PREVIOUSLY: I watched every feature film adaption of a John le Carré novel in preparation for the U.S. theatrical release of this film, in order to write about them each in sequence.
CURRENTLY: Well, let’s get down to it. Is this the apex of the Carré Canon? Obviously not, as some of the earlier efforts are considered stone-cold classics and are not going to be re-evaluated in comparison to the strengths of a film that has received a thorough critical meh in the UK upon release. It’s difficult to know exactly what the critics were hoping for, as I’ve been avoiding their write-ups for the past few weeks in order to go into my own viewing as untrammeled as possible. Now having watched the movie and weighed it, I plan on writing about it in a more free-form manner than my previous reviews, all of which were able to be planned and sourced by years if not decades of critical response, by DVD release and multiple viewings. Sure, I’d never seen Deadly Affair or Looking Glass War before, but their very absence was part of the shadow that they cast in a minor film nerd’s hunt-and-pecking through the feed trough of cinema history. I have seen this once — in a mostly empty screening populated by three elderly couples, one of whom felt like they were obligated to share their confusion with the plot and their lives with the rest of the audience &mdsah; and won’t be able to review the materiel with quite the same ease as the other titles in this series. So I plan on rambling for a bit, reacting to the reviews and any press materials that seem germane, and then putting this little experiment in using WordPress’ post-dating ability to rest. Won’t you join me for this final installment of Putting Le Carré Before Le Source?
We begin with a reasonable amount of Russians speaking Russian, mostly with subtitles, sometimes without, depending upon whether director Susanna White (Bleak House, Generation Kill) wants us to be given information or to be given tone. Her decision to have the characters talk on cell phones or murmur to each other without transition attempts to force the audience to pick up on what’s going on by watching the characters’ intent, their eyes, and by listening to the susurrus of ordinary vocal timbre. Obviously, this requires the sort of audience that is going to try and find meaning when obvious information is not provided, that is going to search for clues and not instead fold into a sulk of alienation. Bit of a risky proposition, I feel, having ridden many polyglottal subways and seen passengers threatened and worried by the indecipherable multicultural human interactions around them. I mention again the aged couple that sat a few rows behind me, mumbling through each ambiguity in a sour hunt for step-by-step plotting and motivation.
Not that this film was completely devoid of signposting, it just occasionally gave us the conflict first and the reasons a little later. Read the rest of this entry »
PREVIOUSLY: I’m so enamored of Michelle Pfeiffer that I forget to mention the 28-year age difference between her and her co-star, one of the emerging themes of this commentary. It’s almost certainly because in this case I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to hurdle that particular distance, in fiction or in real life.
CURRENTLY: The sequel to The Tinker of Panama (we’re still waiting for the third and fourth in the series) begins with Pierce Brosnan getting reassigned from his post in Spain, where he later tells us he had an affair with the ambassador’s mistress, to instead be located in Panama, where British interests are worried about the stability of local control of the canal. We are told about its return to the Panamanians in 1999 in a leaden infodump which accompanies an incredibly fake-looking CGI airliner and a ham-handedly stilted introduction to Geoffrey Rush’s eponymous character. Brosnan is blunt, crude, and specifically presented in contrast to the thin slice of suave that he’d carved out in the Bond franchise for the previous seven years. Brosnan didn’t play just Bond during his tenure, he didn’t rest on his laurels and let people think of him as nothing but 007, appearing in nine other films between Goldeneye and The World is not Enough. While only one of those nine movies seemingly traded off his Bond-based slickness — the Thomas Crown remake paints him with the same wry, uber-competence that he brought to his interpretation of Bond — and one could easily assume therefore that the audience would know him for other reasons and with other ranges, Tailor of Panama seems to be aggressively stepping forward to let us know, Ey, e’s not Bond, alright? Alright, squire? Got it? Not Bond, right? Right? A cursory Google full-text search of the original book seems to indicate that the character of Andy Oxnard never utilized the C-word in casual conversation (and lest you think that this is Google being wary of prurience, similar searches for shit and fuck come up gangbusters — 11 and 38 respectively), whereas director John Boorman has Brosnan drop it twice.
