Jan 31, 2012

Movie Review: The Deadly Affair (1966)

Movie Review: The Deadly Affair (1966)

Part 4 of an ongoing series, "The Smiley Files," examining the career of George Smiley in literature and film. Read my introduction to Smiley here.

Note: This review incorporates and updates an earlier review of this film that I wrote in 2008.

Sidney Lumet's The Deadly Affair is based on John le Carré's first George Smiley novel, Call for the Dead (review here). Though it introduced the author's famous hero, Call for the Dead is generally considered one of  le Carré's less significant works.  The movie, with its more generic title, is even more obscure, though it's overall quite a good adaptation in that it actually improves on the book in some respects. Both are well deserving of rediscovery in the wake of the Tomas Alfredson's fantastic, high-profile new film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (review here). However, fans coming to this movie from that one might be slightly confused at first by the lead character's name. Because Paramount owned the rights to the name "George Smiley" for their film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (in which Smiley plays a relatively small part), Columbia had to change the name of the protagonist to Charles Dobbs. That’s too bad, because James Mason gives a really great interpretation of Smiley in Dobbs. (Even if, like most screen Smileys up until Gary Oldman, he's prone to wearing hats, something the Smiley of the books steadfastly refuses to do.)

Like the book, the movie begins with Smiley–er, Dobbs–interviewing a senior civil servant named Samuel Fennan in the park. An anonymous letter came in revealing Fennan’s involvement in communist circles back in his prewar college days and questioning his present-day loyalty, so as a formality the Security Services are obliged to check him out. Dobbs suggested the park instead of his office to spare the man any undue embarrassment. Indeed, Fennan seems very pragmatic about his idealistic college days (everyone wants a cause at that age, he argues, and for those who hated fascism, it was communism), and appears to be a loyal British subject. Smiley/Dobbs gives him his stamp of approval and routes it to his boss.

That night he’s awakened at an ungodly hour with a phone call: Fennan has killed himself. Going out, he passes his unfaithful, nymphomaniac wife, Ann (Harriet Andersson) coming in, and they have an argument they’ve clearly had a hundred times before. Mason excels as the conflicted cuckold, playing up a rather pathetic side of Smiley's personality that fades to the background in other performances. He clearly loves his wife very much and wants to forgive her condition, but the jealousy is tearing him up inside. Pushed near breaking point in his personal life, he dives whole-heartedly into his professional life, determined to solve the mystery of Fennan’s death. If the man was really loyal, why would he kill himself?

Dobbs interviews Fennan’s wife, Elsa (Simone Signoret), a concentration camp survivor who chastises him for playing games with people’s lives. She sees no importance in her husband’s loyalty or lack thereof, only that Dobbs and the Security Services are responsible for his death.

Amidst the usual interagency animosity, Dobbs teams up with Inspector Mendel, a narcoleptic, semi-retired Special Branch policeman played masterfully by the incomparable spy stalwart Harry Andrews. Andrews was seemingly in almost every British spy movie in the Sixties, and he’s always a joy to watch. This may be his best role. Spurred on by a wake-up call ordered by the dead man the night before (why would a suicide bother to arrange a wake-up call?), Dobbs and Mendel engage in a thorough, exciting investigation in the course of which they cross paths with Roy Kinnear as a greedy, polygamist informant, a hulking Nordic brute nicknamed Blondie who wants Dobbs dead, and Dobbs’ own boss, Maston (Max Adrian, perfectly channeling the character from the book), who–in the grand tradition of such bosses–wants him off the case.

While there are infrequent bursts of violence, le Carré relishes instead the inherent drama and humor of bureaucracy, and the mechanics of a thorough investigation. Though his stories are set in the murky world of international espionage, le Carré is a mystery writer at heart, and he’s constructed a good one here. Screenwriter Paul Dehn (who also co-wrote Goldfinger and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in the two consecutive years preceding this movie, and went on to such varied fare as Murder On the Orient Express and Beneath the Planet of the Apes) does a good job with the difficult task of making Le Carré’s complex mystery and bureaucracy cinematic. While hardly action-packed, The Deadly Affair is never dull.

In one respect, Dehn even improves upon the novel, by integrating Ann fully into the story. In the book, Ann has already left Smiley, though she remains constantly on his mind. It would be difficult to depict the constant presence of an absent character on screen, so it makes sense for Dehn to write her back into the plot. He also works her directly into the central mystery in the very manner that le Carré himself will later use in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, so I'm guessing the author was to some degree influenced by this adaptation. Andersson (more than twenty years Mason's junior, unlike in the novel) is definitely not le Carré's well-bred English aristocrat Lady Ann Smiley (née Sercombe) but she still manages very ably to convey the essence of the author's enigmatic character who looms so large in Smiley's life. In fact, she somehow manages to embody exactly the Ann I picture reading the books, despite being too young and a Swede! Andersson and Mason build an entirely credible, if utterly dysfunctional, relationship between these unlikely partners.

