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TONY DAYOUB: The many faces of George Smiley

TONY DAYOUB: The many faces of George Smiley

Though Gary Oldman came up empty at the BAFTAs this past weekend, he still stands a chance of being recognized at this year’s Academy Awards for his career-best turn as graying spymaster George Smiley in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This is Oldman’s first nomination, and to my mind the most deserving of any of the performances cited in the Best Actor category this year. For Oldman – usually a kinetic and, at times, even bombastic performer – the role offered the challenge of playing a man accustomed to fading into the background. Projecting a face so passive it could almost be labeled a mask, Oldman allows a glimpse into Smiley’s inner life through his aqueous eyes, which betray volatility more in line with the rest of the actor’s notable roles.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about a Secret Service in which aging lonely spies fight for dominance in the landscape of the Cold War, a field of battle over which they long ago chose to sacrifice any kind of private lives. Oldman’s Smiley is, then, a perfect distillation of director Tomas Alfredson’s rethink of John le Carré’s 1974 novel. But Oldman is following in the footsteps of many famed British actors who’ve assayed the role. Sir Alec Guinness’ depiction of Smiley is the most well-known, but there were others.

Book excerpt:

She thought they were a little too smart for policemen: they came in a small black car with an aerial on it. One was short and rather plump. He had glasses and wore odd, expensive clothes; he was a kindly, worried little man and Liz trusted him somehow without knowing why… As he got to the door, the elder man hesitated, then took a card from his wallet and put it on the table, gingerly, as if it might make a noise. Liz thought he was a very shy little man.
– John le Carré, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, 1963


In this acclaimed thriller, based on Le Carré’s third novel, movie audiences first met Smiley, and only briefly. As played by Rupert Davies (The Witchfinder General), he comes closest to the way he was originally envisioned by the author and former spy. Though Smiley was the writer’s protagonist and alter ego in his first two, less successful novels, he took a different tack with this one. Focusing on Alec Leamas — a “scalphunter,” or field agent — Le Carré was able to benefit from some of the ’60s era ardor for the superspy generated by the 007 films, making the grittier, more realistic The Spy Who Came In from the Cold his first bestseller. Commensurate with Le Carré’s intentions at that point of his bibliography, the film relegates Smiley to a small supporting role as the undercover Leamas’s secret contact with the “Circus,” the British Secret Service. Disheveled, unremarkable, with a mustache and thick spectacles, Davies’ Smiley appears onscreen for maybe five minutes, but his role is pivotal. He welcomes Leamas (Richard Burton) to his Chelsea apartment (already familiar to readers of the earlier books), facilitating a secret rendezvous with their chief, the mysterious Control (Cyril Cusack). And in a scene depicting the character’s warm-hearted benevolence, Smiley visits Leamas’s lover, Nan (Claire Bloom), in order to investigate his whereabouts after losing contact with him. Or, as the ill-fated ending for Leamas and Nan suggests, maybe the cagey Smiley was actually putting Control’s larger plan into motion.

  • James Mason – The Deadly Affair (1966, directed by Sidney Lumet) –

Book excerpt:

When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary. When she left him two years later in favour of a Cuban motor racing driver, she announced enigmatically that if she hadn’t left him then, she never could have done; and Viscount Sawley made a special journey to his club to observe that the cat was out of the bag.

This remark which enjoyed a brief season as a mot, can only be understood by those who knew Smiley. Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad. Sawley, in fact, declared at the wedding that “Sercomb was mated to a bullfrog in a sou’wester.” And Smiley, unaware of this description, had waddled down the aisle in search of the kiss that would turn him into a Prince.
– John le Carré, Call for the Dead, 1961


With those words, Le Carré introduced readers to his alter ego in his very first novel, in a chapter entitled ‘A Brief History of George Smiley.’ Lumet cast James Mason (Bigger Than Life) as Charles Dobbs, née George Smiley, a name tied whose rights were tied up with Paramount Pictures, the studio behind The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. As one would expect, the dashing Mason’s portrayal is quite a departure from the fat, cuckolded functionary of the novel. Perhaps that is one of the reasons screenwriter Paul Dehn – who had so faithfully adhered to Le Carré’s book when scripting the Ritt film – felt free to turn in one of the least faithful adaptations of Le Carré’s novels. Dobbs’ inner torment concerning his wife’s infidelities, never explicitly depicted in Call for the Dead, is externalized by Dehn. Ann – in the novel an absent memory that haunts Smiley throughout his investigation into the murder of a Foreign Office bureaucrat – is given form in the film by a very sexy Harriet Andersson (Smiles of a Summer Night). And for good reason.

