Based on the real-life case of the Portland Spy Ring, which operated in Britain in the 1950s, Ring of Spies is a 1964 espionage flick directed by Robert Tronson that tells the story of the fives spies who gave British secrets to the Soviets during the Cold War. It capitalised on the recent success of the burgeoning James Bond film franchise by casting Bernard Lee in the main role. He is best-remembered as the original man behind the wooden door who gives Bond his missions as ‘M’, before his death in 1981 saw other actors take over.
Apart from sharing the espionage genre, in reality, Ring of Spies couldn’t be much further removed from the alluring world of 007. There are no exotic locations, glamorous ladies or insane megalomaniacs. Rather, this is a sober and realistic depiction of the grubby world of secret agents, and the squalid reasons they hold for betraying their country. Ring of Spies is shot in black and white, and in ordinary London locations (a few are still recognisable). If anything, an attempt is made to heighten the realism by bookending the film with a public service announcement-style voiceover, essentially warning viewers to watch out for Reds under the bed. After all, in 1964 when the film was released, it was the height of the Cold War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was a recent and horrifying memory.
It’s in that specific historical context of the film being a warning to audiences and a plea to be vigilant that it is best-viewed. After all, the events depicted are fictionalised, but based on a true story. The production team even go to the trouble of filming exterior sequences at the actual former home of spies Peter and Helen Kroger in Ruislip – a bland, pleasant and unassuming house in the middle of suburbia.
The film follows the story of Henry Houghton, played by Bernard Lee. At first stationed in Warsaw, he is returned to England after his drunken and boorish behaviour gets out of hand. Securing work in a military records office where his secretary has the keys to a safe containing top secret documents, he is soon approached by the Soviets asking for copies of the papers in exchange for money. A weak man, Houghton is unprincipled and broke, and is primed to take the bribe. But to access the safe, he has to persuade the secretary Elizabeth (Margaret Tyzack) to collaborate. He flatters her into a romance, and tempts her by showing her the house they could afford if she helps him. But will risking just one document be enough to sate the Soviets and pay for their lifestyle? How many can they smuggle out to be copied before attracting suspicion? What would be the penalty for being caught?
Robert Tronson’s film is successful in building and sustaining suspense, especially in the moments where acts of espionage are pulled off, and the spies meet to exchange their secret passcodes and trade information for cash. Where it falls short is in its linear narrative, that rather ploddingly moves with no surprises from start to finish. It’s also problematic in its characterisation. It’s impossible to sympathise with Bernard Lee’s Houghton because he’s a deeply unpleasant man: self-serving, drunken and course. Not only that, but he isn’t changed by the events of the film. Elizabeth is much more sympathetic, and played with great conviction by Margaret Tyzack (I, Claudius). At first she is horrified by Houghton’s suggestion that they betray their country. Her change of heart comes in wanting to improve her standard of living, as well as in wanting to retain the affections of Houghton. This is difficult to credit, but love is blind, they say. Although her character is underwritten and we are afforded few glimpses into her psychology, Tyzack was a skilful enough performer to create a rounded and intriguing character.
Beyond the appeal for espionage fans of Bernard Lee’s starring role, Ring of Spies also has a host of great British character actors, some in small or even uncredited parts (notably Paul Eddington, Bryan Pringle and Geoffrey Palmer). The picture has been nicely, though imperfectly restored, and it looks crisp and clear in high definition at 1.66:1. The overall verdict is that it is a decent attempt at a documentary-style account of the activities of a real-life spy ring, but the overall production is a touch too pedestrian to offer profound insights into the minds of spies, or to set pulses racing with edge of the seat action. But if you love espionage movies from the Cold War-era, it’s an entertaining account of a historical case.
Cast: Bernard Lee, Margaret Tyzack, William Sylvester, David Kossoff, Director: Robert Tronson Writer: Frank Launder Certificate: PG Duration: 90 mins Released by: Network Release date: 21st September 2020 Buy Ring of Spies