The Looking Glass War

Anthony Hopkins with Christopher Jones

The third of John Le Carré’s spy thrillers to be adapted for the big screen, 1970’s The Looking Glass War is an odd and pretty much entirely unsuccessful spy thriller that’s taken a big conceptual decision only for it not to pay off at all.

The first two adaptations were the big success The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (Richard Burton starred) and the underrated The Deadly Game (a reworking of Le Carré’s novel Call for the Dead, with James Mason as a version of George Smiley).

There’s no sign of Smiley here, though he was in this film’s original novel. That said, there is some justification for removing him since the action didn’t centre on him or his chaps at the “Circus”.

Plotwise, it’s a simple one. The Soviets are up to something behind the Iron Curtain, a new missile, maybe, and London wants to know what’s going on. So they recruit a German-speaking Polish would-be defector to go behind enemy lines and report back. And that’s what he does.

A lavishly made, good-looking film is what we get as a result, shot in the UK and “Europe” (as the credits coyly tell us, hoping we’ll mistake Spain for somewhere in the Eastern bloc) in the last days of US-financed films being made in the UK before the plug was pulled in the early 1970s.

It’s a great cast – Ralph Richardson and Anthony Hopkins most notably, but full of quality names, like Anna Massey, Timothy West and Ray McAnally. Hopkins fans might be surprised at how massively underused he is. True, this was only his fourth feature film, but he was hot off The Lion in Winter and you’d have expected more than a flunkey role, which is pretty much all he’s been thrown here.

Carrying the film is Christopher Jones, a handsome leading man who was having his flash in the pan when he got cast as the lead, Preiser, the defector-turned-rookie-agent. A couple of years on from Bonnie and Clyde – the film that shook up old Hollywood – it’s obvious that the producers have decided to gamble all on Preiser’s long hair and snake hips and go for the youth vote. Jones gets top billing, the likes of Richardson and Hopkins hold his coat and John Le Carré is largely left out in the cold.

Preiser struggles with his captors
Maybe the Warren Beatty hair and shades weren’t such a great idea

Sure, there are still glimpses to be had of Le Carré. Spying isn’t glamorous, it’s bureaucratic, a case of protocols and following the rules. There is spycraft and it’s of a very practical Le Carré-ish sort – messages hidden in toothpaste tubes, the correct way to disable a tripwire etc. No James Bond stuff.

That said, the understanding here seems to be that Preiser could eventually become a James Bond, that’s the way the whole movie tilts. He’s a master of several languages, resourceful, handy in a fight and insanely attractive to women. Look at the way the two women in his thrall are credited – Pia Degermark is The Girl, Susan George is simply The Girl in London (a year later she’d be starring in Straw Dogs with Dustin Hoffman).

It’s easy to blame Jones for the film’s shortcomings and he wasn’t the easiest to work with, apparenty, Hopkins in particular having complained about his attitude preceding his talent. But it’s the writing of Preiser’s character that makes no sense. Didn’t British spying have an agent who could speak German? Wasn’t there a spy of theirs over there already? They’re only asking Preiser to confirm that it’s a rocket, after all. And isn’t someone in hipster shades and with boutique Warren Beatty/Scott Walker hair going to stand out in concrete-grey Eastern Bloc Europe?

Where’s the jeopardy, where’s the intrigue? Having gutted the novel and repurposed it as a lure, using a countercultural (to studio suits, anyway) himbo as its bait, there’s not much actual meat left, which forces director Frank Pierson into some obvious time-wasting manoeuvres. Scenes that are too long. Tracking shots of vehicles crossing the countryside. And so on.

The foolishness of the decision to repurpose Le Carré this way becomes most obvious in the final scenes, where old-school perfidy and the dangerous aloofness of British spymasters re-assert themselves and, whaddya know, the film crackles into life before flopping into the arms of the end credits.

In sum, nicely made, well cast, but a bizarre film. Blame the screenplay writer (Pierson) if you must but really this goes all the way to the top. A John Le Carré spy thriller with nearly all of the Le Carré removed, it makes no sense. It would be almost another 15 years before Le Carré and the movies would meet again, in 1984’s The Little Drummer Girl. But that’s another story.

The Looking Glass War – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Kenneth Branagh as Reinhard Heydrich and Stanley Tucci as Adolf Eichmann in Conspiracy


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



20 January



The Wannsee Conference, 1942

On this day in 1942 a short meeting was held at 56-58 Am Großen Wannsee, in the suburbs of Berlin. It was called by Reinhard Heydrich, boss of the SS, and gathered together the heads of various government departments to facilitate the removal of Jews from Germany and occupied territories, their deportation to Poland and their extermination. It lasted only about 90 minutes and was arranged to put in place the practical measures to ensure that the process ran smoothly, and to make sure that the various government departments cooperated. A secondary concern was to hammer out, once and for all, who was to be considered Jewish and who among the Jews was to be spared (those who simply could not be replaced, was the answer). It was in effect a power-grab by Heydrich, who arrived at the meeting with a sheet of paper on which were written the numbers of Jews estimated to be living in the various countries of Europe. The estimated number was “over 11 million”. The idea was to ship all of them out to Siberia, where they would all work till they died, and those who didn’t die would be killed, on account of their tough constitutions being too valuable to pass on to future generations. Though the entire meeting was couched in euphemism – Jews were to be “evacuated”, survivors of severe work details were to be treated “accordingly” – everyone present knew what was actually being discussed, as testimony from Adolph Eichmann at his trial in Israel in 1962, attests.




Conspiracy (2001, dir: Frank Pierson)

Conspiracy tells the story of the Wannsee Conference, and it tells it largely from a record of the meeting found in Hitler’s Foreign Ministry after the war had ended, which also provided the raw material for the German-Austrian film Die Wannseekonferenz. Kenneth Branagh heads the largely British ensemble cast, playing Reinhard Heydrich, while Stanley Tucci plays Adolf Eichmann, the high-level penpusher who facilitated the transportation of Jews across Europe, made sure t’s were crossed, i’s were dotted and trains ran on time – the “desk murderer” as the Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal later called him. Heydrich is pivotal, the cool sinister presence nudging, cajoling, urging the other factotums present into endorsing what they have been summoned to that room to endorse. Disagreements are few, and tend to be of a pedantic or legalistic nature – on the exact definition of what a Jew is, according to 1935s Nuremberg Laws, for instance, which Colin Firth’s Dr Wilhelm Stuckart gets hung up on – rather than the moral awfulness of what they were planning. Heydrich was in effect asking the room to drop the legal pretext for killing Jews and just get on with it. In Branagh’s Heydrich we have not a portrait of evil but of cold efficiency, “the man with the iron heart” as Hitler called him – Branagh later talked about wondering whether Heydrich, if asked to eliminate 11 million tennis players, might not have done it with similar ruthlessness. Beware the civil servants, the managers, in other words. Director Frank Pierson (who had written another largely single-room drama, Dog Day Afternoon, years before) keeps the camera at head level. We’re at the table with Heydrich as he moves the agenda from one item to the next, moving from the less controversial (“immigration”) to the more (“evacuation”) and focusing his frightening intensity on any backsliders he finds as each item is dealt with. We are at the table. It is mass extermination as high-level board meeting, murder as business.



Why Watch?


  • An informative if chilling history lesson
  • The great cast includes David Threlfall and Ian McNeice
  • Fifteen men in a meeting has rarely been less boring
  • The Second World War from an entirely revelatory angle


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Conspiracy – at Amazon