Other changes from the novel left me less satisfied. Mendel's fate on film, for instance, is quite different from that in the text, and would not work well with the books that follow. Furthermore, that particular change seems completely unmotivated.

There are actually two mysteries unfolding in the movie: whether the traitor was actually Fennan or his wife (and who wrote the letter condemning Fennan to begin with), and the identity of their contact. The latter is rather obvious, but the former keeps the audience guessing right up to the final revelation. At the same time (and as much as he’d rather lose himself in his work–or drink–and forget it), Dobbs’ personal life remains hell, and his investigative talents come to hurt him in that arena when he can’t help but deduce that his wife’s latest lover is one of his oldest friends, an agent he ran during the war (Maximillian Schell). Mason does a first rate job as a man grasping desperately at a professional conundrum in order to ignore a personal one–only to discover it’s impossible.

The Deadly Affair is a highly enjoyable spy film, and a thoroughly gripping and generally faithful le Carré adaptation. James Mason makes a great Smiley (I know, I know... Dobbs), and it's too bad that his contribution to the filmic history of the character is often overlooked thanks to the long shadows of Alec Guinness’s later, definitive portrayal in two British miniseries, and Gary Oldman's Oscar-nominated turn in the new movie. Mason is even believable when provoked to uncharacteristic violence at the finale. A rarity when I first reviewd it several years ago, The Deadly Affair is now available on Region 2 DVD and as an MOD title in Region 1 as part of the Colombia Classics On Demand program. It's also available streaming through Amazon Instant Video. For le Carré fans or fans of Sixties spy cinema, it's well worth seeking out.

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)

Trailer: The Cold Light of Day

Hm, this one seems to have slipped by me completely throughout the production process. Weird! Or maybe I did post a Tradecraft item about it at some point; the title sounds kind of familiar. And bad. Boy, is that a bad title: The Cold Light of Day? That said, the movie looks potentially cool, and I did like the director's previous film, JCVD. But the trailer's also frustrating. Can you really put Bruce Willis in a cool, actiony spy trailer and then pull the rug out from under us and tell us he's not the hero? And that, adding insult to injury, Henry Cavill is? I don't think Willis is so old yet that he has to assume the father role in action movies! Maybe Cavill won't be so bad; right now my assessment of him is based solely on the mostly awful Immortals. Hopefully he takes this opportunity to show that that one was a fluke. But those gripes aside (along with the minor gripe that Sigourney Weaver seems to be playing the exact same role that she played in Abduction and speaking the same lines, too), this looks to be a Takenesque spy movie set in Europe, and European locations always win me over. It does look pretty cool...

Jan 30, 2012

Bourne Legacy Filming

Kees Stam of the Harry Palmer Movie Site pointed the way to this video of a Filipino news broadcast covering the first day of shooting on The Bourne Legacy in Manila. Stick with the broadcast for a few minutes, because you'll be rewarded with some brief glimpses of an action sequence with Rachel Weisz running from police. Even seen from news cameras, the sequence looks very Bourney indeed! (No sign of star Jeremy Renner, though.)

Jan 27, 2012

Chuck Ends Tonight

It's the end of an era when NBC's comedic geek spy show Chuck airs its series finale tonight. That makes me realize how long I've been doing this blog... long enough that a new spy series has premiered, enjoyed a respectable five-season runs, and ended all in the time I've been blogging. I mean, it's one thing for flash-in-the-pan series like UnderCovers or CHAOS to come and go, but Chuck was for real. When I first reviewed the pilot after seeing it early at Comic-Con in 2007, I wasn't terribly impressed. I revised my opinion, however, after watching it again (in a slightly different cut) when it aired, and by the second episode I was a fan. Over its course Chuck has had a lot of ups and downs. By Season 3 I thought it was severely sagging, but former 007 Timothy Dalton proved to be exactly what the series needed to rebound in Season 4. Without Dalton, however, and owing to a fairly lame plot point involving Chuck's best friend Morgan gaining the superspy skills of the "Intersect," the fifth season has had its share of disappointments. It's probably time for Chuck to end, and I'm eager to see how the writers do that.

Throughout its five seasons (and despite surviving a long, momentum-sapping hiatus due to the writers' strike during its first season), Chuck has been a fixture of NBC's "bubble" each year, a show constantly in danger of cancellation. This danger proved to be a blessing in disguise, however, as it united the cult show's fans, who showed their support each year through various wacky means sometimes involving Subway sandwiches. Ultimately, the perpetually endangered Chuck even proved to be a reliable rock in NBC's increasingly troubled line-up. Reliable enough, in fact, that its final renewal was its most painless pick-up, and the producers had plenty of time to plan an actual ending rather than delivering an unsatisfying one due to cancellation.

The final 2-part episode airs tonight beginning at 8pm Eastern on NBC.

Jan 26, 2012

Lockout U.S. Trailer

Luc Besson and his partners take their neo-Eurospy nonsense to outer space in Lockout. Yeah, I know; this is pretty much straight sci-fi, so what's it doing on a spy blog?

