LE CARRÉ DIEM: The Looking Glass War

20 May, 2016 at 10:53 pm (film, le carré diem)

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.

Penguin Modern Classics edition of 'The Looking Glass War'

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. That condensed moniker goes to Pia Degermark, who picks Leiser up after he’s brutally stabbed a few Germans and worked his way closer to where this missile truck is supposed to be. Leiser is played by Christopher Jones, a fine piece of eye-candy who does a fine physical job of strolling about topless and twisting himself around men and women over the course of the film. Jones was 28 at the time of the film’s release, but still has a boyish, smooth-faced appearance. He reminded me of Horst Buchholz in The Magnificent Seven — who would have been about the same age when that film came out — too old to play a complete naïf, but not graven enough to be taken seriously. However, he looks positively predatory next to the 19 year-old Susan George and the 20 year-old Degermark, who passes as a probable sixteen, despite holding herself with an eerie control that makes her seem like she should be more than a match for those beyond her years.

I don’t lay the blame on Le Carré for these sexual dynamics — George would act opposite the 49 year-old Charles Bronson the next year — but this is another text with which I have little familiarity, and I can’t honestly say what the age differences are supposed to be between Leiser and his various conquests. I passed it off as the standards of the era, as opposed to the predilections of the character, but after the echoes of Lolita I found resonating around Deadly Affair, it was a little strange to once again find the camera pointed squarely at a pair of nymphets.

Susan George, Christopher Jones, and Pia Degermark

The film wraps with a one-two punch of fatalistic cynicism, condemning the intelligence services for their inability to move past their vivid memories of WWII, and accusing them of generating further conflict merely for the frisson of danger, of running war games with real lives. Hopkins, who had largely disappeared from the screen for the second half of the film, belying his massive head on the home video artwork (he’s billed in fourth place in the opening credits), reappears to judge these shameful proceedings, despite being powerless to do anything beside scold and throw crockery. After the personal stakes of James Mason’s long-shot revelation in Affair and the bitter futility of Richard Burton’s symbolic sacrifice in The Spy Who, the condemnation here feels a little artificially inflated, more the work of fiction than the unseen hand of plausible inevitability. It doesn’t rise to the level of histrionics, but still inspires the sense memory of having just dealt with a put-upon adolescent.

Which is a true pity, as the film prior to that is rather charming and even lingers around the border crossing of the absurd. There’s not much variation in Angela Morely’s (née Wally Stott) soundtrack, as the film mostly prefers ambient silence, so the appearance of any music consists mostly of a few variations on a main theme. It’s all a bit jaunty (give the previous link about 49 seconds to get going), with a chipper lead horn that wouldn’t be out of place amongst Herb Alpert’s lot, except for its best friends, a tinkling piano and a reverberating harpsichord that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Mancini score. This upbeat, cavalier motif occasionally surprises when it makes an appearance. It works fine as a love theme when Leiser sneaks out to meet up with Susan George, but it makes much less sense as traveling music as Degermark accidentally transports an exhausted Leiser to a German checkpoint. It make me laugh, loudly, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the intention. Unlike Degermark’s punishment to Leiser for not running away with her and the snide remark by German intelligence officer Cyril Shaps once he determines the direction in which the heavily guarded border crossing was transgressed:

Cyril Shaps in 'The Looking Glass War'

Also of superb entertainment was the wonderful scuffling, scrabbling, immature wrestling match between Jones and Hopkins. Hopkins had been set-up as an ally in Leiser’s eyes, someone with whom he could find something slightly more in common than his middle-aged, Establishment masters. So when Hopkins is tasked to fight Leiser, it is taken personally instead of professionally, and turns into a scrum that lasts for almost four minutes, breaking furniture and causing both actors to get flushed with real exertion, and which necessitates the fictional appearance of the police, wondering, Now Then, Now Then, Wot’s All This Racket? It’s a great scene in terms of how long it is let to run, it’s a great scene as a physical blurring of actor and character, and it’s a great scene for establishing character: both men are immature enough to lose control, and therefore immature enough to be idealists instead of Company men in the final moments of the film.

NEXT: I saw the film of Little Drummer Girl years and years ago, and here’s my one-line summary of it based on my hazy memory: Annie Hall joins the Palestinian Liberation Organization. We’ll see how right I am.

 

PROCESS NOTES: Well, I can honestly say that attempting to write a weekly article on Friday nights was and is a bad idea, particularly when I decided on this course of action without carving out any time for the watching and writing about nine movies from my already populated entertainment schedule. The bulk of “last week’s” article was written over the course of the following six days. It then languished unpublished as I had wanted some droll visuals, like ones in the first review, which were in turn an aping of The Incredible Suit. That task was finally abandoned a full nine days subsequent. You’ll notice an absence of it again here.

I’ve also fallen down a bit of a Le Carré novel hole, having reread Smiley’s People only to realize it actually comes two books after Tinker, Tailor, and I should have read Honourable Schoolboy first, but now I’m stuck into Russia House. I’m enjoying the revisit of his unhurried prosody, but it doesn’t particularly make me want to watch movies or do much typing.

It has gotten me to notice, though, that I have egregiously been capitalizing the initial L in “Le Carré”, when it should be “le Carré”. This is something I knew, but needed to be reminded of. Now I have to decide if I’m going to correct the previous three entries, and this one, to reflect the proper European method of capitalizing leading nominative articles, or stick with the untutored American method I’ve been employing for consistency’s sake. Ugh.

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