Dec 25, 2011

Merry Christmas From the Double O Section!

H0 H0 HO7! Here's wishing all my readers a happy holiday, no matter which one you celebrate, filed with Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Man, dry eggnog martinis, and lots of spy gifts under the tree. I also hope you're able to tune in to the EPIX all-day James Bond marathon for at least a brief taste of 007, and if you're especially lucky, maybe able to make it out to a theater tonight to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. I'm traveling for the holidays, myself, and on a somewhat hectic schedule. (Hectic enough to be behind on reviews during a spy-filled movie season and to have missed my annual gift guide altogether this year, for which I'm sorry.) Since I didn't have time to think up a clever new Christmas post for 2011, instead I'll direct you to my 2006 Christmas post, from my very first year blogging, which offers some evergreen suggestions for holiday-themed spy viewing. And on top of that, I'll reprint this episode review from the Scarecrow and Mrs. King holiday episode “The Long Christmas Eve,” excerpted from my full review of that show's first season:

“The Long Christmas Eve” finds Amanda (Kate Jackson) trying out her homespun housewife wisdom on the KGB as well as the Agency, and her speech about the holiday spirit gets CIA and KGB agents to spend Christmas Eve together in a remote cabin in the woods and call a truce from trying to kill each other. Good thing, too, because WWIII seems about to break out with a whole unit of Russian soldiers on U.S. attacking American agents! Scarecrow's (Bruce Boxleitner) reaction to waking up to find Amanda serving hot chocolate to his enemy is priceless. This episode also gets points for another moment of Avengers-like weirdness when an assassin dressed in a Santa suit blows up a phone booth.

Happy Christmas to all!

Dec 20, 2011

Acorn's Man in a Suitcase: Set 2 to Include Richard Bradford Interview

Great news for American ITC fans! Acorn's previously announced second set of Man in a Suitcase will include a very big bonus feature: the 69-minute interview with star Richard Bradford that first appeared on Network's Region 2 DVD release (but was not found on the Region 4 Umbrella set). Bradford, who played the cool-as-ice burned spy turned private eye McGill in the 1967-68 series, was a perfectionist and a Method actor, which brought him into conflict with some members of the cast and crew and earned him a reputation for being "difficult." In this surprisingly candid interview from 2004, he speaks frankly and openly about those on-set clashes, as well as discussing his early days studying at Lee Strasberg's famous Actors Studio, working with his friend and fellow Method actor Marlon Brando, and more. If for some reason you needed further encouragement to buy the second and final collection of this top-notch Sixties spy show, this is it!

Read my review of Acorn's Man in a Suitcase: Set 1 here.

Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Part 2 of an ongoing series, "The Smiley Files," examining the career of George Smiley in literature and film. Read my introduction to Smiley here.

Tomas Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan have done the impossible: they’ve boiled down John le Carré’s complex, nuanced, and epic 400-page novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy into a sleek feature film running just over two hours that still manages to retain the nuance and most of the complexity of the book. And, amazingly, they’ve done it in such a way that it moves at a brisk enough clip to never feel slow, but still allows the story enough breathing room that it never seems rushed, either. On top of all that, through some sort of unknowable alchemy, they’ve managed to retain all the most important plot points and nearly all the characters from the dense novel! Le Carré compared the process to turning a cow into an Oxo (bouillon) cube. The cube I'd compare this film to is a small box that somehow manages to hold an astounding amount of stuff inside. A box that, once unpacked, you can’t fathom how it possibly contained all those individual items, and you’re fairly sure you could never re-pack it so economically. That must have been what the process felt like for the writers and director. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, quite simply, a master class in the art of successfully adapting one medium to another.

Additionally, placed for comparison next to the 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation of the same material (as its makers must have known it inevitably would be), the new version serves as an example of how the same material can be faithfully—and successfully—adapted in very different ways. John Irvin’s 7-hour miniseries, penned by Arthur Hopcraft, meticulously reproduced the novel almost chapter for chapter. Scenes in the miniseries played out almost exactly how they did in the book, yet it still managed to leave out enough things to distress die-hard fans of the novel, or to devote too little time to scenes that this reader thought should have been drawn-out, Hitchcockian setpieces (like Peter Guillam’s illicit retrieval of a secret file from the Circus library). The new film takes the opposite approach. The adapters alter almost every scene, some drastically, and restructure the entire plot so that it unfolds in a completely different (generally more chronological) order... yet still manage to retain the essence of the novel in, I would say, an even purer form. This time, there were no scenes from the novel whose absence I seriously lamented, and Alfredson highlighted every moment I wanted to see highlighted—including Guillam’s sneaky file snatch.

In a nutshell, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the story of a mole hunt in 1970s British Intelligence, an organization known colloquially to its lifelong employees as “the Circus.” A new regime takes over following a disastrous mission in Budapest (Czechoslovakia in the book) that results in the disgraceful ouster of the Service’s longtime chief, known only as Control (John Hurt, The Osterman Weekend), and his paladin George Smiley (Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight). The new chief is scowling Scotsman Percy Alleline (Toby Jones, Captain America) and his trusted lieutenants are Toby Esterhase (David Dencik, both versions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth, Another Country) and Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds, Munich). When an errant “scalphunter” (slang for an itinerant field man who’s sent to do dirty work in trouble spots) named Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy, Inception) contacts the Circus’s cabinet overseer, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney, Body of Lies) claiming to have evidence that one of these top men is a Soviet agent, Lacon hauls Smiley out of retirement to investigate Tarr’s claims. With the aid of scalphunter boss Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock), Smiley unravels an exceptionally cunning and devious, multi-layered plot orchestrated by his unseen opposite number in Moscow Center, the mysterious Karla. What he finds will not only take a terrible toll on the Circus itself, but also on Smiley’s personal life and wellbeing.

Smiley’s investigation consists largely of interviewing different people involved in the botched Budapest mission. While le Carré tends to have characters speak in circles around the most crucial facts in their story (leaving it to the deceptively sharp Smiley to pinpoint the pertinent details, or trap his interviewees into revealing them), the encounters in the movie are generally much more straightforward. And yet the overall plot is complex enough (yes, you will have to devote your full attention to this one) that the sheer number of stories and witnesses, and the mystery of their direct relation to the central question of the identity of the mole, adds up to the same air of practiced deception as the book, where nothing is quite as it seems because all of the characters have been trained to obscure facts by second nature, to cling to secrets—often without even realizing it. So that isn’t lost, and neither is Smiley’s impressive perception, since we witness it on a more macro level as he puts all the pieces together. (You barely even notice him assembling the larger pieces when reading the book, since you’re so engrossed in the smaller minutiae.)

