20 September 2002 | rrichr
Smiley... George Smiley
As far as I know, neither `Smiley's People', nor its prequel, `Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy', is available in the US in BBC packaging (the current distributor) so you'll have to use your initiative if you want them. I acquired my copies of `Smiley's People' and `Tinker, Tailor' through my video guy, who makes a couple of trips every year to London to shop for Euro-only products. I then had them re-coded to the U.S. playback standard. I would urge collectors to definitely acquire both titles. Having both really gives you something to sink into. Although either title can easily stand alone, they dovetail beautifully. Only the re-casting of a couple of principal supporting roles detracts slightly from the otherwise airtight continuity between the two. If you've read the book, you know the plot. If you have not read it (admittedly, LeCarré is not for everyone), here's an appetizer:
Retired British counter-intelligence operative George Smiley (Sir Alec Guinness in a remarkably nuanced performance) becomes aware, through events linked to the murder of a former colleague, that his seemingly invulnerable arch-rival in Soviet counter-intelligence, known to the western intelligence fraternity as `Karla', may have finally exposed an Achilles heel. (Some years earlier, as recounted in the more episodic yet excellent `Tinker, Tailor', Karla nearly destroyed British counter-intelligence, wrecking Smiley's marriage in the process). Going on an initial hunch and a fragment of evidence, turned up in a beautiful sequence reminiscent of a similar scene in Antonioni's `Blow Up', Smiley methodically begins to put the pieces together, despite the fact that almost everyone he knows is advising him to go home and don his robe and slippers. At the same time Karla, realizing that he has probably jeopardized himself by bending his own rigidly-enforced rules, is ruthlessly trying to cover his own tracks. Karla (introduced in a fascinating, wordless performance by Patrick Stewart in `Tinker, Tailor') is no comic book villain but a brilliant, almost monumental adversary who survived Stalin's purges, rising through the labyrinth of Soviet socio-politics to the pinnacle of power.
`Smiley's People' is a tale of revenge. If, as the saying goes, revenge is a dish best served cold, or at least cool, Smiley's is the coolest possible variety, barely visible through a professionalism honed by years in the Cold War trenches. Moving resolutely around or through all obstacles, he eventually collects the evidence needed to secure the support of Sir Saul Enderby, current chief of the revamped, cynical British counter-intelligence service (termed by LeCarré `The Circus'). Barry Foster, the eerily incandescent serial killer in Alfred Hitchcock's `Frenzy', portrays the suave, power-loving Enderby, an arch-bureaucrat with more clout than credibility, whose vanity will not let him begrudge Smiley any acknowledgement of his brilliant and courageous work. Their scene together, in which Enderby tries and fails to push Smiley's buttons, all of which have been hermetically sealed by decades of experience, is a delight. `Smiley's People' operates largely on this sort of intimate, interpersonal level. Some of its greatest pleasures are found in scenes that center on the unflinching Smiley and his elegant, slightly honest, former master of spy-tradecraft, Toby Esterhaze (Bernard Hepton). Smiley recruited Esterhaze from the Vienna gutters at the end of the World War II and to open a line of fire on Karla, reactivates him to compromise and turn one of the Soviet spymaster's European operatives. (If Toby had been Nixon's Chief of Staff during the Watergate crisis, the Nixster would probably still be president.) The initial meeting between Smiley and Esterhaze, their first since a rather unfriendly encounter in `Tinker, Tailor', is masterful, almost poetic.
Even in its somewhat streamlined, screen version `Smiley's People' is complex and dimensional, requiring full attention at all times. Crucial elements of dialog dart past while you blink (you'll become an adept rewinder). LeCarré's novel is screened as a series of beautifully-wrought set pieces; for the most part quiet interactions between detailed, believable characters who are driven by equally believable motivations, from the petty through the desperate. The settings jump from London to Paris to Hamburg to Berne and back as Smiley whittles each lead to heartwood. Not a shot is fired during the entire film, but the background menace against which Smiley operates is unmistakable. The very lethal Karla has known, almost from the start, that he has acquired a bogey. But he does not know that it is Smiley, whom Karla thought retired and out of the game, who is now on his tail. Smiley must work quickly and precisely while staying hidden, knowing that if he is discovered, he and anyone with whom he is currently associated, will almost certainly be eliminated. Karla's nickname in the west is `The Sandman'. Anyone, anywhere, who has ever threatened him has been permanently put to sleep. Karla will be especially responsive to Smiley, for it was he who unmasked Karla's highly-placed and destructive double-agent in `Tinker, Tailor', through whom Karla had been manipulating the entire western intelligence community for decades.
As events proceed in their intimate, quiet way, the suspense builds like layers of paint, one thin coat at a time. It's hard to resist, even after numerous screenings. Although `Smiley's People' is a serious thriller, in some places exhibiting an almost documentary realism, it is also poignant. Many of its characters, some decent, some less so, their lives all but car-baled by Stalinism, are now living out tenuous gray-scale existences, still under the cornice of Soviet power, despite the fact that they now reside in the west. The restrained, mournful score further accentuates the film's underlying emotionality. The acting is superb down through the smallest role. Even the editing, skillfully introducing and interweaving the corollary plot lines is first-rate. I screen `Smiley's People' every few months and never tire of it. If you appreciate LeCarré, espionage-based drama, or are simply looking for a temporary antidote to rampant ageism, you should see or collect this masterpiece. It's a gourmet meal for the mind.