The Little Drummer Girl

Charlie training with the Palestinians

Is the 1984 flop The Little Drummer Girl really a spy thriller, as it says on the tin, or an existential drama about a woman losing her mind because she believed in nothing to start with?

Diane Keaton stars in this adaptation of a semi-successful John Le Carré novel (attempts have been made to re-appraise it since the author’s death), playing an actress recruited by the Israeli secret service to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist network. Le Carré (real name David Cornwell) based “Charlie” on his half sister, the actress Charlotte Cornwell, who around this time was suing a UK newspaper for suggesting her “bum is too big”. She won, on the grounds that it was a personal attack rather than fair comment. What she thought about the character of Charlie has not been recorded.

Read the Wikipedia entry if you want to understand what’s going on, because this adaptation’s lack of an authorial voice fails to make things clear. Charlie’s views on Palestine seem straight enough though – she’s against the oppression of a dispossessed people by the Zionists – which makes her rationale for accepting a gig offered by the Israeli secret-service mystifying. Instead of a solid reason, it’s suggested either that Charlie is driven by her actor’s vanity – this is a good role she’s been offered! Or driven by her desire for her darkly handsome handler, Joseph (Yorgo Voyagis). Neither seems really plausible. Both make her seem silly.

Charlie is a jobbing repertory actor touring draughty provincial theatres in the UK and yet dresses in that “Keaton style” of mannish clothes with a relaxed fit made popular by the film Annie Hall and costing way more than her character could afford. What we’re getting is Hollywood star Diane Keaton rather than struggling actress Charlie, which doesn’t help with a film that’s bewildering enough already. All that said, initially at least Charlie is a fairly known quantity. It’s only later that she gets harder to read and Keaton, perhaps floundering, starts to get shrill.

As the action moves from the UK to Palestine, where Charlie is trained in the ways of the “struggle”, doing the training, learning to disassemble rifles and make bombs, it becomes increasingly evident that The Little Drummer Girl does not work as a spy thriller. Who are the good guys? Is it the Palestinians and their struggle to regain their homeland, or the Israelis, who are also struggling – not to be pushed into the sea.

Le Carré is off his Cold War home beat, where his task was twofold: to suggest that a position that was straightforward to most people – we are the good guys and the Soviet Bloc are the bad guys – was a bit more nuanced than that. And to point out that spying isn’t glamorous. It’s not James Bond.

Klaus Kinski
Klaus Kinski as Charlie’s control

But when Le Carré makes similar points here about Middle East politics not being as cut-and-dried as the newspaper headlines and propagandists suggest, he’s likely to elicit the response, “Tell me something I don’t know”. (It does, though, explain how the notoriously cautious BBC felt able to remake this as a TV series in 2018 without fear of being attacked by either side – the show was as opaque as this film version and its star, the brilliant Florence Pugh, also got as stuck as Keaton does.)

There is no place in this story for George Smiley, though manipulative older Israeli spymaster Kurtz (Klaus Kinski) comes very close – and in his claims to be representing a more emollient branch of the Israel spy community, one that favours a two-state solution to the Palestine situation, we’re fairly sure Kurtz is just saying what Charlie wants to hear, but we can’t be sure. It’s the sort of game Smiley would play.

The film was the penultimate directorial effort by George Roy Hill, whose bizarre career went stratospheric with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969 and The Sting in 1973 and then fell back to earth and stayed there. He brings a slick professionalism to proceedings, no frills, no grace notes, no idiosyncrasies, which was what he tended to do and got him critical blowback at times – in the age of the auteur director, George Roy Hill didn’t play that game. And thank god for that, here anyway, since the last thing this film needs is someone else adding curlicues.

Other little enjoyments include a few glimpses of early Bill Nighy, as one of Charlie’s fellow thespians cranking it out on stage. It’s all there – the pursed lips, the mournful fluting delivery – all pupating away nicely.

