LE CARRÉ DIEM: The Little Drummer Girl

27 May, 2016 at 6:55 pm (film, le carré diem)

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.

blog_1606_lecarre_drummer_01Viewed 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 »


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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. Read the rest of this entry »

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LE CARRÉ DIEM: The Deadly Affair

14 May, 2016 at 12:11 am (film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: The Spy who Thought it was a Wee Bit Chilly Out There

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.

Penguin Modern Classics edition of 'Call for the Dead'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, — 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 respectable 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 »

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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.


“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.


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'!


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.


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)

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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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