Sunday, January 29, 2012

Charlie Wilson's War

Posted as part of an intermittent series of espionage-related cinema leading up to the release of the new James Bond film ‘Skyfall’ later this year

How best to describe ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’? The “based on a true story” tag-line screams biopic, but it’s more like ‘Wag the Dog’ with a covert war instead of a stage-managed one, or ‘Rambo III’ with more in the way of strippers and hot tubs.

This is how we meet our … uh, let’s just go with “hero” and place all moral considerations in cold storage for 98 minutes. He’s the Charlie of the title (Tom Hanks), he’s a Texan congressman and his principle interests appear to be women, whisky and … actually, I think we got done with his interests at women and whisky. He’s hanging out in a penthouse apartment with some – not to be judgemental here, but let’s call it like it is – lowlifes. High-rolling lowlifes, but lowlifes all the same. His choice of company comes back to haunt him later.

It’s the 1980s, the Russkies are in Afghanistan and Wilson is swiftly coerced by hifalutin society lady Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) to help the Afghanis out in the name of God and country and … well, mainly God. Which he proceeds to do, with the aid of disenfranchised CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Avrakotos is given an equally memorable introduction, effectively torpedo-ing his career prospects by telling his boss to go fuck himself and vandalising the fellow’s office into the bargain.

And while Mike Nichols’s film focuses on Wilson wheeling and dealing, and Avrakotos belligerently out to hammer the Red Menace, it’s fast, funny and scabrously satirical, Aaron Sorkin’s script zinging with the razoer-sharp dialogue for which he’s renowned. But all too often Nichols and Sorkin wear their hearts on their sleeves and the review-o-meter dips from “pretty good” to mediocre. Wilson’s transformation from political player to humanitarian never quite rings true. A visit to a refugee camp on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border wants to deliver the same howl of outrage as the last half of ‘The Constant Gardener’, but doesn’t make the grade. An apposite moment, here, to mention Stephen Goldblatt’s flat and utilitarian cinematography: he never fully integrates with any scene, visually parlaying the viewer into the thick of events. The film retains a slightly bland sheen throughout; you’re always aware that you’re watching a film, and that’s never a sign of success.

The cast is top-notch, though: Hanks and Roberts are clearly having big fun, while Hoffman doesn’t just steal scenes but walk away with the whole movie. Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Rachel Nichols, Om Puri, Ken Stott, Peter Gerety and Ned Beatty all get their moment in front of the camera (even if, in some cases, it is only a moment: Blunt in particular is wasted).

A handful of set-pieces can hold themselves up to anything in Nichols’s distinguished (if, of late, somewhat hit-and-miss) filmography, particularly Wilson and Avrakotos’s first meeting, played out against the revelation that Wilson is being stalked by bad press and a possible subpoena due to the aforementioned lowlife company; it’s beautifully paced, laugh-out-loud funny, with enough entrances and exits to invite comparison with a Brian Rix farce.

And yet … and yet … ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ never fully coheres. As a satire (how the Americans armed Afghanistan: a timely tale of ulterior motives and irresponsibility!), it pulls its punches. As a political drama, it’s a little too glib to deliver any real insight. As a thriller, it keeps its protagonists away from any element of danger, thereby failing to generate tension. As an exercise in mapping out the contours of conspiracy, it’s never convincingly labyrinthine enough.

All told, that first paragraph ‘Wag the Dog’ comparison arguably sums it up: like Barry Levinson’s film, made ten years earlier, it takes a terrific concept and a powerhouse cast, delivers some genuinely amusing moments but squanders so much potential through its inability to decide what it wants to be.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Cowboys and Aliens

Danny Craig and Harry Ford,
Some mighty fine castin, Lord!
Tough guys wearin spurs n guns,
Shootin up them ay-lee-uns.
Sam Rockwell’s also in the cast,
Miss ’Livia Wilde’s a purdy lass.
Too many folk dun wrote the script,
’Haps that’s why it’s hit n miss!
That kinda title, it should be fun,
’Cept it ain’t – it’s moribund.
Danny Craig and Harry Ford,
Who’d thunk I’d be so bored?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Diane Lane

Happy 47th birthday to the perennially beautiful Diane Lane

Friday, January 20, 2012


It’s strange how sometimes a work can be overtaken by time. Even when I discovered Alan Sillitoe, as a teenager in the late 80s, ‘Road to Volgograd’ was the Sillitoe title I knew of only by its inclusion in the “also by” section in the other titles I owned.

