Showing posts with label John le Carré. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John le Carré. Show all posts

10 May 2018

Actor, Writer, Catcher, Spy

by Eve Fisher

I just heard that Paul Giamatti, Paul Rudd, and Jeff Daniels are all joining in a movie about Moe Berg (1902-1972), professional baseball player. He played pro for 15 seasons (1923-1939), mostly as a backup catcher. But he was called "the brainiest guy in baseball," and I can see why.  An Ivy League graduate, attorney, and baseball player who spoke nine language?  Well, of COURSE he would be a prime candidate for a spy with the OSS. 

MoeBergGoudeycard.jpgBerg began his work in 1934, when he was touring Japan with the American All-Star team. In 1943, he parachuted into occupied Yugoslavia to determine which of the resistance groups was the strongest.  (He decided for Tito, and he was right.)   He was also sent around Europe in the 1940's to collect intelligence on Germany’s efforts to build an atom bomb. If he believed the Germans were close to developing nuclear weapons, he had orders to shoot the lead physicist, Werner Heisenberg. He decided they weren't. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1945, but declined.

Things changed, though.  In the early 50's he worked for the CIA, very briefly, because they quickly decided he was "flaky". For the next 20 years, he lived with his brother, Samuel, reading and snarking and unemployed. Sam evicted him, and he lived with his sister Ethel in Belleville, New Jersey until he died.


There's a long list of unlikely spies, if you think of spies as being a specific, separate job, as in a Le Carré novel or Ian Fleming novel.  But the truth is, writers (including Le Carré and Fleming) and entertainers have been the first choice to hire for years.

The first recorded one is Thessalus, a tragic actor in Hellenistic Greece, who accompanied Alexander the Great on the long expedition to conquer the Persian empire (and, as far as Alexander could, the world). He served as an envoy (and probable spy) for Alexander to Pixodarus of Caria (southwestern Anatolia, current day Turkey) in 336 BCE.

Geoffrey Chaucer was another one.  He has a surprisingly well-documented life for the medieval son of a vintner.  Let's put it this way:  vintners were simply wealthy peasants in the view of the aristocracy.  And being a poet - well, anonymity was the order of the day for artists of all kinds.

But somehow, Chaucer got placed a page in the house of the Countess of Ulster.  He married Philippa de Roet, the sister of John of Gaunt's 30 year mistress Katherine Swynford, who eventually (through what many people of the day believed had to be either witchcraft or a miracle of God) became John of Gaunt's third wife.  In other words, Chaucer had connections:  and besides becoming one of the great poets of the English language, he became a courtier, diplomat, soldier, lawyer, and civil servant.  And spy.  

He spent a tremendous amount of his life traveling on either King Edward III or Richard II or John of Gaunt's shilling:  France, Spain, and Flanders, the Italian states, perhaps in pursuit of a princess for the young Richard to marry; and/or to negotiate peace; and/or to borrow money from the Visconti and/or Sir John Hawkwood in Milan; and/or for who knows what?  We're all guessing when it comes to what medieval potentates (or modern potentates) really wanted.  (For a great study of the actualities and possibilities of Chaucer's role as diplomat and spy, read Monty Python alum and medieval scholar Terry Jones' Who Murdered Chaucer?  Mesmerizing.)  

Some other writers are more surprising.  Graham Greene, John Le Carré and Ian Fleming make sense, because they all worked for British intelligence at one point or another.  But Roald Dahl?  Julia Child?  Harry Houdini?

Roald Dahl.jpg
Roald Dahl
Both Scotland Yard and the American Secret Service used Houdini's escape artistry for their own ends.  Houdini was notorious for going into police stations around the world - including Russia (hint, hint) - where he insisted on being locked up so that he could prove he was the greatest escape artist in the world!  The locals were wowed!  He did it again!  And he left town with his reputation intact (he always escaped), and a lot of information.  (No, I don't know what kind.)

