John le Carre, my 2020 and The Looking Glass War

It is fitting that my last post on this site for 2020 is a short tribute to the passing of a writer who has given me an enormous amount of pleasure during this difficult year, David John Moore Cornwell or as he is better known, John le Carré. Since his death on December 12, a sea of ink has been spilt on le Carré’s influence on the spy novel and his undoubted merits as a writer. I don’t intend to go over this territory again. Instead, I want to briefly discuss what it is about his George Smiley series I have found so fascinating. I also want to talk about one of the films based on his work that I believe does not get nearly enough praise, Frank R Pierson’s 1970 adaptation of le Carré’s 1965 novel, The Looking Glass War.

Melbourne, the city I live in, spent the better part of 2020 in hard lockdown in response to the Covid 19 virus. Reading was one of my many responses to suddenly finding myself with more free time. One very wet, cold Saturday morning at the outset of winter I picked up a paperback I bought ages ago – I can’t even remember when and where – the 1964 Penguin Crime edition of Call for the Dead. Originally published in 1961, it was the author’s first novel, an unrelenting grim hybrid mystery/espionage story in which a young (but in some respects quite old) George Smiley investigates the unusual death of an otherwise unremarkable British civil servant.

I had read what is probably le Carré’s best known work, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, years ago and remember liking it a lot. I enjoyed Call for the Dead so much that I decided to work through the other entries in the Smiley series. 2020 saw me get through, in order, The Looking Glass War, The Honourable Schoolboy and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A Murder of Quality, Smiley’s People and The Secret Pilgrim will have to wait for 2021. Apart from the fact that le Carré has such a wonderful prose style and his power of description, there are three things I love about the Smiley novels.

First, they really as noir as hell. More about that later.

Second, I adored the slow, analogue nature of spycraft as it is depicted in the stories. With the exception of The Secret Pilgrim, all the Smiley books were written in the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the first Cold War. Of course, looking back now, so much was going on but, on another level, events moved much slower than now. The geo-political conflict between the West and the Communist Block was in a kind of stasis, almost as if it was trapped in amber. And pre-Internet and modern telecommunications, our level of knowledge about what was happening in the Soviet Block was so limited. Connie Sachs, one of le Carre’s best characters, could spend a month just analysing a photograph of Russian dignitaries at a May Day parade. There is a terrific section in The Honourary Schoolboy in which journalist cum spy, Jerry Westerby, is trying to track down a missing Air America pilot called Ricardo. To do so he has to physically travel to Laos, Saigon, Phnom Penh and, finally, north east Thailand. There are numerous other examples. It is a world that is so different to the one we are in now and, to be honest, part of me misses it.

Third, in a strange way, these books chronicle my father’s generation, a group of men both damaged & strangely sustained by WWII and the Cold War that followed. Men who had had hard lives, took solace in alcohol, and were in many respects emotionally limited. Most of all, they were men for whom the war and their part in it, good or bad, was the defining point of their lives, certainly something that defined everything that followed.

Anyway, 2020 also saw me revisit several of the film adaptations of Le Carre’s Smiley books. I re-watched The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), Sidney Lumet’s version of Call for the Dead, The Deadly Affair (1967), the 2011 film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the 2018 television series, The Little Drummer Girl, all of which are excellent in their own way.

But the screen adaptation I most enjoy, and the one of le Carré’s work that seems to get the least appreciation, is The Looking Glass War. The film is quite different to the book. To cite one example, Smiley makes a small appearance in the book but is completely absent in the film. Nonetheless, for me, this movie is a near perfect distillation of the reasons why I enjoy le Carré’s work so much.

The Looking Glass War concerns the Department, a low rent version of Smiley’s Circus, headed up by a man called Leclerc (Ralph Richardson). Leclerc believes he may have stumbled across a plan by Moscow to base missiles on East German soil, if so a major escalation of the Cold War. But all he has in the way of evidence are some very grainy, indistinct photographs sent to him by a contact on the Soviet side of the divided German border. In order to get more detail, he pays a commercial airline pilot to fake accidently encroaching Soviet air space and take photographs, an incredible dangerous ploy given the tensions over the border between the divided Germany. But the agent receiving the photographs is killed. Or not. It is unclear whether the agent concerned was the subject of a political murdered or the unfortunate victim of a hit and run driver.

