The Spy Who Came in From the Cold


“A spy never quite sold, to be so internationally bold. A spy who didn’t fit the mold. A spy constantly told to button up his jacket or else he’ll catch cold.” – unknown East German poet

The Film: Martin Ritt’s 1965 nihilistic Cold War drama

The Potable: Four vodka martinis, shaken AND stirred, for good measure

The British don’t do many things well. I’ve never had an order of fish and chips that wasn’t improved with American hot sauce. London Bridge had to be broken down brick by brick and rebuilt properly in Arizona. England has good naval clubs, I suppose, though not once have I seen a Brit on a jet ski. They may claim the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the entire British Invasion, but they’ll never have the chill West Coast, banana pancake vibes of Jack Johnson.

If the Kingdom has a saving grace, it’s spy movies, Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli’s James Bond franchise, in particular. I’ve seen all of the 007 pictures over the years, and while it’s been a long time since I’ve seen this particular one, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is exactly as I remember it.


For those more familiar with the recent shoot ‘em ups, this 1965 feature is one of the “serious” ones, ala From Russia With Love. The gadgets are stripped down and the women are not. No Moneypenny, no rocket-powered boats. See what I mean about the jet skis? Bond moves into East Germany, deep undercover, and spends most of the first act drinking Beefeaters or New Castle or some other British bog water. Seems to me like an obvious way to blow your cover, but what can you do? It’s not like the Germans are known for alcohol. They don’t tell you this in the guidebooks, but Oktoberfest is mostly about the pumpkins. Anyway it’s like looking into a mirror, and what I love most about Bond; we’re both very suave drunks.

As in many Cold War-era films, the Berlin Wall plays a starring role, a symbol of oppression and, for a Western spy, a barrier to be crossed. Bond has found a number of ways to sneak into enemy territory over the years – hang glider, skis, climbing rope, bungee cord, parachute, gas pipeline, jetpack, speed boat, invisible car, submarine car, submarine crocodile, surfboard, horse, space shuttle, cello case, parkour, seaplane, Harrier jet, collapsible mini-jet hidden behind a fake horse butt, gyrocopter, helicopter, tank, clown suit, haircut, fake nipple, wristwatch grapple hook, cellphone fingerprint scanner, credit card lockpick, etc. In this outing, Bond simply rides shotgun in a ‘59 Buick. It’s a brilliant simplification on the part of screenwriters Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper.

Bond’s mission, should he choose to accept it (he does), is to convince East German Intelligence that he’s a disgruntled drunk more than willing to defect. To what end? Fuck if I know. Critics often dismiss Bond movies as frivolous thrill rides, but The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is filled with enough double talk, double crosses, and double entendres to make my drunk head spin and blush. A Dutchman take him seashell hunting on a nearby beach and asks about Bond’s financial transactions. Ten bucks deposited in Helsinki on August 15? Good God, who cares, what a boring hobby. Later, Bond spends an idyllic weekend in the Bavarian countryside with a German beat poet. They talk about life, their favorite Marxist writers, and generally laugh and have a good time, grilling out lakeside in the evenings. Is the poet a spy? Provocateur? Western sympathizer?


Turns out he’s – sigh – a lawyer, as the third act devolves into a courtroom procedural. I kept waiting for Bond to start a shootout and escape, but he only sits quietly, speaks when spoken to. He’s not the one on trial, I suppose, so what’s the rush? I’ve found myself at formal functions where I’d prefer to pull out a Walther PPK and jump through a window, but that’s just not how adults behave. This is why we drink, right?

The impact of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is immeasurable. Perhaps most famously, it was parodied by the Austin Powers film The Spy Who Loved Me. In it, Powers takes on a megalomaniac obsessed with the ocean, to the extent that he wants to provoke a nuclear war that would wipe out all land-based life. The villain has a submersible super lair and a pet shark. Powers has stereotypical British teeth and a long gag involves his penis being hidden behind various penis-shaped objects in a room. Har har, I get it. I get jokes. But this disrespect for cinema’s longest-running franchise is, frankly, hard to stomach.

The neverending debate: Who’s the best Bond? Sean Connery? Daniel Craig? Woody Allen? Roger Moore? For my money, it is – and always will be – Richard Burton.

Verdict: need to rewatch

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