Directors: John Irvin/Simon Langton
By Roderick Heath
The Cold War seems to be coming back into fashion as a storytelling subject. Twenty years after it ended, and following the fragmentary anxieties of the post 9/11 world, this time might be starting to look almost cosy in its firmly delineated conflicts and ideological boundaries, especially to anyone not old enough to remember the low-key aura of terror I readily recall from watching politicians of the era bicker with the stakes of nuclear war in play. In any event, with the popularity of sheer entertainments like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and the hilarious Salt (2009), as well as the more substantial, like Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd (2005), Florian von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006), and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days (2007), the Cold War milieu seems to be reviving as a popular cinematic topic. The fact that Tomas Alfredson, director of Let The Right One In (2008), is currently making a feature adaptation of John Le Carré’s hit 1976 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, bears out this new legitimacy. Of course, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a dense, intelligent, witty, gripping tome, is the sort of material that is worth making a movie of in any era. For anyone who’s seen the first adaptation of the book, the lengthy BBC-TV miniseries featuring Alec Guinness as Le Carré’s protagonist George Smiley, the first question that leaps to mind is, nonetheless, “Why bother?”
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and some other Le Carré adaptations, stand alongside the likes of Dr. Strangelove (1964) amongst the relatively few Cold War artefacts that have retained relevance, because they’re as much about something malignant lodged deeply in the modern psyche as they are about politics. “I’ve always felt that the security services are the only true expression of a nation’s character,” Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson) pronounces late in Tinker Tailor, and one could easily substitute the word “nation” for something broader in terms of the story’s enquiries. For Le Carré’s perspective on the post-WWII world is a coolly cynical one, one full of “half-devils versus half-angels,” as Connie Sachs (Beryl Reid), former MI6 info savant, describes them. Tinker Tailor and sequel Smiley’s People revolve around intricate detective stories that are blended on many levels with character studies, cryptic discernment and intellectual obscurity, and ironically realistic portraiture of geopolitics and the grubby heroes of espionage. Le Carré is the pseudonym of David John Moore Cornwell, who worked for MI6 in the late ’50s and early ’60s, in the period after the infamous Cambridge Five betrayals had left British intelligence reeling. Tinker Tailor was in very large part his sidelong account of that milieu.
“George Smiley, the Chelsea pensioner himself, god help us, fought every war since Thermopylae, hot, cold, and deep frozen!” is how Connie describes Le Carré’s favourite hero, who had evolved from a shadowy, unctuous-seeming functionary in his early novels (he was played by Rupert Davies in Martin Ritt’s strong film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, 1963, and by James Mason, though the character was renamed, in Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair, 1965) into a doggedly admirable, if still, when necessary, a chilly, expediency-favouring hero. Smiley’s own degradation and casting out of the fold of “The Circus,” as the headquarters of the service is known to the intelligence fraternity, proves to be the first act in the long odyssey by which he gains revenge on the traitors and enemy spymaster responsible for making much of his service a living hell of constantly watching agents being caught, tortured, and shot. At the outset of Tinker Tailor, Smiley’s boss, the emaciated, dying, reclusive “Control” (Alexander Knox), is desperate, convinced there’s a mole in the higher echelons of The Circus. He brings in one of his aging, but still stalwart reliables, Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen), to meet with a Czech general who supposedly can supply the name. But Jim is shot and captured, and Control, Smiley, and everyone else linked closely to them is either forcibly retired or exiled in unrewarding posts.
Six months later, George is fetched out of retirement by Peter Guillam (Michael Jayston), one of Smiley’s protégés who’s been stuck running “scalp-hunters”—low-rent agents who specialise in enticing defectors—at the behest of The Circus’s civil service overlord Oliver Lacon (Anthony Bate). Smiley overhears the tale of one of Guillam’s agents, Ricky Tarr (Hywel Bennett), who, on a nondescript mission in Portugal, had an affair with a female Russian agent named Irina (Susan Kodicek). She spoke to Tarr of the mole’s existence, but disappeared shortly thereafter. Lacon can only rely on Smiley to investigate now. With Guillam’s help, Smiley studies the new ruling cabal at The Circus: the new boss, pompous poltroon Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge); quirky but dynamic Circus hero Bill Haydon; dour, working-class Roy Bland (Terence Rigby); and Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton), a fishy Hungarian playing the perfect English gentleman. That quartet were ennobled by fostering the supposedly astounding Russian mole “Merlin,” whose flow of information, dubbed “Witchcraft,” seems to have put The Circus back onto an even footing with the CIA. Control had dismissed this source as too good to be true, and Smiley, working on that theory, begins to ever-so-carefully unravel the chain of events around Prideaux’s capture, and through that, discern the mole’s identity.
