When Richard Burton became a superstar, he insisted on casting his friends from his days at the Old Vic and West End (London's equivalent of Broadway). Friends of Burton's cast in the film included the great stage actor Sir Michael Hordern and Robert Hardy. Burton's former leading lady (onstage and in several films) Claire Bloom, however, was cast by Martin Ritt. This caused friction for several reasons: Burton had wanted his wife Elizabeth Taylor in the role, and he and Bloom had been an item in the 1950s. John le Carré remembers that "offscreen Bloom preserved a dignified distance in her caravan".
Author John le Carré worked for British Intelligence MI5 and MI6 during the 1950s and 1960s and worked in Berlin where this film is partially set. Le Carré was there when the Berlin Wall was being constructed. Le Carré drew on this real life experience when he wrote the novel of 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold'. The novel is set about a year after the Berlin Wall was built.
In a 2016 article for The Guardian, John le Carré revealed fond memories of the shoot: 'The director and I got along fine. I enjoyed an amiable relationship with the screenwriter [Paul Dehn], who as a former instructor in the black arts at a British spy school during the second world war, turned out to know much more about espionage than I did. No great liberties were taken with my story - although I no longer see that as a criterion - and my only job was to provide the odd grace note to the screenplay while befriending Richard Burton and keeping a beady eye on his alcohol consumption.' Although he recalled 'open hostility' between Burton and director Martin Ritt, he believed this 'fed Burton's sense of alienation, and gave force to his performance.'
Bernard Lee plays a lowly shopkeeper here, a deliberately canny casting choice given Lee's work as M in the more glamorous James Bond franchise. Another Bond regular, Walter Gotell, also has a small part in the film.
John le Carré included 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold' as one of his 4 best novels during an interview on 5 October 2008, on BBC Four. The other best works he selected were; 'The Tailor of Panama', 'The Constant Gardener' and 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'.
In the source novel, Alec Leamas is 50 years old. His age in the film has been changed to 39 (as reflected by the birthday Alec gives and the newspaper article regarding his disappearance) to reflect Richard Burton's age at the time of filming.
John le Carré said in an interview with The Guardian 13th April 2013: "I wrote 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold' at the age of 30 under intense, unshared, personal stress, and in extreme privacy. As an intelligence officer in the guise of a junior diplomat at the British Embassy in Bonn, I was a secret to my colleagues, and much of the time to myself. I had written a couple of earlier novels, necessarily under a pseudonym, and my employing service had approved them before publication. After lengthy soul-searching, they had also approved 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold'. To this day, I don't know what I would have done if they hadn't."
Richard Burton and co-star Warren Mitchell were Royal Air Force cadets together at Oxford in 1944, where they knew one another and became friends. From 1944-47, when both were demobilized, they were stationed together at times in Canada and back in England.
The name of the character of Liz Gold from the novel 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold' was changed to Nan Perry (played by Claire Bloom) for this film. Among the possible reasons for this was because lead actor Richard Burton was married to actress Elizabeth Taylor at the time, and changing the character's name prevented any possible name-jibes that could be vented from the media. However, John le Carré later wrote, "in the film, for reasons I never understood, the innocent librarian, played by Claire Bloom, was not allowed to be Jewish".
After Paramount Pictures acquired the film rights, John le Carré's father Ronnie, a con artist with several jail sentences to his credit, appeared in West Germany claiming to be his son's "professional adviser." Without Paramount or his son's knowledge, "he graciously accepted a V.I.P. tour of West Berlin's largest film studio, and a great deal of the studio's hospitality, and no doubt a starlet or two, and listened to a lot of earnest talk about tax breaks and subsidies available to foreign filmmakers, all in the noble cause of finding the best place to make the movie," as John wrote later.
John le Carré in an article for the New Yorker remembered that the presence of Elizabeth Taylor on the set was incredibly disruptive. The Checkpoint Charlie set was recreated at Dublin's Smithfield Market and because these were night time shoots, huge crowds would turn out to watch and inevitably delay the filming. The Taylor-Burtons occupied an entire floor of Dublin's Gresham Hotel, and visitors to the set included Franco Zeffirelli and Yul Brynner, whose son, Rock, was studying in Dublin's Trinity College at the time. On more than one occasion, filming was delayed by the arguing and drunken behavior of Burton and Taylor.
