John le Carré’s Cold Spy Diamonds

George Smiley’s Best Friend

 DATELINE:  Spy Writer of Cold War

With the passing of  John le Carré at age 89 at the end of 2020, we have the true ending to the Cold War. If anyone managed to portray it for forty years in all its cold-hearted, ruthless, black and white ennui, it was this master writer.

If you wanted spy humor, you went to James Bond. If you wanted spy thrills, you turned the the former spy who worked for MI-6 and then worked for himself as a novelist.

Back in the 1960s, if you  wanted a thinking man’s spy thriller, you went to a film based on John le Carré, and if you wanted a thriller with twists, you went to Mission: Impossible. If you wanted laughs, you turned to James Bond.

He created one dull master spy who was deadlier than 007. That was George Smiley. Some of the greatest actors jumped at the chance to play him—even if they changed his name to something less ironic in the adaptations.

You can find Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, Denholm Elliot,  Gary Oldman, and James Mason, all playing Smiley.

In one film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you will find Tom Hardy as a slimeball gay agent. Now he has graduated to be the next James Bond.

All-star casts wanted to play small roles in these chess-match movies. You needed nerves of steel to be an espionage agent who was treated like T-paper at the end of the roll. Great actors like Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hinds, Oskar Werner, Hugh Laurie, Maximilian Schell, and others wanted roles in various versions.

The stories and characters are all of a piece, no matter who directed and when they came together. The seminal opener was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, or two versions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  You might find The Night Manager a surprise, or Deadly Affair  so different from your usual spy novel/movie fare.

This grand writer of espionage and spies has left us with a brilliant legacy and a smorgasbord  of human drama. Whether it happens in the rivalry between Soviets and Americans, the psychology and personality of the men who did this work make for compelling tales.

We think John le Carré (a pen name for David Cornwell) will live forever, and we did enjoy his cameo appearance inThe Night Managerin his latter years. Start anywhere. You can’t go wrong with watching—or reading a master storyteller.

 

 

 

Cold Warrior Spy: Richard Burton

DATELINE: Don’t Make’em Like This Anymore

 Dazzling Burton!

The extraordinary 1965 film of John le Carré’s classic,The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, has been listed on Prime as an action thriller. Of course, it is neither. It is a bleak, sober, cold and dreary film about moral turpitude among the espionage community.

John le Carré himself was an agent of MI-6 who turned into a novelist.

This was a seminal Richard Burton performance: and no one ever, even today, can convey the dissipation and ennui as he can. To watch him staggering around (as a double agent) in rainstorms and walking around bleak streets, avoiding a tail is in itself remarkable. We even see him in a Volkswagen, as an M-6 agent pretending to defect to the East.

George Smiley, the most famous of all the LeCarre agents, is here in the form of an unimpressive figure (actor Rupert Davies) working for Control. We believe it is the first Smiley appearance in a movie, as he later became known for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spyin several movie incarnations (Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman, notably). Here he is a plot key, but mostly as a spoken name.

Claire Bloom is the female lead. It was one of the few movies that Elizabeth Taylor simply could not play with her then husband. She would not make a convincing demure librarian—and had to pass on the role when director Martin Ritt put his foot down and said, “NO!”  Bloom is perfect. Burton was peeved and Taylor hung around the set causing mischief.

Oskar Werner has the other smallish but central part as the nemesis to the British secret agent. He is the elusive and dangerous East German spy that has hamstrung MI-6—and must be discredited to the Soviets.

That’s Burton’s job: not glamourous or exciting, but could mean his life is up for Cold War grabs.

Climax is at the Berlin Wall where double-crossing takes on a double meaning.

 

Burton’s angry speech near the end is worth the entire film.