I have never read a John Le Carre book and I had never seen a movie based on his work before, so The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was somewhat of a surprise for me. I guess I had always assumed that his work was apolitical or leaned towards positive representations of the military and intelligence community a la Tom Clancy. But this film is just about as angrily opposed to war - both hot and cold - as you can get. It's kind of amazing to think someone could pen a work like this while working at MI6.
Of course, I should have known this wouldn't be James Bond in black and white just from the fact that Martin Ritt directed the film. Ritt was blacklisted in the 50s and spent his career afterwards almost exclusively tackling socially relevant subjects, most famously in the quintessential American union movie Norma Rae, but also in underrated films like The Front, which was about the blacklist and features what is almost certainly Woody Allen's best performance when he wasn't behind the camera. But this is probably the best film of his that I've seen - certainly the most beautiful, in a dreary kind of way. The beauty of the movie helped draw me in before I was engaged with the plot, which ended up being extremely engaging but was somewhat difficult to approach.
I've saved the man most crucial to the success of the film for last. As good as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is as a story and a visual spectacle, Richard Burton is that much better as its central character. Burton gave great performances throughout his career, but here he is the center of a film that rises and falls with him. This means it almost exclusively rises, as Burton manages to combine the seething moral fiber of his character with his defeated bureaucrat façade. It's the kind of performance that would be able to sustain even the most mediocre of films surrounding it, but here it turns a really excellent movie into a great one.