Showing posts with label Alec Guinness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alec Guinness. Show all posts

11 December 2019

Smiley



"I've got a story to tell you," Ricki Tarr says. "It's all about spies."

I fell into a familiar comfort zone this past weekend, and watched Smiley's People again. I needed something reliable and even stately, after the random disturbances of late.



George Smiley was introduced in Call for the Dead (filmed in 1967 as The Deadly Affair), but he slips out from the wings, almost apologetically, and takes center stage in the Karla trilogy: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honorable Schoolboy; and Smiley's People. He has a couple of curtain calls later on, but they're essentially cameos.

Smiley's been played by James Mason, Denholm Elliott, and Gary Oldman. For most of us, including John le Carre, Alec Guinness holds the crown. Nor has le Carre been poorly served, for the most part, by the movies. Deadly Affair and Spy Who Came in from the Cold are both excellent. On the down side, the feature film iterations of The Little Drummer Girl, The Russia House and Tinker, Tailor aren't as successful - probably due to the necessities of compression. A Wanted Man and The Tailor of Panama fall somewhere in the middle. The books work better as TV miniseries, when they're given room to breathe. Not that the long form is foolproof. A Perfect Spy and The Night Manager both suffer from being over-faithful and leaving in too much.



Which is where the BBC/Guinness versions of Tinker, Tailor and Smiley's People seem so exact, rigorous narratives that still allow for silence, melancholy, inhalation, even the appearance of accident, although no detail is accidental in George Smiley's world. "Topicality is always suspect," he says, in Tinker, Tailor. In other words, when you buy intelligence product, it pays to be skeptical if the product fits your needs too perfectly. And he's of course proven right: the Witchcraft material is manufactured, it's been carefully massaged to send all the wrong signals.

My particular weakness for Smiley's People is I think due to its structural integrity. It doesn't have, for example, anything like the extraordinary supporting turn by Ian Richardson as Bill Haydon - although Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhase comes close. It simply seems all of a piece. 



Originally, the producers meant to follow the story arc of the complete trilogy, starting with Tinker, Tailor, following with Honorable Schoolboy, and wrapping with Smiley's People. Schoolboy apparently presented production difficulties, and they skipped it. Quite honestly, Schoolboy is the weakest of the three books, but more to the point, Smiley isn't in fact the lead actor. It makes dramatic sense to move on to book three. (It actually took five years in between.)

When it was first shown on the BBC, radio guy Terry Wogan ran a weekly feature called, "Does anybody know what's going on?" Let's storyboard Smiley's People out.



The old lady in Paris writes the General in London. He, in turn, takes a bullet in the face on Hampstead Heath. George, the old man's former vicar, is called in to clean up the mess and put the whole thing to bed. George smells a rat. What is it Toby Esterhase tells him? Karla is looking for a legend for a girl (a legend, in the jargon, is a manufactured biography, a cover story). And with only this to go on, George begins to tease out the plot.

The plausible back-story, the collateral. Otto's pal in Hamburg, the sex-club owner. The spymaster's mistress, and her hidden child. The secret Swiss bank account and the fumbling Russian diplomat in Bern. The long coat-tails of KGB's foreign operations, and why in this particular instance the organs themselves can't be trusted.



Of course it's a tangle. How not? The method is that we learn only as much as George learns, although he might very well be a step ahead of us, from habit and his larger experience. But how he proceeds has a firm logic. Toby, then Connie Sachs, which leads him to Claus at the club in Hamburg, to the kids house-sitting Otto's place, and the campground, with Otto's boat moored in the shallows and the music unbearably loud, to drown out the torment.

The formality, the inexorability, makes it all the more satisfying. Smiley gathers his resources, and closes his hand. The title is a pun, not simply Smiley's crew, his favored inside team, but his people in the sense that Kipling used it, Mine Own People, Great Britain and the British. There isn't much of the moral relativism le Carre is sometimes faulted for. Smiley's defeat of Karla isn't ambiguous, in spite of the cigarette lighter Karla discards on the cobblestones. The win is personal.



Smiley, then, represents a certain kind of Englishness. Decent and disciplined. The war generation, We Happy Few. They took on Hitler, and then fought the Cold War. "Survivor of every battle since Thermopylae," Connie Sachs says. Le Carre himself might smile, and shake his head, to imagine George characterized that way. But he's said in the past that a country's spy services reflect the nation's character. Mossad, KGB, MI-6, CIA. The way they conduct operations reveals their inner nature and their calculation of political gain or loss.