All these ins and outs could be mistaken for the operations of cyborgs engaged in some kind of arcane game if it weren’t for the ever-elusive human factor, the way personal weakness, so theoretically unpredictable and yet so often exactly predictable, can infect any enterprise. For the spymasters of both sides, their webs are extensions of their personalities. These men’s whole lives have become entwined with their work, to the extent that George’s wife was seduced by a traitor. For the English side, The Circus is a functioning asylum for outdated Empire men, Etonian losers, colonial riff-raff, and uprooted Eurotrash. They exist to be easily shot full of holes by any passing fanatic. The monkish czar of the KGB, known only as Karla (played in tantalizing, wordless snippets by Patrick Stewart), gains great menace and power from his position in a totalitarian system, but is eventually rendered lost and desperate within that system by his one, human lapse. If George is the hero, and Karla the villain, it only comes out in the fine details; George merely split with his wife, where Karla sent his to the Gulag. Amongst these paranoid, professionally existential, often borderline disreputable people who become spies, sex and money are eternal currencies, whilst the most successful and powerful are those who largely avoid these temptations. In this, the enigmatic Smiley and his great nemesis Karla seem to stand ahead of the pack, and the battle between them is enacted not only in institutions but in the bedroom. Smiley has to contend constantly with the open secret that his estranged wife Ann (Sian Phillips) had an affair with Bill Haydon, and Haydon’s own omnivorous appetites also long ago included Prideaux as his partner in both business and pleasure. In between them are people with a kaleidoscopic range of grubby rendezvous and amusing foibles. Ricky Tarr, a kind of extremely low-rent James Bond wannabe, plays the noble romantic with Irina, but he’s actually a seedy bigamist who only accidentally helps Smiley through a ruse involving one of his wives he has a kid with.
There’s a moment about 45 minutes into Tinker Tailor when George polishes his glasses and slides them on as he asks a pointed question of Tarr, the timbre of his voice and the set of his face changed subtly yet entirely, providing one of Guinness’s most sublime bits of acting in his career: it’s Smiley’s equivalent of girding himself for battle, and the Cold Warrior lurking within his nondescript shell reveals itself with bracing clarity. Smiley, aging, determinedly anonymous, and old-school in his black mackintosh and homburg—the image of a bland civil servant—is the most unlikely of spy heroes, and it’s precisely this that makes him so interesting. He’s a bottomless well of both his own and other peoples’ secrets, and his own discursive, politely dissembling style only occasionally slips. Whilst Ann is the commonly known adulterer in their marriage, what Smiley’s befuddled detachment cost them both in that regard is ambiguous. A genius as a user of people, he’s almost a total dud as a social being, a quality that makes him all the better a spy. People tend to project their own anxieties and wants onto his becalmed exterior: for some, his visits are the god-sent appearances of a guardian angel, and for others, the calls of the grim reaper. Whereas the motivations of others are clear enough, for example, Guillam, who wants to uncover the mole who certainly cost the lives of many of his agents, Smiley seems both more mechanical and yet also deeper.
Le Carré’s stories are often cited as the antiseptic, realistic ripostes to the fantasies of James Bond, and that’s fair enough, though it’s a bit unfair to the surprising terseness of some of Ian Fleming’s writing and also a bit reductive to Le Carré’s talents and the texture of these adaptations. They’re shot through with the cool, yet empathetic cynicism and the utterly parched humour and irony of Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and Somerset Maugham, writers who surely influenced Le Carré, and the blend of the mundane and the surreally intense is quite Hitchcockian. Lacon’s name gives a tip of the hat to the laconic humour that’s prevalent throughout. One of the more specific beauties of Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People is that they’re in no hurry whatsoever. That’s usually a put-down, but the gravitas and moodiness of the stories, as well as their hypnotic outlay of detail great and small, demands rigidly controlled pacing. This is perfectly suited to television’s procedural intimacy, and also most effectively reveals the way Smiley’s method takes the smallest fragments of a puzzle, which would seem utterly opaque to others, and synthesises from them theories for which he then carefully accumulates evidence. Pattern and truth resolve from apparently bottomless murk, all mixed up with behaviour and personality, as well as political and social sensibility. Stylistically, the series are masterpieces of unyielding yet suggestive minimalism, right from their keenly illustrative opening title sequences—in Tinker Tailor, a set of Matryoshka dolls being stripped down to the last figure, which has no face; for Smiley’s People, shots of decaying paint on wood and an exploding piece of chalk redolent of the entwining macro and microcosmic forces at play.