The opening sequence is oddly garish. It’s not just the aforementioned implausible exposition, which not only uses stock footage and voice-over narration that wouldn’t be out of place in a terribly travelogue (and which, incongruously, is never used again in the film), but also incorporates a terrible stock font. I don’t remember which wag of a graphic designer I saw efficiently take down James Cameron’s use of Papyrus in Avatar, but only because I had been struck the same way: no multi-million dollar film should be introduced by graphics readily available in Microsoft Word. A quick online font analysis tells me that the above titles are a variant on another Microsoft classic, Dom Casual, which Wikipedia informs me was also used on Bewitched and Barney Miller. That is not the kind of tone I expect from Le Carré. I don’t care if you’re trying to be arch in your not-Bond satire, swinging all the way to evoking sit-coms is a pendulum too far.
PREVIOUSLY: Rep actress Diane Keaton is recruited to act as a honeypot double-agent and seduce a Palestinian bomber who listens to faux-Kraftwerk and looks weirdly like a young Lord John Marbury. Trauma ensues.
CURRENTLY: This was the start of my serious relationship with Le Carré. Hot off of “discovering” Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, I went to my local video store, which had shelves dedicated to specific actors of note, and did a deep dive into the back catalogue of Ms. Pfeiffer, trying to figure out whether she was just a luminous pair of eyes that beamed directly into my adolescent heart, or if there were real acting chops there. My friends at the time said it was the former. They pointed at her stilted line delivery and her slightly lopsided duckface and they dismissed my film crush. And yes, perhaps if I had stopped at the haughty artificiality of The Age of Innocence and the choppy garishness of Married to the Mob, or if I had first been exposed to her during the warbling commercialism of Grease 2, I would have written her off. But it’s a mistake to confuse the limitations of casting directors with the limits of a performer’s range. And while Pfeiffer may have been assigned to a number of roles characterized by a kind of brittleness, she brought and brings human subtlety and curious languor to her parts as well. The showstopper for me was and is Dangerous Liaisons, but Russia House lags not far behind. Really, it’s a matter of mood. While it may come as some surprise at this point in this series of write-ups to say that any other film could be more cynical than the works of Le Carré, director Schepisi instead brings a lush romanticism to Russia House, transforming treason into an act of nobility that is, paradoxically, deserving of a sentence of life instead of death. Liaisons, on the other hand casts love, true love, as the incentive for death. Romance has rarely been bleaker (although I also saw Damage at about that same time, and that’d give Liaisons‘ bleakness a run for its proverbial money).
But I digress before I begin. Russia House‘s sweeping romanticism appealed to my desired teenaged achetypes, and so I had the advance teaser poster hanging on my wall, and the soundtrack on regular repeat on the dashboard cassette deck on my way to and from school and work. I listened to the abridged audiobook on tape, focusing on Le Carré reading his own words to try and get additional insight into the subtext and the choices underlying the performances. And with a deep crush on Ms. Pfeiffer, I found delight and clarity in passages like:
which allowed me to bask in the memories of her face on the screen. The book fed my memories of the adaptation, and clips of key quotations from the film recorded to audiotape made the recollection of accompanying images remain strong. It all swirled together, the celebrity and the heroine, the idealism of the civilian characters and the cynicism of the author’s espionage proxies.
And oh how many proxies there are. Read the rest of this entry »
PREVIOUSLY: The previous three Le Carré film adaptations came out in a clutch, within four years of each other. Then the paradigm shifted, and adaptations moved to television. Perhaps the most famous and well-regarded Le Carré adaptations are still the Guinness Smiley series, the first of which was released a full decade after The Looking Glass War.