Gather ye rosebuds where ye may – The Little Drummer Girl has scant few to offer.

The Little Drummer Girl – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in silhouette in Manhattan


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



26 September



George Gershwin born, 1898

On this day in 1898, the writer of Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, Someone to Watch over Me, Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess was born in Brooklyn, New York. A school dropout, Gershwin, born Jacob Gershowitz, was playing piano in clubs at the age of 15, published his first song when he was 16 and was writing shows by his early 20s. His breadth was amazing – Tin Pan Alley songs, entire Broadway and Hollywood musicals and his “folk opera” Porgy & Bess all poured from him, with Gershwin all the time studying to broaden his range (though notably Nadia Boulanger, Ravel and Stravinsky all refused to teach him, believing they had nothing to offer him). Gershwin’s music is marked out by the influence of jazz – melodically, harmonically and rythmically – but also by the desire to fuse “high” and “low” culture. Gershwin died during surgery to remove a brain tumour at the age of 38, having just written the score to the Astaire/Rogers film Shall We Dance. His music lives on, though whether Steven Spielberg will ever get round to making his proposed biopic remains to be seen (Zachary Quinto is down to play Gershwin). Until then we’ll have to make do with 1945’s Rhapsody in Blue, starring Robert Alda (father of Alan) as the man himself.



Manhattan (1979, dir: Woody Allen)

Though he got going in the mid 1960s, it was only around 1970 that Woody Allen got up to speed. Since then he has produced a film a year, give or take. It’s a huge body of work. And in polls for his best film, Manhattan is usually up  there with Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters. Like Midnight in Paris, another hymn to a place, it’s a vastly affectionate work, bursting with love, tempered by cynicism, about the denizens of Allen’s home town. Kicking off with the slinky, opening clarinet glissando of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Allen then presents us with a series of picture-postcard views of Manhattan. This is Manhattan as icon, as artistic hub, as inspiration. And, in true Allen style, having set us up, he sucker-punches us with a pay-off – the joke being that his characters are just small people with silly obsessions, human weaknesses, Allen himself playing the twice-divorced man foolishly dating a teenager (Mariel Hemingway) and then getting himself even more hopelessly entangled with the mistress (Diane Keaton) of his best friend (Michael Murphy). Shot in black and white by Gordon Willis, it’s a beautiful film, a romantic film, and a funny one, with Allen reserving his best lines for gags against himself, with sex and personal insecurity the usual subjects – “Let’s fool around,” the 17-year-old Tracy tells him. “Let’s do it some strange way that you’ve always wanted to, but nobody would do with you.” Well it made me smile.



Why Watch?


  • Meryl Streep plays Allen’s ex-wife
  • The amazing cinematography of Gordon Willis
  • Allen’s best film?
  • The best film about New York


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Manhattan – at Amazon








Woody Allen’s 1979 magnum opus starts famously with a long montage which appears to suggest that New York is to the modern world what Paris was in the early half of the 20th century – the home of romance, intellectualism, art, sex and impossible glamour. To the sinuous jazz of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Allen treats us to a sequence of lush black and white images such as Robert Doisneau or Henri Cartier-Bresson might have taken. And then, in the filmic equivalent of dragging the needle off the record, he appears to say ‘Hang on – the French may be mature, worldly and philosophical. But New Yorkers?’ The next 90 minutes play out like a long comic pay-off to this short set-up, as we’re introduced to a succession of grasping, whiney, selfish Big Apple residents (played by Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep and Michael Murphy), each of whom believes he/she is the epitome of integrity, kindness and intelligence. Only Allen’s 17-year-old screen girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway) escapes unscathed, too young to have been tainted by the ‘me me me’ culture. Surprisingly, Allen wan’t lynched by his fellow New Yorkers for this unflattering portrait. Perhaps they were laughing too much to realise how barbed it was.

© Steve Morrissey 2006


Manhattan – at Amazon