Portrait of a moment

Richard Burton in ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ (1965)

The first thing you see of Richard Burton in Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the 1965 adaptation of the novel by John le Carré, is his overcoat. He’s filmed from behind, in black and white, looking out of a window of a checkpoint into the Berlin night, and all you see is the coat, and all you hear is the voice as he gives weary commands.

Burton is playing the demoralised intelligence operative Alec Leamas, who has been ordered by his bosses in MI6 to stay out in the cold a little longer to snare a German double agent. When Burton turns in this opening scene to walk away, you notice the white shirt underneath the coat, done up to the top so it looks like the dog collar on a priest. The coat seems darker, and smarter than it does in the rest of the film, but then he’s in Berlin, and the coat likes to travel abroad. There’s a scene in the Netherlands on a beach when it even looks presentable and ironed. It’s only when it’s in England that this article of clothing transforms the mighty Burton into something really profound.

What kind of coat is it? This is not a chic fitted mac with a turned-up collar like Alain Delon’s in Le Samouraï (1967). It is most decidedly not Columbo’s mac, or something designed by Raymond Chandler. It is the opposite of a stylised fashionable idea of a spy’s coat, a coat that says, “I’m cool and sexily isolated.” No. It’s a round-shouldered, possibly mid-green – it’s hard to say in black and white – tweed-effect, slightly oversized, cheap, generic, lightweight coat, probably bought in 1950. A coat that fails to keep the chill out but looks bulky when the buttons are done up. A coat that always looks slightly damp.

The next time we see the coat in the film, the sight takes your breath away. Did you ever see Richard Burton look so low? He gets out of a London taxi in the late afternoon and the coat – so flimsy-seeming now, so insubstantial – flaps around his legs in the wind. This is England at its worst: mid-February, badger-grey, wet and tired.

Burton once wrote about the dreariness of just this kind of English day. “I never ever want to live here again ever. The weather isn’t dramatically bad. No tempests, no howling blizzard but simply a low grey cloud that squeezes the spirit like a vice. The cold is no colder than Paris or Gstaad but it seems to penetrate the very pith of one’s fibres. And the ordinary people in the street look so pinched and puny and mean.”

As Burton slams the door of the taxi and pulls his collar up around him a Mini Cooper passes behind and you are reminded – with a jolt – that this is February 1965 and Pink Floyd have just formed in a polytechnic off Regent Street. But not here, not in Whitehall. Not for Richard Burton and his coat, which seems to belong more to The Waste Land (TS Eliot had himself only been dead a month).

But then something amazing happens. Burton goes inside to speak to his handler, and he takes off his coat ... and suddenly he is a movie star, the powerful Burton in a black suit and tie. He is debonair, he is 10 years younger, the man at the bar you can’t take your eyes off. He is the physical aristocrat you see in the best photograph there exists of this actor, a casual snap taken in 1953, when he was 28 and just after cracking Hollywood, on the way to the pub back home in Pontrhydyfen, striding along in a pair of cream trousers while his diminutive alcoholic father, looking like a far inferior breed of creature, scurries behind in an outsized miner’s cap. I often look at that picture. I like the mixture of sly irresponsibility, irritation and amusement on Burton’s insanely handsome face. He never much liked his violent dad.

But my favourite image of Burton isn’t of him here, or in his thigh-flashing skirt as Mark Antony, or in Where Eagles Dare (1968) killing half the German army with his hilariously anachronistic 1960s bouffant: it’s him in this terrible coat. The whole story is this coat. It transmits the simple idea of cold, and cold things, and cold people. In a later scene, on a date with Claire Bloom playing a pretty and earnest young librarian, Burton wears the suit again and he makes jokes and flirts and even kisses: he could be a businessman, a teacher, a company director. Back in the coat on the way home he’s a prisoner, a loner. A spy. “Who do you think spies are?” he asks. “We’re a squalid procession of vain fools, sadists, drunkards, henpecked husbands: we’re ordinary crummy people.”

Burton with Elizabeth Taylor on the set of ‘The Sandpiper’ in 1965

What is it about Burton that so suited this bad, damp coat? For a start he looks precisely the right age in it, the age I always think of Richard Burton as: just over 50. Actually he’s only 40 here. But does anyone really think of Burton young on screen? Although he appeared in his first film at the age of 24, he was 34 when he made Look Back in Anger (1959), 38 in Cleopatra (1963), 39 in Becket (1964), and he always looked much older thanks to the acne pockmarks that had moon-cratered his face as a teenager. And neither is he a man we think of as particularly suiting clothes – he’s no Steve McQueen. Despite the cashmere cardigans he complained Elizabeth Taylor was always buying for him in real life, in the 800-or-so pages of his diaries he mentions perhaps only two outfits: a silly mink coat and a ruffled black shirt. The rest of the time he just talks about books, and booze, and Taylor’s arse, and how much he hated to act. “I feel jaded and sweaty today,” he writes. “One of those days when acting seems particularly silly. What a sloppy job to have.”

It was a mantra of Burton’s: that he hated acting. Paranoid about the perceived effeminacy of acting he bowed over-low to his macho mining provenance. Acting made him contemptuous. His success made him contemptuous. Yet the more withering and scornful he looked, the more famous he became – and the irony of that increased his contempt. With hard drinking, his manner slowed into a permanent disdain. And so he particularly suits the self-disgusted character of Alec Leamas, in a film made in a palette of greys that remind you of days when you feel trapped and weary.

It’s Burton’s best part, his best film. It’s the film you really get to know his face in. You ignore everyone’s body in this film because of the drab uniformity of the clothes. It’s a world and a time when all men dressed the same – there are a thousand men on the streets in this film wearing this terrible everyman coat. And because their bodies all look the same, their faces look so much more descriptive of their souls. It feels like you’re seeing so much more than merely Richard Burton’s face.

Burton with Taylor in 1964, about to sail on the Queen Elizabeth

Just two years before this film, Burton had become the posterboy for continental exile. Falling in love with Cleopatra herself, sailing the world on their private yacht pursued by shoals of paparazzi. Vodka and orange at breakfast in Naples. Tequila at lunch in Mexico. Champagne off the Capo Caccia peninsula in Sardinia. Out of the cold and into the warmth of wealth and erotic love and celebrity.

The coat in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the perfect portrait of the moment. The moment when it looked as if Burton would never have to wear such a coat again. The boy who grew up in poverty in a Welsh mining town had escaped the drabness, the dirty buses, the corned beef in corner shops, the chill of austerity. He had travelled to the glittering south.

This is an edited version of one of five essays in BBC’s Radio 3 series ‘Listener, They Wore It’, and will be broadcast on February 14 at 10.45pm

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