Catching The Cold War: The Culture of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

By Scott Macaulay | November 29, 2011
Taking the Temperature of Cold War Culture

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY is called a masterpiece of Cold War culture. But what was the Cold War? Perilous nuclear standoffs between governments or intricately convoluted dramas involving spies and backroom deals? The Cold War, which spanned the years from the end of World War II until the late 1980s/early-‘90s, was marked by both low-level tensions and Big Ideas. On the ground, the Cold War was fought in a series of proxy wars throughout Eastern Europe and the Far East, fueled by what President Dwight D. Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex.” In ideology, the Cold War was a massive cultural battle, fought in films, television, fashion, comics, etc., a struggle that pitted the Free World against the Red Menace, always with the mushroom cloud of nuclear disaster drifting just over the horizon. The following survey considers the range of cultural artifacts that both represented the Cold War, and as such, the ideological atmosphere that permeates John le Carré’s classic novel. Generally the films, like the Cold War itself, split between deviously plotted thrillers in which career intelligence agents grapple with moral codes that seem to shift by the minute and epics that envision an impending nuclear apocalypse. What follows are ten films about, and made during, the Cold War — films in which actual historical incident, or, simply, the Cold War mindset, inspired the filmmakers to speculate about the nature of good, evil, and all the shades of grey in between.


One of the defining films of Cold War cinema, Martin Ritt’s 1965 adaptation of John le Carré’s novel, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, captures in all its dizzying complexity the topsy turvy world of Cold War espionage. Le Carré wrote the novel while working in Hamburg for M16, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, and the book’s moral confusion, existential fatigue and complicated plotting were bracing for an audience at the time enjoying the simpler, fantasy-like geopolitical world of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and movies. The critic Michael Sragow writes, “Le Carré’s view of espionage as an extension of the ugly, soul-grinding side of cold-war politics was more than a slap at the Bond books’ Byronic derring-do and the movies’ glamour, gimmickry, and jet-setting. It read like an exposé of the spy game’s dirty little secrets, linking the spiritual and emotional calamities of a burned-out fiftysomething British agent to the crises of values that plagued East and West in the mid-twentieth century.”

In Ritt’s film, a burnt-out British agent, Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), is recruited for one last job: he’ll pose as a defecting agent, crossing the Wall to East Berlin to subtly, falsely implicate an East German intelligence official as a double agent — a charge that will result in his death. As the story unfolds, however, Leamas is revealed to be a pawn in a more treacherous game. His “failure” — Leamas is exposed by the East Germans as a still operative British agent — was planned for by his superiors, who have been targeting a different intelligence official entirely. At the film’s end, Leamas and his British girlfriend, Nan Perry (Claire Bloom), an eager young Communist, die tragically, shot dead at the Berlin Wall.

While Ritt is best remembered for films boasting outsized, iconic performances and bold, sometimes simplified politics (Sally Field in his NORMA RAE, for example), THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD is expert at both its human drama and political commentary. Indeed, this speech by Burton’s Leamas in the film is both an extraordinary moment of self awareness as well as an astute summation of the foggy world of the international spy: "What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?”

Potential Fallout: FAIL SAFE

One of the most chilling films of the Cold War — principally because its concerns over accidental nuclear catastrophe are still relevant — was Sidney Lumet’s 1964 film FAIL SAFE. Based on a novel written before the Cuban Missile Crisis but released in theaters after, Fail Safe stars Henry Fonda as a U.S. President grappling with a terrifying emergency: U.S. fighter plans carrying nuclear weapons have been accidentally dispatched to destroy the Soviet Union. After determining that the error is technological in nature, Fonda and his generals first attempt to convince the Soviet President that the attack was a mistake and to guide his forces in shooting down the incoming planes. When this fails, and a lone pilot makes it to Moscow, in order to prevent a counterattack that would destroy the entirety of the U.S., Fonda himself orders the reciprocal destruction of New York City. The film’s final moments — a series of shots, each ending in freeze frame, of everyday Gotham life — are among the most terrifying of modern cinema.