What should we do to get more information, asks the risk adverse Under Secretary of State, (Ray McAnally)?  “If this were the war, we’d put a man over the border,” replies Leclerc. “It required nerves and money. In those days we had both.” Leclerc gets the reluctant agreement of his political masters to do just that. Now all he needs to do is find the right man for the job. A potential candidate emerges in the form of Leiser (Christopher Jones), a swaggering, louche, nihilistic but charismatic young Polish man who has been detained by the British authorities after jumping ship in London to visit his pregnant girlfriend (Susan George). Leclerc makes Leiser an offer, do “a little job” for the Department in return for being able to stay in the UK permanently.

Leclerc assigns the Pole a minder, Avery (Anthony Hopkins), an idealistic somewhat fragile young man dealing with a failing marriage. Next Leiser is sent to a safehouse for a crash course in spy craft, something at which he has mixed success. While his overconfidence is a problem, Leiser’s time living in a police state has imbued him with a deep mistrust of everything, making him a natural survivor. As one of his trainer’s quips, he also the “morals of a bitch in heat”.

At one point, Leiser escapes the safe house to visit his girlfriend, only to discover she has had an abortion. Angry, he decides to go ahead with the mission anyway and is secreted over the border with orders to make contact with the man who sent Leclerc the photographs and get more information. While crossing into East Germany, however, Leiser kills a border guard, alerting the secret police to his presence and pitting him in a race against time to complete his mission before he is apprehended.

The Looking Glass War is arguably Le Carre’s bleakest novel and the film is saturated in a distinct noir sensibility. While the West and the Soviets engage in a brutal, no holds barred battle for supremacy – fought out on the ground by disposable proxies such as Leiser – what seems like the inevitability of nuclear war infuses every interaction with paranoia and futility. Meanwhile, in stark contrast to the stakes involved in this battle, is the penny pinching and bureaucratic arse covering that characterises the actions of Leclerc’s political masters.

“It is just like the old days” comments Leclerc with glee, as he and Avery wait for Leiser to make contact. Leclerc is defined by his experience as an intelligence operative during World War II. It is his career highlight and the touchstone of his identity, and he constantly refers to it to guide how the Department should proceed in the new Cold War, even though it is a totally different, much less morally certain conflict.

Pierson scripted films like Cool Hand Luke (1967), The Anderson Tapes (1971) Dog Day Afternoon (1975), but The Looking Glass War was his first outing as a director. I do not want to give away the ending for those who have not seen it, but the other aspect of The Looking Glass War I love is how Pierson handles the second half of the story. While Leclerc and Avery wait for word from the agent, Leiser is forced to lie and murder to survive. At the same time, the dark espionage themes are accompanied by a remarkable tonal shift, the introduction of an almost European art house feel and aesthetic as Leiser makes his way through the largely deserted German countryside (the entire film was shot in Britain with some stunning cinematography by Austin Dempster) and falls in with an unattached, unnamed woman (Pia Degermark) and a young boy.

Richardson is great, as always. Hopkins pulls off the role of spy well, a fact reconfirmed a year later when he starred in 1971 film version of Alistair Mclean’s When Eight Bells Toll. The other highlights are the presence of Jones and Degermarkn, two ‘it’ actors of late 1960s counter counter culture infused cinema, both of whom had real presence but who only starred in a handful of films before quitting acting. After a series of torrid affairs, including one with Degermarkn who he had previously appeared with in A Brief Season (1969), Jones had a breakdown and quit acting, He re-emerged in Los Angeles Sunset Strip counterculture drug scene, then became an artist and died in 2014. Swedish born Degermark had a similarly tumultuous life and after her brief stint as an actress, suffered from anorexia and did jail time for fraud.

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