John Le Carré Movie Adaptations Ranked, 2021

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

There is a lot of John Le Carré out there. The author wrote prodigiously, starting while he was still working as a spy for MI5 and MI6 in the late 1950s and only really stopped when he died, in December 2020. There are nine novels featuring his most famous creation, the retired master spy George Smiley, and another 17 or so (depending on how you count) other novels, plus short stories, essays, memoirs, articles written for newspapers (denouncing the war in Iraq, for instance) and screenplays (always adaptations of his own novels).

But there’s no getting round it, if you want a John Le Carré experience, the movies are probably the worst way to get one. The books are by far the best, because they give Le Carré space to lay out his worldview and spin his intricate webs. For the same reason – space – the TV miniseries also works well, with 1979’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Alec Guinness, probably unbeatable as the definitive screen Le Carré, though there’s also a lot to be said for 2016’s The Night Manager, starring Tom Hiddleston. After TV, the audio versions are the way to go, particularly the BBC’s excellent The Complete Smiley, featuring Simon Russell Beale as a very Alec Guinness-tinged George Smiley.

And after all that, the film versions. Le Carré is all about intricate plotting and texture, and the two-hours-ish running times of most big- or small-screen movies simply isn’t enough for the magic to exert itself. However, some pull it off, others don’t.

For the purposes of this rundown I’m including all the standalone Le Carrés, whether made for cinema or TV. They’re a mixed bunch, ranging from the exceptional to the diabolical.

I’ve watched them all (bar one) and here’s how I rank them, from worst to best, and why.



The End of the Line

A BBC standalone Le Carré made in 1970 as part of the Armchair Theatre TV strand. The Germans would remake it three years later as Endstation – both are two-handers about a clergyman and an older gent sharing a train carriage on a journey from Edinburgh to London. Both men are spies but neither is saying so. Ian Holm and Robert Harris take the leads in the British version, Hans Schweikart and Peter Striebeck in the German one. I’ve seen neither, so won’t comment.

The Little Drummer Girl

Like Florence Pugh, decades later in the TV adaptation, Diane Keaton was undone in 1984 by a confusing story about an actress being recruited by the Israeli secret service to undermine the Palestinian cause she so vehemently champions. How? Why? It’s probably best not to ask. Le Carré has tied himself in knots trying (and failing) to work his Cold War modus operandi into a new theatre of operations, the Middle East. It’s nicely, unfussily directed, by George Roy Hill, and there’s a chance to see a relatively restrained Klaus Kinski do his thing, as an Israeli version of George Smiley.

A Murder of Quality

George Smiley moonlights as a private detective in a straightforward 1991 TV movie whodunit that looks as if it’s made for Sunday evening audiences in need of reassurance. A young Christian Bale joins troupers like Glenda Jackson, Joss Ackland and Billie Whitelaw and though it’s a bland and unsurprising Le Carré, Denholm Elliott does manage to cut through as Smiley – lighter and fruitier than Alec Guinness’s, in a tale that all comes down to the fine distinctions between various castes of hidebound Brits.

The Looking Glass War

Ralph Richardson and Anthony Hopkins turn up in this 1970 Le Carré adaptation but it’s the relatively obscure Christopher Jones who’s the star, as the handsome sailor recruited to go behind the Iron Curtain to winkle out secrets. Jones is fine, even though his long-haired, Warren Beatty-esque character is patently absurd, a sign that the film is playing to the countercultural youth of the day, a decision which kills any chance of the film being a success.

A Most Wanted Man

John Le Carré’s stories are often about the dull plod of everyday spying. A film’s problem is to render that on the screen and yet keep some excitement there. Director Anton Corbijn drenches his 2014 Le Carré outing with stylistic flourishes similar to the ones he brought to The American – this is a very cool film – and he has a cast of spectacular international dimension (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl, Rainer Bock, Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe). But in the same way that Le Carré’s novels often struggled in the post 9/11 world, Corbijn struggles here in his attempt to inject a spark into a film that is in most other respects brilliant.

The Tailor of Panama

A real mix of the fine and the not so much in this 2001 adaptation of Le Carré’s excursion into Graham Greene territory – a central America full of sweaty generals and downmarket spies. Pierce Brosnan – between 1999’s The World Is Not Enough and 2002’s Die Another Day – shows there’s more than one spy in his acting arsenal, and the rest of the cast is genuinely interesting and includes Geoffrey Rush, the largely superfluous Jamie Lee Curtis and playwright Harold Pinter (in a rare screen role). As for Brendan Gleeson as a Panamanian freedom fighter – not his finest hour.