In the movie, things happen differently, but really just more economically. Sure, as a fan of the novel (in fact I’d probably rate it as my favorite book ever), I miss Sam Collins (whose part is given to Jerry Westerby, another character from the novel) and Fawn (whose role is mostly rolled in with Mendel’s), and I really wish that Stephen Fry had had an opportunity to play Roddy Martindale (as far as I know that was never actually mooted; I just would have liked to see it!), but it’s fairly obvious to see why those small characters were cut. Impressively, the vast majority of the book’s very large cast do make it into the movie—even some you wouldn’t expect. There’s Roach, still keeping watch for his favorite teacher, and even former Special Branch detective Mendel’s bees make an appearance. Quite a lengthy one, in fact, which was unexpected but rewarding. When Smiley and Guillam collect Mendel (Roger Lloyd-Pack) to join their team, they all pile into a small car together along with one of the bees. Alfredson holds the wordless scene for a surprisingly long time, as the bee buzzes around the car’s interior, much to Guillem’s annoyance, before finally making its way out a window that Smiley cracks for it. That little moment may seem like an odd one to dwell in, but it’s representative of how Alfredson lets his film breathe even with so much material to pack into a relatively short running time. The buzzing bee provides not only a moment of levity, but also nicely physicalizes the tension of the situation. There are plenty such moments in Alfredson’s film.

Other new scenes added just for the film serve similar purposes. We’re now treated to flashbacks of a Circus Christmas party, for example, which not only provides further moments of humor (many courtesy of John Hurt, whose Control gets nearly as riled up by the weakness of the punch as he does later about the traitor in his organization), but also ably stands in by itself for dozens of other flashbacks in the book which establish the key relationships between all the main players in happier times. Additionally, the Christmas party scene rewards die hard spy fans with a cameo from le Carré himself and, remarkably, a musical reference to a very obscure Eurospy film! I honestly never, ever thought I’d see George Smiley and Bill Haydon and Connie Sachs and Control singing boisterously along with Sammy Davis Jr.’s tongue-in-cheek theme song from Lindsay Shonteff’s The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World! (Writer Straughan revealed at a Q&A following the screening I attended that the idea for a Circus Christmas party came from le Carré’s recollections of real MI5 office Christmas parties that got out of hand.)

Alfredson and his team meticulously recreate Seventies London from its dire fashions and hair to the cars to the smoke-filled conference rooms of the ramshackle Circus headquarters. The movie never goes for obvious, beat-you-over-the-head Seventies pop culture shorthand, either (which is to say, we don’t see Smiley shuffling past a group of platform shoed Ziggy Stardust wannabes or see Guillam rocking a Brett Sinclair ascot—though he does kind of sport the real world equivalent), but instead focuses on the every day mundanity of the era. Alfredson’s Seventies isn’t the Seventies we see on ITC shows of the era, which were desperate to celebrate their times with the most outrageous fashions and furniture; it’s the Seventies of middle-aged civil servants who probably had zero awareness of any cultural shift going on around them as they focused on the geopolitical shifts instead, and worried about their under-heated offices or weak coffee.

The actors embody those middle-aged civil servants pretty uniformly perfectly. John Hurt makes the most of his limited scenes, capturing not only the intense paranoia and monomania of his character, but also imbuing Control with an irascible sense of humor not found in the books. Toby Jones also earns some good laughs (much needed, to relieve the overall tension—which is as palpable as the clouds of cigarette smoke that fill the Circus’s soundproof conference room) as Alleline. More than anyone else, he is le Carré’s character sprung to life from the pages of the book. Ciaran Hinds probably makes a wonderful Roy Bland, too, but it’s kind of hard to tell. It’s pretty clear that most of his scenes must have ended up on the cutting room floor, which is too bad. Colin Firth delivers his usual reliable performance as the sort of upper-class, Oxbridge Englishman he could no doubt play in his sleep, but adds a lecherous touch one might not expect of Mr. Darcy or that stuttering King. David Dencik offers a very different—but equally valid—interpretation of Hungarian “Lamplighter” Toby Esterhase (the Circus’s resident expert in spy tradecraft) from the miniseries’ Bernard Hepton. In an effort to get out of the stuffy interiors that dominate Smiley’s world in the books, Alfredson relocates Smiley’s tense interview with Esterhase to an airstrip, adding an unmistakable air of menace and making for one of the movie’s best scenes.

Smiley in any incarnation is capable of such ruthless, menacing tactics when they’re called for, but Gary Oldman wears his ruthless streak on his sleeve a bit more than his predecessors. His Smiley is quiet and still put-upon, but he’s more obviously in command of most situations than Alec Guinness or James Mason. In the past, Smiley’s vulnerability has been at the forefront, making the bursts of ruthlessness surprising. With the reverse true, here, Oldman makes the most of a surprising moment of vulnerability. When he relates to Guillam the story of his first and only meeting with Karla, his lifelong nemesis, Alfredson doesn’t cut to a flashback the way the miniseries did. Instead, he moves his camera in close on Oldman, and lets the actor deliver a lengthy monologue uninterrupted. It’s not often that we watch an actor tell a story like this for such a long time on screen, and Oldman relishes the opportunity. Without the camera to do it for him, he alone must convey all the nuances of that long ago confrontation in which Smiley lost a prized cigarette lighter, inscribed to him by his wife Ann with all her love, to Karla. It’s his relationship with Ann that exposes Smiley at his most vulnerable and most human in every version of the character, and since we never see Ann’s face in this movie (like Karla), it falls to Oldman to express that himself, which he does very successfully. Alec Guinness has had too many years in which to own the role of Smiley to ever be robbed of that claim, but Oldman certainly gives him a good run for his money in a mesmerizing and Oscar-worthy performance. Like Guinness, he utterly disappears into the role. On occasion, when I deliberately took myself out of the thoroughly engaging movie in order to evaluate it as it progressed, I had to remind myself that that was Gary Oldman on screen. When you lose yourself to the film, you only see Smiley.

