The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

A while ago I saw the film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965). I found it sufficiently interesting that I then read the John le Carré novel on which it is based. The book was written at the height of the Cold War, which provided fertile ground for spy novels, since it was essentially a war of bluff.

Alec Leamas works for British Intelligence. He is in charge of British agents in East Germany. His plans are all foiled by the head of East German Intelligence, Hans-Dieter Mundt. When Mundt kills Leamas’s last operative, Leamas returns to London, expecting to be sacked. Instead, his boss persuades him to undertake an audacious operation. Leamas will pretend to defect to the East. He will then spread disinformation meant to make the East Germans think that Mundt is a double agent working for the British. I can’t tell much more without giving things away. Suffice it to say that, like any good spy novel, it is essentially a story of betrayal.

The British agents in this novel are shown as being no better morally than their East German and Russian counterparts. They justify their actions to themselves by saying that they must use the same tactics as their opponents. (One can perhaps detect a foreshadowing here of the arguments later used to justify torture in the “War on Terror”.) At one point, Leamas says that such methods are necessary so that “the great moronic mass… can sleep soundly in their beds at night.” He expresses contempt for the people he is supposedly serving. Indeed, a contempt for people in general seems to underlie the operation he is carrying out. Leamas says of his fellow spies: “They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards. People who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.” Le Carré was reportedly working for British Intelligence while he was working on this novel. One can only wonder what his colleagues thought about this book.

The communists in this book all sound like religious fanatics. (An exception is Fiedler, an East German spy who is one of the few sympathetic characters.) I read somewhere that when le Carré was working for MI5 in the 1950’s, he spied on meetings of the British Communist Party. I take it from this book that they didn’t make a very good impression on him. Also, it is implied that Mundt is actually a Nazi. I find this a bit far-fetched. It seems that le Carré wanted to make Mundt as repulsive as possible, but I think this was over-doing it somewhat.

There’s a general belief that movies are never as good as the books they’re based on, but I don’t believe that this is necessarily true. When the source is a mediocre novel, the film version can actually be better. A good example of this is The Shining. Hitchcock’s Rear Window is based on a barely competent story by Cornel Woolrich. (The Tarzan movies, as silly as they are, are actually better than the even sillier novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs.) There’s an episode in the novel in which someone tries to kill Leamas, which is never really explained. This is left out of the movie, with the result that the story hangs together better. However, in the novel there’s a wealth of detail that’s lacking in the film, and the motives of some of the characters are clearer in the former than in the latter.

I’m told that in recent years le Carré has been an outspoken critic of US foreign policy. I will have to check out some of his recent works. If they are anywhere near as good as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, they will be well worth reading.

2 Responses to “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”

  1. Danny Says:

    This is a decent blog, well done

  2. The Spanish Prisoner Says:

    Thank you.

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