Author Topic: TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (1979)  (Read 153 times)

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Offline agate

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TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (1979)
« on: March 20, 2015, 07:19:15 am »
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (1979)

This TV adaptation of a John LeCarré story was first shown in 1979, and that is approximately when I first saw it. I've recently revisited it, partly to see what it was about it that I liked, or whether I'd remembered it right. As I watched it this second time, I realized that my first viewing had been in black and white–quite a different experience from color, in this case.

Alec Guinness’s performance as George Smiley, former head of the “Circus” (British Secret Intelligence Service), is stunning.

According to the movie critic Roger Ebert,

Quote
In the real world, where his real name is David Cornwall,  [LeCarré] was one of the British spies who was betrayed by Kim Philby, the notorious MI6 operative who was a double agent for the Soviets.

With that information and a bit more at hand, I can say that this story is a fictional version of some of Cornwall/LeCarré’s experiences in connection with the exposure of a mole in MI6, probably here known as the Circus.

Spy stories usually bore me because their plots are too intricate to follow. Or, rather, I lose interest in following them. But this story is an exception. It touches on the rottenness at the roots of the whole espionage system.

And it is very elegantly presented, with each of the six episodes framed by somber music introducing and closing them. The opening involves a starkly simple photo of a matryoshka or nesting Russian doll. This seems to be a typical matryoshka–a woman’s figure, and each nesting doll as we come to it is identical in appearance except that of course it is smaller. The last one, however, which lacks facial features. It has been left blank, almost as if it is up to the viewers to insert them. Or to imagine them.

Smiley is the most enigmatic and hard-to-decipher of the "operatives" who are at the center of this story. In the end it is Smiley who “wins” even though we sense that his life is often in danger during the course of the action. We want Smiley to win, for there is about him a decency that the others often lack.

Then there is the concluding part of each of the six episodes–harder to account for: a choirboy’s singing of a liturgical piece. I wondered all along what it was doing there since none of the characters is devout, and religion isn’t mentioned.

Or is it? Jim Prideaux, who was very nearly killed during an action that went bad in Czechoslovakia, is told to “get lost” and is eventually found, coaching at a boys’ school. He may be about to lose his job, and he has been made lame by the injuries he suffered at the time of the incident, but he is still the honorable agent even though he apparently broke under interrogation by the Soviets.

When this is revealed to George Smiley, he seems to understand. It becomes clear that a “good” spy is one who values human life. Contrasted with the enemy’s way of operating, which is to insist ruthlessly that the end justifies the means and that life is therefore cheap, expendable, the honorable British spy may be fighting a losing battle, but will go on fighting nonetheless.

This is not a classic good versus evil tale, or at least that’s not how I see it. Two political systems are pitted against each other–the capitalist system of Britain and the communist ideology of the Soviet bloc–but LeCarré is far from simplistic about this opposition. He sees the decay that is at the root of much of British tradition. He suggests (strongly) that the time-honored convention of sending upper-class boys to all-boy schools promotes an old-boy network rife with favoritism and  homosexual attachments that aren't always benign.

Backing this school system up, of course, is the Church of England, with compulsory chapel for the boys, who are indoctrinated with the impressive, possibly overwhelming (to an impressionable child) Anglican aesthetic. For sensitive boys who want to believe in the fundamental improving qualities of the Christian ethos, such as the boy who attaches himself to Prideaux, their lives will be molded forever by this schooling.

In a scene near the end, this boy is reading from Scripture and stumbles over the old verb form “shewed,”and Prideaux, who by now is probably aware that his temporary job as coach is about to crumble, nevertheless gives him the needed information so that he can proceed.

Prideaux has done the honorable thing, the properly British thing. This is what LeCarré seems to be saying in this entire story: There are (or were) still those in the intelligence service  trying to do their job responsibly and honorably, and then there were those corrupt operatives, who would cynically sell out.

It’s a very somberly patriotic story, worth watching for Guinness’s acting if for no other reason. Our final glimpse of him is a masterpiece of understatement, and sums up Smiley as we have known him in this story: withholding judgment, willing to hear people out, unemotional  but not coldly so.
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