I got hold of a crisp new print of Martin Ritt’s 1965 Cold War movie just recently and watched it last week. Based on John le Carré’s novel written two years earlier and starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, it is compelling viewing. I should say that I’ve never really been an admirer of Burton but his reading of Alec Leamas, an MI6 agent, is brilliantly achieved and ultimately moving. His performance has clung to me and convinces me to write.
Leamas is station chief in West Berlin where things have not been going well. The story begins with Leamas awaiting the return of one of his spies from the East. Although nothing is said, the stark, rain-swept streets around Checkpoint Charlie reflect the glistening desperation in Leamas’s eyes and we know this scene isn’t going to end well.
Soon, Leamas is back in London where subtle, powerful men have designed a dense plot to discredit Mundt, the East German spymaster who is the cause of Leamas’s desperation. Leamas has to create a convincing cover story so that he can credibly defect to the East and spread disinformation, once accepted as genuine.
I will not dwell on the plot any longer, having given the gist of it, so that any reader encouraged to watch the movie will still have many tunnels of this psychological and political labyrinth to explore. Suffice to say that Leamas encounters ingénues, ideologues, thugs, traitors and much else before he comes face to face with the Berlin Wall again.
Throughout, Ritt’s direction and Burton’s acting are designed to incrementally reveal the layers of Leamus’s history and character as he tries, in turn, to finesse or bludgeon his way through the historical and present layers of treachery and deceit that inform his world. That we are never told – but only shown – how this story unfolds, is a lasting tribute to the director and actors of this fine film. I commend it to you without reservation.
It occurred to me that there are some similarities between this film and the work of John Sayles. The numerous sub-texts examine personal, professional, political, local, national and international relations and boundaries. The lies that we tell serve only to guide us toward a universal truth in our quest for identity. Complex stuff.