Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Spy who came in from the cold

One of the great spy films of all time is based on the John Le Carré novel of the same name, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I was delighted to see a showing on a Sky film channel in Wall to Wall film week 2. This film raises the issue of government behaviour morally inconsistent with the declared values of Western democracy. The film is part of the George Smiley series although the character has only a minor role and where the dominant individual Alec Lomas is played by Richard Burton.

Lomas is the head of the Berlin section and witnesses the death of one his key operatives because of the counter espionage activities of Hans Dieter Mundt. Burton becomes part of a complex plot to discredit and destroy Mundt. He is recalled to London and placed in the banking section where he makes payment to a double agent. He life becomes unhappy, drinking heavily and leaves the service, takes a job creating a new index classification for a library and where he befriends a female assistant Nan Perry (Claire Bloom) who is an innocent member of the Communist Party. She sticks by him when he goes to prison after beating up a shop owner and he is then contact by a prisoner aid organisation which is a front for the British Communist Party who seeks his defection to the East for money. Before departing he makes contact with British intelligence via the home of George Smiley and also says goodbye to the communist assistant, friend, and now lover.

He is taken first to a safe house across the channel for interrogation by Herr Feidler, (Oskar Werner) where the information he provides implicates Mundt as a double agent. Mundt visits him here and accuses Lomas of a plot to discredit him but is in turn is arrested while Lomas is taken to East Germany and held prisoner.

The Presidium of the Community Party in Russia/East Germany orders an investigation tribunal in which Lomas gives his evidence which implicates Mundt as the traitor with Fielder the chief prosecutor. Mundt produces the girl friend as his important witness. She had been invited to East Germany on a pretext and is shocked to find Lomas in the Court and fears he is the subject of the investigation. She is reluctant to admit that someone has called on her on behalf of Lomas with the offer of help and buying the lease of the flat where they lived together in order to ease her financial position. She reveals the name of the person who calls as George Smiley. Lomas fearing that the girl is unwittingly implicating herself in the plot admits that he has been sent to discredit Mundt, Mundt is cleared and the prosecutor discredited and Lomas and the girl are held in custody,

At this point fearing the worst Lomas finds his cell door unlocked and making his way out he finds Mundt with the girl and car with instructions to make their way to East Berlin where contacts will see them over the wall. Lomas realises that he was part of an elaborate plot to help divert the attention of the authorities from Mundt who indeed is a double agent having been turned on trade mission visit to London several decades before. The plot was designed to discredit Fiedler who was hot on the trail of uncovering the true position of Mundt. The couple are told that whatever happens when they reach the wall not to look back and continue over. However when Lomas hears a shot and a cry behind him, he stops and turns round to see his girl friend shot dead by design because she was the one individual who could betray the true situation. Despite her being a sincere communist, Lomas has come to love the girl and understanding what has happened and why, refuses to continue over the Wall into the West and the Communist security services under the control of Mundt have no alternative but to also shoot and kill Lomas.

In fact my certainty about the shooting of the girl is questioned by others,

The film follows the novel closely as did the subsequent BBC series on the Smiley books. There is one miner exception in that the name of the girlfriend is changed from Liz Gold. This was because of the rumours that the married Burton was having an affair with the married Liz Taylor. The other is that the film did not include the fact that in the book the girl and Fiedler are Jews and subject to anti Jewishness of the East German Communist Party, a legacy of the Nazi’s who switched sides. The title comes from the words of George Smiley who comments in the book that Lomas found warmth from the relationship with the girl after the cold isolated and dangerous life of the spy, especially when in a world which is supposed to be black and white he has come to recognise the mutual greyness. Those who operate in the spy world have more in common with each other than with the population and political master of their homelands.

A key passage in both film and book comes when Lomas states There is only one law in this game, Mundt is their man; he gives them what they need. That’s easy enough to understand isn’t it? Leninism the expediency of temporary alliances. What do you think spies are? Priests, saints, martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes, pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play Cowboys and Indians to brighten rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London, balancing the rights and the wrongs? I’d have killed Mundt if I could, I hate his guts, but not now. It so happens that they need him. They need him so the great moronic mass you admire can sleep soundly in their beds at night. They need him for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me.”

Also “People who play the game take risks. Fiedler lost and Mundt won. London won- that’s the point. It Was a foul operation. But it paid off and that’s the only rule. Lomas only realises just how foul an operation it is when his lover, his hope of personal salvation is killed.

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