Richard Burton received his fourth Oscar nomination for portraying spy Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
Richard Burton portrays Alec Leamas exactly as the film, a somber, dark spy. Leamas from the beginning in the film is shown rather quiet man. A man who performs his duties as a British agent with absolutely no charm, or a bit of energy. In the opening scenes one of his agents are killed well trying to cross over check point Charlie. Burton reaction is perfect for Leamas because he does not really show a precise reaction at all, he has clearly seen it before. He reaction is very very little in terms of actual reaction. Now this is not to say that Burton is not doing anything with his performance. No in fact he is doing something rather subtle which is showing that this really is a standard moment for Leamas. He notices it for sure, but does not find it to be something surprising, rather something expected.
After being demoted, but in actuality reassigned to a very complex and covert operation. To set up his situation Leamas must act as a disillusioned depressed man, who is discontent, which gives the idea that he is a spy who is ready to defect. Burton shows Leamas is somewhat putting on a show, but it also authentic and believable at being tired of his situation. Burton intersperses these two odd very different emotions into his performance. Leamas must be convincing in his performance yet it is still a performance, which is quite the challenge. Burton though is more than up to the challenge of this, makes the Leamas' performance work along with his performance.
He continues along with his performance as a defect, that makes it so the Russian would in fact believe him as a defect, but still giving the slight hint of the true nature of Leamas. Burton does show the difference between the real and the fake Leamas because he shows the fake with the Russians but the real Leamas when with a woman Nan (Claire Bloom) he becomes involved with. He in his scenes with Nan shows that Leamas is actually tired, and discontent with the way of espionage in the Cold War. The reason this is so interesting is Burton does give a different reaction with his real discontent and his fake. There is a difference that is fascinating when he real shows his hatred for his job in a purely chilling fashion, and the other times with Burton shows an energy that still feels authentic but perhaps slightly forced which is perfect for Leamas, and an amazing achievement by Burton.
Burton's entire performance is an excellent piece of understated work for almost the entire film. Burton is decried sometimes as an overactor. None of that will be found in this performance though. He reacts as I said at the beginning of the review, to everything in the film with a knowing understanding, and distaste, but rarely said. This is for every moment every fake out, and betrayal he is involved with, and tricked with it. Burton performance simply shows Leamas' history without fault, and absolute brilliance. He really acts out very much without orders from his superiors except at the very end of the film. His final speech about spies, and his final reaction at the end are truly powerful moments, it is the only really big loud and true moment of Burton's performance, and it is made all the more powerful because of this. Burton's performance is perfectly attuned, without a hint of overacting or underacting, creating a great performance.