Archive for December, 2020

In from the Cold

Just when you thought—AGAIN—that this year couldn’t get any worse, John le Carré is dead of pneumonia at 89, having been a huge part of my life for 40 years.

More often than not, when I fall in love with an author’s work, our relationship begins via the screen, and le Carré (aka David John Moore Cornwell) was no exception.  I was just starting my senior year in high school in 1980 when the 1979 BBC miniseries adapted by Arthur Hopcraft from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974, hereinafter TTSS), and starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, debuted on PBS here in the U.S.  I’m sure I was at least dimly aware of le Carré and his breakthrough third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963, hereinafter TSWCIFTC), although I can’t recall if I’d yet seen Martin Ritt’s 1965 film; doubtless Guinness’s face plastered all over the ads was all I needed to get me to tune in…and the rest was history.

Details are unsurprisingly hazy after four decades, but I do recall very specifically that the miniseries and, by extension, le Carré’s work were a big thing for my then-girlfriend (soon supplanted, officially as of our first date on Valentine’s Day 1981, by the future Madame BOF) and me.  We speculated endlessly on the identity of Gerald, the mole inside British intelligence, aka The Circus; Smiley’s People (1979), the concluding volume in the Karla Trilogy after The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), had only recently been published, and as soon as we could do so safely without spoiling the end of TTSS, we devoured the books as well.  That shared interest and enthusiasm is actually one of the happiest memories associated with the last of my (few) “Dreaded Ex-Girlfriends.”

From the first moment, with the Russian nesting-doll images and Geoffrey Burgon’s at once mournful and sinister score for its title sequence, you knew you were in for something special, and to this day, TTSS remains one of my favorite adaptations of anything, by anyone, anywhere, ever.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen it, especially after its long-overdue DVD release replaced my aging VHS recording, yet despite repeated viewings, a running time of almost five hours, and knowing the ending in advance, I never find a frame of it less than riveting.  Guinness’s perfection is attested to by the fact that le Carré later said he couldn’t think of Smiley without seeing the actor in his head; most of the rest of the cast was new to me, although I was probably rare among U.S. viewers in saying, “Hey, look—it’s Ian Bannen!”

One of my many peculiarities is that as much as I may love an author’s work, I frequently pledge my allegiance to a specific character and go no further; the classic example is Agatha Christie, all of whose Hercule Poirot books I have, but nothing else except the ubiquitous Ten Little Indians (1939).  So with le Carré, I have yet to read anything outside the Smiley canon, and still haven’t gotten around to the post-Karla books that include Smiley and/or are set in the same “universe,” i.e., The Russia House (1989), The Secret Pilgrim (1990), The Night Manager (1993), and A Legacy of Spies (2017); even Smiley’s literary career path is fascinating, oscillating as he did between center stage and supporting roles over the decades.  Herewith a BOF-centric look at the le Carré oeuvre