CURRENTLY: Five years after that, we come to the eighties, and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. The first thing that happens is that Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, a year before being romanced by Chevy Chase in Fletch, makes her apparent film debut by blowing up the residence of an Israeli ambassador with glee and with complete lack of concern about executing the small child who lives there. We later meet the leader of a Palestinian training camp who decries such sangfroid, and such actions, but such denunciations don’t prevent him from continuing to use them as tools for the greater end. Similarly, we have Diane Keaton, an American performer with a theatre company in Nottingham, recruited by Israeli intelligence because they believe her faith in the righteousness of a Palestinian state along with her skills as actress will allow her to convincingly pose as a terrorist recruiter’s girlfriend.
Viewed from a current perspective, there’s a dalliance with the idea of radicalization of Westerners that could either give a viewer pause or reassure us that our current fear of Arabic fifth columnists in our backyard is not particularly new. But it’s not the ultimate focus of the material, which is more interested in trauma and dehumanization. In fact, Drummer Girl stakes out both moral and exploitative territory that Spielberg will eventually cover in Munich almost twenty years later. The material and its presentation try to be even-handed. The best representation of this is a scene between Keaton’s character of Charlie and Yorgo Voyagis’ Israeli agent, who she calls “Joseph”. The Israelis have captured a terrorist with whom they want Charlie to pretend to have had a brief, intense romantic relationship. They can fabricate evidence of the affair, but they also want Charlie’s testimony to stand up to scrutiny. So they are leading her through experiences so that she can recall the sense memory of the places and conversations as an actress, and believably recount them under questioning. “Joseph” is performing as the stand-in for Michel, the captured man, but Charlie can’t commit to the “reality” of this false-front romance, and wants to flirt with Joseph.
Joseph tells the story of Michel’s father and grandfather facing down the Israeli tanks that reclaimed territory by force. He tells it convincingly, with fervor and belief in the Palestinian perspective, as Michel would have. Charlie looks at him doubtfully, knowing this is not his story. She asks where he was during these events, and Joseph reveals he was in the tanks that drove out and killed Michel’s family and those like him. The cognitive dissonance of listening to a man tell — convincingly, empathetically — the story of his enemy is an extraordinary technique for making the audience weigh both sides and come out with no clear answer. The methods of the Israelis are brutal, but they are deployed against equally inhumane practices. Everyone acts from a position of righteous justification, and everyone still emerges tainted.
The exception being Charlie. Spoilers after the cut. Read the rest of this entry »
PREVIOUSLY: Spoiler Alert: Humbert Humbert kills a guy with his broken arm. Humbert’s arm, not the other guys’. His arms are both fine, except for being, y’know, dead. And all.
CURRENTLY: In last week’s teaser for this entry, I supposed, based on the character names in IMDB, that the women in The Looking Glass War were likely to receive short shrift in the story. I was, at the time, a little annoyed at Le Carré’s sidelining of women after writing about George Smiley’s beleaguered relationship with his wife. While Ann appears somewhat regularly in Affair, she is mostly a ghost in the later Smiley novels, inspiring him in her absence, in the echoes of his perception of her betrayals, and in how she was used as a lever to shift and destabilize him. Because the seeming primary female characters in Looking Glass were given credits as “The Girl”, “The Girl in London”, “Avery’s Wife”, and “Mrs. King”, it was difficult not to assume that they would have little interesting agency of their own, but would be defined only by their relationships to the strutting espionage menfolk of the picture.
And while the second point is hard to argue against, the first was luckily slightly mitigated. Looking Glass focuses on Leiser, a Polish man discovered in prison by British Intelligence and trained to be sent into East Germany to identify what looks like a missile transport. Leiser is motivated initially by his desire to stay with his English girlfriend, whom he has gotten pregnant. And as he schemes to see her one last time before his exfiltration, we see the tension between his trainer, played by Anthony Hopkins, whose wife’s family feels his counter-intelligence work is beneath his dignity and their respect. Hopkins, in a completely unsurprising continuation of the Le Carré Protagonist Trope, feels controlled and limited by his wife; she appears briefly trying to bridge the gap between her husband’s mores and propriety, and afterward is felt only as a judgement on Hopkins’ actions and decisions. Leiser cares still less for his girlfriend, but he cares a great deal about his future child, and if one has to love a teenager in a second-floor bedsit to make that come to fruition, then he seems gleeful and glad to do so. Upon learning she has aborted the child, he strikes her and sullenly proceeds to the Eastern Bloc anyway, now without motivation to keep him strictly on task and without a burning passion to survive.