Overshadowed by the earlier release that year of Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE, which laced a very similar story with the director’s black humor and mordant worldview, FAIL SAFE was something of a commercial disappointment. But it remains resonant, having been remade in 2000 in a television version starring George Clooney, and featuring prominently in Lucy Walker’s 2010 documentary COUNTDOWN TO ZERO. That’s because while Kubrick’s Major “King” Kong, straddling a nuclear bomb like a bucking bronco as it falls to Russia, was a satirical masterstroke nailing the “cowboy” mentality of some U.S. policy makers, FAIL SAFE actually grappled with policy itself. Throughout the Cold War, the doctrine of “mutual assured destruction,” or “nuclear deterrence,” governed policy makers. Credited to military strategist John von Neumann and articulated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, the logic of mutual assured destruction, or MAD, which argued that certain destruction would fate the instigator of a nuclear attack, both fueled the arms race (each side wanted to match the other in nuclear capability) and also shifted conflict to proxy wars, regional conflicts, and the kind of espionage games dramatized in so many spy movies of the era. 

Paranoia Pulp: KISS ME DEADLY

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer was a tough anti-communist, but in Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film adaptation of KISS ME DEADLY, the detective became a cynical gumshoe motivated less by love of country and more by cash and a hardboiled code of personal ethics. The film is a crazy blend of B-movie, noir detective drama and science fiction, and it taps into a Cold War anxiety about Russian spies in the homeland and nuclear war. Ralph Meeker plays Hammer, who, after picking up a distressed hitchhiker one night, winds up with his car in a ditch and the woman, dead, by his side. The crash sends Hammer on an odyssey infused with all the paranoia of the time, propelling him towards a sexy Russian spy and the film’s MacGuffin, changed by screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides from the novel’s $2 million in cash to weapons-grade nuclear material. The film has one of the bleakest endings in all of noir, with the nuclear material exploding, killing the woman, Hammer, and, most likely, all of us. Writes J. Hoberman of the film, “Everyone is under surveillance, everything is a secret; the protagonist, who is described as returning from the grave, is a walking corpse. Jagged and aggressive, KISS ME DEADLY is one paranoid movie — with all that implies. Fear of a nuclear holocaust fuses with fear of a femme fatale. Hammer pursues and is pursued by a shadowy cabal—a mysterious “They,” as they’re called in the film’s key exchange, “the nameless ones who kill people for the Great Whatsit.” 

Sex and the Soviet: From Russia with Love

Among the many reasons John F. Kennedy was the first modern president: he loved James Bond. As was noted in a 1961 Life magazine article, Kennedy was a fan of Ian Fleming’s spy novels, particularly From Russia with Love, which he cited as one of his ten favorite books. In the 1957 novel, the debonair British secret service agent is targeted for death by Russian counter-intelligence outfit SMERSH, lured to Istanbul by a beautiful Soviet defector. As Jeremy Black notes in his The Politics of James Bond: From Fleming’s Novel to the Big Screen, From Russia with Love was published just as public awareness of espionage — Russian, American and European — was on the rise. Several years earlier, Britain was stunned when Guy Burgess, secretary to the British Foreign Minister of State, was revealed to be a Soviet spy and defected to Russia. In April 1956, the Soviets publicly revealed U.S. efforts to wiretap their cables in Berlin. And, of course, there were confrontations between the Soviets and the oppressed countries of the Eastern Bloc. All of these events informed the escapist popularity of the Bond novels and, later, the movies. Writes Black, “Soviet control of Eastern Europe was brutally demonstrated when a popular attempt to bring Hungary independence was brutally repressed in 1956. Security forces had suppressed a worker’s uprising in Poznan in Poland in June. From Russia with Love was carried forward in a moment of rising tension in the Cold War and at the same time provided a sense of humor and relief from the real world. There was both a feeling of moment and one of unreality.”

