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.

 

 

 

Mike Nichols: Becoming & Unbecoming

 DATELINE: Insider Biography

 Burtons with Nichols.

Filmed shortly before his death several years ago, director and comedian Mike Nichols reviewed his life and career before an audience and in a more private interview. HBO put together this short film about Nichols called Becoming Mike Nichols.

The result is an illuminating exposition about a self-made director.

In the early 1960s in the heyday of the monologue comic standups like Mort Sahl and Bob Newhart, you had Nichols and May among the cleverest of all. Their run ended when, Nichols admits, he became too obstreperous director for May.

It opened up a chance to direct in theater, not merely his partner. He started with Neil Simon, Walter Matthau, Robert Redford, and Odd Couple on stage. Not exactly chopped liver.

He knew many Broadway stars from his years in New York, and met Richard Burton when they were in next door theaters. Burton later invited him to Rome to visit where he met Elizabeth Taylor while filming Cleopatra—and he was instrumental in having both appear in his first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Three days before filming, he had friend Tony Perkins give him a crash course of pointers on use of camera in movies. In fact, he learned on the job. His work began a string of brilliant movies: The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge, Catch-22, and other literate films like The Birdcage.

The documentary focuses on his first two movies in depth, giving marvelous insights into Taylor, Burton, Dustin Hoffman, Buck Henry, and Simon and Garfunkel. The anecdotes leave the audience begging for more. A few pearls drop about Jack Warner, Billy Wilder, Anthony Perkins, but there is not time or attention to those.

There is nothing really about his Emmy winners or Tony winners. You may want to know about The Birdcage or Angels in America,  or his work on Gilda Radner or Whoopi Goldberg, but you will need to look elsewhere for that.

 

 

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.

 

 

In from the Cold? Richard Burton

DATELINE: Portrait of Welsh Rare-bit

Burton & Hamlet Yorick with Burton!

Just a few years after his death in 1984, a comprehensive documentary biography of the great stage and film actor Richard Burton stands as the definitive word on his career and life. It is called, overly rococo, In from the Cold? Portrait of Richard Burton.

To put Elizabeth Taylor and two-time husband Burton into perspective, they were the Tom Brady and Giselle Bundchen of their era.

A poor Welsh boy, Richard Jenkins found success through his good looks and well-modulated voice. His legal guardian was Philip Burton who helped him achieve his initial goals.

Only later did he seem to sell his soul for international fame and money. It seems to have brought him emptiness and unhappiness.

Generous to a fault, he supported dozens of people with his film revenue. It underwrote some of his great stage work:  Camelot, Equus, Hamlet, and even Private Lives.

We see him playing Edwin Booth as Laurence Olivier as Richard III. Indeed, Olivier asked him whether he wanted to be a great stage actor or a rich movie star. He was both.

The film contains some fairly unflattering interviews with Lauren Bacall, Joe Mankiewicz, and Mike Nichols, who seem to trace his downfall to the soul-selling deal with Elizabeth Taylor. Indeed, the film uses clips from Virginia Woof, Faustus, Wagner, and the Spy Who Came in from the Cold, as biographical annotations on Burton’s predicament, in his own words. He is hoisted on the petard ruthlessly.

The man was far gentler than his righteous angry young man personality—and dissipated roue of later years.

If Elizabeth Taylor was his Waterloo and Watergate, he was complicit in the lifestyle. The film skips over a few morsels but stays away from trivia that might be too revealing. He did a guest bit on The Lucy Show to satirize his own character. He gave interviews in which he seems to be acting, or not. It is hard to tell.

To hear that grand voice again, and see those notorious news reel clips, is shocking to reveal how long he has been gone, and how much he is missed. There has never been a replacement—in movies, or the sad last years of Miss Taylor’s life.

My Cousin Rachel: What’s Your Poison?

DATELINE: Updates & Remakes

 Claflinor Burton original

Novelist Daphne Du Maurier has been both blessed and condemned by being associated forever with Alfred Hitchcock. He made both their names synonymous with mysterious melodrama after the mesmerizing Rebecca came out in 1941.

Ten years later Olivia De Havilland and Richard Burton made My Cousin Rachel with George Cukor, but he quit the film in pre-production after both he and Miss Du Maurier criticized the script. The film was successful nonetheless with director Henry Koster.

So, we come to 2017 when director Roger Michell makes a stab at re-doing the lush period piece with its conflicting and misunderstood characters, Rachel and Philip. The film is beautiful to look at and raises more complexity in the relationships of the characters.

In a nutshell Rachel has married Philip’s cousin and adoptive father Ambrose in Italy. There, Ambrose sends his young ward letters indicating his new wife is poisoning him. According to authorities, Ambrose had a brain tumor that made him paranoid.

However, Philip is not so sure: perhaps he too is a bit paranoid, suspecting Rachel of being a master manipulator of exotic poison. Perhaps she is also plotting to poison him too.

Wonderful and swaggering, Sam Claflin as Philip is no Richard Burton. It is unfair to expect him to be, and Rachel Weisz seems a tad too young for the dangerous older woman. Yet, they convey more subtlety than you might expect.

There are hints and foreshadows everywhere that Philip was more than a ward to Ambrose, and he is inexperienced with women, adding to his possible misconstruing of Rachel’s personality. He also seems to have inherited his “cousin’s” paranoia, perhaps caused by a brain tumor.

The film has occasional lapses of moral rectitude of the era of English country life with Rachel and Philip bursting into each other’s bedrooms in violation of social norms of the period. That aside, this is a sumptuous film that has double-edged suspicions on both sides of Philip and Rachel.

We must laud any film of diligence and intelligence in this day of cartoonish, noise-filled superheroes. We hope today’s audiences can understand subtext while watching this film.

No Private Lives for Taylor and Burton

 DATELINE: MOVIE MASHUP!

Image

The Battling Burtons as depicted by Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West

The second TV movie of the year hit the small screen with all the impact of a million dollar star of yesteryear shrunk appropriately.

After the Lindsay Lohan version of a woman who had a true sense of literature, who knew what film acting entailed, and had a theatrical sense about life, we now have the Helena Bonham Carter version of Elizabeth Taylor at 50.

This one focuses upon her grand passion: Richard Burton (Dominic West). The stars are at a more mature point in life and were to do Noel Coward’s Private Lives. He had recommended it to them, but Taylor didn’t come up with the idea again until 1983. Coward really did have them in mind and told Taylor and Burton it was written for them in 1930 without ever having met them.

Carter and West seem like they are playing a real life version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And, in reality that movie epitomized them—and so art imitated art imitating the Battling Burtons. Carter feared she would look like a female impersonator in Taylor costumes, but her fears were unfounded.

This version makes us nostalgic again for their larger than life talents and movies. We saw them on stage in Private Lives all those many years ago, and they were magnificent—though critics disparaged them.

Burton died shortly thereafter, and they never filmed a movie version of the play. This little motion picture comes about as close as one can. We almost wished that Carter and West simply had put on Private Lives as Burton and Taylor.

The movie took us back in time and made us sentimental for the old days. It may not have that effect on younger audiences, but this is the second biographical movie we have anticipated this year (Behind the Candelabra is the other).

View it as a pale shadow of the real thing and think wistfully of how the titans of that age are now gone. Burton and Taylor was a lovely trip down memory lane.