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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

The Criterion Collection release of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is so immaculate that the previous Paramount release is rendered unwatchable. Paramount’s presentation turns out to be extensively speckled-white speckles in the black areas of the screen and black speckles in the white areas of the screen-as well as being grainy and having a fairly noisy soundtrack. The black-and-white picture on the Criterion release is slick, smooth and spotless, and the monophonic sound is vivid. Since Martin Ritt’s 1964 spy thriller is dependent upon mood and atmosphere to sustain its appeal as it lays the foundation of its narrative, Criterion’s version is far more involving and far more effective. It isn’t just that the movie looks and sound nicer. It’s a better movie.

Richard Burton stars as a British agent who pretends to defect in order to discredit a counterpart in East Berlin, but even that is giving away too much of the clever plot. Claire Bloom is an innocent love interest who becomes ensnared in the ruse. Running 112 minutes, the film has a casual pace, but it builds upon it effectively, so that the long conversational scenes never feel inert or aimless. It should also be noted that there is a scene set in a strip club, but unlike countless other scenes in spy movies and crime films that are set in strip clubs, the characters are truly peeling off layers of truth and teasing one another during their meeting as the stripper does her thing behind them.

The film appears on the first platter and is accompanied by optional English subtitles and a trailer. The picture is in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:l and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.

The second platter contains an outstanding 2008 interview with author John Le Carré about both the book and the film. He was actually called to the set by Ritt to act as a buffer between the director and Burton, and is full of marvelous gossip about the shoot and what went on behind the scenes. But he also provides an incisive, detailed analysis of the film’s plusses and minuses, as well as the aspects of it that reflect reality and the aspects that do not. It is rare that you get to hear an author speak both intelligently and without pretense about a film adaptation of his work, and the segment is spellbinding.

Before watching the interview, however, it is best to drop down a notch on the Menu and select the 2000 BBC profile of the author, which runs 59 minutes and is a more generalized look at his life and career. There is also an excellent 39-minute recollection of the film and its strategies by cinematographer Oswald Morris that plays over sequences from the film, a nice collection of production sketches, a terrific 1967 interview with Burton by Kenneth Tynan that runs 33 minutes and discusses both his roles and his craft (he also recites several literary passages, including Hamlet’s ‘What a piece of work is Man’ soliloquy), and a good 1985 audio-only interview with Ritt, who talks about his work and speaks extensively about using film to explore social and progressive topics. The one drawback to the 49-minute segment is that it only has three chapters and cannot otherwise be paused or interrupted.

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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