When, last year, I found a copy on eBay, it was the original Pan paperback with a pre-deciminalization cover price of three shillings and sixpence. It was a 1966 reprinting of a book first published in 1964. Its pages were sepia. It had been printed six years before my birth.

As early as 1939, Winston Churchill (not a popular figure in the Sillitoe canon – see ‘Key to the Door’) said “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” That was pretty much still the post-divided Berlin, post-Berlin Wall, post-Iron Curtain public perception of the Soviet Union in 1964.

1964 – the year after John le Carre published his watershed novel ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’, a bitter and angry response to the erection of the Wall; the year that Ian Fleming died, whose immortal secret agent – if more in the movies than the books – would give the Red menace a good seeing-to. 1964 – a year which started with British motor manufacturer Leyland exporting buses to Cuba in defiance of the US blockade. 1964 – the year that Alan Sillitoe published an account of his travels and observations in the Soviet Union.

Alan Sillitoe (in translation) was one of the USSR’s bestselling authors. In 1963 he was invited to spend a month in Russia. A socialist, a worker himself and – as ‘Key to the Door’ attests – an avowed leftist, he jumped at the chance. ‘Road to Volgograd’ isn’t as gee-whiz as it might have been (Sillitoe was too perceptive, enquiring, cynical and world-weary to have fallen into that trap), but it’s clear – reading the book with the smug benefit of hindsight – that his hosts took pains to steer him clear of the brutal realities of life under the Soviet regime. Later, when Sillitoe discovered these aspects, he spoke out against the totalitarian rule. It’s interesting to note that ‘Road to Volgograd’ found its corollary and corrective, forty-three years later, in his last published work ‘Gadfly in Russia’. Much of his work emerged in pairings – the short story ‘Mimic’ and the novel ‘The Storyteller’; ‘The Lost Flying Boat’ and ‘The German Numbers Woman’; ‘Raw Material’ and ‘A Man of His Time’; the short story ‘The Good Women’ and the novel ‘Her Victory’ – but never have two interconnected works occurred at such chronological odds to each other as ‘Road to Volgograd’ and ‘Gadfly in Russia’.

History and retrospect make ‘Road to Volgograd’ a strange and awkward book – awkward not in its writing (hell no; Sillitoe is on excellent form here) but in the perspective of retrospect. To repeat myself, it’s a work overtaken by time. It faded all too soon from the Sillitoe bibliography and wouldn’t be readdressed until the very end.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Betty White

Kudos to anyone who looks like your favourite aunt while delivering this line like she means it:

Happy 90th birthday to the inimitable Betty White.

Monday, January 16, 2012

John Carpenter

Happy 64th birthday to John Carpenter.

Thanks for some of my all-time favourite horror movies, sir!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

THE SILLITOE PROJECT: The Ragman’s Daughter

Published in 1963, this collection of short fiction contains seven stories: ‘The Ragman’s Daughter’, ‘The Other John Peel’, ‘The Firebug’, ‘The Magic Box’, ‘The Bike’, ‘To Be Collected’ and ‘The Good Women’. There is a common theme to the collection, as described in a review in The Financial Times: “these stories are variations on the theme superbly expressed in Sillitoe’s masterpiece ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’; namely, the excitement, the poetry and the integrity underlying an anti-social act.”

The title story explores the psychology of theft. The narrator recalls his first instance of stealing: at primary school, he and the other kids are given cardboard cut-out coins to use in reckoning-up exercises. Although valueless, he is compelled to pocket some. He keeps shtum when the teacher puts him on the spot (a nifty and unforced analogy to the professional criminal saying nothing during police questioning). Is our boy a kleptomaniac? Or is there a core of individualism at the heart of his pilfering? This passage goes some way towards an answer:

In spite of the fact that I nicked whatever I could lay my hands on without too much chance of getting caught, I didn’t like possessing things. Suits, a car, watches – as soon as I’d nicked something and got clear away, I lost interest in it. I broke into an office and came out with two typewriters, and after having them at home for a day I borrowed a car and dropped them over Trent bridge one dark night. If the cops cared to dredge the river about there, they’d get a few surprises. What I like most is the splash stuff makes when I drop it in: that plunge into the water of something heavy …

A romantic subplot manages not to detract from the underlying concept but feed into it: our boy’s relationship with a girl from a nouveau riche family spurs him on to new heights of daring. What follows is an almost arbitrarily truncated Nottingham version of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ with a misjudged shoe-shop heist in place of a slo-mo blaze-of-glory denouement. As in much of his fiction, Sillitoe dissects the aftermath and finds the compromised humanity in his characters. He writes as a witness, not a moralist.