Smiley is also betrayed by his wife (with his best friend, who's also of course a Soviet asset), and you could make the case that British SIS, once dominant, is the cuckold of the intelligence world, abandoned and orphaned by its CIA stepchild. Or perhaps that's too fanciful. Let's just say that Smiley, like Alec Guinness, is emblematic of his time and class. We might even be allowed to think of class as the key to Smiley, his protective coloration. He navigates the currents, eddies in still waters, and waits his turn.





06 June 2019

A Foreign Field


by Eve Fisher

Yes, today is exactly 75 years after the landings of the Allies in Normandy, D-Day, a/k/a Operation Overlord a/k/a Operation Neptune.






























First, the facts:  It was the largest seaborne invasion in history, with nearly 5,000 landing and assault craft, 289 escort vessels, and 277 minesweepers participating.[186] Nearly 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel on D-Day,[27]with 875,000 men disembarking by the end of June.[187] Allied casualties on the first day were at least 10,000, with 4,414 confirmed dead. (Wikipedia)


Secondly - Blessings and thanks to all the survivors!  Blessings and thanks to all who died.

Image result for remains of d-day at normandy beach
Relics left over from D-Day at Omaha Beach
D-Day still remains in the actual physical landscape of Normandy.  And in the memories of the soldiers, the Normandy citizens,  and of course the books and movies that have been made about it.  "The Longest Day", book by Cornelius Ryan, was made into a 3 hour movie (written by Ryan with "additional material" by Romain Gary and James Jones, among others) with a cast including (apparently) every male star they had on the  Hollywood lot.  And some that weren't.
Trivia:  According to the 2001 documentary, "Cleopatra:  The Film That Changed  Hollywood", Richard Burton and Roddy McDowall were sitting around, not having been used for weeks, and bored senseless in Rome (I find the latter hard to believe - Burton always had drinking), but anyway, they phoned Zanuck, the director, begging to for something to do.  So they flew themselves to location and did a day's worth of cameo work for free.  (Wikipedia)
D-Day is also recreated in both "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers."

But the most touching movie about D-Day takes place long after the event.  1994's "A Foreign Field" is written by British screenwriter Roy Clarke (who also wrote two of my favorite comedies, the miniseries "Flickers" and the longest running comedy series ever, "Last of the Summer Wine").  It stars Leo McKern as Cyril and Alec Guinness as Amos, two elderly British veterans, John Randolph as Waldo, an old American vet, and Geraldine Chaplain and Edward Hermann as Waldo's daughter and son-in-law.  These five gather for the 1994 D-Day anniversary, where they also look up Jeanne Moreau's Angel, the good-time girl who apparently took care of all the soldiers in 1944.  Let me assure you, even at 65, Moreau makes you believe she was worth remembering - and perhaps still worth fighting over.  Here's the original trailer:



With Lauren Bacall as the mysterious alcoholic who tags along.  BTW, Alec Guiness does a master turn as Amos, permanently brain-damaged by shrapnel at D-Day, who (as one reviewer put it) "brings more meaning to a flip through the channels on a French TV set than most actors find in a Shakespearean soliloquy."   (New York Magazine)  It's funny, it's touching, it's moving, it's full of memory and meaning.  Wonderful.   (It's also available on Netflix on DVD or at Amazon.)

Part of what works in "A Foreign Field" is the relationship between Cyril and Amos.  Which, in turn, is based on the great chemistry of Alec Guinness and Leo McKern.  That relationship also worked in "Monsignor Quixote", which starred Alec Guinness as parish priest Quixote, whose best friend is the Communist ex-mayor of El Toboso.  When Father Quixote is elevated - by a sheer fluke - to Monsignor, things get complicated.  Based on a short novel by Graham Greene (who also worked on the screenplay!) it's, funny, touching, moving, with one of the greatest endings (imho) of any film.  It's available here, on YouTube, in its entirety:


I wish that Guinness and McKern had made more movies together, but then I also wish that Paul Newman and Robert Redford had made a couple of more.  But "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting" are good enough.  So are "Monsignor Quixote" and "A Foreign Field."

We're going to watch "A Foreign Field" tonight.  It seems the perfect tribute to D-Day, and to all those who fought, and fought, and would not shift.  Watch, and you'll understand.