Naomie Harris and Ewan McGregor in Our Kind of Traitor
Naomie Harris and Ewan McGregor in Our Kind of Traitor


Our Kind of Traitor

Blameless prof Ewan McGregor and lawyer wife Naomie Harris get caught up in the money-laundering machinations of Russian oligarch Stellan Skarsgård in Marrakech in a textbook “Le Carré on the big screen” movie. It looks great, it’s sexy enough and the cast (including the excellent Damian Lewis) is great. With McGregor once rumoured as “the next James Bond” and with Harris (the current Miss Moneypenny) in the cast, it’s clearly aiming for a bit of 007 lustre. But there just isn’t enough air in there to let Le Carré’s textures interweave and so the full weight of the betrayal/loyalty theme is never quite felt.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

What played out over nearly 400 pages in print and nearly five hours on the TV suffers from being condensed to the point where the intricacies of what is surely John Le Carré’s most finely plotted story start to get lost. Still, there’s always Tomas Alfredson’s direction to admire, and the sheer 1970s look of the 2011 movie is probably unsurpassed – reel-to-reel tape recorders, nicotine-coloured ceilings, the full analogue world. Tom Hardy’s 21st-century speech patterns are a problem, but it’s a dependable cast – John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch.

The Russia House

For this doubter, both Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer are surprisingly effective in this 1990 adaptation whose USP was that it was shot in Moscow as Gorbachev’s Glasnost made it possible for lickspittle running dogs of capitalism to film there for the first time in decades. Connery is a tweedy, boozy publisher recruited by the British secret service, Pfeiffer the Russian he’s targeting. It packs a lot in, and director Fred Schepisi sometimes forgets that he’s making a spy thriller. But it’s a looker, in every sense.

The Constant Gardener

This 2005 adaptation of Le Carré’s “Big Pharma” novel still bears all the hallmarks of his spying oeuvre – duplicity, grinding bureaucracy, the personal cost of loyalty to an idea – and features a methodical, very Le Carré character at its centre. Ralph Fiennes plays the plodding diplomat kicked into life by the death of his activist wife (Rachel Weisz) in an Africa where Aids and corporate colonialism stalk the continent.

The Deadly Affair

Paramount owned the name George Smiley and so James Mason goes by Charles Dobbs in this excellent 1967 adaptation of Le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead. It’s directed at pace by Sidney Lumet, is photographed in appropriately stygian gloom by the great Freddie Young and its superb cast includes Simone Signoret, Harriet Anderson, Harry Andrews and Maximilian Schell.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

The first and the best of the Le Carré adaptations, largely because it sticks closely to what Le Carré was all about – compromised people in compromised situations. Richard Burton’s performance – as a drunk and broken man given another chance at redemption by playing a “defecting” spy sowing misinformation in East Berlin – is a great one, and of a piece with director Martin Ritt’s film making spying look about as unglamorous as it could get.




Almost all the screen Le Carré adaptations can be found on this Amazon page


Highly recommended: The Complete George Smiley radio dramas – also at Amazon


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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Deadly Affair

Charles Dobbs on the phone

1966’s The Deadly Affair repeats the formula of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – John Le Carré story, top British and European cast, London locations, great US director, ace British cinematographer, soundtrack by a big name – and if it isn’t quite up there with the 1965 film, it’s still one of the very best Le Carré adaptations.

It takes Le Carré’s first novel, A Call for the Dead, slaps a less sombre, more bums-on-seats title on it and also renames Le Carré’s masterspy George Smiley, as Charles Dobbs (Paramount, who had made The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, “owned” the Smiley name). Though in all important respects this is Smiley, an ageing, owlish penpusher with a wife called Ann (Harriet Andersson) whom he adores but who treats him like shit – she’s “a nymphomaniac slut” in her own words, and most of Dobbs’s colleagues would agree, since they’ve nearly all slept with her.

The plot hangs off the death of a ministry wonk. Suicide is the official explanation. Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) was about to be outed as a former communist sympathiser, so the story goes, though Dobbs had quizzed Fennan on the very subject only that morning and Fennan had seemed happy to admit he’d been a Communist Party member in his university days – “Half the present Cabinet were Party men,” he points out. Unconvinced by the official line and suspecting murder, Dobbs sets about investigating, roping in Inspector Mendel (Harry Andrews), a cop on the verge of retirement, to help with the spade work. But first a trip to visit the dead man’s wife, Elsa. She is played by Simone Signoret, and let’s just say that you don’t hire Signoret simply to play the grieving widow.