‘The Other John Peel’ feels like a palimpsest, or a try-out for a possible longer work. Two buddies head off at the crack of dawn for a spot of poaching. A .303 service rifle kept over from the war leads to thoughts of armed revolution. The act of poaching loses its traditional meaning – the placing of meat on the table for those who couldn’t afford it other than by filching it from a rich man – and a more expansive sense of social disaffection becomes apparent. There is very little narrative on offer but the last line – “silent headstocks to the left towered above the fenced-off coppices of Sherwood Forest” – establishes an aesthetic through-line to Nottingham’s most famous outlaw.

If Trash-Can Man in Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ had spent his childhood years in pre-war Nottingham, the result might have been something like ‘The Firebug’. A companion piece to ‘The Ragman’s Daughter’ inasmuch as it’s narrated by a character who is compelled to commit anti-social acts (here small acts of arson as opposed to half-arsed break-ins) without fully knowing why except that he gets a kick out of it. “I smile as much as feel ashamed at some of the things I did,” he begins, before going on to recount the bitter, tear-stinging frustration of carrying off an effective bit of arson only for the glorious carnage of the fire itself to be utterly ignored. The story ends, somewhat abruptly, with a German bomber attack doing more damage than our anti-social narrator ever could; he’s fourteen by this time and is soon packed off to work in a factory. His pyromania, pardon the pun, fizzles out. It’s like seeing Arthur Seaton in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ have the rebellion leeched out of him before he’s even old enough to start boozing and get into real trouble. But an unvoiced hook remains in the reader’s mind: how long till the latent tendency erupts from him again?

Fred, the henpecked protagonist of ‘The Magic Box’, comes across as a less ebullient version of Arthur’s brother Brian Seaton in ‘Key to the Door’. Like Brian, his formative years were spent as a wireless operator in the forces. A pools win gives him the wherewithal to buy a morse set. He tunes into a private world that drives a wedge into his marriage. Morse code and radio operators recur through Sillitoe’s fiction, from the cruise ship radio operator who plays an important part towards the end of ‘The Storyteller’ to the blind yet heroic protagonist of ‘The German Numbers Woman’. Reality and the destructive power of the mind/imagination are also common themes. ‘The Magic Box’ explores ideas that would later find fuller expression in the short stories ‘Mimic’ and ‘The Second Chance’ as well as the two aforementioned novels. Some of Fred’s characteristics inform the quixotic John Handley, one of the key players in the William Posters trilogy. ‘The Magic Box’ is a thorny and unflinching story, and key to a whole sub-section of Sillitoe’s work.

For all that many of his characters don’t particularly like their jobs, it’s a constant of his writing that his protagonists demonstrate a keenly defined work ethic. The unnamed narrator of ‘The Bike’ reacts with hostility to the prospect of a lifetime of hard graft, but soon prefers to earn his way, albeit on piss-poor wages, rather than thieve or freeload. His supposed mate Bernard, who cons him into a buying a bike that Bernard has in fact stolen, is emblematic of a purportedly more intelligent but morally disenfranchised stratum of society. Meanwhile, our hero – personifying the honest but exploited working class, bides his time till he can get even. “If ever there’s a revolution and everybody’s lined-up with their hands out, Bernard’s will still be lily-white because he’s a bone-idle thieving bastard – and then we’ll see how he goes on; because mine won’t be lily-white, I can tell you that now. And you never know, I might be one of the blokes picking ’em out.”

‘To Be Collected’, about a family of scrap metal dealers, stumbling on a cache of weapons, reads like ‘Only Fools and Horses’ meets ‘Billy Liar’ without any of the laughs and played out against a grim and rain-swept background. It’s blunt and compelling.

Little has been made about Sillitoe’s feminist characters (perhaps because many of his first-person male narrators are as laddish and politically incorrect as their working class backgrounds would suggest). ‘The Good Women’, concerning the feminist voice in political activism – from union action to CND protests – is the first step in an increasing empathy with his female characters that would eventually find expression in his longest and arguably most ambitious novel ‘Her Victory’.

If ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ defined Sillitoe for a generation of readers, ‘The General’ proved that he couldn’t be taken for granted in terms of his range and penchant for experimentalism, and ‘Key to the Door’ demonstrated the breadth of canvas he was capable of working on, then ‘The Ragman’s Daughter’ can easily be defined as a setting out of the stall for his later career. But it’s more than that. It’s a box containing seven literary hand grenades. It’s a call for revolutionary thinking and action. It’s the fuck-you to authority that only Alan Sillitoe could have written.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Licence to blog

There's a great article by Kimberly Lindbergs over at Movie Morlocks on James Bond at 50 ('Dr No' was released in 1962) and the program of MGM and Twentieth Century Fox events scheduled to celebrate the anniversary. Of equal interest to any fans of good writing on film is the news that Kimberly will be publishing a monthly on Movie Morlocks, under the banner "Spy Games", with each article focusing on a specific area of the espionage genre, or a particular espionage movie.

Is there any greater display of enthusiasm than wanting to get in on the act oneself - particularly having kicked off 2012 on Agitation with two le Carre adaptations.

What's that? A 007 blogathon - a Bond-a-thon - leading up to the October release of 'Skyfall'? Oh, all right then. If I must.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Attack the Block

Comedian Joe Cornish’s directorial debut presents a couple of challenges from the outset. The first is that its protagonists are an essentially unlikeable bunch of hoodies whose first onscreen act is the mugging of a nurse walking home from her shift, who are incapable of construction a sentence that doesn’t start with “yo” and end with “bruv” or “blood” – worse, delivered in a Sahf End Lahndan accent so that “blood” comes out as “blahd”. “Yo, blahd”, “wassup, blahd”, etc etc. Oh, and they also use weapons grade quantities of American gangsta-speak. Personal bugbear, but I just can’t understand why British kids want to act like they’re East Coast. East Coast may have a certain underworld cachet in the States, but all East Coast means in the UK is crap holiday resorts. Bridlington, Cleethorpes, Maplethorpe, Skegness. “Yo, blahd, we is da Ingoldmells Massiv.” What the fuck?

Oooops, sorry. Rant over.

The second challenge is that the material is so old-school, the homages so plentiful and the basic set-up so patently absurd that – along with the advertising campaign that bigs it up as the new ‘Shaun of the Dead’ (word to the wise: ‘Hot Fuzz’ is the new ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and we’ll leave it at that, shall we?) – that my expectations ran to a fast-paced, irreverent, laugh-out-loud funny slab of creature-feature mayhem. And while ‘Attack the Block’ ticks some of these boxes, Cornish’s script gets too wrapped up in lionizing his hoodie gang heroes (yup, he insists, come the denouement, on painting them as heroes) that he often forgets he’s supposed to be making a knowingly ironic horror-comedy with a deliberate B-movie aesthetic.

The pre-credits sequence has Sam (Jodie Whittaker) robbed at knifepoint by Moses (John Boyega) – his name, given his final act of courageous leadership, is staggeringly unsubtle – Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones) and Biggz (Simon Howard), during which attack another attack occurs (see what I did there?) and our lovable rascals find themselves battling aliens who plummet to earth during a Bonfire Night fireworks display.

Sorry to labour a point here (I actually enjoyed much about the film, honest!) but the suggestion if you rob a lone woman by pulling a knife on her and knocking her to the pavement, she should somehow be grateful that she wasn’t raped or killed into the bargain is a concept I’m having a fuckton of trouble trying to get my head round. I’m also throwing up a big fat “does not compute” at the knowledge that Cornish was one mugged in like manner and started to wonder whether his aggressors weren’t in fact as scared as he was. Now, I’ve been on the receiving end of hoodie thuggery myself (one punch to the face, one attempted boot to the kidneys which I fortunately managed to deflect), and I can tell you that with a film crew and a budget at my disposal, my artistic response would have been closer to ‘Harry Brown’ than ‘Attack the Block’!

Anyway, Moses and his crew are attacked by something that looks like it didn’t quite make the casting call for ‘Alien’. They respond by tracking it down to a kids’ playground and kicking the shit out of it under a climbing frame. Kudos to Cornish and his DoP Thomas Townend: they turn in some pseudo-iconic Spielbergian imagery while at the same time effectively pointing up the absurdity of the moment. (Similarly, a scene where one of the gang straps a samurai sword to his back, straddles a motorcycle and roars off to get some payback is wonderfully puncture by a cut that shows him puttering away on a 10cc moped with a pizza-delivery box on the back decorated with a learner driver sticker.)