Note also that “The Girl in London” is who he leaves behind, and not “The Girl”. The modifier renders her lesser, qualified instead of absolute. Read the rest of this entry »
CURRENTLY: I found it almost impossible to watch this film without comparing it to works that came later. One would think that it would therefore be hailed as seminal, as a tone-setter and as inspiration. Instead, it feels played and justly forgotten, despite preceding those media to which it pales in comparison.
The book was originally titled A Call for the Dead and is Le Carré’s first novel. As mentioned last week, George Smiley appears in The Spy Who and appears here, naturally enough, as the main character in the film based on the first Smiley novel. However, due to the sorts of rights issues that have, until recently, prevented Marvel Comics icon Spider-Man from appearing in Marvel universe movies, the George Smiley that sports Rupert Davies’ walrus mustache and roly-poly face is called “Charlie Dobbs”. However, like Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, &mdsah; which will be written eight years subsequently — “Dobbs” is married to a younger woman named Ann, who has affairs and relations with other men, despite claiming to love only her husband. In Affair she is portrayed by Harriet Andersson, who at the time was 34 to James Mason’s 57, a slightly more respectavble difference than that of his age gap with Sue Lyon in Lolita, which he made four years previous. I pretty much only know Mason from Lolita, a film called Charade that isn’t that one, and from Eddie Izzard impressions. So while I linked the two roles in my head, finding a strangeness in his relationship with a nymphette in the earlier film and a nymphomaniac in the latter, IMDB tells me that Mason made eight films during that four year interim, as well as three television series. So the relationship may well have been far from his mind, let alone that of the viewing public.
But while the spectre of my memories of Humbert Humbert hung listlessly over the film during my viewing, the main haunting was the holographic blue presence of Alec Guinness, whose later interpretation of Smiley I find impossible to eradicate from my mind’s eye and ear. Read the rest of this entry »
PREVIOUSLY: What’s this all about, Smiley?
CURRENTLY: There’s no easy way to abbreviate the title of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Spy is minimalist to the point of confusion, and The Spy Who Came lends itself to parody, whether in the Hustler vein or whether one merely dillies about in a more Austin Powers realm. (As Kelly Sue once said about smirking every time she heard the chorus to Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why”, “I am a child.” I find it hard not to succumb to equally juvenile impulses here.) And I feel compelled to avoid “TSWCIFTC”, if only because of a gut prejudice against the gutturally unpronounceable.
The film may teeter on a similar obscurity for long stretches. I suffer from that particular blindness of being unable to distinguish between the average features of Caucasian second-lead actors. And when I first watched this film as a teenager, I wasn’t at all sure that the Leamas who was waiting for his contact at Checkpoint Charlie, the Leamas who worked with Claire Bloom at the cryptophenomenology library, and the drunken, haggard Leamas at the corner store were all the same person. I wasn’t sufficiently familiar with Richard Burton to recognize him in all his guises, and the film doesn’t exactly work hard to connect those scenes together in tone, location, or time. The transition from Leamas’ debriefing by Control in his offices in The Circus (Le Carré’s consistent codename for what seems, to our modern eyes, to be MI-6) to his visit to the unemployment office gives us almost no idea as to how much time has passed and what are the circumstances of this seeming change of fortune. The director seems to want the viewer to be unsure as to whether Leamas actually fell from the graces of the secret services, or if this is all a cover. The equally abrupt subsequent shift to Leamas’ disheveled aggression toward current shopkeeper and future “M”, Bernard Lee, is hard to reconcile with the cold control of Leamas at work.