1. Because despite the outer space setting, the hero (played by Guy Pearce) is still a secret agent. And, better still, "He's the best there is... but he's a loose cannon."

2. Because it clearly embodies the same anything-goes gonzo enthusiasm as Besson's more down-to-earth neo-Eurospy movies, like From Paris With Love and the Transporter movies.

3. Because it looks utterly awesome.

We saw an extended trailerish featurette a few weeks ago here, and there's also this international trailer which contains some different one-liners from the American one:

Lockout opens April 20 in the United States.

Tradecraft: RKO Attempts New Saint Movies

Following the frustrating collapse (yet again) of the latest attempt to bring Simon Templar back to the small screen, Variety reports that RKO will attempt a big screen revival for Leslie Charteris' famous modern-day Robin Hood. According to the trade, the studio has signed Eagle Eye co-writer Travis Wright to pen a remake of one of the 1930s or 40s RKO Saint films (exactly which one is unclear) for producer Rick Porras (The Lord of the Rings) with an eye toward a trilogy of Templar tentpoles. But according to all-around Saint expert Ian Dickerson (author of The Saint on TV and erstwhile co-producer of the stalled television revival), Wright will have his work cut out for him. "RKO have the rights to remake their old B&W films but they cannot change the dialogue and they cannot change the length of the picture," Dickerson posted on the CommanderBond.net forums, where he has been updating fans for some time on his own Saintly efforts. He adds that RKO's rights apply to movies only, not to television. Does this really mean that an RKO remake would have to be 69 minutes long with all the same lines spoken by Louis Hayward or George Sanders? Maybe... but maybe not. Remember, Kevin McClory was actually able to get pretty creative in Never Say Never Again, even though his rights were strictly limited to an exact remake of Thunderball. Granted, the individual cases could be quite different, and I'm certainly no expert on copyright law, but I'm betting RKO have some experts on their legal team working hard to find loopholes. But the prospect of a fairly faithful, period-set remake of The Saint in New York actually quite appeals to me! While I'm very eager for Dickerson and his colleagues to get a new TV Saint up and running, I'd be curious to see what RKO can come up with as well. The more Saintly irons in the fire the better, as far as I'm concerned. It just increases the odds of one of them actually coming to fruition, right? Fingers crossed, but (to paraphrase a CBn poster) breath not held.

Hayward, Sanders and Hugh Sinclair all played Simon Templar for RKO; in later movies he was played by Felix Marten, Jean Marais (who gets a bad rap, but I quite liked in the role) and Val Kilmer (who deserves his bad rap). Vincent Price was among the actors to voice the Saint on the radio, and on TV he's been played by Ian Ogilvy, Simon Dutton, Andrew Clarke and, most famously, of course, Roger Moore.

Jan 24, 2012

Tinker Tailor Nets Three Oscar Nominations

Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (review here) netted three well-earned Academy Award nominations this morning, including Best Actor for Gary Oldman (portraying John Le Carré’s spymaster George Smiley), Best Original Score for Alberto Iglesias and Best Adapted Screenplay for the husband-and-wife team of Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan. Sadly, the recognition is a posthumous one for O'Connor, who succumbed to cancer before the film was released. But what better tribute for such a talented screenwriter? I'm glad that the film garnered these nominations, since it's been shockingly omitted from most of the year-end guild awards, but I'm still sorry that it didn't earn more. For my money, it should have also been up for Director, Supporting Actor (for John Hurt as Control), Art Direction, Costumes, Editing and Best Picture. The last one is particularly insulting, considering that only nine out of a possible ten films were chosen this year. Shockingly, this nomination is a long-overdue career first for the great Gary Oldman!

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was better recognized in its native land, where it earned 11 BAFTA nominations including Best Film and Outstanding British Film, Best Actor, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Score, Editing, Production Design, Costume Design and Sound.

Spy fans may also be pleased that four veterans of the fantastic OSS 117 parodies (reviews here and here) received Oscar nominations for their work on the wonderful awards front runner The Artist: Jean Dujardin and Bernice Bejo were both nominated for their acting, Ludovic Bource for his score and Michel Hazanavicius for directing and writing. It's great to see spy movie veterans go on to such acclaim, but I hope amidst all the Oscar buzz they don't forget their Eurospy spoof roots... because I still desperately want to see a third OSS 117 adventure! (It would likely see a much wider U.S. release following the visibility of The Artist.)

Congratulations to all the nominees from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Artist!

Jan 21, 2012

Haywire Movie Review

Steven Soderbergh's action-packed, all-star spy movie Haywire opens this weekend, with a stellar cast featuring Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Bandaras, Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum and Bill Paxton. And it's pretty awesome. There are plenty of incredible action sequences sure to please Bourne fans, and Carano is a truly empowered female action star you can really believe could kick the asses of everyone whose ass she kicks in the movie in real life! (I thoroughly enjoyed Colombiana, but did you really believe that the rail-thin Zoe Saldana could win that final fight?) Read my full review of Haywire here. See the movie in theaters this weekend and chime in here with your thoughts.