Prior to writing the Bond novels, Fleming worked in naval intelligence. He wasn’t a real spy. British author John le Carré, on the other hand, worked for M16, and his George Smiley novels pointedly did not promote a “sense of humor and relief” from the Cold War and its moral anxieties. In a 1966 BBC interview, le Carré was critical of Fleming’s creation, saying, “I dislike Bond. I'm not sure that Bond is a spy. I think that it's a great mistake if one's talking about espionage literature to include Bond in this category at all. It seems to me he's more some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a license to kill... he's a man entirely out of the political context. It's of no interest to Bond who, for instance, is president of the United States or of the Union of Soviet Republics." Le Carré’s view softened a bit when this interview was replayed for him in 2010. He told Radio Times, “These days I would be much kinder. I suppose we've lost sight of the books in favor of the film versions, haven't we? I was a young man and I knew that I had written about the reality in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and that the Fleming stuff was a deliberate fantasizing of Fleming's own experiences when he was safely in New York. But at the root of Bond there was something neo-fascistic and totally materialist. You felt he would have gone through the same antics for any country really, if the girls had been so pretty and the Martinis so dry."


Perhaps the most vivid film depicting America in the Cold War was Don Siegel’s 1956 science-fiction classic, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. For Americans, the “Red Scare” — a fear of Communists in our midst, as promoted by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee — internalized the conflicts of the Cold War, and Siegel’s paranoid parable nailed the Zeitgeist perfectly. That’s because the film’s simple storyline — an alien race of pod people land on Earth and, one by one, take over human bodies — is open to several different interpretations. For many viewers, the pod people were the communists themselves, devoid of individuality and intent on world domination. But for others, and most likely Siegel, the metaphor went the other way. In an essay entitled “INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS: A Tale for Our Times,” John W. Whitehead writes, “But for [screenwriter Daniel] Mainwaring there was no overt anti-Communist message in the film. To Mainwaring, we are the villains. And Communism was a scapegoat, an imaginary villain reflecting the fears and tensions of the Right. 'If the pods in INVASION seem to incarnate the popular image of a communist totalitarian state,' [critic Al] LaValley points out, 'it is only because the government-dominated, bureaucratic, and conformist fifties was itself creating an America like this picture of Soviet Russia.' ”


Released during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, John Frankenheimer’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE explored enduring strains in American paranoid politics, specifically the idea of the sleeper agent and the corruption of the American political process. In the story, several American POWs returning home from the Korean War experience disturbing nightmares about their commander, Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey). One of the men, Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), begins to investigate and learns that Raymond has been brainwashed by Chinese Communists, who have made him into an assassin hypnotically programmed to kill an American Presidential candidate, thereby enabling a McCarthy-esque anti-Communist secretly controlled by his Communist spy wife to win the election. Filled with surreal dream sequences, The Manchurian Candidate was both a terse Cold War thriller as well as a darkly comic satire of the American political process. Upon its release, it was banned in the Eastern Bloc for what were seen as anti-Communist themes while, in the U.S., the film was rumored to have inspired — or perhaps explained — the actions of Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. These rumors intensified when star Frank Sinatra bought the film’s rights and withdrew it from circulation. Years later, however, it was revealed that the cause was a financial dispute between studio United Artists and Sinatra.


Before YouTube, before reality TV and before CSPAN, there was POINT OF ORDER, Emile d’Antonio’s 1964 documentary about the Congressional hearings concerning Senator Joe McCarthy a decade prior. During the 1940s and ‘50s, McCarthy monopolized the media with his warnings of the “Red Menace” — communists embedded in schools, factories, and Hollywood. The hearings, which ostensibly looked at political favoritism related to McCarthy’s office, Army service, and a young aide to McCarthy ally Roy Cohn, took place at a time in which the Senator’s power was beginning to fade. McCarthy relished the opportunity to use the televised hearings to demagogue to the American people, but he was undone by Joseph Welch, the Army’s Attorney General, who nailed the Senator with a question that has echoed through American politics since: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

In 1962, experimental filmmaker Emile d’Antonio licensed the footage from ABC, pared the 200 hours down to just over 90 minutes, and through his artful editing, gave the hearings pace and dramatic structure. But while the film doesn’t use scoring, voiceover, or other devices of contemporary political documentary, don’t call it cinema verité. Said d’Antonio in an interview, “POINT OF ORDER was made out of absolute junk, in junky kinescope. But it was the first time that anybody had taken a complete hearing and made something more real out of it than the reality, because the reality of it wasn’t very real. It ended with a whimper, a gavel bang, and everybody went away looking a little odd and not knowing what happened. I don’t believe in cinema verité.”