Tinker Tailor, in particular, is also a situational study in group dynamics, the way certain cabals of personality types linked by aptitude as well as attitude can take over any workplace. The manipulations of the mole have been to promote the bullying, greedy, barely competent Alleline into the top job precisely because he’s not particularly good at anything but the appearance of competence, which is prized beyond all other things, whilst Smiley discerns clearly that the people who are best at their job have all been exiled because they were the ones most able to discern the real problems. The fact that Haydon, the most likeable, colourful, and impudent of The Circus proves to be the mole, is the cruelest stroke for all concerned, and yet there’s something inevitable about it. The first time I watched Tinker Tailor, I said aloud within the first two minutes that Haydon, thanks to his ineffably cute entrance with a cup of tea, had to be a traitor, and five hours later I found I was right.
There’s also a complex web of both amity and hatred that can transcend nominal boundaries to be unravelled. Smiley’s relationship with Karla proves perhaps to have more genuine intimacy than he has with anyone in his immediate life, and the affection that can develop between enemies often proves more durable than that between the members of The Circus. Amongst the people feeding off the intelligence services, pimps and blackmailers sometimes prove to have deeper morals and more immediate motives, for example, Otto “The Magician” Leipzig (Vladek Sheybal) and his bordello-managing partner Claus Kretzschmar (Mario Adorf) in Smiley’s People, than the higher-class opportunists running them. “Smiley’s people” is more than just a work group: it’s almost a metaphor for people who are capable of doing their jobs with the minimum of balderdash, and part of the background drama and satire of the two series is generational change, from the aging, slightly clapped-out, yet deeply professional WWII generation Smiley represents, to bombastic neocons like Alleline (whose backers, Smiley says, were “golfers and Conservatives”) and to an abrasively lower-class, brassier breed represented in Smiley’s People by new Circus chief Saul Enderby (Barry Foster) and his underling Strickland (Bill Patterson). Connie refers nostalgically to “her boys, her lovely boys” in speaking of the sexy, nostalgic allure of what had been a lustre that’s long since been buffed off The Circus and everything involved with the Cold War. Haydon’s motives for turning traitor seem inextricably bound up with his own disappointment at Britain’s shrinking place in world affairs and his sense of being cheated of being a potential master of the universe.
If Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has a kind of Grecian concision to the way its pieces fit together, Smiley’s People is a bit more the blockbuster, a longer, more sprawling work. Whereas Tinker Tailor was transcribed by Arthur Hopcraft, Le Carré cowrote the teleplay of Smiley’s People, and if it lacks the mordant symmetry of its predecessor, more of Le Carré’s deftly funny and revealing vignettes, and supple emotional punches, slip through. At the end of Tinker Tailor, Smiley is essentially in charge of The Circus, left to rebuild the organisation almost from scratch. (The middle chapter of the trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy, wasn’t filmed because of its potentially costly Hong Kong setting). This time around, the path is even more torturous, from a seemingly random series of events to a career reckoning for Smiley, who has again retired after handing over The Circus to new blood. Madame Ostrakova (Eileen Atkins), a Russian exile living in Paris, is visited by slimy Soviet bullyboy Oleg Kirov (Dudley Sutton, best known for his contribution as the chief witch-hunter to Ken Russell’s The Devils) and offered the chance to have the daughter she left behind in Russia sent to live with her. Ostrakova realises that the girl in the photos Kirov hands her can’t be her daughter, and so contacts the émigré organization run by the once-fearsome, but now aged Estonian General (Curd Jürgens, in his last ever role). The General contacts Leipzig, and what Leipzig digs up gets both him and The General murdered. Smiley is called in again by Lacon, who’s sliding into something of a featherheaded mid-life crisis after his own wife has left him, because the General had demanded Smiley act as his go-between with The Circus.
Lacon expects it to prove a cash grab by some has-beens, but Smiley hates the way the General, a rigid and brave former warrior, was patronised in the new atmosphere. Digging into his final actions, Smiley uncovers what Leipzig gave the General: a photo negative showing Leipzig and Kirov together in bed together with prostitutes, a proof that could destroy Kirov and, more importantly, recalls to Smiley a long-buried titbit of gossip that Karla had been using Kirov years before to find ripe candidates to palm the same female impostor onto. This lady proves to be Karla’s own schizophrenic daughter, Tatiana (Tusse Silberg), the inevitably psychologically shattered offspring of the Machiavellian genius and a partisan heroine he had executed when she went “soft on the Revolution.” Knowing very well that her disease can’t be treated properly in the USSR, Karla has her in a clinic in Switzerland, and wants to secure her as a Western citizen. With differing levels and brands of help of Esterhase, Guillam, Connie, and outsiders like Ostrakova and Kretzschmar, Smiley uncovers this secret. When he ensnares the hapless former economic professor and diplomat Grigoriev (Michael Lonsdale) Karla uses to keep an eye on his daughter and pay for her treatment, Smiley finally has everything he needs to force Karla into defecting.