Roald Dahl was a three time Edgar Award winner, who wrote the classic "Lamb to the Slaughter" (short story and immortal "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" episode), as well as dark children's masterpieces like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, and The Witches.  During WW2, he worked with Ian Fleming and others to write propaganda to help the war effort.  He also was attached to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., where he was stunned by American luxury: "I'd just come from the war. People were getting killed. I had been flying around, seeing horrible things. Now, almost instantly, I found myself in the middle of a pre-war cocktail party in America." Dahl later said: "My job was to try to help Winston to get on with FDR, and tell Winston what was in the old boy's mind."  (see Wikipedia)

And then there's Julia Child, who started out as an OSS research assistant and definitely moved up the ladder.  According to Wikipedia

Julia Child at KUHT.jpg"In 1944, she was posted to Kandy, Ceylon, where her responsibilities included "registering, cataloging and channeling a great volume of highly classified communications" for the OSS's clandestine stations in Asia.[9] She was later posted to Kunming, China, where she received the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service as head of the Registry of the OSS Secretariat.[10] When Child was asked to solve the problem of too many OSS underwater explosives being set off by curious sharks, "Child's solution was to experiment with cooking various concoctions as a shark repellent," which were sprinkled in the water near the explosives and repelled sharks.[11] Still in use today, the experimental shark repellent "marked Child's first foray into the world of cooking..."
While I couldn't find a playable video of The Bobs' "Julia's Too Tall" song about her, I did find a couple of lyrics: "She's too tall to be a spy. But not too tall to bake a pie..."  But I disagree. I think her being too tall made her a perfect spy.  No one ever thought of Chaucer, Child, Houdini, Berg or Dahl and instantly went, Spy! which is probably part of why they were so successful.  

Which raises the interesting question of why Ian Fleming - who certainly knew better - made James Bond so damned obvious.  Apparently, on November 29, 2016, Anthony Horowitz and David Farr got into a 90 minute debate as to who was the greatest spy novelist of all time, Fleming or Le Carré.  (Full Transcript.)  Horowitz' summation was that ‘George Smiley is a fascinating character. James Bond is an icon. That’s the difference.’

And that's largely true, despite the fact that James Bond was actually a horrible spy. Think about it:  He uses his real name.  All the time.  He blows his cover, every time.  He gets captured.  All the time.  And he destroys everything he touches...  There's a whole lot of things get blown up, run over, caved in, and I'm not just talking about the women.   (10-reasons-james-bond-worst-spy-.) 

I don't know if John Le Carré and Ian Fleming ever met, but I do know that Le Carré had his own problems with James Bond.  In an interview in 1966 with BBC's Malcolm Muggeridge, he said, "I dislike Bond. I'm not sure that Bond is a spy. I think it's a great mistake if one's talking about espionage literature to include Bond in this category at all. It seems to me he is more of some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a licence to kill...  he is a man entirely out of the political context.  It is of no interest to Bond who for instance, is president of the US or the Union of Soviet Republics."

Reflecting on the interview in 2010 he said : " These days I would be much kinder. I suppose we have lost sight of the books in favour of the film versions, haven't we ? I was a young man and I knew I had written about the reality in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and that the Fleming stuff was a fantasisation of his own experiences written from the safety of New York."  (Citation)

La nuit de Varennes (1982)Then again, maybe it's not all fantasisation.  Fleming was notoriously heavy drinker, smoker, and womanizer.  Or perhaps he was channeling another great spy, whose womanizing, gambling, style, and sheer effrontery made him welcome everywhere, even after it was known he was a Venetian spy.  Who else, but Casanova?

