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.