Notes from ningyo editions studio and gallery

Lobby Card #4: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

david curcio

Lobby Card: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

     The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a gloomy, cheerless and ultimately heartbreaking story of the lugubrious, slow-paced monotony of real life espionage.  Based on the early John Le Carre novel, Richard Burton plays Alex Lemus, a British agent during the Cold War waiting for his marching orders: to defect to East Germany and provide false information to an odious German anti-Semite working as a British double-agent.  In the meantime, he lives out his lonely, booze-soaked life in England.

Assigned to low-profile civilian work in a library specializing in paranormal literature, Lemus meets Nan, a young Communist librarian played by Claire Bloom (Burton’s once real-life lover during the filming of Look Back in Anger) who falls in love with him – haggard, bored, tortured and broke as he may be.  (As a side note, Nan’s character in the novel was named Liz, but given Burton’s marriage at the time and Elizabeth Taylor’s maniacal jealousy, the name was changed for obvious reasons.)


As the action moves from England to Germany, Lemus’ inner desperation grows pari-passu with his boozing (already impressive to begin with – this is Burton after all, whose capacity is legend and who never faked a drink on screen).  A brutal interrogation; a trial for treason; the capture of Nan: Lemus is driven to strike a deal with the German double-agent and betray his only German ally, leaving him to certain death.  In exchange, Lemus and Bloom are offered escape back over the Berlin Wall, and things turn out badly.

Shot in dark shadows on night time cobblestone streets with deep chiaroscuro; in dank, overcast British daylight; and under the punishing sun of East Germany, we stagger alone with Burton, hungover and badly in need of a drink.  He looks like shit here, which is only true to character: a broken vessel drifting on a black sea populated with ugly, deceitful fish, waiting for a wind that he bloody well knows will never come.


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