LE CARRÉ DIEM: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

6 May, 2016 at 10:49 pm (film, le carré diem)

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.

blog_1605_spywhocame_burtonlee_01

“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 »

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I Care, You Care, We ALL Care for Le Carré

1 May, 2016 at 10:33 am (clerical, film, le carré diem)

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.

CAPTAIN BRITAIN: CIVIL WAR — Whose Side Are You On?

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!

It's 'The Russia House'!

BlogalongaLeCarré

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)

 

Related Links:
+ The New York Times on Carré’s legacy of adaptation
+ Traitor for Our Kind of Trailer. Wait, that doesn’t sound right…

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Put Your Fandom All Over My Body

21 December, 2015 at 12:36 pm (film)

I haven’t seen Star Wars.

Pew! Pew! from ThinkGeek

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.)

A L O N G T I M E A G O I N A G A L A X Y F A R F A R A W A YAnd 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 »

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Criterion Blogathon: Charade

18 November, 2015 at 10:44 pm (charade, film)

This post is intended as part of the Criterion Blog-a-thon, hosted by Kristina at Speakeasy, Ruth at Silver Screening, and Aaron at Criterion Blues. Click HERE for the full roster for the event!

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.

blog_1511_blogathon_charade_01

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 »

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I’m Comin’ Up, So You Better Get This Party Kickstarted…

15 March, 2014 at 10:26 am (benjamin, film, imdblr)

Comedian Doug Benson has a weekly gig called Doug Loves Movies, a trivia show about films that he runs at least partially because of his impressive recall of films he has idly consumed over his personal and professional life — both as a casual audience member and as someone who travels with some frequency and therefore watches a number of films on planes. He occasionally refers to himself as “IMDB”, because he an impressive depository of films and film credits that only the Internet Movie Database could rival, Deep Blue/Watson stylee, and because it allows him to say, “I am DB” — he is Doug Benson. (Not unlike Irwin Maurice Fletcher.)

This is a personal blog, and has been since November 2000, so ego-posting is hardly surprising. And while I (still) don’t (yet) have an entry on IMDB, I have been keeping track of my appearances in various DVD credits, a feat that is much easier to accomplish now that Kickstarter seems to be regularly offering it as a low-impact, high-cost perk for various film projects.

Unlike posts in the past, I haven’t actually made it to the credits of anything new, but I have created my own Doug Benson-inspired tag for this post and for the future: imdblr, or “in movies desperately: benjamin lawrence russell”. And while I haven’t been specifically named in any recent Kickfunded projects, I am thanked as part of a mass in two, appear unbilled in a third, and am thanked in the website credits for a fourth.

 

THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH: BEYOND EXPECTATIONS (Filmed in 2012, funded for distribution in 2013)

THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH: BEYOND EXPECTATIONS -- Title Screen
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GALLERY: Business Cards in Cinema

24 December, 2013 at 11:09 pm (film)

Still don’t have enough of these to warrant their own website yet, so just the occasional post, then. Like the last one, these are screencaps of business cards I’ve encountered in films, which interest me as a narrative device, as examples of real and fake phone numbers, and whether they are bog-standard insert shots or primary character shots. Also, like the last post, I’ve included one television card in the mix, because I’m fond of the show.

The In-Laws - Dr. Sheldon Kornpett
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BRIEFLY: Peter O’Toole

15 December, 2013 at 3:02 pm (film, webjunk)

The Guardian is reporting that Peter O’Toole has died. My grandfather loved How To Steal A Million, preferring it to Charade, and my aunt and I regularly bond over the majesty of his portrayal of T.E. Lawrence.

There’s a tradition over at The V that when someone famous or important dies, we memorialize him or her with silent, pictorial tributes. There are to be no personal remarks or sentimental platitudes. So while searching for the right image from Lawrence of Arabia with which to do this (something from the attack on the train, I thought), I found the following dynamic image:

Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia

Goodness, I thought. That looks like it could be out of Star Wars or something. Luckily, someone else thought the very same thing. Good job, internet.

