New Spy DVDs Out This Week: Smiley Classics
Today sees the reissue (timed to coincide with Tomas Alfredson's eagerly-anticipated theatrical remake due in U.S. theaters this December) of two absolute classics of spy television, the John Le Carré adaptations Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) and Smiley's People (1982). Both star the incomparable Alec Guinness as George Smiley, the unassuming spymaster who can ferret out moles at the highest level of British Intelligence and match wits with the Soviets' most devious minds, but can't keep a diet or hold together his marriage. Smiley is one of the all-time great characters in spy fiction—brilliant and at times even ruthless, but very human and deeply flawed—and Guinness brings him to life perfectly, disappearing completely into the part.
These two superb British miniseries are adaptations of the first and third novels in Le Carré's so-called "Karla Trilogy," chronicling Smiley's ongoing battle with his Russian counterpart, Karla, who's played (fleetingly) by Patrick Stewart. (The second book in the trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy, was reportedly not filmed because the Beeb couldn't afford its Far Eastern locations. That's a shame, because it's an excellent novel.) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is probably my favorite spy novel of all time. It's an utterly perfect book, a complex detective story set in the shadowy, shabby world of spies and populated with a cast of extremely rich, unforgettable characters. The miniseries does a remarkable job overall of translating all the novel's twists and turns to the screen and the characters are brought to life by an equally memorable troupe of actors including Ian Bannen (The MacKintosh Man, The Offence), Ian Richardson (Blunt, Murder Rooms), Bernard Hepton (The Contract, The Holcroft Covenant), Hywel Bennett (Percy), Michael Jayston (Quiller, Foyle's War), Anthony Bate (Philby, Burgess and Maclean, Game, Set and Match) and young Duncan Jones (also known as Zowie Bowie, son of David, and future director of Moon and Source Code).
Smiley's People is another fantastic novel and the perfect capper to the trilogy—and, more importantly, even more fertile material for television. It's a pacier story that sees Desk Man Smiley thrust back into the field at an advanced age, unwinding a deviously complicated spy plot that starts with a murder in Hampstead Heath and ends in Moscow, with the elusive Karla. The thrilling puzzle unfolds all across Europe, from London to Paris to Switzerland and beyond, and introduces us to a new assortment of perfectly-drawn characters who dwell in the shadow world of Cold War tensions, as well as welcome familiar faces from the first miniseries. Newcomers include many spy genre veterans, like Vladek Sheybal (From Russia With Love, Casino Royale), Eileen Atkins (The Avengers), Michael Byrne (Saracen, Tomorrow Never Dies), Curd Jürgens (The Spy Who Loved Me, OSS 117: Murder For Sale), Michael Lonsdale (Moonraker, Day of the Jackal), Andy Bradford (Octopussy), Michael Gough (The Avengers, The Saint), Ingrid Pitt (Jason King, The Adventurer), and even Ian Fleming's niece, Lucy Fleming (Cold Warrior, The Avengers) as Molly Meakin! A young Alan Rickman also shows up, in a part as brief as Patrick Stewart's.
Acorn's reissues are repackaged in slimmer cases (flippers the width of a single DVD), which is always welcome when you have a large collection, but the discs themselves are exactly the same as the company's previous Region 1 releases. On the plus side, that means they have the same extras (exclusive interviews with Le Carré on both titles); on the minus side (and it's a considerable minus), that also means that they are the American versions of the shows. Both miniseries were cut for U.S. broadcast. Tinker, Tailor was actually re-edited from seven episodes into six; Smiley's People merely had each of its six parts shortened. Surprisingly, the effects of the cutting aren't as bad as you would think. The American versions of these shows are still first-rate television, and they work. You don't really realize that you're missing anything. But if you have access to a multi-region DVD player, you still might want to consider importing the Region 2 DVDs to have the complete versions. (They're remarkably cheap, too.) If you don't have all-region capabilities, go ahead and get the Acorn DVDs. Whichever version you see, it's bound to be classic spy television of the most essential variety. Acorn's DVDs retail for $49.99 apiece (a reduction from the old MSRP), but can both be found much cheaper than that on Amazon.