James Mason’s mannered delivery works in his favour in The Deadly Affair. He’s a brilliant, silky Smiley (I mean Dobbs) – the silent but deadly quiet man whose unobtrusiveness is his secret weapon. The Dobbs character is of a piece with the shabby London settings captured by director Sidney Lumet. Far from the Swinging London of many mid-1960s movies, this is still the post-war world of damp rooms, electric fires and adultery, Lumet leaning in to Le Carré’s determination to present spying as a drab and morally ambiguous affair in much the same way Martin Ritt had in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel
Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel


Lumet also wanted to shoot in black and white, as Ritt did, but was prevailed upon by the studio to film The Deadly Affair in colour. Cinematographer Freddie Young gets Lumet half the way there, though, by “flashing” the film (exposing the negative to a controlled amount of light), a technique that drains out the colour, knocks back the contrast and increases shadow detail. This is a murky film that plays out in one underlit, beautifully photographed interior after another.

It’s also a superbly made film in terms of Lumet’s economical direction. From the opening shot, of Dobbs and Fennan already in mid-conversation in St James’s Park, Lumet does not hang about but drives the story forwards.

What a cast. As well as Signoret and Andersson – both greats of cinema – there’s the Austrian/Swiss actor Maximilian Schell, now amazingly almost a cinematic footnote but at the time about as big a star as a non-anglophone actor could be in Hollywood. One of Lumet’s fascinations is the way different actors work in different registers. Against the bluff, four-square Harry Andrews there’s puckish, nervous Roy Kinnear, for instance, and Lumet also stages several scenes at the theatre, where yet another different breed of actor, brother and sister Corin and Lynn Redgrave, play a camp director and his over-eager stage manager. We even get extracts from the plays they are supposedly working on – Shakespeare’s Macbeth and, particularly, Marlowe’s Edward II, where David Warner is playing the king and Timothy West is a witness to his terrible death (red hot poker where the sun don’t shine). Lumet is obviously indulging himself in a bit of “what I did on my holiday in London” postcard-writing with these scenes from Royal Shakespeare Company productions but they also provide a bit of contrast with the drabness of Dobbs’s milieu.

Quincy Jones’s lush John Barry-like score (title song sung by Astrud Gilberto) does something similiar, acting as a stark contrast to locations like semi-industrial Lots Road in West London, in the days before all of the Thames waterfront had gone upmarket. It’s where Dobbs finally unmasks his “traitor”, the dénouement playing out, grimly, quickly, in the dark and the pouring rain.

The years have been kind to this film, coating it in an allure it didn’t obviously have at the time. Mason is a superb Smiley (Dobbs, whatever) and this is a superb Le Carré adaptation.



PS: do yourself a favour and watch a restored version of the film, like the Amazon Blu-ray one listed below. It’s really worth it to see the results of the remarkable Freddie Young’s “flashing” technique. So much darkness, but so much detail.




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© Steve Morrissey 2021







A Murder of Quality

Denholm Elliott as George Smiley

Written by John Le Carré, a master spy storyteller, and featuring a masterspy, George Smiley, you’d expect A Murder of Quality to be, well, a story about spying. In fact it’s a bare-bones whodunit with not a spook to be seen. Both Le Carré and Smiley are here essentially moonlighting.

The grisly murder of a woman at a private school is what sets it off, retired George being called in by old agency chum Ailsa Brimley to look into it as a favour for her. Strictly off the books, hush hush etc. This is a murder pure and simple. One for the police. Smiley is there as an outsider with no official involvement. Think Jessica Fletcher or any number of other amateur gumshoes.

It’s all set in a quaint 1950s Britain, of scarved vicars on bicycles, Sunday schools and cars with no synchromesh on first gear, a vastly reassuring landscape, though this sort of backdrop has been used so often in tales of gruesome murder – this victim was “bludgeoned” to death with a heavy piece of pipe – that you’ve got to wonder who’s still being reassured by scones and jam and old bookshops selling slightly foxed first editions.

