If only all spy movies were along these lines. Expertly acted, with a tight plot and tighter script, the intricacies inexorably unwind throughout the movie. Layers within layers with layers of plotting, no gizmos, no flashbang fight sequences, just long-term, exceptional planning and gutsy hard work. Richard Burton steals the show as the eponymous spy, Alec Leamas, and the intensity with which he engages in the character he plays carries the film through the few scenes that aren’t quite up to snuff with the rest of the film.
The most important and most challenging test for Burton’s acting is the way in which he must simultaneously hide and convey Leamas’s growing love for a commie librarian and maintain the ruse of disgruntled spy in order to attract his commie enemies. As the film plays out, the rampant suspicions of the East Germans slowly disintegrate this facade until the house of cards seemingly collapses, mixaphorically speaking. The ensuing escape sequence fairly seethes with the desperation of a cornered animal, and the confrontation at the Berlin Wall frankly admits to a belief that cynical amorality trumps authentic emotion. For Leamas, however, coming in from the cold is less about retirement, and more about the thawing of emotion that takes place within his own soul.