We’re going through a period of nostalgia for the bad old days of the Cold War. Back then you knew who your enemies were and you all played by the same rules. Sure, it was a dirty game, but our core values were at stake: justice, freedom, human decency. We’d gone to war with the Nazis to preserve these values; they were worth fighting for, worth sacrificing for. And sacrifice we did, we and our British allies especially.
Oh, yes. And the Russians. They were our allies in World War II, and they also suffered, but things changed. Practically overnight they became our enemies. We were still fighting for justice, freedom, and human decency but now we were fighting Them, the Communists, who represented everything we hated. They were deceitful, underhanded. They cared nothing for human life, betrayed loyal comrades at the drop of a hat. Only the worst characters survived under such a corrupt system. We, on the other hand, remained pure.
John le Carré’s novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold shattered these certainties. Not only did it expose the cynical maneuvering of international espionage—which was nothing like the glamorous world James Bond traveled in. Morally speaking, We were no different from Them. Perhaps we were even worse, because we pretended to be decent whereas they admitted the truth. Nobody’s pure, the good don’t survive anywhere, and there’s no such thing as a noble cause.
Richard Burton’s burned-out spy, Alec Leamus, perfectly conveys the book’s message. Here was someone, as le Carré said, “who had cut throats in 39-45, who had done it all, been through the stuff, who had lived that secret crusader life.” He’s brought back to England, regains his humanity (he falls in love with the wonderful Claire Bloom, who had been Burton’s lover in real life some years earlier) and this is what allows his spook handlers to betray him.
Director Martin Ritt’s sympathies were with the Left, but he held no illusions about the Soviet Union and never joined the Communist party. Blacklisted for years, his own sense of having been betrayed, by Communism (his “lost love”) and by America is what gives the film its power. I’m not sure that the recent action-packed adaptation of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” has the same bite.