Lumet’s film raises the stakes for Dobbs a lot higher than Le Carré did for Smiley in his maiden writing effort. In The Deadly Affair, Ann conducts an affair with Dieter Frey (Maximilian Schell), introduced early in the film as a former protégé of Dobbs. By contrast, Frey is free of such entanglements in Le Carré’s novel; readers don’t even know of Frey or his history with Smiley until the novel’s final chapters, in which the author reveals him as the spymaster’s nemesis. Dehn’s inspired reworking of the story doubtless influenced Le Carré when writing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy a few years after. This particular plot element of a double-agent betraying Dobbs/Smiley by attacking him his weak point, his wife, is a crucial story point in that book.

  • Alec Guinness Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979, directed by John Irvin) and Smiley’s People (1982, directed by Simon Langton) –

Book excerpt:

…for each house three cars jammed the curb. From long habit, Smiley passed these in review, checking which were familiar, which were not; of the unfamiliar, which had aerials and extra mirrors, which were the closed vans that watchers like. Partly he did this as a test of memory to preserve his mind from the atrophy of retirement, just as on other days he learnt the names of the shops along his bus route to the British museum; just as he knew how many stairs there were to each flight of his own house and which way each of the twelve doors opened.

But Smiley had a second reason, which was fear, the secret fear that follows every professional to his grave. Namely, that one day, out of a past so complex that he himself could not remember all the enemies he might have made, one of them would find him and demand the reckoning.
– John le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 1974


The iconic George Smiley performance – the one Oldman claims he didn’t see to prepare for his own portrayal – is that of Alec Guinness in these two BBC television productions. Guinness is so spot-on that Le Carré stated (in a 2002 interview included on the disc) that he could no longer imagine anyone but Guinness when thinking of Smiley, and that this limited his ability to write the character. (Indeed, Smiley would not appear in any of the author’s subsequent novels until making his final appearance in 1990’s The Secret Pilgrim.) In the first six-episode series, Guinness eschews any residual actor’s vanity to play a world-weary spy. Smiley is shelved for his unwillingness to play office politics in order to stay in the good graces of four incompetents who maneuver themselves into positions of power over the Circus. Though not at all physically imposing, Guinness brings a still quality to his performance that accentuates Smiley’s bespectacled, owl-eyed wisdom. Sticking closely to Le Carré’s novel – one of his most sprawling, and the fifth to feature Smiley – the miniseries adds another layer of complexity by addressing the decline of Smiley’s marriage and the degeneration of the British Secret Service’s influence on the world, and tying it both in with the decay of the British empire.

The second six-episode series Smiley’s People suffers from a confusing script rewritten by Le Carré himself, but that doesn’t stop Guinness from continuing to fine-tune his rendition of Smiley. By the time this sequel was shot, Guinness had melded with the character, absorbing the prop of Smiley’s wide glasses into the iconography of the role. Smiley, a virtual nobody to the new generation of agents in charge at the Circus, throws himself headlong (and alone) into a gambit to capture his arch-enemy, Soviet agent Karla (Patrick Stewart). Smiley – at once out of place and yet ordinary enough to be overlooked in any setting – is placed in such incongruous locales as the English countryside, Paris, and even a Hamburg sex club. Making sense of the labyrinthine plot (which confounded some viewers of the new version of Tinker Tailor) is ultimately of less importance than is the pleasure of seeing a master actor achieve symbiosis with one of the most significant characters in his filmography.

  • Denholm Elliot – A Murder of Quality (1991, directed by Gavin Millar) –

Book excerpt:

Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession. The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colourful adventurers of fiction. A man who, like Smiley, has lived and worked for years among his country’s enemies learns only one prayer: that he may never, never be noticed. Assimilation is his highest aim, he learns to love the crowds who pass him in the street without a glance; he clings to them for his anonymity and his safety. His fear makes him servile…
– John le Carré, A Murder of Quality, 1962

More of a curiosity than required viewing, Millar’s film casts Smiley as a Jessica Fletcher-like amateur sleuth solving a murder mystery in a town built around a tony boy’s prep school. Le Carré wrote the screenplay himself, based on his second novel. Though, having painted himself into a corner with Smiley’s decision to leave the Secret Service in Call for the Dead, the author turned to his former occupation as a schoolmaster for inspiration. Denholm Elliot (Raiders of the Lost Ark) makes for a pretty bland Smiley, showing little of the wit that he possesses in other roles. But this is likely a result of a combination of circumstances; one being Smiley’s literary infancy in its thin source novel, and the other being the book’s atypical setting in a world that offers little opportunity for that character to display his obvious virtues. A Murder of Quality plays exactly like what it looks like, a middlebrow Masterpiece Mystery, albeit one featuring notable actors such as Joss Ackland, Christian Bale and Glenda Jackson.

Atlanta-based freelance writer Tony Dayoub writes about film and television for his blog, Cinema Viewfinder, and reviews DVDs and Blu-rays for Nomad Editions: Wide Screen, a digital weekly. His criticism has also been featured in Slant’s The House Next Door blog, Opposing Views and Follow him on Twitter.

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