It's amazing that, of all the spies, Casanova has the worst movies made about him.  With one brilliant exception.  If you get a chance, beg, borrow, or steal a copy of La Nuit de Varennes, where Thomas Paine, Restif de la Bretonne (pornographer, journalist, and philosopher, often called "the Voltaire of the chambermaids"), and Casanova and others all chase down Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as they desperately try to escape Paris and their coming doom.  It is comical, philosophical, sexual, historically accurate, beautiful, horrific, and constantly entertaining.  The highlight is Marcello Mastroianni as Casanova in old age - still stylish, still courteous, still gallant, still arrogant... and ruefully, wearily truthful, even to himself. 

I'd love to see a movie with James Bond in old age - see if he has the same grace and presence.  But then, icons don't change.  Fascinating characters do. 

Oh, and yes, that's a young Harvey Keitel as Thomas Paine - it's a hard movie to beat.  Enjoy!















27 September 2017

Legacies



David Edgerley Gates

My pal Michael Davidson, himself a thriller writer and a former career CIA officer, remarks of John le Carré's new novel Legacy of Spies that it's up to his usual high literary standards, while going on to say, "...the work of MI6 is portrayed as exceedingly cynical and inhuman." I don't know about 'inhuman,' but 'cold-blooded' fits the bill, many of the characters all too slithery and reptilian, even for public school Brits with upper lips shot full of Novocaine. The book's dark heart is the chill of moral frostbite.


le Carre then
A Legacy of Spies is something of a swan song, or a curtain call. George Smiley takes his last bow. And a good many ghosts gather at his elbow. Alec Leamas, for one, the original Spy Who Came In From The Cold, along with Bill Haydon (Kim Philby's avatar), and Peter Guillam, one-time head Scalphunter and later Paris station chief, and even a cameo from Jim Prideaux. It's fair to say that if you're unfamiliar with Spy, and Tinker, Tailor, and in fact the earlier Call for the Dead - which first introduced the East German Steel Mission and Hans-Dieter Mundt - then this story's going to fall on deaf ears. Then again, it's unlikely you're going to push old ladies and small children into oncoming traffic to get hold of Legacy if you haven't already inhaled the ozone at the top floor of the Circus, and you need the icy rush it promises. Fear not. The old spook hasn't lost his tradecraft, and he can still wind the clock, before he starts shaking the tree.  

It's ill-advised, as a rule, to conflate a writer with his characters, but you suspect that George Smiley, if not le Carré's exact double, or even his reflection, does on occasion speak for him. There's the moment in Smiley's People when George, chasing an old asset in Hamburg, casts his mental eye East, along the shores of the Baltic, and imagines a prison empire and its subject peoples, a horizon empty of hope. This is the closest we ever get, if I'm remembering it right, to any kind of rationale on George's part, in any of the books. Is this le Carré's voice? Hard to pin down. Yes, it sounds right for George, the war generation, first Hitler, then Stalin. "One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic." Then again, we know better than to trust in absolutes, or orthodox certainties. Smiley doesn't. He's lived through a damaged century.

What about loyalties, though? Bill Haydon betrays the Service, and his country, and - perhaps most unforgivably - his friends. He sleeps with George's wife Ann, first because he can ("Love to Ann - everybody's love to Ann"), but under instructions from Karla. Curiously, too, everybody involved in Operation Windfall, and the Testify cock-up, give their loyalty personally to Control, or to Smiley, cutting out the Witchcraft circle, the tainted and suspect. And for the Mustache Petes, like Guillam, their institutional loyalty isn't to the present-day Service, the glassy cubicle farm on the Thames, but to the Circus of old, not just the ill-lit corridors but its habits of mind, its Druid impenetrability.

Le Carré uses Legacy of Spies to post his epitaph on the Cold War. Or more exactly, he has Smiley do it, and we can't be entirely sure who's speaking. But when Smiley tells Peter Guillam that it was all an exercise in futility, that the clandestine wars had no real result, no satisfying narrative coda, it rings false to me. It doesn't sound like Smiley. It sounds like le Carré. And this is where I have to part company with him. I know a few other people who were once in the secret world (the above-mentioned Michael Davidson, for one) who don't buy into this, either. I think that what we did in those years, not to put too fine a point on it, kept the Cold War from getting hot. Your mileage may differ.