The younger stars also hold their ground ably against such formidable veterans. Benedict Cumberbatch makes a fine Peter Guillam, and the extra-textual irony of TV’s current Sherlock Holmes playing Smiley’s Watson is enjoyable as well. Unlike the character of the books and previous screen versions, this Peter Guillam is gay. That seems, out of context, to be one of the movie’s most major departures from the source material, but like all the changes it actually makes sense in the context of the film. Like so many seemingly questionable changes to the source material, it proves to be a helpful shorthand, in this case to portray the dear personal price this character pays for his career in one scene what took le Carré many vignettes in the book. Tom Hardy, too, delivers a particularly impressive performance as Ricki Tarr, a rogue in love. (Plus, he looks better in his semi-hilarious Seventies wig than he does with his current real haircut!)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not only a near-perfect adaptation; it’s also a near-perfect spy movie. Alfredson and his team have successfully interpreted John le Carré’s dense text into a movie that retains all of the book’s twists and turns, all of its themes, and nearly all of its rich and memorable characters into a film that stands on its own merits. Even if the book had never existed, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would be a prime example of what the serious side of the spy genre can be at its best. In the Sixties, slower-paced, more adult, more cerebral spy movies like this coexisted peacefully with the action-packed Bond movies and their imitators. Today, possibly thanks to the end of the Cold War, the Bond and Bourne side of the genre (which Alfredson acknowledges not only with his tongue-in-cheek appropriation of the Sammy Davis Jr. song, but also by arming Smiley with a Walther PPK in the movie’s climax) thrives, but the serious spy movie has languished. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (as well as TV’s Page 8) proves that it doesn’t have to. I hope this film is successful and leads not only to subsequent Smiley adaptations starring Gary Oldman, but also to a resurgence of smart, complex spy films for adult audiences—and of Cold War period pieces, for that matter. The Cold War was never the raison d'être for the books of le Carré, Len Deighton, Graham Greene, Anthony Price and countless others; it was an expedient (and, then, timely) dramatic device through which to explore universal themes of loyalty and betrayal. And as Alfredson’s film proves, it still is.

The Smiley Files
Read my introduction to the character of George Smiley here.

Dec 19, 2011

Original Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Comes to Blu-ray Next Year

In 2012, Acorn will release the classic 1979 BBC miniseries version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, starring the incomparable Alec Guinness, on Blu-ray in the USA. It will mark the seminal John le Carré adaptation's debut in the high-def format. Not only that, but it will also include a brand new interview with director John Irvin. This Blu-ray release will stick to the six-part version of the series that American viewers are familiar with (and which Acorn reckon works better... and they may have a point there), but there's a good possibility that the cut scenes from the longer UK version will be included as bonus material, affording fans the vest of both worlds. Full details will come in the New Year, but this is definitely a release to be excited about!

Read my introduction to the character of George Smiley here.

Dec 15, 2011

Tradecraft: USA Explores Historical Spies

Deadline reports that the USA Network is expanding its spy scope (which currently includes hit series Burn Notice and Covert Affairs) into the past. The cable network is developing a series based on real life Civil War spy Kate Warne.

Dec 14, 2011

New Spy Books Out This Week: Another With Clancy's Name On It

When Tom Clancy emerged from his years-long hibernation last Christmas with Dead or Alive, I was excited. Clancy was one of the best spy writers of the Eighties and Nineties, too long absent from the scene. When he delivered a new Jack Ryan novel six months later, Against All Enemies, I was even more excited. But neither book lived up to its potential. Both were written with co-writers (something he'd never done before for his flagship Ryan series before), but I'm hesitant to blame the co-writers. I think Clancy himself bears the brunt of the blame for the product he puts his name on. And today, there's another new book out out with Tom Clancy's name on the cover in great big letters. It's called Locked On, and it's got Jack Ryan and all the characters you used to love who go with him: John Clark, Ding Chavez, etcetera. The little tiny name underneath Clancy's is actually that of a successful spy novelist in his own right, Mark Greaney, creator of the Gray Man series (the first book of which is being developed as a potential star vehicle for Brad Pitt). I'm in the midst of his first novel, The Gray Man, right now... and so far I'm not terribly impressed. With early reports indicating that Clancy's phoned it in again, I guess I'm just going to have to turn to the movies instead and hope that Paramount delivers the Jack Ryan I want whenever they finally get this forever-in-the-works Chris Pine reboot off the ground. But here's hoping I'm wrong, and someone can tell me that Locked On is first-rate Clancy. I'd be happy to eat my words.

Dec 13, 2011

Tradecraft: The Equalizer Returns

After a series of stops and starts with various directors, various studios and various stars attached (I think Russell Crowe was the last name I heard), Variety reports that the long-in-the-works, on again off again big screen version of the Eighties spy show The Equalizer is back on. This time the studio is Sony, and the star is Denzel Washington. Richard Wenk (who wrote the Jason Statham Mechanic remake and contributed to the Expendables 2 script) will write the script which, according to the trade, "revolves around a former secret agent who offers his investigative services in order to atone for his past sins..." exactly like the TV show. The 1985-89 show starred the great Edward Woodward as McCall, the former spook who lent his services to people with the odds against them and nowhere else to turn. The intertextual thing going on there was that Woodward had played a moody government assassin years earlier on Callan (which happens to be one of the best spy shows of all time). Callan had to do some terrible things that weighed heavily on his conscience, and McCall easily could have been what he became a few decades later. It's too bad that Washington doesn't bring the same ex-spy extratextual baggage that, say, Timothy Dalton would have... but then he has the clout to get a movie greenlit. And I think Washington will be good. Done right, this should do for him what Taken did for Liam Neeson. McCall is the epitome of the old guy who can kick your ass. Most of all, though, I hope the movie gets the remaining seasons of the show released on DVD. Universal put out Season One a few years ago, and then dropped the ball. Denzel Washington will next be seen playing a secret agent in Safe House.

Austin Powers Returns... On Broadway?

The New York Post reports (via MI6) that, presumably having witnessed the success of his Shrek character on stage, Mike Meyers is in negotiations to bring Austin Powers to the Great White Way. "Myers, who [co-]wrote and starred in the three wildly popular movies, now hopes to turn groovy 1960s-era secret agent Powers into an all-singing, all-dancing theatrical production," according to the paper. Meyers himself would not star, but is expected to be "highly involved in writing the show." Rumors flared up earlier this year (as they do from time to time) that Myers is also hard at work on another Powers movie, which would be unrelated to the stage version. Personally, I enjoyed the heck out of the first movie, but found the sequels to be increasingly awful and the ubiquitous public imitations (brilliantly sent up by Ricky Gervais on the original Office) endlessly annoying. What started out as a really funny character was quickly done in by the worst sort of over-exposure, and I can't see a Broadway show (or another movie, for that matter), doing anything to rectify that problem. But maybe it will spur the studios to dig into their vaults and release more Sixties spy movies on DVD! If so, then I'm all for it. (Fox issued Modesty Blaise, Fathom and the Flint films for the first time to coincide with the theatrical release of Austin Powers in Goldmember.)

DVD Review: The Four Just Men

DVD Review: The Four Just Men

The Four Just Men was one of ITC’s earliest stabs at a contemporary adventure series. As such, its primary interest for fans of the genre will be a historical one. While not all the usual suspects had a hand in the scripts and direction (Brian Clemens’ name is noticeably absent from any credits), this series (which ran from 1959-60) clearly established the regular episodic formula that would form the foundation of all of ITC’s Sixties output. As I’ve written many times before, the company’s usual setup is following a man with a slightly unusual job (antiques dealer, import/export agent, photojournalist, playboy, etc.), and then ignoring whatever that job is and instead thrusting him into spy plots week after week in exotic locations via stock footage and studio backlots. This being before the advent of Bondmania sparked by Dr. No and, perhaps even more relevantly, before the British TV spy craze launched by Danger Man and The Avengers well before Sean Connery ever gulped down his first on-screen vodka martini, more of the plots are standard-issue mysteries (reflecting the private eye genre prevalent in the previous decade)–but a surprising percentage of them are still espionage-related.  It was the Cold War, after all. If you were telling adventure stories, you simply couldn’t escape such plots. 

