ecently, a hashtag went viral on Twitter asking users to name their #FivePerfectMovies. Unlike so many other esoteric, misleading or portentous hashtags (I think we’re all trained by this point to expect the worst when we see a celebrity name trending), this one was simple and self-explanatory: Users were encouraged to simply list five movies they consider to be perfect and then tag five friends to keep the chain going. It was a fun way for film twitter to get an idea of the perspective of other users and see what different people’s gold standards are in terms of cinematic achievement. After I got looped into the game by Cinestate associate producer Xander McCabe, I struggled for a few minutes to decide what I consider to be my own perfect films. Perfect, after all, is different from favorite, or most enjoyable, or most frequently watched. I would consider previous REBELLER topic Amazon Women on the Moon to be one of my favorite films and definitely my favorite comedy, but do I think it’s perfect? Hardly. While I managed to narrow my list down to a top 10 or so, it took some more effort to whittle that down to five, but I finally settled on what I felt was a good reflection of my standard for filmic perfection: Goodfellas, John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Shining, Sweet Smell of Success and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (regrettably, Jurassic Park ended up on the chopping block and just missed the cut). The first three films hardly need any introduction for anyone even vaguely familiar with modern cinema; Sweet Smell is a little more esoteric, but I have been singing its praises for years, including a glowing retrospective back in my HeardTell.com days. I was surprised, though, that many users weren’t familiar with Spy, and that my tweet was inspiring more than a handful of folks to look into it and rent it on Amazon Prime. I’m glad; if I achieved nothing else through the #FivePerfectMovie game, I consider it a victory for mankind and cinema alike if I have gotten people to watch Spy, which I not only consider to be a perfect movie but my absolute favorite film of all time.
A quick primer: Spy is based on the book of the same name by John le Carré, pen name of David Cornwall, a prolific English novelist and former member of MI5 (the UK’s analogue to the FBI), who has applied his experience in the world of Cold War-era espionage to write some of the best — and most accurate — literary depictions of the spy world. While le Carré’s best-loved works are his Smiley novels — books focused on the life of George Smiley, a brilliant but put-upon super spy whose constantly shifting fortunes take him from the lowliest levels of MI6 to the halls of power — Spy Who Came in from the Cold is arguably his greatest achievement in wedding literary excellence to a realistic portrait of the world of espionage. As fantastic as the book is, it went on to inspire a movie that accomplishes the rare task of being even better than its source material, tightening and streamlining the narrative while employing stunning cinematography, master-class direction and career-defining performances to bring the story to vivid, unforgettable life.
Spy tells the story of Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), head of Berlin Station, the division of MI6 (or, as it’s codenamed in le Carré’s books, “The Circus”) responsible for monitoring East Germany. A once-successful commando with a solid track record of killing Nazis for Queen and Country in WWII, Leamas’ Cold War life has been less auspicious: As head of Berlin Station, he has lost all but one of his spies, each of whom have been identified, arrested and executed by Hans-Dieter Mundt, Leamas’ analogue within the Stasi. As it happens, Leamas is about to lose all of those spies. In one of the most memorable openings in the history of spy cinema, Leamas watches in horror as his final asset makes a last-ditch attempt to escape Berlin, trying to ride a bicycle to safety through a checkpoint at the Berlin Wall only to be ruthlessly gunned down. With all his men dead, a disgraced Leamas is recalled to England to answer to Control, the spooky, shadowy figure who serves as the head of the Circus. There, Control offers him two options: He can either accept that his best days are behind him and live out the remainder of his career in relative comfort in Merry Old England, or he can go “out in the cold” on one final mission — one that Control assures him will result in Mundt’s death. Although Leamas makes few statements regarding guilt, it’s clear that the deaths of the people under his command weigh heavily on him, and the promise of avenging them is too alluring to turn down. Thus begins a twisted series of double- and triple-crosses, as Leamas feigns Communist sympathies to draw the attention of Mundt’s superiors, all with the intention of planting seeds of doubt about Mundt’s own loyalty. As Leamas soon discovers, though, Control’s plan is more complex than he was willing to explain, and what was supposed to be a simple disinformation campaign turns into a deadly trip to East Berlin that puts him — and his unwitting girlfriend — at the center of a bloody power struggle within the Stasi.
Every element of Spy coalesces exactly as it needs to create a perfect film. Martin Ritt’s direction is superb, and along with DP Oswald Morris, he brings to life a cold, stark world full of cold, stark men. Presented in a beautiful black and white that drives home both the desperation and isolation of Leamas’ world and underscores the complex moral ambiguity at the heart of the story, there isn’t a wasted shot, not a moment of film that feels extraneous. Every frame drips with atmosphere, from the populated-yet-lonesome-feeling streets of London to the claustrophobic interiors of a German hunting lodge that serves as the setting for much of the film’s third act (the set design for the Berlin sequences alone deserves its own article). Spy is a beautiful film, even when the images it’s presenting — including a derelict section of the Berlin Wall and a German torture chamber — are spiritually ugly. Not since Edward Hopper have tableaux of despair been at once so gorgeous and so captivating.