Movie Review: Haywire (2012)

Jan 19, 2012

Archer Returns in a Big Way

The jerkiest spy since The Adventurer returns tonight, when Archer begins its third season on FX.  The network has released a number of cool stills and hilarious clips from the new season, and it looks just as promising as those that came before. (Both prior seasons have made my Best of the Year lists in television, here and here.) And the advertising, like the look off the show itself, is once again heavily Bond-inspired. Existing in a sort of never-never nebula where the Cold War never ended and classic From Russia With Love menswear never went out of style, Archer always provides as many nods to past pop culture as it does references to present pop culture. This year's poster art adds Cheryl's ocelot into the mix, which is itself a Honey West reference, and the TV spots all play Nancy Sinatra's theme song from The Last of the Secret Agents. The season premiere manages to name-check a pretty obscure Sixties spy movie, too... and in the process makes what I am certain is the best Operation C.I.A. joke ever made on a TV show!

Archer isn't just back on TV though. In addition to the Complete Season Two DVDs and Blu-rays that came out a few weeks ago, this week saw the release of a brand new book by Sterling Archer himself, How to Archer: The Ultimate Guide to Espionage and Style and Women and Also Cocktails Ever Written. The contents are very similar to Kingsley Amis's classic James Bond lifestyle bible The Book of Bond or Every Man His Own 007, providing all sorts of details on how to live the Archer lifestyle written in classic Archer deadpan, but the cover is something else. The cover itself is one of those great, obscure pop culture references that Archer excels at, perfectly recreating the look of a Sixties Annual. It's got hints of the James Bond annuals and a Danger Man one. I love it! You can sample the contents for yourself courtesy of publisher Harper Collins here.

Archer returns tonight, January 19, at 10pm Eastern on FX. The season premiere, guest starring Burt Reynolds, should continue to air throughout the weekend. Check your local listings, as they used to say.

New Spy DVDs Out Since Christmas

I've gotten several weeks behind now on new spy DVDs, but there's been some great stuff coming out! So here's a massive post-Christmas catch-up.

Remember Age of Heroes, the movie we first heard about in 2010 about "Ian Fleming's Red Indians," the 30 Assault Unit commando team created by the future Bond author while he served in Naval Intelligence during WWII? It came out on Region 2 PAL DVD last June from Metrodome Distribution, and I had little hope of it ever showing up stateside. But this week, thanks to eOne Entertainment, it has, on both DVD and Blu-ray! The film stars former Bond baddie Sean Bean, and James D'Arcy plays Commander Fleming. A good old-fashioned war adventure, Age of Heroes depicts the incredible true story of how James Bond creator Ian Fleming oversaw the activities of an elite and supremely well-trained commando unit during World War II, following the members of the 30AU from defeat at Dunkirk to a chance to change the course of the war on a top secret mission in Norway. For more on Fleming's involvement with 30AU, check out Craig Cabell's books Ian Fleming's Secret War and The History of 30 Assault Unit: Ian Fleming's Red Indians.

Also out this week on DVD and Blu-ray, from Lions Gate, is Abduction, the teen spy movie starring simian Twilight heartthrob Taylor Lautner. This movie got terrible, terrible reviews when it came out theatrically last fall. And I won't say they're not deserved; it is, after all, a pretty terrible movie. But so are a lot of movies, and Abduction isn't any worse than most other bad movies, and is a whole lot more fun than most bad movies. So... okay, I will say that it didn't deserve quite the drubbing it took. Because if you have some friends over, pour some drinks, and put this on, you're all going to have a pretty good time. And while you're cracking jokes about Lautner's unbelievably terrible performance and wondering aloud what the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Jason Isaacs, Maria Bello, Alfred Molina and Michael Nyqvist are doing in this movie, you're also going to find yourself sucked in a bit by John Singleton's ridiculous action sequences and the overall absurdity of the script. It's bad, yes... but it's enjoyably bad! (And I have a sneaking suspicion that some people probably thought the teen spy movies of my youth were bad, like my own personal favorite If Looks Could Kill.) Extras on both versions include the featurettes "Abduction Chronicle: On-Camera Production Journal," "Initiation of an Action Hero: Taylor's Amazing Stunts" and "The Fight for The Truth: Making Abduction" as well as a gag reel. On top of that, the BD offers "an exclusive In-Film Experience with in-picture documentaries and exclusive behind the scenes interviews with cast and crew." If you care. Retail is $39.99 for the Blu-ray (which also comes with a digital copy) and $29.95 for the DVD, but of course they're both half those prices on Amazon.

Earlier this month, Acorn released the second volume of the Sixties ITC spy series Man in a Suitcase, starring Richard Bradford as sacked CIA agent turned private operator McGill. These episodes from the second half of the show's single, super-sized season made their Region 1 DVD debut. (The entire series was released in single volumes in Britain and Australia.) Many of McGill's best adventures come in the second half, so this would be a welcome release and a must-buy for American ITC aficionados on that basis alone... but as it happens, there's even more reason. Man in a Suitcase: Set 2 also includes 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 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! Man in a Suitcase: Set 2 retails for $59.99, though it's considerably cheaper from the usual online vendors.