This isn't to say that le Carré hasn't made his bones. For sheer operational skills, he's hard to top. I still think Little Drummer Girl is extraordinary, even if you take it purely as a roadmap on how to mount covert. Legacy of Spies doesn't disappoint, I don't want to give that impression at all. In fact, I wish the book were three hundred and fifty pages long, instead of two-fifty. I'm only saying that le Carré and I take different lessons away from our own histories, our own private fictions.

26 November 2014

Tinker Tailor, Soldier Sailor

by David Edgerley Gates

Musings, perhaps, less than a coherent whole, but bear with me.

I was a big fan of LeCarre's from the get-go, with THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, although I remember throwing the book across the room when I finished it. I later liked A SMALL TOWN IN GERMANY a lot, because by then I was familiar with the turf, both physical and internal, but I didn't much care for THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, and actually for similar reasons - I knew sources and methods, and I found the tradecraft in the book unconvincing. Then came TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, THE HONORABLE SCHOOLBOY, and SMILEY'S PEOPLE (collectively, the Quest for Karla), and next, my own personal favorite, THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL. "Sooner or later, they say in the trade, a man will sign his name."

LeCarre's been well-served, by and large, by movie and television adaptions.  THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, with Richard Burton and Oskar Werner, is bracing and intelligent. THE DEADLY AFFAIR (adapted from CALL FOR THE DEAD) is even better - James Mason as George Smiley, although the character's given a different name. LOOKING GLASS WAR? Well, okay, it's got Tony Hopkins, but I think it's a dud. LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL, the movie? Not a failure, by any means, just a little out of focus, and abbreviated, of necessity, with a 130-minute runtime. Which brings us to the two back-to-back triumphs, Alex Guinness playing Smiley in the BBC miniseries, first TINKER TAILOR and then SMILEY'S PEOPLE.

What did I think of the more recent feature version of TINKER TAILOR, with Gary Oldman? I have two contradictory reactions. If you didn't know the story, you'd get lost in the thickets. On the other hand, not knowing the story, you wouldn't realize what you're missing. Having read the book more than once, and seen Guinness more than once, I kept noticing holes in the plot - how did Smiley get from Point A to Point B, when they left out the roadmap? But again, if you came to the movie without preconceptions, it might slide right by, nothing in your peripheral vision. The biggest weakness of the Oldman feature isn't Oldman, of course: he's terrific. And the compression, eh, you can't do much about that. The real weakness is in the supporting characters, not the actors, but the parts they play.




Maybe it's comparing apples and oranges. Let's face it, if you give yourself two hours (the movie version), vice five (the BBC version), a lot of stuff is bound to fall by the wayside, but in the TV production, you get a very strong sense of Toby Esterhase and Bill Haydon and Roy Bland, and each of them seem solid, probable suspects - each of them having something to hide, of course - not to mention what a snake Percy Alleline is. That's really what I missed most in the picture, not the careful chess game Smiley plays, but the feeling he's up against a real adversary, or several of them, conspiring.

Obviously, it's easy to take shots at a movie when you don't think it measures up to the book, and there's the obverse, that you can make a better picture out of a generic potboiler than you can from a more heavyweight source. They're two very different mediums, anyway. If you've ever tried to do a screen treatment (I've done a couple), you find out first thing that you're in a foreign country, the environment is at right angles to a novel or a short story. But in either case, it seems to me that it's about gaining the confidence of the audience - maybe with a movie, the audience is more passive than a reader is, if your ideal reader is engaged, but you can't let them slip through your fingers, either way. They surrender their trust, and you have a responsibility to play fair, and give as good as you got.


