Criterion has put together a new DVD release for Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, presenting the film on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set. The back packaging states the aspect ratio as 1.85:1 but the actual image looks to be closer to 1.66:1. It has also been enhanced for widescreen televisions. While I’m sure the aspect ratio is just a misprint on the packaging, and in the booklet, I’m also pretty sure the previous Paramount DVD was 1.85:1 (I don’t own it so I can’t directly compare or confirm at the time I am writing this.) Still, I don’t know which is correct but I didn’t notice anything while watching the film that would suggest the framing is wrong.
The film, as mentioned before, has been previously released on DVD by Paramount and while it was a barebones release the transfer was actually not all together that bad, presenting a fairly sharp image. The only issue it had was Paramount did next to no restoration to the print and it presented a rather extensive amount of damage with large scratches and various other marks showing up throughout.
I’m not sure if Criterion is using the same print that Paramount used for their release but this transfer is significantly cleaner, all those large scratches now gone. Contrast is very good with strong blacks and grays, and the image is very sharp overall. There’s an excellent amount of detail and I didn’t notice anything in the term of artifacts.
The Paramount DVD presented a pretty good transfer, and for the price you can find it for that disc is a pretty good deal, but Criterion put in a little more effort in the clean up and I do feel it is better in other areas as well, such as sharpness and contrast. The Criterion release is the obvious winner between the two. 8/10
All DVD screen captures are presented in their original size from the source disc. Images have been compressed slightly to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
The Paramount DVD had no special features to speak of. In what should be no surprise Criterion has put together a rather large number of supplements for this release, spreading them over the two dual-layer discs.
The first disc only presents one feature, a theatrical trailer that presents the film to be much sexier than it actually is.
The second disc is where we get into the meaty stuff and it should satisfy not only those that have an interest in the film but also satisfy those that have an interest in the work of John le Carré.
The first feature found on the second disc is an interview with John le Carré, recorded exclusively for Criterion. I’ll say firstly that the supplements on this disc are all great, but when it comes to the one I found most fascinating it would probably be this one. Interestingly this feature begins with a note stating that the comments made here do not reflect the opinions of Paramount, the type of statement very common on DVDs today but not something Criterion has done before (not counting the DVD for The Life Aquatic.) While I’m sure it was a contractual thing between Paramount and Criterion I think I can see why Paramount probably felt a need for it: Le Carré is quite frank. He doesn’t say anything altogether that bad, but while talking about his experience with the making of the film he gives his honest opinions about the Hollywood scene and his misgivings about the film (a little slow, too noirish, Burton has too much of a “Thesp” voice) though overall he likes it. He also gets into issues with Burton who had trouble working with Martin Ritt (apparently Ritt stood up to Burton, which is confirmed in other features found on this disc, and Burton may not have been used to this,) the tensions because of a previous affair Burton had had with co-star Claire Bloom, and the fact Elizabeth Taylor and her entourage were there as well. Ritt also used le Carré in some fashions to try and control Burton. He does get into other details about the film but he also goes past the making of the film and does discuss the novel and his work as a spy, though briefly. As a whole, though, it’s a very quick 38-minutes. I’ve actually never seen an interview with John le Carré/David Cornwell and I have to say he is an absolutely fascinating interview subject. The interview is presented in anamorphic widescreen.
And that continues on with the next feature, The Secret Centre: John le Carré, a 59-minute documentary made for the BBC about John le Carré/David Cornwell (I’ll be honest, I’m not completely sure how to address the man, either by his real name or pseudonym and throughout this feature people address him both ways, but I’ll just address him by his pen name, John le Carré.) It’s made up primarily of interview clips with le Carré but also gets interviews with people who knew him (or of him) including professors, friends, and even spies from the other side of the wall. The documentary goes over his early life, having been recruited as a spy at a very young age (one of his assignments involved investigating Soviets recruiting students from prestigious schools), working for MI5 and then MI6, and then how he was asked to leave after becoming a celebrity with the publication of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Le Carré offers some anecdotes about his spy years, and he also talks about Kim Philby, a double agent who exposed many British spies, including le Carré. He offers the influences for his writing, Philby seeming to have been a big influence, and even offers a great examination of one of his recurring characters, George Smiley. Mixed into all of this is archival footage (including footage of the Berlin wall being built then torn down) and clips from films based on le Carré’s work. I suspect it was made somewhat as a promotion for what would have been his new book at the time, The Constant Gardener, but discussion on this novel only takes up the last bit of the documentary. The rest is actually not only a fascinating examination of the author but of the spy world as well. I strongly recommend watching this one. It is presented in anamorphic widescreen and has been divided into 6 chapters.
The next feature comes from audio recordings of an interview with director Martin Ritt taken by film historian Patrick McGilligan for an article he wrote for the February 1986 issue of Film Comment. It runs 49-minutes and is divided into 3 chapters. Ritt talks about being blacklisted and the lack of work he could get and then his filmmaking with Fox during the late 50’s. He also gets into a discussion about political films and the rough time he had being a very liberal filmmaker working in Hollywood at the time. There’s also a long discussion about the current state of Hollywood films (and while they are referring to filmmaking in the 80’s the comments are still relevant for today) and the few artists that are out there. In all it’s an excellent interview. It’s presentation is an audio clip playing over a chapter selection menu.
Oswald Morris, the film’s director of photography, offers a selected-scene commentary for the film. For those not familiar with this type of commentary it’s just a commentary that plays over a select number of scenes instead of the whole film, similar to Criterion’s commentaries found on Andrei Rublev and Le doulos. He only speaks over the opening sequence, a couple of sequences involving Nan (Bloom) and Leamas (Burton), the strip club sequence, the tribunal scene, and the ending. He’s technical for the most part, talking about the intense planning behind just about every sequence, the lighting, movements, and set designs, and how he tried to make the film look as “downbeat and awful as possible.” But he also comments on the cast and offers a lot of information about Martin Ritt, a director he seems to have greatly respected (Morris states that he worked on a lot of Richard Burton films and Ritt was the only director that tried to control him, and did for the most part.) It’s actually unfortunate that this is only a brief commentary track but it’s at least quite informative and worth viewing. The commentary runs about 30-minutes and has been divided into 5 chapters. You’ll also find a sub-section called Set Designs which is a gallery of set design drawings (all quite moody) that you can navigate through using the arrows on your remote.
Finally, closing off the disc, is an interview with Richard Burton from 1967 program called Acting in the 60’s. It’s a somewhat stuffy interview clouded by cigarette smoke but it gives an adequate background examination of Burton and his work. He talks about his young years, theater work, and his work with Fox that he considers artistically uninteresting but did it because he liked “being famous.” There’s also some discussion on Elizabeth Taylor’s part in teaching him how to act for the screen. It may be my least favourite supplement on this release but for those interested in Burton’s work it’s worth viewing. It runs about 30-minutes and has been divided into 6 chapters.
A 12-page booklet is also included with an essay by Michael Sragow offering an analysis on the film, the novel, the author of the novel, and the director and star of the film, along with some of the issues that occurred on the set between Burton and Ritt.
I do wish the commentary track was a feature length track but I felt the supplements as a whole covered the film and its related subjects about as thoroughly as possible (I’m at a loss as to what else could be added.) This aspect of the disc alone make the disc worth picking up, even if you own the previous Paramount disc. 9/10