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

In the last week of 2011 (on my birthday, in fact), Fox snuck out one of the very best spy releases of the year, Archer: The Complete Season Two, on DVD and Blu-ray. The wildly irreverent, always inappropriate Archer remains one of my favorite spy shows on TV, and as I said in my post about the Best Spy Television of 2011, I find it very impressive that the writers managed to maintain the high level of quality in its second season. That's particularly tough for a parody series. The secret, of course, is that Archer is much more than a mere spy parody. It's a dysfunctional family comedy that happens to be set in a spy agency. As I said before, the extremely raunchy humor is definitely not for all tastes, but if it is to your liking, you'll no doubt appreciate the excellent animation and cool spy style on top of the gags. And even if I didn't love it already, a very obscure Magnum, P.I. reference in Season Two assured the show my allegiance forever! The Season Two discs contain some very good extras, including excerpts from last year's Comic-Con panel, which are hilarious (though I wish they'd included the 2010 panel, too, which featured less cutting up from the cast, but more legitimate answers about how the show is made and what influenced its creators), and several animated shorts. In one, Archer himself answers viewers' questions (and the writers get a whole lot of mileage out of a single set-up!), and in another he messes up the opportunity to give a shout-out to troops stationed overseas who love the show in a uniquely Archer way. These extras certainly make up for Season One's fake "unaired pilot" (which annoyed some fans), but they don't let that concept go, either. In fact, another funny short expands upon the main gag in that feature. The same day Season Two came out, Fox also made Archer: The Complete Season One widely available on Blu-ray for the first time. The high-def version was previously a Best Buy exclusive, and Archer's top-notch design and crisp animation make it one show that truly benefits from high-def presentation.

Finally, Universal released the Jason Statham/Clive Owen period assassin thriller Killer Elite on dual formats, DVD and DVD/Blu-ray combo. The only real bonus material on both versions is deleted scenes, which is too bad, because I would have liked some featurettes exploring the supposedly factual book on which the movie was based, The Feather Men, and how and why the film deviates from its source. Oh well. The combo version also includes a digital copy and an Ultraviolet copy (oooh!), which is something the studio wants you to be way more excited about than you no doubt are. Retail is $29.98 for the DVD and $34.98 for the combo, though of course both are considerably cheaper than that on Amazon right now. I really enjoyed Killer Elite. You can read my full review of the film here.

Tradecraft: Fox Teen Spy Show Gets Pilot

It seems like all the spy TV pitches studios bought last fall are getting pilot orders this year! (Which is great news.) The latest one to get the go ahead, from Fox, is the Karyn Usher teen spy show we first heard about in October. According to Deadline, "The procedural thriller centers on the orphaned 17-year-old daughter of a CIA operative who is recruited to become an operative herself. She encounters a mysterious rogue agent/assassin who serves as both her surrogate father and professional mentor in the spy world." This one sounds like it's got a lot of promise to me. (I confess I have a soft spot for teen spies.) This is the second spy pilot Fox has ordered this week; a few days ago they ordered Josh Friedman's female spy drama The Asset. So the odds are looking good that we'll see at least one spy series on the Fox schedule next fall...

Jan 18, 2012

Book Review: Call For the Dead by John le Carré (1961)

Book Review: Call For the Dead by John le Carré (1961)

Part 3 of an ongoing series, "The Smiley Files," examining the career of George Smiley in literature and film. Read my introduction to Smiley here.

When new readers pick up a John le Carré book, chances are they’ll opt for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, or one of the new ones. Few will automatically reach for the author’s first book, the far less famous Call for the Dead. And in some ways, perhaps, that’s wise. Tinker, Tailor is a much richer book, and more likely to hook a new reader for life on le Carré’s writing. But there are good reasons to consider Call for the Dead as well. In fact, while Tinker, Tailor stands pretty well on its own, I would strongly advise reading Call for the Dead before The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. At the very least, Call for the Dead makes an essential prequel to that more famous novel, which directly follows events in the author’s first book. But it’s actually much more than that. Call for the Dead is a terrific spy novel in its own right, and as confident a debut novel as I’ve ever read, laying bare the promise of the phenomenal career to come. At a slight 150 pages or so, it’s also a very quick read and a great primer on the serious side of the spy genre that won’t require a serious investment of time.