“No, fork ’andles. Handles for forks.”
We are eventually provided with context, and the extended stint of deep cover ambiguity gives way to some rather on-the-nose exposition about loyalty and spycraft, about allegiance and sides. Leamas’s cover as a former agent dissatisfied with the service then proceeds to gradually reveal itself as less of a skin, and more of the whole of the man. This becomes the ultimate trope of most of Le Carré’s protagonists: they are unable to disentangle the professional and the personal. With Smiley, this will be that his opposite number will have gone so far to destabilize his opponent, that the Soviet mole has had an affair with Smiley’s wife, thus emasculating him so that any political or intelligence victory is hollow. In The Russia House we have the unfortunately trite declaration that Katya Orlova is the only country that Barley Scott-Blair now calls home.
But back here at the beginning, before any other characters are established and explored, really the second thing the film does is provide Leamas and the audience with an extended treatise on how, in the name of moral certitude, England will and must do terrible things, things that would not hold up to scrutiny by the morals the country is protecting. Read the rest of this entry »
I have been inspired by The Incredible Suit‘s tradition of blogging obsessively about a series of linked films prior to a related release — his most famous is the BlogalongaBond, wherein he revisited each of the 22 official Bond films over the course of the 22 months before the release of Skyfall, but equally entertaining was the slightly clunkierly-titled BlogalongaStarWars, where the sextet was reviewed prior to the release of Episode VII. Watching the beginning of the new adaptation of John Le Carré’s The Night Manager, I was reminded of just how deep of a well his novels have been, for how long they have been fodder for adaptation, and how I might be able to accrue a similar chunk of bloggery by investigating those of Le Carré’s novels that have made it to the big or the small screen.
New York magazine mentioned that nine films have been made from the Le Carré opus since 1965, and IMDB informs me that it is nine weeks until the release of the tenth in cinemas (and Edward R. Rooney informs Mrs. Bueller that Ferris has been absent nine times). And despite my propensity for long stretches of silence on this blog, I am going to review or respond to one of these films each week until the release of Our Kind of Traitor on July 1st. Then I’m going to curl into a ball and retreat into my normal period of intense internet inactivity.
Because while The Incredible Suit and Smart Overcoat may have similar usernames, that resemblance and any further similarities are purely coincidental. When he ran his projects, they were spaced out over a period of time that was not insane and would not run ramshackle over one’s personal and professional life. I mean, sure, it’s not Doug Benson’s 366 Movie Challenge, and watching and writing about ten films in nine weeks is low-rent stuff for any professional film reviewer, it’s only difficult for anyone who doesn’t already have Le Carré’s body of work near to hand or who hasn’t memorized the HMTL for a lowercase e with an acute accent.
However, in the spirit of Film Blogging, and in homage to Le Carré’s hero character George Smiley, I would encourage anyone to join as one of
Smiley’sEmoji’s People, and to summarize the plots of any of the films entirely in emoji. I would do this as an add-on at the end of any article, but I am woefully unfamiliar with the range of available emoji, having eschewed the entire form of communication as a whole despite the best efforts of Chris Hardwick on @Midnight. Any summaremoji’s (I’m not sure that’s going to catch on) sent to me will be dutifully appended at the end of each post and gleefully boosted on social media. Thanks!
May 6 — The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
May 13 — The Deadly Affair (1966)
May 20 — The Looking Glass War (1969)
May 27 — The Little Drummer Girl (1984)
June 3 — The Russia House (1990)
June 10 — The Tailor of Panama (2001)
June 17 — The Constant Gardener (2005)
June 24 — Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)
June 30 — A Most Wanted Man (2014)
July 1 — Our Kind of Traitor (2016)
I haven’t seen Star Wars.
