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Behind all the public notoriety for his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton really was one of the greatest actors to grace the silver screen. Despite seven Oscar nominations, Hollywood ignored his talent and it wasn't until this month that he got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – 29 years after his death in 1984. Burton entered the 1960s still a relative newcomer to films, even after Oscar-nominated roles in My Cousin Rachel (1952) and The Robe (1953). Then he landed the role of Marc Antony in Cleopatra, which lead to him meeting Taylor. While Cleopatra isn't his finest hour, the roles that followed proved his greatness.
John le Carré's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, directed by Martin Ritt, earned Burton his fourth Oscar nod, coming after his electric performance in Becket. In Spy, he portrays Alec Laemas, a worn-out, weary man hardened by his past experiences. He's a drunk disillusioned by the dirty work he's been forced to do.
The story starts in West Berlin, but Laemas is quickly called back by Control after an operative is killed there. His new mission is to defect, all to help Control get Mundt (Peter Van Eyck). He has to let East German intelligence identify him as a defector and travels to Holland and East Germany to feed them information to implicate Mundt. During the process, he is interrogated by Fiedler (Oskar Werner), who apparently despises Mundt. But Mundt has Fiedler and Laemas arrested, leading to a thrilling tribunal that reveals more than even Laemas knew.
Laemas is the quintessential Burton character and allows him to show the full range of his talent. Burton was never known for letting others steal a scene, which is even truer here. But it is also his reactions that are key in Spy. Laemas is a man who no longer controls his life and can only let his mind wander about the possibilities of what happens next. Whether it is being told the mission by Control or when he hears the shocking truth about Mundt – Burton wears his thoughts over his face. You can see it in his eyes, in his face or in his expressions. In some of his best moments, he doesn't even say a word. There's that scene just before the tribunal in which he stares at Mundt as the guards pick him up from the ground, highlighted by a perfect shot of Burton's face.
Of course, this isn't completely Burton's show. Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner and Peter Van Eyck play their own parts particularly well. Bloom is particularly good as Nan Perry, the librarian Laemas falls for . Werner is also surprisingly good as Fielder. He's best known for his role in Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim today, but he shows just how evil and, eventually, sympathetic he can be.
Behind the scenes, this film is put together by the incredibly underrated Martin Ritt. How this man is unknown is mystifying. He helped mold the Oscar-winning performances in Hud (Melvyn Douglas and Patrica Neal) and Norma Rae (Sally Field) and oversaw one of Burton's best. Ritt also made the ingenious decision to make this film in Black & White in 1965. At a time when James Bond and Dr. No gave audiences a glossy look a British spies, Ritt knew that le Carré was looking at an entirely different world in his novel.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold comes down to the tragic story of a man living in an time he no longer belongs in. With World War II over, Laemas is unprepared for the new cold war environment and this final mission is proof. Burton brings so much to the table as an actor and I fail to see how another actor could have pulled off a performance like this. He should have won the Oscar for 1965, but I suppose the Academy just enjoyed Lee Marvin's hilarious performance in Cat Ballou more than Burton's brooding, complex Laemas.
If James Bond is escapist cinema, Spy is the complete opposite. It doesn't ask a viewer to sit back and enjoy sexy scenes or beautiful vistas, but instead think about what a person wants to live or die for.