Call for the Dead opens with a chapter entitled “A Brief History of George Smiley,” and, indeed, it’s the most concise such biography we ever receive of the character in all nine books in which he features. Almost all the characteristics we’ll come to associate with Smiley are already in place right from the start. (I say “almost” because I don’t think he actually begins polishing his glasses with the “fat end” of his tie until Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.) The bad clothes, the weight problem, the myopia, the passion for Baroque-era German poetry, the equally-placed disdain for both Soviet Communism and British Bureaucracy, the perpetually straying wife and, above all, the brilliant mind—all present and accounted for. His wife, Ann, in fact, has already left him—for a Cuban race car driver, this time. As in most of the Smiley novels, she’s very much a presence throughout the book, constantly on his mind, but not actually physically present. Honestly, that’s too bad. I saw the 1966 film adaptation (which was retitled The Deadly Affair) long before I ever read this book, and it was a definite improvement on the part of screenwriter Paul Dehn (Goldfinger, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) to integrate Ann and her wayward ways into the story. (There’s certainly evidence that le Carré thought so, too, as he eventually appropriated significant portions of Dehn’s Ann plotline into Tinker, Tailor.) Of course, it’s more possible to have a character weigh heavily on another character’s mind in a book than a film, and there’s no doubt in the novel as to how much she means to Smiley.

Call for the Dead opens with Smiley well past his wartime prime, toiling away in petty administrative duties in the vast bureaucracy of the Circus (le Carré slang for British Intelligence), reviewing the files of potential traitors and updating their security clearance. The Circus received an anonymous letter reporting that a Foreign Office employee named Samuel Fennan had been a member of the Communist Party in his pre-war University days. Smiley is obligated to follow up on this, and suggests to Fennan that they conduct their interview in the park so as not to cause Fennan any embarrassment by meeting in his office. The interview goes smoothly, Smiley finds himself liking Fennan, and he concludes that no action is necessary; after all, “half the Cabinet were in the Party in the thirties.” All seems well. Then that night he’s awakened with a call summoning him into the office at an ungodly hour for a meeting with his fastidious, incompetent, politically-fixated boss, Maston. (Maston is known officially as “the Adviser,” a title we later learn preceded Control as functional head of the service, but better known among rival departments as “Marlene Dietrich” owing to his drama queen tendencies.) Maston is panicked. Fennan is dead, and there’s a suicide note blaming Smiley and the Circus for harassing him.

Smiley can’t understand it. His report completely exonerated the man, and their meeting ended on a positive note. Was Fennan really a spy after all? Maston doesn’t care. He just wants Smiley to smooth over the whole thing before it comes back to reflect badly on the Circus at Whitehall. Smiley is duly dispatched to the home of Fennan’s widow, Elsa. She tells him a story completely at odds with his own impression of the previous day’s events, and says that her husband was a wreck when he came home that night, driven to that state by Smiley’s persecution. Smiley’s inclined to believe her and wondering how he could have been so wrong in his interpretation of the meeting with Fennan when the phone rings. Smiley answers, expecting it to be Maston. Instead, it’s a wake-up call from the telephone exchange (I guess that used to be a regular service?), ordered by Samuel Fennan: the titular call for the dead. Suddenly, the widow’s story doesn’t add up anymore. Why would a man planning to kill himself order a wake-up call for the next morning?

Smiley teams up with Mendel, a Special Branch detective on the verge of retirement who will recur throughout the series, to answer that question. The Adviser doesn’t want it answered. He wants the whole affair wrapped up as quickly as possible with minimal embarrassment for the Circus. Smiley is so outraged that he quits the Circus (the first of many such occasions), and decides to pursue the investigation on his own with the aid of Mendel and his former colleague, Peter Guillam (fated to be another recurring character), who provides crucial information from inside the secret service that Smiley’s no longer privy to. That innocuous phone call will lead this trio on a perilous quest involving East German spies, the London underworld, more murders, and specters from Smiley’s wartime past. It will also land Smiley in the hospital, the victim of a vicious attempt on his own life—and see him grappling in another brutal, life-or-death struggle atop his very own Reichenbach Falls. Yes, it's all a bit more physical and a bit more of an adventure than one might expect of George Smiley!

All of the characters are richly drawn, from Mendel to Elsa Fennan to bit parts like Adam Scarr, the polygamist chop shop owner who puts Smiley and his pals on the trail of the blond German spy Hans-Dieter Mundt, a sadistic figure who will play a much larger role in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. We care about these people. The characters ring so true, in fact, that le Carré doesn’t need to provide the intricate, twisting sort of plot that will characterize his future work—or the far-out sort of spectacle that Ian Fleming would dream up. Call for the Dead is a very down-to-earth spy story (though not without action), a procedural whose fascination lies in the wholly believable secret world it sheds light on and in the equally believable human beings who inhabit that world. It may be slight—both in scope and length—compared to the author’s later novels, but it nonetheless serves as a perfect introduction to George Smiley and his world—and to the wider oeuvre of John le Carré. If Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the perfect Smiley hardback—a dense, challenging work to be read and pondered in a favorite armchair—I would call Call for the Dead the perfect Smiley paperback—a fast thriller to be consumed quickly on a long commute.

More than five years after writing this review, I revisited Call for the Dead in a discussion with Shane Whaley on the Spybrary podcast. Listen to that here.