And not in the new, hipster way that young people haven’t seen Star Wars, because they’ve been told all their lives that it’s amazing, and it’s a small act of rebellion (against, amusingly, the Rebellion) to avoid the things their parents loved and fixated upon. Much in the way it took me almost thirty-five years to watch Citizen Kane, because I didn’t trust the mores and scales of those before me, and I both didn’t want to be disappointed that something might have aged badly and didn’t want to begrudgingly admit that maybe it really was the greatest thing ever.
(It’s not, by the way. Kane nor Star Wars. Neither is the greatest thing evs, let alone since sliced bread. But that’s another column.)
And neither have I not seen Star Wars in the BBC Radio, it’s-just-one-of-those-things-that-passed-me-by sense. No, I’ve seen Star Wars, I just haven’t seen Episode Seven. Not yet.
The first film to make over one hundred million dollars on opening day (although that number may include preview screenings from Thursday), and I am not one of the many Bothans that saw it. I usually pride myself on being able to be part of the cultural conversation in a timely manner, but I’m sitting this one out for a week or two. Which means that if I want to be spoiler wary, I have to keep much of cultural conversation in a sealed container. Next week, upon finally having been forced to awaken, I can go back to the internet and pry open that box and see what everyone has been saying about it a little too late. I’m a little sad about this, but if there’s anything that Twitter has taught me is to be used to getting to the interesting conversation far too late to chime in.
And it will be interesting to be slightly on the opposite side of a cultural phenomenon. Because since the Fake Geek spats of the last few years, I’ve been thinking about how it does and doesn’t bug me how much nerd culture has swept commonplace marketeering. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s been a good couple weeks for me and the Criterion Collection. They had a 50% off flash sale in early October and then they did their annual November sale with Barnes & Noble, and I proceeded to clean up about half of my profile wishlist. I’ve enjoyed coming home to a brick of Blu-Ray, whether the single-chaptered crisp blue key of Mulholland Drive, or the much-anticipated update of the classic Fisher King Criterion laserdisc. And then, today on the Criterion blog, I learned that the Speakeasy and Criterion Blues film blogs had organized a marathon of homage posts to the collection. Today featured English-language films from 1947 until 1980… which should have included Charade, but no one seems to have stepped up and claimed the title. I don’t really have the time to spend on this, as I should be working on other writing, but I shall stride in where others haven’t deigned to tread and add my own small, unrequested contribution.
I have previously written on the fiftieth anniversary of the film, of copyright issues surrounding it’s public domain status, and how I first started buying various editions of the DVD way back in 2002. The film has either been a touchstone or an obsession of mine, depending upon who you talk to. So what remains as a topic to address? A day after the internet, particularly “Film Twitter”, went nuts about the idea of remaking Memento, it could be time to mention that The A.V. Club listed Charade first amongst its list of films that merited updating or at least a revisit. Cameron Scheetz acknowledges that Jonathan Demme already tried this, but still seems to think that the chemistry and repartee between the leads would crackle under the deft hand of someone like Steven Soderbergh, saying the script would foster his “ability to build palpable, simmering chemistry between his two leads amid a thrilling crime yarn.” I adore Soderbergh, and have faith in his timing, his stylishness, and his control of tone. And if there’s something that Charade tries very hard to do, it’s to pendulum between these three cardinal points of romance, comedy, and genuine suspense, occasionally dangling one over the dark pit of whether a classic Hollywood star could actually be sharkskin: deliciously smooth in one direction, but barbed and even savage in the other. And in Soderbergh’s Side Effects, we unfortunately saw that he wasn’t able to successfully manage that kind of audience deception. That the consequence of lying to another character also meant completely obfuscating the audience as well, which rendered revelations and payoff as a disappointing gruel. Stylish and engaging, but with a sense that not even the most dedicated of mystery readers could have found the hidden clues and followed along at home.
But no, let’s not talk about what the film shouldn’t be, lets talk about how the film succeeds, and then wrap up by noting what the disc itself provides. Read the rest of this entry »