I'm not, in this sense, complaining. I respected the Gary Oldman picture of TINKER TAILOR - I just wasn't invested in it.  It's likely I was just too ready to find it wanting, compared to the longer Guinness version, which has a lot of room to breathe. And maybe that's the issue. It's the difference between total immersion and a quick, chilly dip in the pool. Both have their virtues. In the case of TINKER TAILOR (and SMILEY'S PEOPLE, as well), I think the stories are better served by a circular, more ambiguous method. It's a matter of pacing. Not the shortest distance between two points, or the most direct, but the long way around, a different rhythm, where time is elastic, and memory an unreliable witness.

DavidEdgerleyGates.com

10 July 2013

Legends

by David Edgerley Gates

In the spy world, a 'legend' is a false biography. Not a cover story, which is often temporary and mission-specific, but an entire history, all the blanks filled in.

A good example is LeCarre's SMILEY'S PEOPLE. One of the characters tells Smiley, "Karla is looking for a legend for a girl," and this is in fact the engine of the story. The old Russian emigre lady whose daughter she believes lost to her is persuaded to apply for her daughter's release, or expulsion, from the Soviet Union on what she's told are humanitarian grounds. Why she thinks such a thing would be granted without strings attached is another question, and she's nowhere near as naive as her clumsy handlers imagine. The point, of course, is that the one girl's background story can be substituted for another's, as a convenient fiction, and how this plays out, and why, is the plot of the novel, which I won't try to unravel here.

Edward Jay Epstein, some years ago, actually wrote a book titled LEGEND, which suggests that Lee Harvey Oswald's years in Russia were a carefully constructed KGB fabrication. You can buy into this or not, but it's a fascinating premise. Norman Mailer and Lawrence Schiller later plowed this same ground, with better resources, and came to the exhausted and disappointing conclusion that Lee was no more than an unhappy loser, without any depths to plumb, and the Russian security services had written him off as an embarrassment. There are always going to be unanswered questions about Oswald, but it's probably safe to say he was never a target for KGB recruitment.

A far more sinister spin on this is Richard Condon's THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, which was published, if you can believe it, in 1959! (The movie was released in '62.) The story itself is about brainwashing and the Red Scare---an oxymoron, perhaps?---but for our purposes, the significance isn't political. Raymond, the sleeper assassin, has been programmed, as is everybody in his platoon from Korea. He's been supplied, in effect, with a legend. In this case, a set of implanted memories, but the end result is the same. A false narrative, an assembled history, becomes received wisdom, and accepted as authentic.

It's just as plausible to erase our own past, or sanitize it. Think of all those happy darkies, beating out barefoot rhythms, in the plantation South. Or our comfortable ignorance of the Japanese internments during WWII. Or simply the fiction that we've outpaced or outgrown ethnic hatreds and religious intolerance. What makes this century any different from, say, the 14th? The eradication of disease, perhaps, and the Black Death no longer the hand of God, punishment for our sins. Then again, contemporary weapons of war are that much more effective than the mace and the longbow. For sheer barbarism, can the Middle Ages– the massacre of St. Bartholomew, the Mongol horde, the pope giving his blessing to holy war---bear comparison with the past hundred years, in economies of scale? It seems more than a difference of degree. But for this, too, our collective memory supplies a less complicated substitute, a sense of moral superiority, of avoidance, or denial.

What if it were possible to reinvent yourself, to escape your personal history, to slough it off like a chrysalis, to create an entirely new identity, to become a different character, cast in an altogether different drama? A sort of Witness Protection Program, where you hide in plain sight. What imaginary model would you choose, what secret self? The problem being that the world around you wouldn't change. You might be thinner, or bolder, or have better hair, but individual actions won't roll away the stone, or turn back the sea. Putting on the clothes of concealment isn't safety. Seen back to front, there is no new-found freedom. The legend is a trap, an illusion of choice. The fault lies in our stars.