The change in tone from Tinker Tailor is minor but distinct, and readily observable in Smiley, who, in operating as a “rogue elephant” with barely any official brief, determines to be less delicate and veiled in his efforts and attitudes. That resolve proves occasionally brutal in his desire to be surgical, as when he forcibly reminds Hilary (Norma West), a burnt-out former Circus agent who’s now Connie’s business and romantic partner, of how the laws of The Circus still bind her. Everyone wants him to go away and let them forget the still-binding parts they played in the Cold War and its still living legacy, but his fresh force of purpose (“I’ve been sleepwalking. I’ve woken up!” he declares to Connie) prods him into newly heroic territory. Smiley ventures into the no man’s land between East and West Germany where Leipzig lives, finds his battered corpse, and has to contend with Gypsy louts who suggest some waiting species of barbarian waiting to inherit the earth in one of its greyest zones. Smiley then returns to rescue Ostrakova from her Parisian apartment where she’s been besieged as Karla’s agent assassins, calling in the aid of Guillam (played this time by the equally good, if less appropriately steely, Michael Byrne), who’s been given the cushy post of head of the Parisian office. There’s a lovely moment when George goes to sleep on Guillam’s couch, and Guillam lays a blanket over the taciturn, yet very human old warrior.
Such terrific little touches dot both series, from the many, many choice bits of dialogue to the revealing peccadilloes that constantly show up characters’ pretensions. Amongst my favourites in Tinker Tailor are when Smiley goes to visit Prideuax, who, still recovering from bullet wounds and torture and working as a private school teacher, warns Smiley, “If you’re not alone, I’ll break your neck!” and other moments that depict Prideaux’s hero-worship by Roach, a schoolboy who’s a budding Smiley. In Smiley’s People there’s a particularly funny moment in which some sympathetic operatives who are try to coerce Grigoriev applaud him when he stands up to his obnoxious wife over the phone. Smiley’s visit to Kretzschmar’s “nightclub,” wiping the steam off his glasses in waiting through several live sex acts, is likewise hilarious in its incongruity. The climax of Tinker Tailor is not action pizzazz—though the sequence in which Smiley and Guillam smoke out the mole is suspense-mongering at its most efficient—but Smiley’s interview with an emotionally shattered, imprisoned Haydon. Richardson’s acting in the scene is some of the most perfectly judged I’ve ever seen, and remarkable even amongst a cast that is an embarrassment of riches, from the fitting career caps for Jürgens and Knox, to small roles, including Michael Gough and Ingrid Pitt as the General’s dowdy employees, and Alan Rickman as a hotel clerk, years before he would appear in a feature film. Reid, as Connie, makes the most of her character’s plumy wit, and Atkins as Ostrakova is especially good when upon receiving bad news from Smiley, absorbs it in a slight pause and gets on with her life. Weak points in the cast tend to stand out a mile, like Paul Herzberg’s overly fruity accent as the General’s young go-between in Smiley’s People.
It’s Guinness who had the biggest, hardest job, a couple of years after Star Wars had made him both exponentially more famous and rich than he had been before. Guinness reportedly fretted anxiously about his performance even whilst filming the second series. That’s not so surprising, in spite of what ought to have been Guinness’s unshakable professional confidence by that stage, because what Smiley is thinking, and even what he means when he’s speaking, is so often barely apparent and yet detectable on the finest frequencies, and Guinness’s unswerving dedication to realizing Smiley in such a fashion was a sustained challenge. The scene of Smiley’s final exchange with Haydon is especially refined work, his boiling yet rigidly controlled anger only apparent in slight fumbling and over-large gestures, and the care with which he gets Haydon to give back his pen, in pointed contrast to how he let Karla, who he respected, keep the cigarette lighter that was Smiley’s gift from Ann. Tinker Tailor’s director, John Irvin, went on to an initially interesting cinematic career, adapting Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War (1984) with a similar necessary feel for minutiae to balance the action, and the underrated, no-nonsense war film Hamburger Hill (1987). Smiley’s People helmsman Simon Langton, on the other hand, stuck mostly to TV work, turning in a very different kind of cult hit with the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that made Colin Firth a star. The emotional charge of the final sequences of Smiley’s People isn’t small, and yet Le Carré’s deeply ambivalent tone is retained. Even as George finally brings his nemesis to heel and theoretically avenges so much loss, the two old and haggard men only glare at each other, the ghost of Tatiana, emblem and offspring of their way of life, as an hysterical, dissociative mess, haunts them both, and Smiley’s lighter, dropped by Karla on the ground, remains there. It’s no victory he’s gained, only an end. Both he and Karla are ultimately two old men lost in no man’s land. The cumulative result is television at its greatest.