Reassuring cast, though. Denholm Elliott as George Smiley, Glenda Jackson as Brimley, the Watson to Smiley’s Holmes, Joss Ackland as a pompous and over-friendly schoolmaster, Ronald Pickup as “a distinguished sexual athlete”, as local Inspector Rigby (Matthew Scurfield) puts it, Billie Whitelaw as babbling local vagrant “Mad Janie”, David Threlfall as the dead woman’s grief-stricken husband, Diane Fletcher as a hoity-toity bitch (she’s great at those – see the original British House of Cards) and… drum roll… Christian Bale as one of the pupils at the school. Four years out from Empire of the Sun, the film that introduced him, and nine years away from American Psycho making him, this is Bale solidly hacking his way through the undergrowth as a jobbing actor.

A vastly over-qualified cast, in fact, though you do need some quality when the finger of suspicion comes your character’s way – and it does tend to alight upon most of those listed above at one point or another.

Since spying is off the table, Le Carré settles instead for another of his pre-occupations, the small snobberies of the English caste system, where whose “people” you’re from matters and parvenus out themselves unwittingly by passing the port the wrong way around the dinner table. The retro setting helps, too, and the fact that the whole thing was filmed in and around Sherborne, Le Carré’s own public (ie expensive private) school, gives us an idea of the windmills he’s tilting at. For good measure, Le Carré adds in a bit of town v gown tension and high v low church friction to act as extra grist to his mill.

David Threlfall and Denholm Elliott
Guilty? The dead woman’s husband



Denholm Elliott would be dead within a year but looks full of vigour as George Smiley. He was the third actor to have been offered the role, the imdb tells us, though you’ve always got to take these “offered the role” tags with a pinch of salt. A lot of actors are sent scripts, a lot of actors are sounded out, roles are often “offered” with having been actually offered. However, Alec Guinness had apparently said no, having already been George Smiley twice on TV and Anthony Hopkins (“star” of Le Carré’s The Looking Glass War, if you believe the imdb trivia page – he actually only had a supporting role) had also turned down the role, it’s said, because he wasn’t happy with the script. But given that Hopkins was prepping Hannibal Lecter at the time… you’ve got to wonder.

However, musings to one side, Elliott is a lovely and lively Smiley, muting the darker end of Guinness’s interpretation, turning up the fruitier, lighter end. He’s as owlish as Guinness, but a lot more charming, as an amateur detective with absolutely no jurisdiction or reason for being involved would have to be.

It’s the second of Le Carré’s Smiley books, and was written in 1962, presumably before the author had worked out where his strengths lay. It’s nicely, neatly done, directed unobtrusively by Gavin Millar and is almost entirely inconsequential, a piece of primetime schedule-filler.

In fact the way to go for Smiley fans is not the movies (TV or otherwise) at all. It’s the BBC radio dramas with Simon Russell Beale in the role of Smiley (his performance nods to Alec Guinness). In the radio version of A Murder of Quality in particular much more is made of the relationship between Smiley and the decent, clever local inspector. On screen here, in a canny performance, Matthew Scurfield does what he can to suggest that relationship but it’s mostly been excised from the screenplay, by Le Carré himself. A crime. And we know whodunit.




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© Steve Morrissey 2021







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.




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© Steve Morrissey 2021







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.




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© Steve Morrissey 2021







The Avengers: Series 3, Episode 17 – The Wringer

Patrick Macnee and Peter Sallis

 

Peter Sallis hasn’t yet developed the voice that would make him the ideal Wallace (of Wallace and Gromit fame) in his outing as an amnesiac spook on the run in The Wringer, an episode in which a string of spies have been killed and Steed has been brought in to find out why, which prompts Sallis to then dob Steed in as the one doing the killing.

 

It’s one of the best stories in this series, perhaps because The Avengers had long ago given up all pretence that Mrs Gale is an amateur helping Steed out – she’s now as clued in as he is – or that Steed is essentially the Man Friday of the law enforcement world with a “no job too small” remit. And there’s the relatively unusual “spooky tech” element, a trope The Avengers would increasingly rely on as the years went by.

 

International espionage is the name of the game here, and in Martin Woodhouse’s bleak script, heavily into the idea that there’s a moral equivalence between Soviet and Western authorities, the influence of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – published a few months earlier to instant acclaim – is clear. It’s an unusual position for The Avengers to take, too. Normally, Steed’s lot are obviously the good guys.

 

Reinforcing the impression of a Le Carré influence on the plot is what happens after Steed is fingered by Sallis – he’s handed over to British Intelligence’s department of interrogation, where the Wringer (Terence Lodge) and his sidekick (Neil Robinson) get to work with mind-scrambling techniques that also seem influenced by what happened to Le Carré’s antihero Alex Leamas (a sonic/visual attack on the psyche).