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)

Jan 17, 2012

Tradecraft: Fox Orders Pilot for The Asset

Last August, we heard that Fox had bought a pitch from Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles producer Josh Friedman called The Asset. Now Deadline reports that Fox has ordered up a pilot. This is the next step along the road to your television sets, but certainly not the last. If the network likes the pilot, then hopefully they'll order it to series... and then you'll see it on TV next fall. All we know about the show is that it's described as "a character-driven drama set in the New York office of the CIA, which centers on a female agent." I still think The Asset is a great title, but I also still want to know what the cool twist is that differentiates this female-driven spy show from Covert Affairs and Alias! And I know there must be such a differentiating twist, or else Fox wouldn't have ordered the pilot and Josh Friedman wouldn't have pitched it to begin with. I would have thought it would behoove Fox to include whatever sets this show apart in their early press releases, but of course I'll be tuning in if this show makes it to the air no matter what...

More Details On Melissa George's BBC Spy Series, Nemesis

The BBC has revealed more details about Nemesis, their new Melissa George spy series from Kudos (Spooks/MI-5) and Frank Spotnitz (producer of the American version of Strike Back) that we first heard about last fall. The 8-part series, which will air on BBC One in Britain and Cinemax in America, stars George as Sam, a top operative for an elite private intelligence contractor who learns that someone on her team wants her dead, but doesn't know who or why. Other cast members include Adam Rayner (Undercovers), Stephen Dillane (Spy Game), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Killer Elite, Strike Back), Lex Shrapnel (Captain America: The First Avenger), Uriel Emil (The Bourne Ultimatum), Patrick Malahide (The World Is Not Enough, The Long Kiss Goodnight) and Stephen Campbell Moore (The Bank Job, Johnny English Reborn). Location filming will take place in Scotland, London and Morocco. The usual Bourne comparisons are thrown around by the Beeb ("a complex and mysterious Bourne-style female spy unlike anyone we've seen on TV before"), but the such shorthand probably does the series a disservice. Spotnitz promises "huge story twists and turns, and intriguing characters who are both emotionally and morally complex." It sounds like a bit of a combination of Strike Back and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and if Spotnitz pulls that off, I'll be very pleased!

Jan 16, 2012

Tradecraft: New Team Invokes The Sigma Protocol

We heard in mid-2008 that Iron Man scribes Art Marcum and Matt Holloway were tackling an adaptation of Robert Ludlum's final completed novel, The Sigma Protocol, for Universal and Strike Entertainment. But things have been quiet on that front for some time. Now, Deadline reports that the project is still in the works at Uni, but with new writers and new producers. According to the trade blog, legendary producer Irwin Winkler (Goodfellas, The Right Stuff, S*P*Y*S) has been tapped not only to co-produce (along with Captivate Entertainment's Jeffrey Weiner and Ben Smith, custodians of the Ludlum legacy), but also to co-write the film with Jose Ruisanchez. In his entire four-plus decade career, Winkler has only three writing credits (most recently for the 2006 Samuel L. Jackson drama Home of the Brave). Apparently his take involves going back to the book (kind of a radical approach to Ludlum after the last two Bourne films disappointingly abandoned the author's plots), after Marcum and Holloway's draft had drifted fairly far afield in an attempt to be topical with Wall Street themes. Ludlum's novel, which I haven't read, follows, an ordinary man on vacation in Europe who becomes entangled in international intrigue with a female rogue agent. “What we are really hoping to do is create a franchise around this ordinary guy, ” Winkler told Deadline “Unlike Bourne, who is a trained assassin, this is an innocent guy traveling in Europe who gets in way over his head. And it has all the great Ludlum intrigue.” There are so many Ludlum movies in development; I just want to see some of them actually get made!

Jan 13, 2012

Lockout Trailer

Well, this isn't really really a trailer, per se, but AICN has posted this promotional video with plenty of footage providing us with our first look at the next Luc Besson-produced neo-Eurospy movie, Lockout (here billed under its infinitely inferior alternate title of MS One, a moniker no doubt intended to evoke Besson's French hit District B13). As we learned when it was first announced in 2010, Lockout is not a conventional neo-Eurospy movie along the lines of Besson's Taken, From Paris With Love or Transporter movies. Instead, it is what movies like Agent 3S3: Operation Atlantis or Mission Stardust were to the Sixties Eurospy movies: a genre hybrid that happily handpicks elements from spy and sci-fi and anything else that comes to mind, throws it all in a blender and damn the consequences. This one's about a disgraced government agent who has to save the President's daughter (all standard, typically formulaic Eurospy or neo-Eurospy stuff)... in space! I like the twist. The footage here definitely makes it seem more sci-fi than spy, but it's clear that the film has that same overall feel and attitude as Besson's other neo-Eurospy fare. And, as I expected him to, Guy Pearce seems to make an absolutely perfect hero for one of these movies. I love his one-liners in the video. And I love that he gets to do what Liam Neeson never did in Taken when his teenage daughter was whining like a ten-year-old: he shushes Maggie Grace. (Grace is said to have a much larger role in Taken 2, and I hope Lockout proves why. Even in the brief snippets of her performance we see here, it looks like a definite improvement over Taken.) Lockout opens in France next month; Film District will release it in the United States later this year. Take a look:

Jan 11, 2012

Watch the First Five Minutes of Haywire Online

Relativity Media has put up the first five minutes of Steven Soderbergh's action-packed spy movie Haywire on Hulu. You can watch it here. Pretty cool, huh? Well, that only gives you a taste of all the action in this movie. And each fight scene is staged and shot differently, keeping things interesting. Haywire is a surprisingly good action movie, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again. Read my review of the film here.