Sorry, another digression there. Anyway, they haul the extraterrestrial corpse back to their council estate apartment block, Wyndham Tower*, where they stow it in Ron’s weed room (“What’s Ron’s weed room?” “It’s a big room full of weed. And it’s Ron’s”) while they figure out the best way to fiscally exploit their find. The lugubrious Ron (Nick Frost) works for edgy crime boss Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) who, after a misunderstanding, decides he wants Moses’s head on a plate. As do the police, since Sam has by now reported the mugging.

Meanwhile, the alien invasion is gearing up in fine style and the boys find themselves public enemies numbers one to five as far as the invaders are concerned. A word on the aliens: they’re a terrific creation, midnight-black furballs with claws like tungsten carbide blades and teeth that glow with electric-blue light. Cornish’s script picks up and he sends his cast hurtling round Wyndham Towers as they try to find sanctuary, rescue cut-off members of the party and find a way to defeat their furry nemeses. Imagine the grimy locale of Ken Loach’s ‘Ladybird Ladybird’ shot like something out of a Michael Bay film, crawling with the non-human cast of ‘Critters’ (only given a serious upgrade) and everyone locked into a siege situation a la John Carpenter in which a bunch of kids give the adults a Joe Dante-like run-around and ultimately save the day.

This latter aspect works the best, with a frenetically edited moped/pushbike chase vying with a fireworks-as-incendiaries kids vs aliens smackdown as the film’s high point. Credit where it’s due, also, to Cornish’s facility with actors – most of the cast are making their debut here. Of the professionals, Jodie Whittaker makes for an appealing and unsentimental heroine while Nick Frost provides his dependable line of laid-back schtick in an essentially there-for-a-few-belly-laughs role. The man of the match award, however, goes jointly to Sammy Williams and Michael Ajao as, respectively, Probs and Mayhem, a pair of little kids who gleefully embrace the chaos as an opportunity to cut loose and be badasses. God love you, fellas: here’s to the film career you deserve.

‘Attack the Block’ is entertaining. It’s slick, it’s energetic and it doesn’t outstay its welcome (running time: one hour seventeen minutes if you don’t count the ludicrously interminable end credits). It looks great and it bodes well for Cornish’s future as a director. But it’s difficult to get round the fact that, as a horror-comedy, it misses more often than it hits where the comedy is concerned. It’s clever in its construction and the way in which the kids take the fight back to the aliens, but none of this cleverness makes it as far as the dialogue which, with only a couple of exceptions, is devoid of the witty, hip, eminently quotable lines that this kind of material cries out for.

If the filmmakers had gone full-on, one way or the other, and made it funnier or nastier, ‘Attack the Block’ might have achieved cult classic status. As it is, there’s tonal dichotomy that never reconciles. Still, Cornish delivers a hoodie horror movie where the hoodies aren’t the monster, so I guess that’s something.

*Pay attention to place names – they add up to a beautifully sustained in-joke that proves to be the single cleverest thing in the movie.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Looking Glass War

The great John le Carre adaptations – Martin Ritt’s ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’, Fernando Meirelles’s ‘The Constant Gardener’ and Tomas Alfredson’s ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ – work to such great effect because their directors inherently understand the novels. Ditto such second tier work as John Boorman’s ‘The Tailor of Panama’ – he gets the absurdist humour.

But what of an adaptation that fundamentally misses the entire point of the novel? Are novel and film tied into a relationship so osmotic that the latter is automatically consigned to failure? Or can you step back enough to evaluate the film as a stand-alone work?

The answer to that one is simple enough, I guess. If you’re unfamiliar with the novel, then the film by that very definition exists unto itself and can only be evaluated according how successfully it works in that medium. A similar rule of thumb applies if you saw the film first. (Example: I’d seen Alexander Payne’s ‘Sideways’ at least half a dozen times before I read Rex Pickett’s novel, and I was decidedly underwhelmed by the book.)