If this seems too deterministic, or cynical, consider that reinvention, or camouflage, is a means to an end, not in and of itself the end purpose. Disguise serves as part of a larger deception, and to be effective, we don't simply act the character, we inhabit the part. We become what we pretend, and fade into the background noise. The danger is that when we shed our old skin, and grow a new one, older habits of mind have to be discarded as well. We are no longer who we were. Living a lie, we trust it to protect us. As the Russian proverb has it: "If you play the sheep, you'll meet a wolf nearby."

16 April 2013

Smiley's Series

by Terence Faherty

As part of its Pioneers of Television, PBS did a segment on the miniseries, a dramatic form that was extremely popular in the late seventies and all through the eighties. It's a shame that it isn't more popular today. Some of the failed Lost clones, like FlashForward and The Event, might have succeeded as miniseries. Viewers might have been more willing to invest their time if they'd known that the big questions posed by these shows' high-concept premises were going to be resolved in a reasonable amount of time and without endless (and increasingly crazy) plot complications.

During its heyday, the miniseries usually focused on sweeping, multigenerational sagas, but mystery novels were occasionally included. I remember a late seventies adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Dane Curse starring James Colburn. And there were the two BBC productions I revisited this past winter, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People, which were both based on novels by John le Carré. The inspiration for my video trip down memory lane was the much more recent film version of Tinker, Tailor, which starred Gary Oldman. I enjoyed the movie, but it left me nostalgic for the 1979 miniseries, in which Alec Guinness played George Smiley, "retired" spy.

If that reference to Smiley's profession (or your own knowledge of le Carré's works) has you thinking that these books are espionage stories and not mysteries, you're half right. They're espionage stories and mysteries. In fact, Tinker, Tailor is a whodunit, as were le Carré's two earlier Smiley books, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality. I still remember the suspense that slowly built during the original broadcast of Tinker, Tailor (which didn't occur in the U.S. until 1980) over the true identity of Gerald, the Russian mole inside British Intelligence. Reviewing the miniseries courtesy of Netflix, I felt that old suspense again. (Netflix did its best to encourage this by only entrusting me with one of the series' three discs at a time.)

Smiley's People is somewhat less satisfying as a story but just as well adapted. (Both series were scripted by le Carré himself.) There is a murder to be solved, but Smiley is more interested in why it happened than in who did it. Though made three years after Tinker, Tailor, Smiley's People reunites many members of the original cast. In fact, the casts of both miniseries are uniformly excellent. They include future stars Alan Rickman, doing a bit as a desk clerk, and Patrick Stewart, in the nonspeaking (!) role of Russian master spy Karla. Two of the strengths of Smiley's People are some great location shooting and an increased amount of screen time for Alec Guinness, who functions like a loner P.I., warned off the case by the authorities and hunted by the bad guys.

It would be hard to overpraise Alec Guinness's two performances as George Smiley. Guinness was an actor who could play broadly if the role called for it, but his real forte was underplaying. His talent for quiet was put to good use here, as George Smiley is one of the great listeners of popular literature. Both miniseries feature powerful scenes in which some other, more flamboyant character wanders far from the point of the conversation while Smiley sits quietly, waiting to draw him or her back. Depending on the situation, he might cajole or flatter or wheedle or simply will the wanderer to focus. I've written that sort of interaction many times, as has any writer of detective fiction, and it's a pleasure to see it done this well. And Guinness/Smiley's reactions to the constant references to his wife's infidelities--tiny winces or a slight narrowing of his eyes or just blank resignation--are equally wonderful.

I'll mention one last point of interest, at least for the writer of historical fiction. There are only two types of films and television shows: those done as period pieces and those that become period pieces over time. Smiley's miniseries are in the second group. I'd forgotten that the three-year gap between the two series marked a sea change in men's fashions. In Tinker, Tailor, wide, loud ties and wider lapels predominate. By Smiley's People, styles (or should I say widths?) had returned to a more classic look.

The late seventies might have been a bad time for clothes, but it was a really good time for long-form dramatic television. If you haven't seen these two examples recently, check them out.