless as the surroundings. Finally his man comes, riding a bicycle, and he makes it past the booth on the other side. But between that and the American sector is fifty feet or so of no man’s land. Leamas can do nothing as the spot lights suddenly come on, the sirens sound, and the gunshots follow.
Back in England, he is ready to retire rather than take the desk job he thinks will be offered. But Control (Cyril Cusack) is not ready for him to “come out of the cold” -- a fitting term in more ways than one for Cold War espionage – just yet.
This new waiting game will require even more patience. Leamas will play the role he thought he would be offered, working at a menial job, a disgraced operative, cynical, embittered, and short of cash. Just the sort the other side is looking to recruit.
His squalid apartment, the testy negotiations with the grocer for credit, and the dreary days cataloguing books are assuaged by his new best friend, the bottle. Alec Leamas is dour, depressed, and at times belligerent. Either the spy is an exceptional actor, or the role is a little too close to home.
Things lighten up a bit when fellow librarian Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) offers him tea and sympathy, and the irony that she is a committed communist seems to amuse rather than upset Leamas.
Things speed up quickly after Leamas is contacted, and he plays the role of disillusioned spy with an eye for some ready cash quite adeptly. His East German handler Fiedler (Oskar Werner), however, wastes to no time in reminding Leamas exactly who he has become:
Just who the hell do you think you are? How dare you come sniffing in here like Napoleon ordering me about? You are a traitor! Does it occur to you? A wanted, spent, dishonest man, the lowest currency of the Cold War? We buy you - we sell you - we lose you - we even can shoot you! Not a bird would stir in the trees outside. Not even a single pheasant would turn his head to see what fell.
Of course, this game is a little more risky than running other agents, as he used to do, and the audience is reminded of just how perilous Leamas’ new position is. He handles himself well, though, even as things become more and more complicated, showing chivalry and quiet courage when things began to come unglued. Ruthless machinations of the enemy he can handle, but when he sees it coming from his side as well, Alec seems to retreat into his cynical shell. Yet he will do what he has to to survive and complete his mission.
When the innocent Nan questions this moral compromise, he lashes out at her with the kind of bare eloquence that probably caused writer Graham Greene to call this the “finest spy story ever written.”
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: little men, 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?
Of course, when Richard Burton delivers these lines, they reverberate with Shakespearean authority. Some have called this his greatest film. He throws away his lines, speaking more with his hollowed eyes, his stoic countenance, and his defeated posture. He makes us see the Cold War in shades of gray.
And that is literally as well as figuratively. In a age of Technicolor when the movie screen were filled with bluer than blue skies, orange sunsets, and bloody red battles, director Martin Ritt shot this in black and white, capturing the monochromatic lives of his characters. The narrow streets and barren buildings of East Berlin smother us in their bleak grays; the barbed wire topped wall stares stark and grim, even more frightening when it is aglow with spotlights.
Though the Wall has been down for more than twenty years now, the brutal indifference and soulless mindset that built it still exist. This fine film does not look away from that evil.
Part of Alec Leamas’ cover as an embittered, disillusioned spy is heavy drinking, which he seems to come to quite naturally. His preferred poison is whiskey, Scotch whiskey. Sometimes, it seems, he even goes a bit overboard, or so he says. “I didn’t have any supper with my drink,” he slurs to his East German handler. Maybe Alec should get his priorities straight.
I’ve taken his predilection and whipped it up a bit, into a very nice, fluffy Scotch Chocolate Mousse.
Scotch Chocolate Mousse
- 1/2 pint whipping cream lightly whipped
- 1/2 lb very dark chocolate
- 4 eggs
- generous splash of Scotch Whiskey
- Lightly whip the cream
- Melt the chocolate and slightly cool
- Beat the eggs at high speed in a food mixer until full volume
- Incorporate cream and chocolate together with a spatula, lightly folding
- Do the same with beaten egg (always be light handed).
- Add a generous splash of Scotch whisky
- Cover and leave to set for at least 4 6 hours
Recipe Source: Cocktail Times.com