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50th Anniversary: Charade

5 December, 2013 at 10:04 pm (charade, film)

Audrey Hepburn in CHARADEToday is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Charade by Stanley Donen, starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. (If you’re unfamiliar with the film, you can quickly watch a five-minute version of it here.) I own many, many, manymany copies of the film, having perversely tried to collect all of the cheapo, pharmacy-bargain-bin versions of the movie that sprang into being due to the film’s accidental lack of copyright. Each of them suffers from a variety of flaws based on how the individual company was able to acquire a battered 35mm print and digitize it. Most of these companies would list amongst the “special features” of their version of Charade that it had been “DIGITALLY REMASTERED!” Which was true, as there was no other way to get it onto a DVD, but the fact that it was a “special” feature was accurate only in the cruel, schoolyard way in which travelers on the short bus were taunted. The sound was tinny, the picture was scratchy, and sometimes the discs had as few as four chapter stops (one per film reel, perhaps?), but they were all between four and seven dollars, and they enabled me to watch one of my favorite films on my shiny new DVD player back in 1999, as well as to marvel at the fact that a film that felt like it should be a stone-cold classic could receive such shoddy treatment.

And then the Criterion edition came out, and all was right with the universe. I’ve purchased three versions of the Criterion Charade (letterbox, anamorphic widescreen, and Blu-Ray), and I eagerly expect to purchase one more when they eventually re-re-release it in their new standard combo pack edition. The lush, crisp visuals have enabled me to luxuriate in the film many times, so here are my thoughts for its silver anniversary:

The film is almost — almost! — able to have its cake and it, too. What do I mean by that? Charade wants to be both a romp and a thriller. It wants you to root for the romance between Grant and Hepburn, but it wants you to be genuinely worried that Grant might be the bad guy. It wants you to have a cheerful good time, but it wants to kill people off. It wants the people it kills to be menacing, but also to be sweet and a little daft. This is essentially an impossible goal, and even Charade is unfortunately unable to fully fulfill such demanding, lofty aspirations, but it gets close enough for the audience (read: me; please understand that I will brazenly assume hoi poloi surrogacy throughout this missive) to sweep past any misgivings in a flourish of batted eyelashes and warm Mancini brass.

Almost, but not quite. Let us begin with the three hapless war profiteers that are trying so hard throughout the film to recover the paltry quarter of a million dollars they secreted away during World War II (in his commentary for the UK DVD of the film, Ken Barnes claims the first place where the film seems dated is in the use of a record player at the funeral home, but the second is most certainly the film’s Dr. Evil-esque insistence that $250,000 is a lot of money*). They are the film’s three threatening bears: Scobie is too hot, Gideon is too cold, and Tex Panthollow is jussssst right, which is why he survives the longest (“My momma di’nt raise no stupid children”).

Leopold W. Gideon and Tex Panthollow

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R2D2COOL2B4GOTTEN

3 July, 2012 at 4:45 pm (clerical, film)

This blog doesn’t get many comments. In part because, well, who reads it? I get my fair share of hits from people searching for images of the lady who was fired for being too hot and for Patrick Bateman’s business card, but few people actually stop here and smell the proverbial roses. I am not controversial, trendy, clever, or charismatic enough in person or in print to have “followers”. My twitter feed and my defunct Beehive forum testify to this. I have achieved relative peace with this fact.

So it was a mild shock to receive an email from WordPress saying that some rando had been incensed enough with my eight-year old post about Star Wars vs. Annie Hall that he needed to set me straight! All comments are moderated, so it sits sadly in limbo until I’m done with this post, and then I will send it to its stygian destiny. Because, well, it’s idiotic. He wiffles on for 200 words about how Star Wars, because it’s imaginary, took more creativity in its writing and production, because making up names like “Dirk Starkiller” is haaarrrrrd. Despite his lack of capitalization and despite a superfluity of appalling clauses, someone had successfully taught this young padawan that one should concede a point to the opposing view to show that one is not a complete rhetorical monster. He does this with the following:

Annie Hall made ​​me such a good time but did not reach me emotionally like star wars.

But his ultimate conclusion is that, “Annie Hall will be quickly forgotten.”


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Wuxtry

22 June, 2012 at 7:01 pm (film)

Woody Allen's BLANK

Go on, which film is that again, exactly?

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