Cold War On The Rocks: TOPAZ

In the mid-1960s, Alfred Hitchcock made a pair of thrillers dealing with Cold War European espionage. TORN CURTAIN, inspired by the defection of Guy Burgess and Don Maclean from Britain to Russia in the 1950s, starred Paul Newman as an American scientist who stages a false defection to the East. Julie Andrews played his alarmed fiancé/assistant, who follows him. Hitchcock was reportedly unsatisfied with his relationship to Method actor Newman, and for his next film, TOPAZ, he worked with mostly European actors to adapt Leon Uris’s novel. Uris’s tale was based on the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Sapphire Affair, in which President John F. Kennedy passed on to French President Charles de Gaulle suspicions that Russian agents had infiltrated French intelligence. In Uris’s novel and Hitchcock’s film, French agent Andre Devereaux (played in the film by Frederick Stafford) travels to New York and Cuba on the hunt for the missiles, eventually also uncovering “Topaz,” a Soviet ring operating in Paris. While hailed for its style and imaginative set pieces, TOPAZ isn’t considered by most critics one of Hitchcock’s best. Vincent Canby of the New York Times, however, found its low-key qualities perfectly suited to its subject matter: “TOPAZ is not a conventional Hitchcock film,” he wrote. “It's rather too leisurely and the machinations of plot rather too convoluted to be easily summed up in anything except a very loose sentence. Being pressed, I'd say that it's about espionage as a kind of game, set in Washington, Havana, and Paris at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, involving a number of dedicated people in acts of courage, sacrifice, and death, after which the survivors find themselves pretty much where they were when they started, except that they are older, tired, and a little less capable of being happy.”


With the “détente” U.S.-Soviet policies of the 1970s and the 1979 SALT II nuclear treaty negotiated by President Jimmy Carter, the Cold War appeared to be limping to a close. Then came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the election of President Ronald Reagan, and an escalated military build-up and arms race. It would be another decade before historians would formally call it a wrap on the Cold War, but it was already clear that there would be politicians, spooks, and the military-industrial complex who would miss the profitable conflicts of superpower rivalry. All these issues are explored in THE FOURTH PROTOCOL, John McKenzie’s adaptation of the Frederic Forsyth novel. The titular “protocol” is said by Forsyth to be part of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and it bans non-conventional delivery of nuclear devices. In THE FOURTH PROTOCOL, Michael Caine plays a weary British intelligence agent banished to the unglamorous detail of monitoring ports. He begins to suspect that nuclear materials are being smuggled into the country, uncovering a conspiracy by the KGB to stage a nuclear event in Britain and reignite the diminishing embers of the Cold War. And while the story’s larger themes revolve around U.S.-Soviet conflict, the idea of smuggling nuclear materials through ports is still alarmingly relevant. Wrote Rita Kempley of the Washington Post at the time, “Forsyth's story is based on the latest in terrorist technology. You can build a small bomb in your basement if you want to nuke the dog who digs up the garden. The screenwriter also reduces world politics to a series of career moves, a sort of international yuppism, complete with double agents, death threats and atomic skulduggery.”


The last film of the Cold War era was John McTiernan’s THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, released in 1990 just as Eastern Bloc revolutions and the glasnost-era caused the Communist Party to formally relinquish its hold on Soviet State power. (Fearing audience’s confusion over the sudden geopolitical shift, the film’s producers tacked on opening titles explaining that the film is set in 1984, during the Cold War.) In THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, based on John Clancy’s novel, a Soviet commander, Ramius (Sean Connery) goes rogue, steering his submarine towards the North Atlantic where he plans to defect, turn over the sub’s sophisticated “first strike” technology to the West, and slow the arms race. (The film’s “Red October” was based on a new fleet of Russian nuclear subs that could fire missiles from beneath polar ice sheets undetected by satellite.) The Russians, meanwhile, fear that Ramius may launch the sub’s missiles on the U.S. and implore the American military to help destroy it. CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) is the only one who believes that Ramius may be defecting and works to save Ramius and the sub. But while the Cold War may have wound down in the early ‘90s, as in the U.S., Soviet defense department procurements moved at a slower pace. The typhoon-class submarine that inspired the movie was only scrapped in 2011, reports The Telegraph. The aging fleet was a victim of budget cuts as well as the most recent START treaty, which limits the size of nuclear fleets.

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