In 1962, a British spy made an eventful debut on the big screen. James Bond was cocky, suave and horny, quick with a bon mot and built for speed. Created by novelist Ian Fleming, Bond, played by Sean Connery, was also improbably immortal, designed to last throughout a durable, knowingly facile franchise. Bond was a comic book character come to life, which was part of his mass appeal.
Fast-forward three years to a different kind of movie spy, and a different kind of spy movie. Played by Richard Burton, Alec Leamas is a wary professional, burned out by an espionage game that leaves no room for fun and games. “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” was the first of many spy movies based on the novels of prolific English novelist John le Carré, who died Saturday at the age of 89. Intricate and cynical and realistic, the le Carré universe wasn’t safe for anyone, not even its protagonists. His Cold War was frosty and lived-in, and often bitter. If Bond was a comic book hero, this was bestselling if melancholy literature that leapt beyond genre categorization. But it, too, had mass appeal. It even made room for Connery, in the elegant 1990 drama “The Russia House.”
A real-life spy before he became a novelist, le Carré had an uncanny knack for finding where the moral and philosophical met realpolitik. If Bond was Fleming’s standard-bearer, le Carré was represented by George Smiley, the spymaster played by Alec Guinness in miniseries versions of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Smiley’s People,” and by Gary Oldman in the film version of “Tinker Tailor.” Introverted and crafty, Smiley is a creature of the Circus, as le Carré called his British intelligence service. He’s a student of the backstabbing and the interoffice politics; he knows where the bodies are burned. He’s got the stomach for the game, even if he sees no glamour in it. Le Carré was happy leaving the gadgets and ejector seats to the kids. He was more interested in the games people play.
There weren’t many good guys in le Carré’s world, nor was there clear-cut triumph. To le Carré the Cold War corrupted everybody it touched. The role playing and double-crossing was exhausting, for the participants and occasionally for the audience. This was high-stakes bureaucracy. The same resistance to escapism that gave le Carré heft could also leave his readers and viewers emotionally bereft, a small price to pay for such bravura storytelling.
Le Carré wasn’t a director, and only rarely a screenwriter. But when we think of a film based on his writing, be it “The Constant Gardner” or “The Deadly Affair,” we might forget who was behind the camera, or who wrote the screenplay. (“Gardener” was directed by Fernando Meirelles; “Affair” by Sidney Lumet). It’s all about le Carré, to an extent far greater than most films based on a novelist’s body of work. That a writer so prolific and so popular could also be so uncompromising is a minor miracle. Le Carré’s was a grownup world, with all the disillusion that implies. Yet he always kept us coming back for more.