3:13 pm Sep. 27, 2012
An interview came out today in The New York Times with the creators of "Homeland," this season's Emmy darling about international intrigue and counterterrorism espionage. At the end of a list of influences for the show, Alex Gansa simply states "All the le Carré books."
Of course, those books have inspired far more. Le Carré's influence can be felt in nearly every narrative of the past 50 years that touches on espionage in any way, and his books have been adapted to the screen many times and with many great results. Starting tonight and running through next week, The Brooklyn Academy of Music is hosting a full slate of film adaptations of le Carré's novels. The only major film missing from the series is The Russia House, though it's not much missed with so many other great, and rarely seen, choices. Two such choices, The Looking Glass War and The Deadly Affair, are particularly interesting examinations of some of the elements that have made le Carré such an important storyteller of the past half-century.
Starting with his debut, A Murder of Quality, in 1961, former British spy David John Moore Cornwell became John le Carré. He has written 22 novels, all but one concerned with the world of global political and corporate subterfuge and espionage. And with that subject he's in a class with only one other writer: Graham Greene. And yet, for Greene, spy novels were diversions, commercial products, "entertainments," as he called them. He didn't disdain these novels but he didn't esteem them too highly, either. For le Carré the genre is everything, and part of his legacy is having showed that genre needn't be a synonym for literary limitation. For him there seems no end to the generative capacity of "the secret world." He's created such astonishingly rich, complex, human worlds for his characters that he's exceeded the notion of genre fiction completely, and without ever renouncing his genre, either; he's simply a great novelist.
As 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, directed by Tomas Alfredson, reminded, le Carré's stories beget nearly uniformly stunning film versions, since it's his stories that are so strong, so compelling, so thoughtful, so devastating. Few of them involve high-speed chases or climactic shootouts, or when they do, the chases end ambivalently, the shootouts are anticlimactic. The number of film adaptations is somewhat surprising, really, since there aren't many of those 22 novels in which most of the main characters don't end up getting totally screwed over, or simply killed.
That British Intelligence is referred to throughout le Carré's works as "The Circus" is only comical in the bleakest way; and yet, circus-like though it may be, concepts of duty and loyalty and belief in ideology are not mere diversions from the violent folly of power-mad men in le Carré's work, they are the motors by which civilization turns. (In his post-Cold War novels, the Circus endures, but transposed onto some other country's intelligence apparatus, or global corporate monoliths, or, often, some long arm of the United States.)
THE BAM SERIES KICKS OFF WITH THE CONSTANT GARDENER, Fernando Meirelles' able and beautiful adaptation of one of le Carré's more recent titles. There's nothing not to love about the film, though it's not the strongest narrative of the bunch, and Ralph Fiennes is magnetic, always seeming to remind us that he ought to be in more films. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy follows, and its only drawback is that, for the uninitiated, there's a whole lot to take in. It has nothing on the magnificent '70s BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley (the follow-up, "Smiley's People," is also essential), which, if you have made it this far into reading about film adaptations of le Carré novels, you must immediately watch. Later in the week are John Boorman's excellent The Tailor of Panama and The Little Drummer Girl, starring Diane Keaton and Klaus Kinski.
But two of the least-known films in the series, The Looking Glass War and The Deadly Affair, are perhaps the most enjoyable and surprising of the bunch. Largely forgotten, they are both, in their own ways, wonderfully evocative of the Cold War era, and while stylistically and narratively they couldn't be more different, they share some of le Carré's most essential enduring themes. And of course, nearly everyone gets screwed over.
The Looking Glass War, taken from le Carré's fourth novel, follows a young Polish defector, Leiser (Christopher Jones), enrolled as a spy almost by accident, as he attempts to tackle a near-impossible mission in East Germany. His handler, John Avery, played by a young Anthony Hopkins, wrestles with the ethics of the mission and wonders if his superiors are merely replaying their glory years from World War II, and in the process playing Leiser like an insignificant pawn in a pointless game.
The look of the film, released in 1969, is at turns mod and sparse (as in the strange gray holding cell where we first meet Leiser) or cluttered with the detritus of the century (particularly in an extended pub scene, which crescendos with some old men braying about their wartime glories as Leiser and Avery get sloshed). Once Leiser crosses the border and enters The East, the mood and visual feel of the film shifts, as endless wheat fields unroll and he makes his way cross-country toward the target of his mission. In a stunning scene a huge gang of white-clad bicyclists passes him along the road; it's at once whimsical and menacing. Leiser ends up meeting a beautiful girl who helps him on his way, but it becomes clear very quickly that the Germans had been onto Leiser virtually from the beginning.
