Thursday, July 7, 2011

An old spy in a hurry

(The Ann/Connie discussion, below, got updated a little.)

If The Lord of the Rings was the trilogy that left its mark on my teenage years, it was what came to be called "The Karla Trilogy" -- John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, followed by The Honorable Schoolboy and Smiley's People -- that had a comparable effect on my twenties.

So I'm delighted to see that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy -- as Lance Mannion correctly observes, cognoscenti are content to abbreviate it as "Tinker,Tailor" -- is coming to the screen this fall, chock full of interesting casting choices:

If you're reading this in FB Notes, you'll need to click View Original Post to see the video.

Anyone who's seen the BBC productions of Tinker, Tailor and Smiley's People knows why many loyalists are unprepared to accept anyone but Alec Guinness in the role of George Smiley, although Gary Oldman will be the fourth actor to play Smiley (the fifth, if we count this, which I don't).

But I trust Oldman. And while I'm not sure what to expect from Peter Straughan, who wrote the screenplay, I'm willing to keep an open mind there

What has me a little worried concerns two lynchpin characters, neither of whom appears in the trailer (which isn't that surprising), and neither of whom is played by anyone I recognize (which probably isn't either, really): Ann Smiley and Connie Sachs. They're two of the three women in a story about a mostly-male world, and their parts of the story are about the only bits where we get to see Smiley as anything beyond what he is to his colleagues in British intelligence: shy, a little gloomy, and ultimately unreadable. They're symbols of the personal and professional betrayal surrounding Smiley: Ann is the wife who once assured Smiley that, if she could ever be faithful to just one man, it would surely be Smiley -- but who humiliated him with countless infidelities she made no attempt to hide. Connie is the legendary intelligence researcher who was forced into retirement for the sin of having been right all along about a Russian mole at the highest ranks of British intelligence. Smiley's fits of self-loathing make far less sense without the context of these two relationships.

And that's what the book is -- the detailed evocation of an alien world, and the exploration of the complex character of George Smiley. A whodunnit it's not: When the Gerald the mole is finally exposed, even those characters present realize that they probably knew who it was all along.  If the story is repurposed as a mystery spy thriller for the movie, then Ann and Connie may well get the gate (especially compared to, say, Roy Bland, who's mainly a cipher included to pad out the list of suspects to be eliminated -- "there are three of them, plus Alleline"). If, on the other hand, the mole hunt is the movie's rationale for a detailed study of character and group, as it is the book's, then you have to have Ann and Connie.

And talk about owning a part (although, oddly enough, neither character is listed in IMDB for the BBC Tinker, Tailor or Smiley's People): Siân Phillips, who made a career out of portraying beautiful, regal women with a very dark side, always seemed perfect as Ann -- "the last illusion of an illusionless man." And Beryl Reid's portrayal of banished researcher Connie Sachs -- arthritic and gin-soaked, going dotty in exile, bitterly nursing the old faces and stories locked forever in her photographic memory -- is indelible, the more so because it totters between the bitterly funny and the horrific. Both women went toe-to-toe with Guinness in every scene they got; for both of them, their scenes are show-stoppers.

So I've got my fingers crossed. Meanwhile, here's a taste:

In the scullery Smiley had once more checked his thoroughfare, shoved some deck-chairs aside, and pinned a string to the mangle to guide him because he saw badly in the dark. The string led to the open kitchen door, and the kitchen led to the drawing-room and dining-room both; it had the two doors side by side. The kitchen was a long room, actually an annexe to the house before the glass scullery was added. He had thought of using the dining room but it was too risky, and besides from the dining-room he couldn't signal to Guilllam. So he waited in the scullery, feeling absurd in his stocking feet, polishing his spectacles because the heat of his face kept misting them. It was much colder in the scullery. The drawing-room was close and overheated but the scullery had these outside walls, and this glass and this concrete floor beneath the matting, which made his feet feel wet. The mole arrives first, he thought; the mole plays host: that is protocol part of the pretence that Polyakov is Gerald's agent.

A London taxi is a flying bomb.

The comparison rose in him slowly, from deep in his unconscious memory. The clatter as it barges into the crescent, the metric tick-tick as the bass notes die. The cut-off: where has it stopped, which house -- when all of us on the street are waiting in the dark, crouching under tables or clutching at pieces of string -- which house? Ten the slam of the door, the explosive anti-climax: if you can hear it, it's not for you.

He heard the tread of one pair of feet on the gravel, brisk and vigorous. They stopped. It's the wrong door, Smiley thought absurdly; go away. He had the gun in his hand; he had dropped the catch. Still he listened, heard nothing. You're suspicious, Gerald, he thought. You're an old mole, you can sniff there's something wrong. Millie, he thought; Millie has taken away the milk bottles, put up a warning, headed him off. Millie's spoilt the kill. Then he heard the latch turn, one turn, two; it's a Banham lock, he remembered -- my God, we must keep Banham's in business. Of course: the mole had been patting his pockets, looking for his key. A nervous man would have it in his hand already, would have been clutching it, cosseting it in his pocket all the way in the taxi; but not the mole. The mole might be worried but he was not nervous. At the same moment the latch turned, the bell chimed -- housekeepers' taste again: high tone, low tone, high tone. That will mean it's one of us, Millie had said; one of the boys, her boys, Connie's boys, Karla's boys. The front door opened, someone stepped into the house, he heard the shuffle of the mat, he hard the door close, he heard the light switches snap and saw a pale line appear under the kitchen door. He put the hun in his pocket and wiped the palm of his hand on his jacket, then took it out again and in the same moment he heard send flying bomb, a second taxi pulling up, and footsteps fast. Polyakov didn't just have the key reedy, he had taxi money ready, too: do Russians tip, he wondered, or is tipping undemocratic? Again the bell rang, the front door opened and closed, and smiley heard the double chink as two milk bottles were put on the hall table in the interest of good order and sound tradecraft.

Lord save me, thought Smiley in horror as he stared at the old icebox beside him; it never crossed my mind: suppose he had wanted to put them back in the fridge?

The strip of light under the kitchen door grew suddenly brighter as the drawing-room lights were switched on. An extraordinary silence descended over the house. Holding the string, Smiley edged forward over the icy floor. Then he heard voices. At first they were indistinct. They must still be at the ar end of the room, he thought. Or perhaps they always begin in a low tone. Now Polyakov came nearer. He was at the trolley, pouring drinks.

"What is our cover story in case we are disturbed?" he asked in good English.

"Lovely voice," Smiley remembered; "mellow like yours. I often used to play the tapes twice, just to listen to him speaking." Connie, you should hear him now.

From the further end of the room, still, a muffled murmur answered each question. Smiley could make nothing of it. "Where shall we regroup?" What is our fallback?" "Have you anything on you that you would prefer me to be carrying during our talk, bearing in mind I have diplomatic immunity?"

It must be catechism, Smiley thought; part of Karla's school routine.

"Is the switch down? Will you please check? Thank you. What will you drink?"

by John le Carré'

And the answer to that question, as most Smileyphiles know, marks the end of one story and the beginning of another.

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