Anyway, the slight twist on the regular formula with The Four Just Men is that instead of following a single hero, we follow four of them–individually. After a pilot that serves as an origin story and shows our four heroes all meeting in WWII–and later being reunited in tragic circumstances and signing a pact to uphold justice in their own ways–the leads rotate, and only one of them carries each story. Contrary to what I’d read about this series prior to its DVD release, however, that’s not to say that they never interact. At least one other Just Man (generally the one from the week prior or the one who will take center stage the following week) pops up in every episode–usually only via telephone, though.  Several episodes feature all four Just Men contributing from their respective home bases in London, Paris, New York and Rome.  This practice certainly adds to the series’ continuity and makes it feel more whole, and not just like an anthology show. 

The leads themselves belie a bygone era in television, when programs were targeted at adults, and not kids. In other words, they’re all old, each one whiter and more Establishment than the one before. There was no room in ITC’s 1959 stable for Jason King’s bouffant or Brett Sinclair’s shaggy do and hip, trendy (maybe?) duds. The four leads are all past-it movie stars–some more past it than others. There’s British war film stalwart Jack Hawkins as Ben Manfred, a member of Parliament based (quite naturally) in London. There’s Italian arthouse darling Vittorio de Sica(!!!) as partisan resistance fighter-turned-hotelier Ricco Poccari, who operates out of Rome.  Then there are the two Americans, ubiquitous film noir face Richard Conte as New York-based lawyer Jeff Ryder, and veteran Hollywood actor Dan Dailey (who has the sort of lumpy, hard-drinking face that could only become famous on black and white Forties film stock) as Tim Collier, a hotshot journalist who works out of Paris. Each one has a regular assistant, but the only interesting ones are Andrew Kier as Jock, Manfred’s Scottish manservant, and–particularly!–Honor Blackman as Nicole, Tim’s lovely French secretary. (Conte and de Sica are assigned more standard-issue central casting beauties who leave no impression.) Blackman, looking amazingly young, makes the most of her limited role. She is a secretary and a Girl Friday and a love interest for Tim (although I honestly can’t imagine what she sees in him), but she’s got a quick wit and she imbues the character with an independent spark that prefigures her defining role as Cathy Gale on The Avengers. Don’t get me wrong; Nicole is no Cathy Gale (and never gets to use judo), but she is more than just a pretty face–thanks as much to what the actress brings as what’s on the page.

The men’s careers–and moreso their locations–define the sorts of adventures they have to a certain degree, but of course in ITC Land anyone can happen upon kidnappers or spies or blackmailers at any time. I found Manfred’s episodes to generally have the most interesting plots–and the most espionage-heavy. Tim also gets some good ones as a reporter and as an American in Paris. Poccari’s are a mixed bag; they’re either very cool (like taking on Charles Grey as an Arab slaver or solving one of those classic “someone overpaid for a bad painting because it contained hidden secrets” cases) or very lame (usually involving orphans or urchins or some variation thereupon). In either case, he definitely brings something slightly different to the table, being noticeably older than the others. He rarely relies on fisticuffs (although he does rather brutally poke a henchman’s eye out with his cane!) or gunplay, instead using his charm and keen intellect to unravel his monthly thirty-minute mysteries. Richard Conte is not a bad performer (in fact, he makes a more appealing lead than Dan Dailey), but his character gets all the most boring cases. Perhaps it’s just because I live in America that I find the American setting (mainly New York, but he also frequently travels to Small Town USA) fairly boring compared to Rome or London or Paris, but I don’t think so. His legal profession also tends to lead to these boring cases, shoehorning his stories into a genre I could care less about. They play out like the worst of Fifties American television; of the Conte episodes I watched, I can’t recommend a single one. (Jeff gets involved in things like defending the pretty outsider accused of poisoning from the close-knit-community-turned-angry-mob-riled-up-by-respected-community-leader physically as well as in court, and prison riots, and New York race wars right out of West Side Story. Boooring.)

The most problematic aspect of the premise of The Four Just Men is determining which causes, exactly, are “just.” In the pilot (ostensibly based on an Edgar Wallace book which had already spawned two feature films), the men’s Justice-obsessed wartime commanding officer kicks the bucket and the executor of his estate summons the four men to his castle, where he reads a will bequeathing them a vast fund to spend towards forwarding the cause of Justice. He also leaves it up to them to determine what constitutes “Justice.” The Four Just Men are famous world-wide, and generally respected. Local police wherever they go have no problems with turning over their cases to famous vigilantes and look on in awe when the Just Men–who report to no one but each other–flout the word of the law in the name of the more intangible concept of Justice. And, honestly, their idea of Justice is not really anyone’s but old, white, rich dudes of the 1950s. For example, Manfred readily agrees to hush up a dying Peer’s involvement in art theft (is that really Justice?), but just as readily runs down a “rough-looking” (read: lower class) sod who seems out of place at a snooty art auction. (This not being boundary-pushing television, the rough-looking sod turns out to actually be involved, and not just a red herring.) Tim is always ready to help a beautiful, wealthy blackmail victim, even if she’s being blackmailed for something utterly reprehensible like her part in a deadly hit-and-run accident. And, in the most egregious example of questionable Justice, Tim decides to aid a philandering politician not only in extricating himself from a blackmail plot, but also in covering up his affair! 

That episode is “Les Beatniques,” and it typifies not only the show’s loose ideas of Justice at their worst, but also its complete lack of understanding its potential young audience. A senator, played by future Felix Leiter Cec Linder, wrote love letters to a fading actress that a trio of leather-clad, Abe Lincoln beard-wearing, French beatniks (or “beatniques”) have stolen for blackmail.

“Isn’t there anything we can do?” exclaims the actress.

“Not unless I can find the Martians before six o’clock,” says Tim, his face grave.

“Martians?” queries the senator.

“Well that’s what we’re up against,” lectures Tim. “A whole generation of weird kids that might as well come from Mars or any other planet for all you’ll understand about them.” He manages to look really weird himself–not to mention old and out of it–as he delivers those lines.  Comparing this encounter with the Mission:Impossible episode less than a decade later in which series star Leonard Nimoy pretends to be one of those weird kids is demonstrative of the change that the television industry would undergo in the Sixties. By the end of the decade, the networks in both Britain and America would realize that their most profitable audience was the younger generation—the “martians.”