Frank Pierson’s ‘The Looking Glass War’ retains a fidelity to the novel in its early scenes: inexperienced field agent Taylor (Timothy West) collects a roll of film from an airline pilot (Frederick Jaeger) who has completed a risky flyover of a suspected East German military installation of the pretext of being blown off course during bad weather. Taylor is killed in a hit and run shortly after the pick-up. Back in London, Taylor’s boss LeClerc (Ralph Richardson), head of an intelligence department known only as The Department, assumes his death to have been suspicious, the disappearance of the film even more so, and decides that these factors constitute corroboration of an inconclusive photograph which might - might - suggest that a rocket base is being installed near the East German border. Roping in his colleagues Adrian Haldane (Paul Rogers) and John Avery (Anthony Hopkins), LeClerc petitions the Undersecretary of State (Ray McAnally) to sanction an over-the-wire mission to obtain conclusive proof. All the while, he is determined to keep rival department The Circus out of the loop.

There is only one brief scene, where LeClerc gleefully suggests that “we send a man over”, which in any way captures the aesthetic of le Carre’s novel. ‘The Looking Glass War’ was the author’s follow-up to ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ and is, if anything, even more bleak, cynical and angry at the stupidity of political machinations than its predecessor. Le Carre painstakingly builds up a picture of The Department as a mainstay of British intelligence during the war, but now reduced to trading on its former glories even as the Treasury puts a stranglehold on its budget and The Circus do the real work of Cold War espionage. LeClerc is what Michael Moore would call a “stupid white man”, obsessed with trying to live out the old days, all old school tie and cricket club morality, without having the vaguest idea of how crucially the theatre of operations has changed two decades on.

The novel charts LeClerc’s petty stupidities, his transparent lies to The Circus, his pointless rivalry with Haldane and his almost embarrassing attempts to establish himself as a mentor to Avery. Essentially, ‘The Looking Glass War’ is a novel about how LeClerc sacrifices an operative purely to bolster his ego. A more vehemently anti-spy-story spy story I have yet to read.

Pierson makes one fleeting nod to all of this, then completely ruins the novel’s aesthetic by changing LeClerc’s operative Leiser (Christopher Jones) from the middle-aged former WWII agent desperate for one last shot at self-worth to a youthful immigrant blackmailed into a potentially suicidal operation in return for overlooking his absent passport. First problem: anyone in their right mind would offer LeClerc his middle finger, invite him to spin and get repatriated rather than go over the wire. The Leiser of the film is robbed of motivation. Moreover, the inexplicably top-billed Jones plays him as a narcissistic misogynist with whom it’s impossible to empathize. The entire second half of the film follows him after his border crossing (as opposed to the 54 pages of a 273 page novel which deal with this section of the story), lummoxing the viewer with 50 minutes in the company of a complete knob-head of a protagonist.

Evaluated without reference to the novel, the film still frustrates. Quite apart from how unlikeable Leiser is as a main character, we have character actresses par excellence Anna Massey and Maxine Audley similarly saddled with thankless “wifey” roles, as well as Susan George wasted in a nothing role while the female lead – billed with depressing objectification as The Girl – is essayed by the terminally unemotive Pia Degermark.

There are a handful of terrific moments, though. The training sequence, in which Avery gives Leiser some pointers in hand-to-hand combat, is well choreographed and executed with dry humour. The border crossing itself is properly tense and Pierson achieves an almost Hitchcockian level of suspense. Also, the downbeat ending with its bitterly ironic punchline, are as bleak and corrosive as anything in the novel, but are left to function without the novel’s cleverly established critique of old school stupidity.

It’s an okay – but not great – film. Watchable and, to an extent, entertaining enough. Familiarity with the novel just deep-sixes it. Familiarity with the novel tips you off as how good it could have been.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Richard Burton was always at his best playing men who were at war with the world and everyone it in, or at war with themselves. Martin Ritt’s bleakly brilliant adaption of John le Carre’s career-defining novel ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ gave him the role of a lifetime – this is something I do not say lightly – as Alec Leamas, a man at war with himself who is despatched by Control (Cyril Cusack) to undertaken a mission, the full convolutions of which are hidden from Leamas himself, in which he needs to adopt the persona of a bitter, broken, hate-filled former agent. A failure. A little man. A man at war with the world and everyone in it.

Le Carre wrote the novel in less than six weeks while still on the British Embassy staff. “It was the Berlin Wall that had got me going, of course,” he recollected in the afterword to the latest Penguin Modern Classics imprint; “I had flown from Bonn to take a look at it as soon as it started going up … I felt nothing but disgust and terror, which was exactly what I was supposed to feel: the Wall was perfect theatre as well as a perfect symbol of the monstrosity of ideology gone mad.”