  • Call for the Dead (1961):  Smiley is front and center in his debut, a straight-up espionage yarn that planted many of the seeds harvested in TSWCIFTC.  It was adapted by Goldfinger (1964) alumnus Paul Dehn and the great Sidney Lumet—reunited on the sublime 1974 version of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934)—as The Deadly Affair (1967), with James Mason as “Charles Dobbs.”  I wasn’t wowed by that one on my single viewing decades ago, but with that pedigree, it’s obviously ripe for reappraisal.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962):  Smiley still stars, but this—as its title suggests—is more of a murder mystery.  It was made into a 1991 British TV-movie with Denholm Elliott, which I’m pretty sure I saw but would also like to revisit.
  • TSWCIFTC:  This novel’s indirect influence on my life is incalculable, for when my future friend and idol Elleston Trevor decided, like le Carré, to create a spy who was in many ways the antithesis of James Bond—as he did under his Adam Hall pseudonym in The Quiller Memorandum (1965)—he was inspired not by reading the actual book, which I believe he never did, but by a review of it.  Wow.  Typically, I know the film version better; also co-written by Dehn, with Guy Trosper, it epitomizes the always talented and impressively diverse directorial career of Martin Ritt.  Despite its shattering ending, I consider it perhaps the definitive Cold War movie, with a superb Richard Burton heading a cast that includes Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner, Cyril Cusack, Peter van Eyck, Michael Hordern, Bernard (M) Lee, and Rupert Davies as Smiley, a supporting character.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965):  Smiley is once again marginalized in the novel, and dropped entirely from the 1970 screen version; this time, however, the whopping downer of an ending did put me off the story in both incarnations.
  • TTSS:  One of my favorite novels.  Besotted as I am with the miniseries, I was convinced when I learned it would be remade as a 2011 film that, Gary Oldman or no Gary Oldman, they could never justice to it in a feature’s running time.  While I naturally prefer the original, I’m delighted to admit I was wrong; it’s excellent.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy:  I have mixed feelings about the fact that when trying to bring the Karla Trilogy to the screen, the BBC skipped this one completely and went straight to Smiley’s People.  On the one hand, that naturally offends me on general principle.  On the other hand, it’s a difficult and downbeat book and, more to the point, actually can be removed from the overall storyline without leaving much of a ripple in a way that, say, The Two Towers never could.  Certainly as played (admittedly well) by Joss Ackland in TTSS, protagonist Jerry Westerby would have left something to be desired as a leading man.  Maybe someday.
  • Smiley’s People:  The follow-up miniseries is almost as good as TTSS, and that’s saying a lot; this time, le Carré himself shares screenwriting credit with another Bond veteran, John Hopkins of Thunderball (1965).  With few exceptions—most regrettably the loss of Michael Jayston (coincidentally the small screen’s elusive Quiller), replaced by the otherwise inoffensive Michael Byrne as Peter Guillam—the cast returns, with such welcome new additions as genre veterans Michael Gough and Ingrid Pitt.  New composer Patrick Gowers is equally up to snuff.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983):  Never read this non-Smiley novel (and, to be blunt, perhaps never will), but did see, was underwhelmed by, and have largely forgotten George Roy Hill’s depressing 1984 feature version with Diane Keaton.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986):  Also never read this non-Smiley semi-autobiographical novel (and, to be blunt, perhaps never will), but did see the 1987 miniseries, which introduced me—as the protagonist’s tale-spinning father—to Ray McAnally, later seen in The Mission (1986) and another of my favorite spy films, the 1987 adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s The Fourth Protocol (1984).
  • The Russia House:  Saw, and have completely forgotten, Fred Schepisi’s 1990 adaptation of this as-yet-unread novel, starring the late, lamented Sean Connery.
  • The Tailor of Panama (1986):  This is one non-Smiley novel for which I’ll make an exception, given not only how much I loved John Boorman’s 2001 adaptation (with Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush, and Jamie Lee Curtis), but also because it’s his take on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (1958), filmed with Guinness in 1959 by Carol Reed and Greene, makers of the classic The Third Man (1949).
  • The Constant Gardener (2001):  Saw and admired the 2005 screen version with Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, but didn’t go nuts over it the way my daughter did, and quite frankly may or may not get around to reading the novel.  We’ll see.
  • A Legacy of Spies:  I’ll never forget where I was when I learned of the existence of this book, both a prequel and sequel to TSWCIFTC, which finally puts Smiley back in the spotlight.  I was with my mother and Madame BOF at “The Shack,” the Bradley family’s humble vacation home in God’s Country North (i.e., Vermont), and chanced to look at Mom’s copy of The New York Times Book Review, which I normally never see.  There I saw a huge ad touting Smiley’s return, and let out a whoop that was probably heard all the way down in God’s Country proper (i.e., Connecticut).  Of course, grindingly methodical as I am, I still have to find time to get through the three intervening books before I get to this, but hopefully I still have a few years left in me.

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