Tim wouldn’t be able to pass himself off as a beatnik (not that Nimoy pulled it off, but at least he tried), though he does earn the compliment from a beatnick girl that he doesn’t dance too badly for a square! At the end of the episode (lesson time), he puts on his thick, professorial glasses and reads some of the beats’ poetry, quickly dismissing it as “suicide notes” and accusing them of writing off the world in their words.

One beat defends his position, arguing, “There are no answers.”

“Well how would you know?” asks Tim sanguinely. “You’ve never bothered to ask any questions.” Oh, snap! Apparently in his effort to quell the percolating youth rebellion, Tim just inadvertently started the whole question-asking beatnik movement! He’s much less appealing when Honor Blackman’s not at his side to mitigate his unrelenting curmudgeonliness.

Of course, Justice isn’t always so grey; sometimes it’s black and white and clear-cut. But even then it can be hard to suss out the truth. Manfred is forced to ask some tough questions in “The Survivor,” in which future Blofeld Donald Pleasence is either a concentration camp survivor with a list of Nazis in hiding, or else he’s a neo-Nazi agent with a list meant to discredit innocent people and former resistance fighters. It’s up to Manfred to determine which in a pretty compelling tale of terrorism and genocide that goes to pretty Callan-y dark places for a Fifties show.

Another future Blofeld, Charles Grey, shows up twice on this series, most memorably as an Arab sheik running the North African slave trade from Rome in “The Slaver.” That’s a pretty brutal episode, with unrepentantly nasty villains—and not in a Blofeld way, but in a gritty, ugly way. Right off the bat, a slaver shoots three black kidnap victims and dumps them in the water, pondering, “I wonder if the sharks like black meat?” As the chief slaver, Grey even smacks around his pretty girlfriend. The slavers in question are unscrupulous travel agents who book passage to the Holy City on pilgrimages, then instead kidnap their passengers and sell them as cargo.

“Doesn’t anybody care?” demands an incredulous (white) policeman

“They’re primitive people. Their families just write them off.” explains Poccari with a dismissive wave of his hand, regrettably recalling (to modern viewers) General Westmorland’s infamous Hearts and Minds claim that “the Oriental” doesn’t value life the same way Westerners do. It’s a good thing the old white Just Men care, since the black victims’ “primitive” families don’t! At least Just Man Poccari is well-meaning, even if he’s racist, too, in his own way. He deals these brutal villains a taste of their own medicine; this is the episode in which he pokes a henchman in the eye with his cane through an arras. It looks quite painful!

Poccari seems to specialize in the most clichéd plots, but I guess it bears remembering that they weren’t quite so clichéd back then. So maybe the glass-half-full way to view them is that he starred in more templates for future ITC episodes than anyone else! “The Crying Jester” is the one where Poccari buys a terrible painting he was never meant to buy and finds himself chased by various parties willing to kill for it. Since it can’t be its artistic merit, obviously it’s the secrets it conceals that attract the would-be buyers. It’s trite, sure, but it’s also one of the series’ more entertaining episodes! “Night of the Precious Stones” is the one where a rich dowager has her jewels stolen at a swanky function at one of Poccari’s hotels and the gang is all rounded up, except for their mastermind. It couldn’t possibly be a woman, could it? And certainly not a woman with whom Poccari is well acquainted? I'll never say…

Manfred has his share of pre-cliché classics as well, but his still tend to be my favorite episodes, for the most part. In “The Deserter,” Manfred finds himself defending a soldier accused of desertion despite the fact that the man has confessed. Only Manfred is convinced of his innocence. Who is he protecting? And why is he so confident in the face of a firing squad? The answer is a pretty good twist, but the real reason this one’s notable is for its guest cast. The young soldier accused of desertion is none other than Richard Johnson, who was not only a candidate for the role of James Bond, but later proved himself to be among the best of the Bond imitators playing a Sixties version of Bulldog Drummond in my favorite Eurospy movie, Deadlier Thanthe Male, and its sequel, Some Girls Do. TV's Sherlock Holmes, Ronald Howard, also appears. Manfred gets the art forgery case, too, in “National Treasure,” and it’s a pretty good one, even if he does display his skewed sense of elitist justice.

For a modern-day muckraker who stumbled upon it, the fact that the wife of the American Ambassador was involved in a horrible hit-and-run and then covered it up would be a major news story. Not for Tim Collier. She’s part of the Establishment, and therefore deserves his protection. He’ll reserve his Justice instead for the person who dares to blackmail her about her culpability in “The Man in the Road.” When he’s not protecting guilty politicos and their consorts, though, Tim gets the fun stuff like chasing a radioactive capsule around rural France in “The Deadly Capsule” and preventing political assassinations. In one of his better episodes, “The Prime Minister,” Honor Blackman gets to take on a meatier role, ably assisting Tim by doing spy duties (like staking out a posh hotel lobby and then taking initiative on her own and following a suspect) as he sets out to stop one such assassination.

“Village of Shame” is both “the one with the whole village full of people with a secret colluding against the one Just Man interloping in their midst (Manfred) and “the one about a wartime collaborator who betrayed his resistance comrades and eluded justice for decades following.” The former is a good enough ITC plot (and possibly even original at this particular vintage) that it makes up for the hackneyed latter, which is especially overused in this series.

The “wartime traitor” trope gets trotted out yet again in “The Rietti Group.” This time it’s Poccari, who attends a reunion dinner of his old partisan compatriots (including Geoffrey Keen) and of course ends up exposing one of them as the traitor who cost them the life of a beloved comrade decades prior. Then the group gets to sentence him to death without the involvement of any courts or anything, because that’s the kind of bonds old resistance fighters share. Yes, ITC, we get it. There were lots of heroes in the war and they still can’t get over the fact that there were also some traitors, even twenty-some years later. We get it! Unbelievably, this plotline would still rear its boring head every couple of weeks on ITC shows throughout the Sixties, proving that England just couldn’t let go of WWII, her greatest glory, as the Empire faded in the postwar world.

While it’s got some fun episodes (as well as some cringe-inducing ones), The Four Just Men is overall most interesting to modern ITC aficionados as a historical artifact.  Along with Interpol Calling, it’s a fascinating glimpse at the brief “missing link” era that bridged the gap from Fifties detective procedurals to swinging Sixties spy shows. The heroes are still the stuffy old men of the previous generation, but some of their adventures encompass the globetrotting plotlines that would fuel the Jet Age. ITC would still get a lot of mileage out of some of these plots in future iterations on The Saint, Man in a Suitcase and other shows. The Four Just Men may not be as exciting or even as politically correct (and that’s saying something) as the shows it inspired, but it sets the template, nonetheless. Casual spy fans can easily go on living their lives without ever seeing an episode of The Four Just Men and sleep perfectly soundly. But armchair scholars and television archaeologists who want to trace the origins of their favorite Sixties ITC adventure shows (as well as rabid Honor Blackman fans!) will enjoy seeing their nascent forms in this series. And for that reason, I’m highly grateful to Network for unearthing it.