 

“Time is what you care to make it, baby,” the hipsterish Wringer says to Steed after they’ve been first introduced, before going on to quote Wittgenstein while he gets ready to mess with the still relatively dapper chap’s head.

 

The casting here is brilliant, with Lodge an excellently creepy torturer – the horrible Manfred Mann combed-forward haircut and beard really help – and Robinson adding to the sense of seediness with faint suggestions by both actors that these colleagues perhaps share other interests in common. That idea – the deviant gay villain – comes right out of James Bond.

 

Mrs Gale, meanwhile, in a change up in importance for her as a member of whatever spying organisation she and Steed belong to, is loudly protesting Steed’s innocence, is calling out his control (Paul Whitsun-Jones – a pre-figuring of the Mother figure) and is working to prove that there’s more to this interrogation team than meets the eye.

 

It is all in all an excellent episode, thanks to Woodhouse’s intelligent script, director Don Leaver’s determination to get cameras into tight spaces, his team’s skilfull dolly shots back and forth and the very well executed special effects sequences and “outdoor” sequences that belie the meagre TV budget – though it looks to me like the spend on this episode was considerably more than the series was used to.

 

Also, if you fancy it, The Wringer contains the kernel of the idea for another of the 1960s most cult TV series – The Prisoner, which was entirely about efforts to debrief spies, and built on the morally relativistic notion that maybe the good guys and bad guys are one and the same.

 

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

 

 

Based on the breakthrough novel by former spy John Le Carré, shot in black and white to suggest that espionage is unglamorous, dirty work and starring a hollowed out Richard Burton, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is as far from James Bond as it’s possible to get – further, even than Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer of the Ipcress File. Telling the story of a jaded spy who is busted to a desk job in London and then recruited by East German intelligence – or that’s what they think – it’s a bleak marvel, as redolent of the drab side of the 1960s as the smell of a wet duffel coat. Martin Ritt directs, and you’d not guess from the portrait painted of life behind the Iron Curtain that he’d been blacklisted in the US, for supposedly having Communist sympathies. Mind you, the picture he paints of life in Britain, just emerging from economic lockdown after going broke fighting the Nazis, is hardly sympathetic either.

Though critically rated, the film did not do overly well at the box office, the public being still in the first flush of love with 007 and finding the lack of car chases, gadgets and no-strings sex something of a letdown. And Ritt’s determination to keep the boomy theatrics out of the performances by Burton and his co-stars (including Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner and Peter Van Eyck) probably didn’t help sell it to the glamour-hungry either.

Not everyone loves this film. Some find it too dark, too grey. But in its depiction of an almost heretical character – the spy who seems ambivalent towards his country – it takes a type established by Graham Greene and adds several dollops of bleak. Le Carré, Ritt and Burton know exactly what they’re about, and they’re all facing in exactly the same direction.

 

 

PS

Trivia hounds might like to note that the film also features the first screen appearance of Le Carré’s most famous creation, George Smiley (played here by Rupert Davies), who’d go on to be played in later films by James Mason, Denholm Elliott, Alec Guinness and, most recently by Gary Oldman.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Tailor of Panama

Pierce Brosnan and Jamie Lee Curtis in The Tailor of Panama

 

 

 

Between Bond movies The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day, busy Pierce Brosnan managed to fit in two other projects. One of them was this adaptation of a John Le Carre story about a downmarket spy (Brosnan) in Central America who uses a sweatily nervous tailor (the unimpeachable Geoffrey Rush) to gain access to the local generals, his object: to sell them all manner of dodgy information designed to destabilise the country. It may say Le Carre on the tin but there’s the definite feeling we’re in Graham Greene country here, the atmopshere of mosquito netting, insanitary plumbing and lousy tea all being typical Greene touches. Adding suitably weird supporting performances are Harold Pinter as Rush’s dear old Jewish dad and Brendan Gleason as a Panamanian freedom fighter. These are both somewhat left-field bits of casting but they’re typical of the nutty casualness that pervades the whole film. Look at Jamie Lee Curtis – dragged in as love interest and then almost dismissively underused. Not to mention Brosnan, who is pretty much going at it like OO3.5. It’s all about deception, of course, and director John Boorman lays on the deliberate double-bluffs, intrigueful atmosphere and even conversations with dead people to confuse the viewer into not knowing what’s what, in an attempt to give us some idea of what Brosnan is doing to the generalissimos. Definitely one for people who enjoy being toyed with. And yes, it was shot in Panama.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Tailor of Panama – at Amazon