Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) ****
Directed by: John Irvin.
Written by: Arthur Hopcraft based on the novel by John le Carre.
Starring: Alec Guinness (George Smiley), Michael Jayston (Peter Guillam), Bernard Hepton (Toby Esterhase), Ian Richardson (Bill Haydon), Hywel Bennett (Ricki Tarr), Anthony Bate (Sir Oliver Lacon), Ian Bannen (Jim Prideaux), Michael Aldridge (Percy Alleline), Alexander Knox (Control),Terence Rigby (Roy Bland), George Sewell (Mendel), Alec Sabin (Fawn), Duncan Jones (Roach).
John le Carre has written some of the best spy novels of all time. They are among the best, because they are most believable, the most realistic. Spy work isn’t like what James Bond or Mission Impossible movies make it look like. Rather, it is a painstakingly slow process of gathering information and intelligence and informants, and then utilizing that information to the best of your advantages. The people who do it appear normal. Yes, it can be a deadly game, but rarely are there car chases. The violence, when it happens, is quick. Among his best works is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and in 1979, John Irvin made an excellent TV miniseries out of it. He doesn’t try and make the book more exciting, but pretty much films it scene for scene and takes his time. It is among the best miniseries’ I have ever seen.
As George Smiley, Alec Guinness gives one of his last great performances. Before the action of the movie starts, Smiley has been forced out of “The Circus”, the British network of spies. He was loyal to The Circus’ head man, Control (Alexander Knox), and when a scandal breaks out, Control cannot survive it – and is soon dead anyways – and they want to clear away Control’s loyalists, of whom Smiley is at the top of the list. But he called back into action because of a story of an agent, who says he met a Soviet spy named Irina, and she told him that one of the top men at The Circus is a mole, being run by the infamous Karla, a Soviet master spy. Unable to trust anyone high up in the Circus, Lacon, an emissary of “The Minister” turns to Smiley to try and figure out the truth. All this has to do with the last mission that Control ran, which went so horribly wrong. He sent Jim Prideaux to Czechoslovakia to meet with a disgruntled General who says he knows the identity of the mole. Control has it narrowed down to five men, and gives them each nickname out of the nursery rhyme Tinker Tailor, so Jim could let him know his identity. Out of the five suspects, four are now the leaders of The Circus – Percy Alleline, Bill Haydon, Roy Bland and Toby Esterhase. The fifth is Smiley himself.
Through six hours of running time, John Irvin (with an excellent screenplay by Arthur Hopcraft) builds his story through the small details. Conversations take place at their own pace; they aren’t rushed through simply to get the plot points down. The movie is about mood and attitude just as much as it’s ever tightening plot. Guinness, hidden behind his large glasses, is perfect as George Smiley. He never raises his voice, he never gets angry – even when someone needles him about his wife, which everyone does with the upmost respect exteriorly, while trying to dig the knife in deeper. Although he has emotions, ambitions and jealous’, he keeps them bottled up. He wants to see how others react to him, as much as what they say. He is supported by an excellent supporting cast, who revolves in and out of the movie (my favorite is probably Alexander Knox as the aged Control, trying to hold things together).
When I read the book a few months ago, I wondered how they made a six plus hour miniseries out of it, as it is hardly an epic novel. Having seen the miniseries, which captured the book so perfectly, I have to wonder how Thomas Alfredson has made it into a two hour movie. Irvin gets the details right, and a story like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is all about the details. The new film now doesn’t just have the novel, a masterpiece of spy fiction, to live up in my mind, but this wonderful miniseries as well. It is perfect as it is. The new film has big shoes to fill.