If you are interested in this show, act fast! Network’s Region2 PAL online exclusive goes on moratorium at the end of the month (Friday, December 30, 2011). After that, you’ll be at the mercy of Ebay vendors.

Read my reviews of some other ITC shows:
Danger Man (aka Secret Agent)
Man in a Suitcase
The Baron
Sentimental Agent

Dec 12, 2011

Eurospy Title Kiss Kiss Bang Bang Rescheduled For This Month

A few months ago we heard that Wild East (primarily a Spaghetti Western distributor) had another Eurospy movie on the schedule: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a very silly spoof that turns up as the second half of a Giuliano Gemma double feature with the Spaghetti Western Alive or Preferably Dead. The set is called Spies, Fast Guns, and the Spaghetti West. Gemma is better known for his Spaghetti Westerns than this rare foray into Eurospydom. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a particularly daffy Italian spy spoof. Your enjoyment of it will depend on your tolerance for that uniquely Italian brand of silliness, but it's very Sixties and definitely lots of fun to look at throughout, at least, so genre aficionados will likely find something to enjoy. Of course so few Eurospy movies get official releases that most fans (like me) will jump at anything. Especially when it promises a 16x9 anamorphic widescreen transfer! According to Wild East, this will be the first ever English language release of this title. (Officially, anyway.) Spies, Fast Guns and the Spaghetti West, which also features the films' theatrical trailers, was originally slated for a November 8 release. It didn't make that one and was biefly slotted for December 6, but is now listed for a December 20 street date—just in time for Christmas! A glitch on the Wild East website made the title originally appear to be sold out before it was even available, but that was not actually the case. Wild East's editions are strictly limited and they do go out of print, so you shouldn't hold off on buying if you're interested... but as of now it is definitely still available! Also, the price has dropped since the original announcement. It was first listed for $19.95, but now you can grab this bargain for just $16.28 by pre-ordering through the Wild East website!

Ghost Protocol Droid

Dec 11, 2011

George Smiley: An Introduction

The Humanist Spy

To coincide with the U.S. roll-out of Tomas Alfredson’s fantastic new feature film adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I’ll be examining Le Carré and his Smiley novels—and the movies and TV shows based on them—in depth throughout December and January in a feature I call “The Smiley Files.” As with my exploration of Jean Bruce’s spy hero Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, aka OSS 117, it seems prudent to begin this series with an introduction to the character. There’s no doubt that George Smiley, who appeared in eight novels and has been played on screen by five different actors, is far better known than OSS 117 (and deservedly so), but in a genre where different readers’ tastes run in radically different directions (some to Bond, some to Smiley; some to Bourne, some to Samson), it’s safe to assume that not everyone may be familiar with Le Carré’s masterful creation. Hopefully the new film will get a whole new generation of readers interested in this Cold War character, and they’ll no doubt be wondering where to start.

It all starts with David Cornwell, who began publishing spy novels while still himself in the employ of MI6, having transferred there from MI5. Because he was an active officer, he couldn’t publish under his own name, and adopted the name John Le Carré under which to pen his novels. By 1964, he’d left the cloak and dagger world behind to pursue a full-time writing career. He’s intimated that his spy career effectively ended, anyway, when he was “blown” to the Russians by the notorious traitor Kim Philby.

The Character

Le Carré has written many books over the course of five decades, and George Smiley appears in eight of them. He is the principal character in some of those, the unseen puppet master in others, and even occasionally a minor character. He is the undisputed protagonist of Le Carré’s debut novel, Call for the Dead, which also sees him retiring for the first time. This will become a theme. Smiley is nearly always called out of retirement at the beginning of each novel, and very often forced back into it by the end.

Le Carré begins his first novel with a chapter entitled “A Brief History of George Smiley,” and sure enough, it fills in the crucial backstory. Smiley is a quiet man of academic pursuits. When he’s overcome by the stress of his job or his marriage, he likes to retreat into the works of obscure German poets. Clearly establishing from the start that this fictional spy is quite the opposite of James Bond—and a reaction to Fleming’s creation, which Le Carré hated—the author offers a fairly unflattering description of his hero: “Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.”

Later, in the second novel, A Murder of Quality, this description is reiterated and expanded upon:
Watching him, Miss Brimley wondered what impression he made on those who did not know him well. She used to think of him as the most forgettable man she had ever met; short and plump, with heavy spectacles and thinning hair, he was at first sight the very prototype of an unsuccessful middle-aged bachelor in a sedentary occupation. His natural diffidence in most practical matters was reflected in his clothes, which were costly and unsuitable, for he was clay in the hands of his tailor, who robbed him.
While Le Carré is quick to point out his character’s faults, he never condescends to him. Instead, these faults endear the character to us, and imbue him with a rich humanity in a genre not widely regarded for the humanity of its characters.

Returning, though, to that introductory chapter in Call for the Dead, we also learn that Smiley attended an “unimpressive Oxford College” before WWII, where his tutor, Jebedee, recruited him into the Secret Service. In A Murder of Quality, one character asserts that Smiley “had a very nasty war. Very nasty indeed.” Le Carré never gives us too much information about that nasty war, but we do learn up front that Smiley worked alongside academics-turned-spies Jebedee, Fielding, and Steed-Asprey, and that he worked behind enemy lines, living as an in Germany where he used his cover as a professor to run networks and recruit agents. It terrified him, and in the field he honed the skills which would also make him an excellent—and rare—desk man later in his career.

We’re also introduced, in this chapter, to Smiley’s errant wife, Ann—a character seldom glimpsed throughout the novels, but always on Smiley’s mind. Through the often absent Ann, Le Carré defines Smiley’s humanity. She strays—again and again throughout the series—but he remains hopelessly in love with her. It’s this crucial contradiction that makes Smiley such a compelling character. As has been pointed out time and again by critics, he is a brilliant spymaster who can move men like pawns across a great board matching wits with the best of Soviet intelligence, capable of unexpected ruthlessness when necessary—and yet he can’t keep his wife or his diet. He’s staggeringly human, and that humanity proves his undoing on more than one occasion. During his greatest operational successes, he has to shut out that humanity—and doing so drains him. He can shut it out, but he can’t ignore it, and his conscience won’t let him ever be at peace when he’s doing what he’s so good at, just as his heart won’t ever let him break free of the perpetually philandering Ann.