He wasn’t exactly impressed with the West’s response and, as I seem to recall him stating in an interview, the novel was le Carre’s way of saying “a plague on both your houses”. This bitterness and anger is certainly there in the book. It practically scorches itself into the pages. The ending is one of the most wrenchingly bleak in modern fiction – and yet Leamas achieves a small redemption. At a huge cost.

Ritt’s film is no less unflinching. I don’t think I’ve ever seen black and white cinematography so stark. The seedy, shabby, emotionally retarded world of espionage is rendered just as starkly. That’s the thing about black and white: it shows up the shades of grey. “ What the hell do you think spies are?” Leamas snaps angrily in the film’s key monologue. “Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They're not! They're just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.” Watch Burton deliver these lines and the macho posturing of five decades’ worth of would-be tough guy actors pales into nothing. Burton’s disaffection is authentically terrifying.

His performance is balanced in a perfect fulcrum against the almost bored placidity of Cusack as Control, and the inscrutability of Rupert Davies – albeit in a very small role (like film, like book) – as George Smiley. To Davies the distinction of giving us the first onscreen incarnation of Smiley, and while he doesn’t personify the owl-like intelligence of Alec Guinness’s portrayal or the “Smiley waiting patiently to explode” (le Carre’s words again) of Gary Oldman, he’s certainly physically closer to the Smiley of the novels.

Just as distinguished are Oscar Werner as the philosophical Fielder, one of several Communist agents from whom Leamas is passed during his journey further and further behind the Iron Curtain; Peter van Eyck, giving a chilling performance as brutal intelligence head Mundt; and Clare Bloom as the heartbreakingly innocent Nan Perry, the socially-conscious librarian who Leamas gets involved with and who is played as pawn, ruthlessly, by both sides.

Even the lower echelons of the cast list read like a Who’s Who, with Sam Wanamaker, Robert Hardy, Bernard Lee, Michael Hordern, Esmond Knight and Niall MacGinnis doing sterling work. Oswald Morris’s cinematography gives the film a grim, gritty, realistic look which utterly captures the aesthetic of le Carre’s novel. Kudos, too, to Sol Kaplan’s appropriately melancholy score.

Le Carre’s fiction has always been about the ugliness of espionage, the corruption of power and the treachery of those corrupted by it. I’ve not read all of his work (although I fully intend to rectify that), but I have yet to read a le Carre novel that has anything even remotely resembling a happy ending. ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ certainly doesn’t. And yet his work is often sprinkled with humour, albeit of the blackest variety.

There’s a cynical pleasure to be had in watching the petty little power games that unfold around Leamas’s pseudo-defection: how he’s approached by Ashe (Hordern), only for Ashe to be drubbed out as soon as Carlton (Robert Hardy) takes over as Leamas’s handler, shortly after which he’s just as summarily dismissed when Fielder enters the picture, only for the most spectacular powerplay of all to occur when the villainous Mundt makes his final-reel appearance.

Ritt gets it: the novel is about stupid men given too much power playing essentially silly little games where the stakes are other people’s lives. It’s a despairing vision of humanity, rendered with equally vicious efficiency in both media: it’s one of those rare occasions where the film is every bit as good as the book.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

And we'll take a cup o' kindness yet ...

Happy New Year to all who read these pages.

Traditionally, the New Year's Day post on The Agitation of the Mind is a setting out of the stall: a delineation of what my intentions for the year are with the blog. I don't have quite as rigorous a game plan this year, but I can tell you this:

Ten Films That Changed The World won the vote for 2012's major summer retrospective. So between June and August I'll be taking an in-depth look at ten films which can justifiably be said to have had a demonstrable cultural effect. I haven't decided on all of them yet, or the running order, so if you want to lobby for any particular favourites, hit up the comments box and make suggestions.

On the subject of favourites, I started the Personal Faves project a stupidly long time ago and it's kind of fallen by the wayside. Time to get it back on the freeway, methinks, and moving towards completion.

Shots on the Blog will probably be floating around sometime during the summer months, and it just wouldn't be the season of good cheer if I didn't round off the year with the Winter of Discontent.

Finally, I'll be having the odd week away from Agitation now and then while I work on other projects, so don't give up on me if there are a few periods where you don't see any new content.