The script by Guy Trosper and Paul Dehn, who adapted Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger into what’s arguably the best Bond movie, leaves nothing of importance out of the book while also streamlining numerous elements, making Spy one of the few cinematic adaptations that’s arguably even better than the source material. What initially appears to be a very simple plot progressively builds in complexity, intensity, and cruelty until what’s seemed like a revenge thriller quickly spirals into something very much else. Le Carré certainly didn’t invent the twist ending, but he certainly came up with one of the best in the history of literature. Dehn has enhanced its impact by subtly teasing the film’s various third-act reveals in ways that are only apparent upon subsequent viewings. Indeed, one of the reasons I’m being rather nebulous in my praise is that a first-time viewing is significantly benefitted by going into the film with as little information as possible; in the best tradition of spy fiction, no one here is quite who they seem to be, and there’s tremendous pleasure to be had not only from learning characters’ secrets but also their hidden depths of humanity.
Indeed, against le Carré’s best intentions — he very publicly voiced his desire for Spy to de-glamorize the espionage world — there is a Romantic strain at the heart of the story in both the upper- and lowercase sense of the word. To the latter, there is, of course, Leamas’ begrudging affection for Nan Perry, a cute if not entirely savvy Communist who unwittingly plays a role in Control’s grander scheme. More so, though, Leamas — for all his pissiness, alcoholism and gullibility — is someone who feels deeply for the world and his fallen colleagues. At the same time, he realizes the ultimate futility of his role in the big picture and of the uselessness of spying itself. In one of the greatest monologues in cinema history, Leamas delivers what could be called the “We are not Bond” speech, articulating his true role in global events:
“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, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives…”
The speech goes on, and I’ll omit the rest to avoid the many spoilers it contains, but it’s at once le Carre’s own deconstruction of the ostensible romanticism of the spy world and simultaneously, a grandly romantic moment for Leamas as he drives willingly with Nan towards a fate he knows is now entirely out of his hands. It is not a spoiler to say that the film ends where it began, at the Berlin Wall. The great symbol of cultural division becomes the site of Leamas’ finest hour as the film culminates in one of the grandest acts of stoic Romanticism in espionage cinema.
Which leads to the great keystone of this cinematic Arc de Triomphe: Richard Burton. While every performer is in top form, it is Burton’s turn as Leamas that cements the film’s legendary status. A lesser actor could have made Leamas an unsympathetic bastard, a reactionary hothead and belligerent drunk; Burton finds the soul at the core of the character and brings it to full, human life, allowing all the nuances and complications of a superficially uncomplicated man to rise to the surface. To see Burton act here is a revelation; that he was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Lee fucking Marvin for Cat fucking Ballou is an eternal testament to the poor choices of the Academy and Hollywood’s general lack of appreciation for Burton’s talents. If he spent the last years of his career meandering in exploitation garbage like The Klansman because he felt slighted, he had every right: He does more with his role in Spy than some actors do with the entirety of their careers. (Any mention of superb acting in Spy would be incomplete without a discussion of Cyril Cusack’s turn as Control; with only a few minutes of screen time he makes him one of the most memorable supporting characters in espionage movies, playing him less as Bernard Lee’s Churchillian M and more like your creepy uncle who has never really done anything inappropriate, but who definitely has a dead body under his house. It is a quietly wrong performance that’s, oh, so right.)
I could extoll the virtues of Spy for pages more. The movie manages at once to be a scathing indictment of Soviet Socialism and a raised middle finger to the blind embrace of capitalism. There’s a fantastically realized subplot about the survival of Nazism past World War II that’s disturbingly relevant today; the film features the first cinematic appearance of George Smiley, played here as a supporting character by Rupert Davies in the most physically accurate representation of the character the screen has ever seen; Leamas’ diatribes to his Stasi handlers about life in Britain contain some excellent zingers that could be spoken on any news program circa 2020 and not sound out of place. Time you spend continuing to read why I love Spy is time that you could be watching it. It’s available on Prime for $3, and, let’s be honest — you don’t have anything better to do.
Preston Fassel is an award winning author and journalist whose work has appeared in FANGORIA, Screem Magazine, Rue Morgue, and on Cinedump.com; his first novel, Our Lady of the Inferno, won the 2019 IPPY Gold Medal for horror.