Jan 10, 2012

Official James Bond 50th Anniversary "Golden Girl" Poster

007.com has revealed the official "Golden Girl" James Bond 50th Anniversary poster that Michael G. Wilson alluded to in today's "Bond 50" Blu-ray press release. Quite stunning! I always liked that 25th Anniversary poster that simply showed all the 1-sheets, but this is better. And check out that SkyFall title treatment down there by the Golden Girl's nether region: it's pretty cool to see it in the context of all the others, isn't it?

More Bond Blu-rays Coming This Year

Finally! At long last, the remaining nine James Bond movies will see release in high-definition on the Blu-ray format. Several waves came out in 2008 and 2009, but since then, we've seen nothing. Until now. Today at the Consumer Electronics Show, Fox and MGM announced that all 22 official 007 movies to date (that excludes rogue productions Never Say Never Again and Casino Royale '67, both of which are already available individually on Blu-ray from MGM) will be released on Blu-ray together in the massive "collectible box-set" Bond 50. It's the first time all the movies have been released together in the format, and marks the Blu-ray debut for You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty's Secret ServiceDiamonds Are Forever, The Spy Who Loved Me, Octopussy, A View to a KillThe Living Daylights, GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies. In addition to the films, Bond 50 will boast "more than 130 hours of bonus features including some new and exclusive content." I'm really curious to see what that new and exclusive content is! All of the Blu-rays released so far have included the exact same special features as the DVD Special Editions, so does this new content mean that the missing titles will get new, additional extras? Or will there be a bonus disc (or discs)? I'm betting on the latter. SRP for this huge set (which marks the first time in recent memory that all of the films have been packaged together in any format in the U.S.) is a whopping $299.99, but it can already be pre-ordered on Amazon for substantially less: just $199.99. And that's not bad at all, as it works out to less than $10 a disc.

Of course the bad news here is that most fans likely already own the existing Blu-ray titles, and since no individual releases have been announced, they may feel compelled to shell out all over again for this complete set just to own the ones they don't already have. That's clearly the strategy here. And, personally, I have to admit it doesn't really bother me. Historically I've always upgraded to the latest release of Bond movies anyway, going all the way back to the days of VHS, so I'd probably buy this set even if the only upgrade was a new bonus disc. (I'm a sucker for new editions of James Bond and Evil Dead.) And for those who aren't completists like me (though I suspect a lot of readers are), I have no doubt that the missing titles will be released on their own sometime down the road.

The press release ends with a quote from Michael G. Wilson, promising that "We have a whole program of exciting activities planned for our 50th anniversary year, beginning with today’s announcement." This is an exciting beginning to 007's Golden Anniversary in the cinema. I can't wait to see the rest of the program EON's got planned! In the meantime, here's a trailer for the Blu-ray collection:

Ryan Reynolds Really Wants You to Think He's Jason Bourne

This new poster for the upcoming Denzel Washington/Ryan Reynolds spy movie Safe House started popping up in movie theaters over the holiday season. While the teaser poster just showed Washington, this one adds Reynolds to the equation. And if your reaction was, "Hm, that looks really familiar..." here's why:

Clearly, the studio wants you to subconsciously say to yourself, "Oh, I know that movie, and I like that movie!" I don't know... Reynolds doesn't make that convincing a Bourne on that poster. Here's hoping Safe House is even a fraction as good as The Bourne Ultimatum...

Jan 9, 2012

Final Poster For Haywire Revealed

Relativity Media has shared the final 1-sheet image for Steven Soderbergh's upcoming action spy thriller Haywire, starring Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor and Michael Douglas. It sticks with the same general aesthetic we've seen on the U.S. teaser poster (which still features prominently in the campaign, adorning busstops and construction sites throughout L.A.) and the UK quad, but finally gives audiences a decent glimpse at Carano's face. Remember that face, because with this film a new action heroine is born. We'll be seeing more of Gina Carano.

To find out why, read my full review of Haywire here.

Haywire opens nationwide on January 20.

First Photo of Renner as New Bourne

USA Today (via Dark Horizons) has published what I believe is the first photo of Jeremy Renner as the new Bourne... or the non-Bourne star of the new Bourne movie, I should say, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. (I really wish Tony Gilroy had just had him step in as the same character Matt Damon played. It worked fine for James Bond!) Dark Horizons reports that Renner's secret agent is named Aaron Cross. Well, whatever he's called, I'm very excited to see Renner take over that franchise after he impressed me in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. And that picture certainly conveys a Bourne-like badass superspy. As previously reported, the new film co-stars Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Oscar Isaacs, Albert Finney and Joan Allen.

The Bourne Legacy opens August 4.