After Ann leaves him for the first time (for a Cuban race driver) in Call for the Dead, Le Carré reveals for the first time that “that part of Smiley which survived was as incongruous to his appearance as love, or a taste for unrecognized poets: it was his profession, which was that of intelligence officer. It was a profession he enjoyed, and which mercifully provided him with colleagues equally obscure in character and origin. It also provided him with what he had once loved best in life: academic excursions into the mystery of human behavior, disciplined by the practical application of his own deductions.”

Unlike Bond, Bourne or de la Bath, Smiley is first and foremost a cerebral spy. (“Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for,” notes one character with undisguised jealousy in A Murder of Quality.) Yet it’s a common mistake among pundits and casual dabblers in the spy genre to assume that Smiley’s intellect and his less than remarkable physique render him incapable of action. Smiley gets into physical confrontations with enemy agents twice in his debut novel—one of them a fight to the death that obliquely recalls another great literary brain’s confrontation with his nemesis atop the Reichenbach Falls. Even in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which is as cerebral a spy thriller as you’ll ever come by (yet at the same time as a spy thriller as you’ll ever come by, too), Smiley eventually arms himself with a pistol for his final confrontation with a traitor in the Service. Smiley’s People even finds the pension-aged Smiley back in the field, traipsing across Europe on false passports mere steps ahead of KGB assassins. Smiley’s world may be more realistic than James Bond’s, but it is still filled with danger.

Le Carré has acknowledged largely basing Smiley on two men who shaped his own life: the Reverend Vivian Green, chaplain at one of the many schools the author attended and his tutor in Modern Languages (from whom Smiley inherited “strength of intellect and spirit” and thick spectacles) and author, spy and bona fide Baron John Bingham. In his introduction to a 2000 reprint of Bingham’s novel Five Roundabouts to Heaven (which, incidentally, was adapted into the film Married Life in 2008, starring Pierce Brosnan and reviewed here), Le Carré wrote:

“When I came to write Smiley, I tried to give him the same faint air of loss that John carried around with him. Smiley, like John, I felt, was fighting to preserve a country that survived only in his head, and was clinging to standards long abandoned by the world around him. There was something quixotic as well as shrewd about John. Like Smiley, he was the perfect parish priest of the Old Faith. He was a superb listener. He was profoundly orthodox, but with a nice dash of heresy. He exuded stability and common sense and inspired his agents with his own gentle, old-fashioned zeal. His humanity was never put on.”

Le Carré admired Bingham’s quixotic loyalty to a dead empire, but he didn’t share his point of view. (A fact that sadly led to a falling out between the former colleagues.) Nor does he always share Smiley’s. Le Carré recalls that Bingham used to tell the agents he ran that they would be hated and distrusted by neighbors as “fire-breathing Reds,” and that they’d have to put up with all sorts of hardships…
‘But the Service will be with you. We’ll be walking at your side even when you can’t see us. We’ll be worrying about you day and night.’ And they believed him—for as long as upstarts like le Carré didn’t tell them otherwise. But le Carré had seen more of the new verities than John had, and far fewer of the old ones. He had not fought John’s war, he had never enjoyed the conviction that he was opposing pure evil, a rare privilege conferred by the 1939-45 war, but much harder to sustain in the war between capitalism and socialism, both gone off the rails…. And Le Carré turned Bingham the preacher of certainties into Smiley the disciple of doubt.
For as much as he believes in those old ideals, and as much as he feels—truly feels—for every single one of his agents in the field, Smiley is also a pragmatist, dragged down by the ever increasing weight of a world caught up in an unending confrontation between two ideologies gone, as Le Carré puts it, “off the rails.” While both may be at fault, though, for Smiley communism is clearly the greater threat, and he fights it because he believes that it must be beaten. I suspect that there was a part of Le Carré that wanted to hate communism as much as Smiley did. The author certain had no sympathy for Communists (clearly evidenced in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), but the hypocrisy he saw in the Capitalist West preventing him from subscribing to any ideological absolutes. Smiley, however, found his own reasons.

As David Monaghan writes in his book Smiley's Circus: A Guide to the Secret World of John Le Carré, “for [Smiley] the essential flaw in communism is its rootedness in the notion that the whole is more important than the individual. Closer to home he despises bureaucrats such as Maston [the Advisor, his superior in Call For the Dead], because they put their faith in policy rather than experience, and the Press, advertising and television because they focus on the mass rather than the individual.” Monaghan argues that Smiley’s target “is now communism which, in the post-war world, poses the single largest threat to his intense commitment to the individual. The problem for Smiley is that, in pursuit of his goal, he has to do things that are antithetical to it.... Smiley’s only reward for living so completely is that he remains intensely human.”

Smiley’s humanity is challenged again and again throughout the canon, but he refuses to part with it, which is what sets him apart from so many others in his profession—and what ultimately assures that he will never come out on top of political squabbles within his own Service. And when he does part with that humanity, even for a moment, he pays dearly. Even when he ostensibly wins, things rarely end happily for poor George Smiley.

The Books

1961’s Call for the Dead (review here) is an excellent spy novel—and a quick read at a mere 150 pages. It’s definitely not the best of the Smiley novels, but it’s a good place to start. A Murder of Quality (review here), from the following year, isn’t a spy novel at all. It’s a murder mystery, and Smiley is a private citizen throughout that novel, never called out of his retirement by his Service, for once. Extra-textually, and with the benefit of hindsight, the exercise of inserting Smiley into a plot that could have worked just as well for Poirot or Campion serves to expose that that is Le Carré’s standard formula, and not a divergence. Each of the Smiley books are structured as classical mysteries—and in the cases of Call for the Dead and Smiley’s People, they are literal murder mysteries whose solutions just happen to lie in the murky world of international espionage. But the mystery formula served the author well in his spy novels, and proved the perfect vehicle for an intellectual hero like Smiley. So similar is the structure to the other books that A Murder of Quality doesn’t really stand apart from them, but very tellingly among them. It exposes Smiley as a detective at heart, and perhaps more at home in that school of fiction. He’s a detective who uses his deductive skills to unravel mysteries affecting the balance of power between nations—but here he proves equally adept here working on a much smaller scale. A Murder of Quality isn’t essential Le Carré, but it's instructive Le Carré... and the more Smiley novels you read the more you’ll want to spend time with the character, and he remains on center stage for the duration of the novel.

The same cannot be said of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963, review here), Le Carré’s third novel, in which Smiley’s role proves crucial to the story, yet his actual presence is limited to just a few pages. There is no doubt that Spy is one of the great works of the genre, and essential reading for its fans, but I would recommend reading Call for the Dead first. In many ways, Spy is actually a direct sequel to that novel, even if the protagonist is different. If you haven’t read Call for the Dead, in fact, you might easily miss out altogether on just how big a role George Smiley plays in the story. Smiley plays another pivotal but limited role in The Looking Glass War (1965, review here), though while he might get a few more pages than he did in Spy, he isn’t a major motivating force in the plot the way he is in that book.

