The Cold War novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was penned by John le Carre (the nom-de-plume of David Cornwell, a former diplomat at the British Foreign Office) and quickly became a best seller.
Even while the novel was still in the proof stage the screen rights were purchased by producer-director Martin Ritt.
Ritt’s next task was to assemble an international cast of top stars. First came Richard Burton, at the peak of his career at the time, who was cast as Alec Leamas, the anti-hero who plays a double game as a down-at-heel, besotted drunk who defects to the East in order to plant false information.
Claire Bloom played Nan Perry, a London working girl who finds herself deeply involved in a counter-espionage plot through her love for Leamas and her leanings towards Communism.
Oskar Werner was cast as Fiedler, the accomplished assistant to the East German counter-espionage chief.
Other key roles went to Peter van Eyck as Mundt, a brutal ex-Nazi East German counter-spy, Irish Cyril Cusack as the British “Control” at the centre of the web of intrigue and treachery, and Sam Wanamaker as Russian agent Peters.
The film takes place in London, Amsterdam and Germany and Ritt fixed the location shooting schedule for the winter months to capture the grey and sombre light which reflects the mood of the story, filmed in monochromatic splendour.
Interiors were shot in Ireland (at the Ardmore Studios in Bray), where a section of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie were also recreated to accommodate two weeks of exterior shooting.
When we first meet Leamas – the head of operations for MI5 in East Germany – he is skulking, unkempt and scruffy, in the gloom of Checkpoint Charlie. A man approaches the frontier barrier . . . he is about to make it when he is spotted by the East Germans . . . a loudspeaker blares . . . a searchlight comes blindingly to life . . . the staccato of machine gun fire . . . the lone figure falls . . . Leamas turns away in bitter frustration; another of his contacts has been liquidated by the Communist master counter-spy, Mundt.
Leamas returns to Britain where he meets Control (Cusack) at Intelligence HQ. “One can’t stay out-of-doors all the time,” Control tells him. “One needs to come in – in from the cold.”
There is a shock for Leamas when he learns of his next assignment. He is to be sacked and then slowly build up a portrait of a man who, driven on by inaction and bitterness, turns to drink for comfort – but not yet to actual treachery.
As Control says, “It’s all a part of what I have in mind for Mundt, and it’s better for you to start as you mean to continue – downhill!”
Peter van Eyck
East German Defense Attorney