Monday 18 July 2022

GEORGE SMILEY novels and screen Part Three Rod Bishop's series continues with THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD


“…Leamas looked back. Standing at the newspaper kiosk, deep in a copy of the Continental Daily Mail, stood a small frog-like figure in glasses, an earnest, worried little man. He looked like a civil servant. Something like that.”

And also in the novel, there were two of them:

“…One was short and rather plump. He had glasses and wore odd expensive clothes; he was a kindly, worried little man and Liz trusted him somehow without knowing why…they said they came from Special Branch, and they had printed cards with photographs in cellophane cases. The plump one did most of the talking.”


Smiley makes only three appearances in Le Carré’s outstanding third novel, published in 1963. He appears at The Hague airport, where the pretender defector Alec Leamas spots him at the newspaper kiosk. With Peter Guillam, Smiley visits Liz Gold, Alec’s idealist communist girlfriend (known in the film version as ‘Nan’ Perry and played by Claire Bloom). And at the very end of the novel, Smiley waits on the West German side of the Berlin Wall.

Richard Burton (Leamas), Rupert Davies 
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

In the adaptation, directed by Martin Ritt in 1965, Smiley (Rupert Davies) appears four times – when his Chelsea house is used for a meeting between Control (Cyril Cusack) and the agent running the Berlin Station, Alec Leamas (Richard Burton); at Nan’s flat; at Amsterdam airport; and at the Berlin Wall. 

Claire Bloom (Nan), Richard Burton (Leamas)

Short, overweight and in glasses, his screentime is so brief and perfunctory, he may as well be, in spy-speak, just a “cut-out”.

Yet with Control, Smiley is another, central, behind-the scenes figure in both novel and film. He is seen by the East Germans as important and as powerful as Control. They suspect him of being the intelligence mastermind pulling strings in the shadows in the battle between Hans-Dieter Mundt (Peter van Eyck) and his subordinate Josef Fiedler (Oscar Werner). 

Oskar Werner (Fiedler)

Smiley is continually mentioned, especially during the ostensible defector Leamas’s debriefing in Holland by the agent Peters (Sam Wanamaker). Then, in the later interrogations with the East German agent Fiedler. Other recurring le Carré characters mentioned are Guillam, Steed-Asprey, Fielding and Riemeck, but it’s Mundt who takes centre stage. 

Peter Van Eyck (Mundt)

When Leamas first meets Mundt:

…the door opened and Mundt stood there. He knew it was Mundt from the eyes. Smiley had told him about them."

At times, the scriptwriters Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper, along with director Martin Ritt, seem to take a page-by-page, line-by-line adaptation of the novel. In what many consider his greatest performance, Richard Burton seems to channel Leamas’s emotive states from the novel so exactly, you can almost imagine him on set reading the relevant passages before each take. 

A bleak portrait of political sarcasm, self-loathing and lost idealism.

It also contains one of the Welsh actor’s finest moments – no words, just a look of astonished recognition during his ‘tribunal’ in East Germany when he locks eyes with Hans-Dieter Mundt and, as described in the novel: 

“…and suddenly, with the terrible clarity of a man too long deceived, Leamas understood the whole ghastly trick.”

It’s Leamas’s realization that the Stasi spy chief he has pursued with rage and anger all these years, is, in fact, a double agent working for the British. Leamas has been played by the East Germans and also by the British for much of his career.

Ritt's film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is at least the equal of le Carré’s brilliant novel and arguably the greatest spy film to emerge from the Cold War. 

Richard Burton and David Cornwell

 Previous: Click on title

Call for the Dead/A Deadly Affair  

A Murder of Quality

Next: The Looking Glass War


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