Meanwhile Avery is bedeviled by the smug self-assurance of his out-of-touch superiors (one of whom is played with truly delightful and malicious obliviousnes by Ralph Richardson) and argues with his wife (Anna Massey), who despairs of his secrets and gets drunk while he broods about the Heavy Matters of Men. What Avery learns once out in the field, working his agent, is that the old-timers running the show are woefully out of practice, their methods crude and dangerous, and that the real forces at work (an American shows up near the end, disbelieving the shoddiness of the whole operation, while we watch the East Germans patiently, calmly springing their trap on Leiser) are both more sophisticated and more impassively brutal than he'd imagined. Writer-director Frank Pierson (who wrote Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon, and as recently as last year penned an episode of "Mad Men") makes Leiser's disastrous mission somehow still seem important, and makes Avery's disillusionment palpable.
Filmed three years earlier, amid the first bloom of film interest in le Carré's work, Sidney Lumet's The Deadly Affair couldn't use the character name of George Smiley since Paramount had bought rights to the name when it made The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (both were adapted by writer Paul Dehn) the year before. So we have Charles Dobbs. The Richard Burton-helmed Spy, directed by Martin Ritt (and playing Tuesday), is justifiably more well-known, but while it focuses on another spy bullied into action (in that case by a decidedly callous version of George Smiley), Affair tracks the search for traitors on friendly ground, and a defeated, depressed spy at its center.
Based on the novel Call For The Dead, the film's name was changed on account of an added subplot where Dobbs, played with wounded intensity by James Mason, must reckon with his wife Ann's perpetual cheating. The troubled relationship between Smiley and Ann is a pivotal element in le Carré's later novels involving Smiley (her pronounced absence, and his longing for her, figure prominently in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and here the subplot (not present in the novel) is devastating, and totally fits. In a way, Dobbs is something like a version of Smiley crossed with Philip Marlowe, wounded, beat-up, but still running down the case, even if he's not even officially on the case; and of course, despite the proximiity of a beautiful woman (Ann is played by Bergman ingenue Harriet Andersson), he is tragically alone.
The movie starts in rather abruptly as Dobbs is questioning an intelligence officer up for promotion on his communist student days. Dobbs is satisfied that those days are long past and that the interview was taken well, but the following day the officer turns up dead, an apparent suicide. Dobbs isn't convinced, and after he speaks with the man's widow, a Holocaust survivor (played with intensity by the great Simone Signoret) who blames the government for his death, he slowly begins to uncover what seems like a much more vast conspiracy. Fed up with his superiors, who would rather sweep the incident under the rug, Dobbs quits his job but continues his investigations, aided by a gruff retired policeman, Mendel (a character who recurs in le Carré's other Smiley novels) and a young intelligence man, Peter Guillam (another recurring character). He eventually discovers that the widow is not what she seems; that his wife's latest affair is with Dieter Frey (Maximilian Schell), an old agent of his from the war, his protégé; that Mendel responds, as any good cop would, only to facts; and that the conspiracy circles back to his very home.
There is so much to love about this movie, (not least of all its soundtrack by Quincy Jones and its recurring theme song, "Who Needs Forever," sung by Astrud Gilberto) but chief among its charms has to be Mason, who plays Dobbs as one of the most deeply sad and wounded characters in all of the films inspired by le Carré, who rarely renders a spy without some terrible secret, debilitating addiction, or wayward family story. The look of the film is also stunning: cinematographer Freddie Young developed a process of pre-exposing his film to mute the color just for this production; the results are a London not of cherry-red double-deckers and popping color but a London that looks like London, where the gray skies, the fog, and the wet often seem to strip away layers of color from the world, and deepen its surfaces. Dobbs gets beaten, his wife abandons him, and several more people end up dead before he finally gets his man. And when he does, it's the single most painful event of the whole movie. Close to the end, Guillam tells Dobbs "they want you back," and he turns his back and walks away.
In le Carré's novels, the disheartened are often trying to turn away—from the Circus, from governments, from intrigues, from killers, from the world of pointless brutality and necessary injustice—but the real tragedy, of course, is that there's no such thing as turning away from all that.
The John le Carré series at BAM starts tonight and runs through Oct. 3.
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