The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (film)

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Theatrical release poster by Howard Terpning
Directed by Martin Ritt
Produced by Martin Ritt
Screenplay by
Based on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
by John le Carré
Music by Sol Kaplan
Cinematography Oswald Morris
Edited by Anthony Harvey
Salem Films Limited
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates
  • 16 December 1965 (1965-12-16) (USA)
  • 13 January 1966 (1966-01-13) (UK)
Running time
112 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Box office $7,600,000

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a 1965 British Cold War spy film directed by Martin Ritt and starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Oskar Werner.

Based on the 1963 novel of the same name by John le Carré, the film is about a British agent who is sent to East Germany in order to sow disinformation about a powerful East German intelligence officer. With the aid of his unwitting English girlfriend, an idealistic communist, he allows himself to be recruited by the communists, but soon his charade unravels and he admits to being a British agent—a revelation that achieves the ultimate objective of the mission. The screenplay was written by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper.[1]

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold did well at the box office, received positive reviews, and received several awards, including four BAFTA Awards for Best Film, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction. For his performance, Richard Burton also received the David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Actor, the Golden Laurel Award, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. The film was named one of the top ten films of 1966 by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures.[2]


The West Berlin office of “The Circus”, under administrator Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), has not been doing well. He is recalled to London shortly after the death of one of his operatives. Leamas is seemingly demoted to the banking section of the agency. In reality, a carefully staged transformation of Leamas has been arranged by Control (Cyril Cusack), the agency's chief. Now depressed and disgruntled, alcoholic and low on funds, he is quickly spotted by the East German Intelligence Service as a potential defector.

Leamas accepts overtures from German communists to reveal British secrets for payment, and he is interviewed by a man named Peters (Sam Wanamaker) at a coastal house in the Netherlands about what he knows. When the process is later moved to a country villa in East Germany, the interviews become less cordial. It appears Leamas has information that will implicate a powerful East German intelligence officer named Mundt (Peter van Eyck) as a paid informant of the British, but the information is spotty and it frustrates his interrogator, Fiedler (Oskar Werner). When Mundt arrives at the compound and discovers the investigation, he has both Leamas and Fiedler arrested. Mundt himself is eventually arrested.

An East German tribunal ensues to determine the guilt of Mundt, with Leamas appearing as a star witness. Mundt's attorney (George Voskovec) uncovers several discrepancies in Leamas' transformation into an informant. Leamas' credibility collapses when his English girlfriend, an unassuming and idealistic communist named Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) unwittingly reveals that she has received payments from British intelligence. As Leamas' charade unravels and he is forced to admit he is still working as a British agent, Fiedler is escorted from the room as a complicit dupe and Mundt's reputation is vindicated.

Leamas initially believes he has failed in his mission and he will soon be executed. But when Mundt releases him from his cell with an escape plan in tow, he learns that his mission has actually succeeded; Fiedler was the agent to be undermined and Mundt was indeed a British agent. Although this comes as a surprise to Leamas (for he has steadfastly insisted to Fiedler that the Circus could not possibly have run an agent in East Germany without his, Leamas's, knowing about it), he isn't completely shocked by the revelation. As he and Perry sit in a car waiting to be escorted from East Germany, she berates him as being involved in murder: the execution of Fiedler who was guilty of nothing. Leamas, agitated by Perry's naiveté, tells her that her worldview is childish and people are murdered every day—on both sides—while she lives an insulated life: "What do you think spies are?" he asks. "They are a bunch of seedy squalid bastards like me, little drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands ..."

Leamas and Perry are soon ushered to the Berlin Wall and apparently permitted to leave. But Perry is shot down, apparently by an East German double agent, as she tries to cross the wall. Leamas then looks down from the top of the wall at Perry, while agents from both sides urge him to return to the west. Instead he climbs back down the East German side of the wall and goes to Perry's lifeless body, but is then himself shot dead.



The film closely follows the plot of the novel. One exception is that the name of the principal female character, "Liz Gold" in the novel, is changed to "Nan Perry," supposedly because the producers were worried about out-of-context quotes of Burton from the film being used in reference to his real-life wife, Elizabeth "Liz" Taylor. Two other significant differences are firstly that in the film there are no references to Liz Gold's/Nan Perry's supposed Jewishness, a fact which features in the novel since both she and Fiedler are subject to antisemitic taunts, and secondly the addition in the film of an explanation of the work's title by Control suggesting to George Smiley that Leamas' decision to join Perry in death represented his final wish to re-enter the warmth of human love and companionship and thus "Come in from the cold" of isolation and alienation that characterizes the life of the spy.

Studio production took place in Ardmore Studios in Ireland and England's Shepperton Studios.[3]


The Spy Who Came in from the Cold took in $7,600,000 at the box office.[4] The film currently holds 85% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 13 reviews.

Awards and nominations

Award Category Nominee Result
Academy Awards, 1966 Best Actor Richard Burton Nominated
Best Art Direction Hal Pereira, Tambi Larsen, Ted Marshall, Josie MacAvin Nominated
BAFTA Awards, 1966 Best British Actor Richard Burton Won
Best British Art Direction Tambi Larsen Won
Best British Cinematography Oswald Morris Won
Best British Film Martin Ritt Won
Best Film from any Source Martin Ritt Nominated
Best Foreign Actor Oskar Werner Nominated
British Society of Cinematographers, 1966 Best Cinematography Award Oswald Morris Won
David di Donatello Awards, 1966 Best Foreign Actor Richard Burton Won
Edgar Allan Poe Awards, 1966 Best Motion Picture Paul Dehn, Guy Trosper Won
Golden Globe Awards, 1966 Best Supporting Actor Oskar Werner Won
Laurel Awards, 1966 Dramatic Performance, Male Richard Burton Won
National Board of Review, 1966 Top Ten Film Won
Writers Guild of America Awards, 1966 Best Written American Drama Paul Dehn, Guy Trosper Nominated

Home video

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was released by the Criterion Collection on DVD on 25 November 2008 and on Blu-ray on 10 September 2013. Extras for this version include digitally restored picture and sound, an interview with John le Carré, scene-specific commentary by director of photography Oswald Morris, a BBC documentary titled The Secret Center: John le Carré (2000), an interview with Richard Burton from a 1967 episode of the BBC series Acting in the '60s, a 1985 audio interview with director Martin Ritt, a gallery of set designs, the film's theatrical trailer, and a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Michael Sragow.[5]


  1. Erickson, Hal. "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)". The New York Times. Retrieved 22 March 2013.
  2. "Awards for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 22 March 2013.
  3. "Review: 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold'". Reviews. Variety. 31 December 1965. Retrieved 25 October 2016.
  4. "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Box Office Information". The Numbers. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  5. The Criterion Collection
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