Smiley’s next starring role came in 1974 in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (review here). Many contend that The Spy Who came in from the Cold is Le Carré’s masterpiece, and while there’s no denying that is a great novel and an essential cornerstone of the genre, I would strongly posit that the author’s true masterpiece is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This is the greatest spy novel ever written. And it hinges on George Smiley. If you only read one Smiley novel or one Le Carré novel, this is the one.

Le Carré tweaked his character slightly for the Seventies, retconning his past to make him just a bit younger than he was in the earlier books. (Just a bit—really as a way of keeping him the same age in the early Seventies that he was in the early Sixties.) Other supporting characters, like Peter Guillam, get a makeover as well. In the earlier novels Guillam is a colleague of Smiley’s, and presumably of a similar vintage. Now he’s younger—a protégé rather than a peer; a Watson to Smiley’s Holmes. The tweaks are minor, however, and Smiley remains, as ever, short, plump, adorned in bad clothes, and always cleaning his thick glasses with the fat end of his tie. The new status quo is incredibly rich, though, and Le Carré’s “Circus” (as MI6 is known in these books) is a fascinating milieu for the so-called “Karla Trilogy” (named after Smiley’s opposite number at Moscow Center), which begins with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Smiley takes a backseat again in the trilogy’s second novel, 1977's The Honourable Schoolboy, (though being in the backseat doesn't mean that Smiley's not in control; after all, Le Carré himself in a DVD interview described Smiley as “somebody who, from the back seat, was driving the car”), but the book is thick enough that taking a backseat still gives him more pages than he got as the star of Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality put together! (Should the producers of the new Tinker wish to film Schoolboy, it could easily be adapted so as to make Smiley the main character.) It isn’t so much Smiley’s face time (or lack thereof) that makes him a secondary character in this one; it’s the fact that we as readers are never privy to his thoughts. While we enjoyed full access to Smiley’s inner monologues in Tinker, in Schoolboy he remains inscrutable and the readers are left with Peter Guillam as a frustrated surrogate—very much fulfilling that Holmes and Watson relationship. Smiley never clues Guillam into his overall plan, but Guillam’s afraid that his mentor might not be seeing the whole picture. The primary protagonist of The Honourable Schoolboy, however, isn’t either of them; it’s Jerry Westerby, who played a small part in the previous novel. Just because Smiley isn’t in the driver’s seat doesn’t mean that readers should skip this book the way the BBC did when adapting them. The middle chapter in the Karla Trilogy is essential to Smiley’s overall arc throughout the series—and it’s a fantastic novel in its own right, one of the author’s best.

Of course, all three books in the Karla Trilogy are among his best. Smiley's People (1979) wraps it up with the fastest moving, most crowd-pleasing entry, one which takes Smiley himself back into the field chasing spies across Europe. Its end is conceived with such finality that it came as somewhat of a surprise (albeit a most welcome one!) when Le Carré trotted out old George one last time in The Secret Pilgrim in 1990. Somewhat frustratingly, Smiley wasn't the central figure in this epitaph for the Cold War and its secret warriors, but he certainly figures prominently and, perhaps more than ever, serves as the author's mouthpiece. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, their opinions are perhaps more aligned. It's a pity John Bingham wasn't around to bear witness. To date, The Secret Pilgrim remains the final literary appearance of George Smiley. But that could always change. Le Carré has gone on record saying that Alec Guinness's portrayal of Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy inspired him in the writing of Smiley's People. Perhaps he'll find inspiration anew in Gary Oldman's performance and decided to offer us another glimpse back into Smiley's Cold War career!

The Films

Smiley first appeared on screen in the person of Rupert Davies (an actor at one time touted to play Doctor Who) in Martin Ritt's 1965 film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Although the Smiley role is beefed up a little bit from the book, the character is in no way explored, and Davies fails to make much of an impression. (The film itself, though, is an undeniable classic of the genre.) At least he's got the glasses, and more or less fits Le Carré's description—except for the presence of a mustache.

Both of the screen's first two Smiley's were inexplicably mustachioed, in fact. James Mason also wears a mustache in the 1966 film The Deadly Affair (review here), adapted by Paul Dehn (who also co-wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold—and Goldfinger!) from Call for the Dead and directed by Sidney Lumet. Besides both having mustaches, both of these two early Smileys also fit the bill physically. Later Smileys will all be a little too svelte. Besides having a mustache, Mason's Smiley forgoes the character's trademark glasses. That's kind of acceptable, though... because the character isn't actually called "Smiley." The name Smiley was owned by Paramount, thanks to their brief use of the character in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which meant that in Columbia's film of a book in which Smiley is actually the main character, they were forced to change his name to Charles Dobbs. No matter what he's called, Mason makes an excellent, if unconventional, Smiley in a surprisingly strong film relegated unfairly to the shadow of its more illustrious predecessor. Interestingly, Mason later starred in a TV adaptation of Le Carré's short story "Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn"

When Smiley next appeared, it was on television, in his most famous incarnation to date. But despite being on television, he was played by one of the world's most distinguished film actors: Sir Alec Guinness. Guinness starred in the 1979 BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which devoted seven hours to the novel's complex plot. He completely disappeared into the character, instantly making it his own. So much did Guinness become Smiley, in fact, that Le Carré pictured him while writing the final draft of Smiley's People, and tailored the story to the actor. The Beeb sadly bypassed The Honourable Schoolboy because of the production costs associated with filming in the Far East, but Guinness reprised the role in an excellent six-part 1982 miniseries of Smiley's People.

In 1991 Thames Television produced an adaptation of A Murder of Quality (review here) starring Denholm Elliott as Smiley. Despite being a bit too thin, he very much looked the part and did a good job in a story whose slightness is particularly conspicuous when compared to the dense Guinness miniseries.

Twenty years passed before George Smiley returned to the screen, when Gary Oldman took on the role and, like Alec Guinness before him, completely disappeared into it, in Tomas Alfredson's 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (review here). Working Title are keen to produce a follow-up. I would personally love to see Oldman star in The Honourable Schoolboy, since that novel's sadly never been filmed, but screenwriter Peter Straughan indicates that the most likely scenario will be a single film that combines elements from Schoolboy and Smiley's People.

The Smiley Files
Part 1: George Smiley: An Introduction
Part 2: Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Part 3: Book Review: Call for the Dead (1961)
Part 4: Movie Review: The Deadly Affair (1966)
Part 5: Book Review: A Murder of Quality (1962)
Part 6: Movie Review: A Murder of Quality (1991)
Part 7: Book Review: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
Part 8: Book Review: The Looking Glass War (1965)
Part 9: Book Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)