The character of Hans-Dieter Mundt (played by Peter van Eyck in this film) was changed to Karel Harek aka 'Blondie' for John le Carré's The Deadly Affair (1967), because Paramount Pictures held the rights to the character's name from this film.
In the Criterion remastering of the film is included an interview with John le Carré, in which he expressed his wish for Rita Tushingham to have portrayed Nan Perry, as he felt she'd be 'a bit kooky, someone who could play working class, a bit solitary... a natural recruit for the communist party.' Initially le Carré felt Claire Bloom 'too beautiful, classy' for the role. Far from being disappointed with her performance in the film, le Carré said 'she provided the female-focus the story needed, and (she) radiates tremendous confidence...she knew she wasn't going to be acted off the screen [by Richard Burton].'
Writer John le Carré partially based his famous George Smiley character on a friend, the Lincoln College tutor and Oxford University don, the Reverend Vivian Green. Smiley was also based on le Carré's boss at MI5, Lord Clanmorris, who wrote crime novels under the pseudonym of John Bingham.
The character of George Smiley, John le Carré's iconic character, was renamed Charles Dobbs for John le Carré's The Deadly Affair (1967) because Paramount Pictures had bought the film rights to the 'Smiley' name when they produced this film.
Martin Ritt and Richard Burton didn't get on particularly well during filming. The friction actually helped inform Burton's performance, which many consider one of his best. Their antagonism is believed to have stemmed from Ritt's irritation with constant set visits from Elizabeth Taylor, then just into her second year of marriage to Burton. To make matters more convoluted, Claire Bloom and Burton had had an affair several years earlier, and Ritt felt the need to come to the young actress's defense.
First of two screen adaptations of a John le Carré story scripted by Paul Dehn. The second would be The Deadly Affair (1967) released in the next year. Just before this movie, Dehn also co-wrote the script for the James Bond movie Goldfinger (1964).
The film's screenwriters, Paul Dehn, and Guy Trosper, who penned the adaptation of the screenplay based upon John le Carré novel, won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay in 1966.
In his introductory scene, Control recalls that Mundt spent a period of time in England in 1959 posing as a member of The East German Steel Mission. This is a direct reference to the events of the novel "Call for the Dead," to which the novel "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" is a direct sequel.
This film's title was spoofed in Le spie vengono dal semifreddo (Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966)) which translates literally into English as "The Spies who came in from the Semi-Cold". or more idiomatically "The Spies who came in from the Frozen Custard".
According to Wikipedia, in 2005, the 50th anniversary of the Dagger Awards, The Spy Who Came in From The Cold was awarded the 'Dagger of Daggers', a one-time award given to the Golden Dagger winner regarded as the stand-out among all previous winners.
John le Carré describes his personal experience of the making of this film in a 2013 article "The Spy Who Liked Me" and in his 2017 autobiography "The Pigeon Tunnel". He was called onto the set in Dublin, ostensibly for script rewrites but actually to be a companion for Richard Burton, who was drinking heavily and clashing with director Martin Ritt. When filming wrapped, Ritt, delighted not to have to work with Burton any longer, called him (in front of the cast and crew) "an old whore" who had just delivered his "last good lay." Le Carré felt this was "not at all fair. Richard Burton was a literate, serious artist, a self-educated polymath with appetites and flaws that in one way or another we all share." Burton himself later wrote of le Carré, as an author, "I think him as good as Graham Greene... He really does write like an angel".
Close to the end of the film, there is a billboard on the West Berlin side of the Berlin Wall facing east, it states " Soldat auch du bist eingesperrt !" which roughly translates to "Soldier, you too are locked up !"
The 50th anniversary of John le Carré's novel was celebrated in 2013, with a new edition of the book, published by Penguin Books on 1st August of that year. The book includes a "Fifty Years Later" introduction by John le Carré.
One of the characters is referred to as "Control". Also known by the letter C, Control is the head of British foreign intelligence, MI6. The "C" originated with the first person in charge, Captain Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming RN (Royal Navy), who would sign documents with his initial and in green ink. The character M in the Bond films is a play on this, originally based on the name Mansfield. As a matter of tradition, the succeeding directors of MI6 have continued to sign documents with the letter C (for Control) and in green ink.