The most interesting spy movie I’ve seen in years is 1965’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, starring Richard Burton. I ran across it while breaking in my Criterion Channel subscription early in quarantine and quite frankly, it’s a fantastic film. It’s great in the way all those “great” films of the black and white era are. It’s very plot heavy, there’s next to no action and the pace is slower than whale shit. Its strength lies in the acting. You take Richard Burton, an unbelievable British actor with a grand British accent, put him in the role of a spy deliberately trying to look like a washed-up drunk so that Communist spies try and poach him as a double agent, and you let him chew scenery for two hours. You need precisely nothing else to make it an utterly engrossing film that is different from any spy film made in the wake of James Bond. Most spy franchises I can think of, your Bourne movies, Mission Impossible, the Bond franchise itself, all possess tropes that modern audiences couldn’t imagine a spy movie lacking. Gadgets, gunfights and girls are all things our hero must literally and figuratively insert himself into at regular intervals. The protagonist must be used to fine clothes, fast cars and international travel. He must be as good looking as he is deadly, with a taste for fine liquor and the drinking habits of a frat boy. He must be sexually attractive and act on it with a minimum of half the female cast, be they friend or foe. Not getting laid is ONLY acceptable when the hero is too busy getting vengeance on the film’s villain or completing the mission for the good of the NATIONSTATE BABY!!! Think Sterling Archer, only slightly toned down.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold has exactly none of that shit. There’s no glamour, no glory, no sex appeal. Everyone looks like normal people, as British actors from the 60’s all look like they were sculpted from mashed potatoes. The best part of the film is a five-minute tirade by Richard Burton about how anyone who actually engages in being a spy is either a prick, someone so psychologically damaged they’re more shark than human, or somewhere in the middle. Which I guess makes them a slightly less mean-spirited prick? Point being, the lack of all the cool stuff that most spy films have made this movie memorable. It’s sad, it’s slow, it’s realistic. That’s one of the major selling points of John le Carre as a storyteller. Having spent over a decade as an actual goddamn spy for the British government, Carre knows the ins and outs of the espionage business. Turns out it’s less gunfights and glory, more office politics and feeling like a failure. Grim though this may seem, le Carre is one of the most respected writers of espionage fiction in the history of the genre. He manages to blend the somewhat disappointing reality of espionage to with legitimately gripping writing to make stories that are engrossing examples of spy fiction. This book is his first novel, but you wouldn’t think so after reading it. This is John le Carre’s Call for the Dead.
George Smiley is a spy for the British government at the height of the Cold War. George Smiley’s life is in the crapper. He’s a chunky boy with glasses. His wife has left him for a Cuban playboy. His years of service undercover as a German literature professor have left him with little in terms of fortune or influence. Why would the British government hire a fat nerd to pretend to be a literature professor, you ask? Simply put, George Smiley recruits double agents. He finds idealistic young Germans, assesses their usefulness as spies and then puts them to work fighting the forces of fascism. There’s also oblique references to him banging some of them, which…gross.
Sadly, Smiley’s days as a spy recruiter are long passed. The Nazis are gone and the Reds have taken their place, with a divided Berlin as the new battleground. This new conflict leaves an aged out Smiley basically stuck at a desk in London, abandoned by coworkers and his wife and stuck under the thumb of a boss he despises. He’s the spy version of Dilbert. And George Smiley has messed up. A government official he recently interviewed for potential Communist sympathies has wound up dead in his home of apparent suicide. The death of this promising young diplomat is laid at Smiley’s feet, paving the way for a quiet, ignominious retirement. If not for a number of strange irregularities in the man’s death that catch Smiley’s attention. Why is his Holocaust survivor wife acting so strange under his questioning? Why was a call specifically ordered by the dead man delivered to his home after his death? Why is a man waiting for George Smiley inside his own home after his interview with the dead man’s wife?
What follows is a quick, punchy mystery tale focusing on the efforts of Smiley and a grizzled local cop named Inspector Mendel to figure out the truth behind a diplomat’s ‘suicide.’ For most of the book, it reads as more murder mystery than espionage story. It’s full of twists and turns, but they are purely on the intellectual level. George Smiley is a short, pudgy, middle-aged guy and is about as useful in a fight as a head librarian. He actually spends close to a quarter of the book in a hospital bed because he gets his ass kicked so hard by actual hardened spy types. The one time he gets in a physical altercation is little more than a slap fight by the river with a man who is a literal cripple. It lacks almost all the things one would consider pillars of espionage fiction. Instead of action and sex, it’s following paper trails and interviewing witnesses and long stake outs. Gadgets are nonexistent and rarely is a gun pulled, much less fired. It should be a slog, but le Carre can create tension out of little more than two characters having a conversation. He’s an expert at dangling clues in front of the audience in the form of personality quirks and the minute physical movements of his characters.
The story at points takes some light stabs at a greater philosophical relevance to the book. Smiley expresses a disgust for fascism and its insistence on ideological purity after he witnessed German student burning books in the 1930’s. He expresses a distaste of Communism as well for his beliefs that it stifles individuality. When questioned by a Holocaust survivor about why he works for a government that tolerates far right politicians in Western Bloc nations so long as they oppose Communism, he is unable to offer a reasonable rebuttal. Smiley represents the Cold War mindset that anything is better than Communism, no matter how aligned with fascism that alternative may end up being. There’s no deep exploration of this, but the book is little longer than a novella, so it’s focus on the nuts and bolts of solving a murder can be forgiven. The ideological struggle of the Cold War is forever in the background of this book, be it the reasons Smiley goes into work or the ghosts from his past that haunt his steps. Sometimes you wish it played a larger role in the story, but it’s better that le Carre not overdue it.
Quote of the Story:
“They had fought in a cloud, in the rising stream of the river, in a clearing in a timeless forest: they had met, two friends rejoined, and fought like beasts.” –John le Carre
Keep or Donate?:
A lot of early works by famous authors aren’t up to snuff. They’re not exactly bad, but they’re often times a far cry from what will be produced at the height of that author’s career. At best, these early efforts are for academics or hardcore fanboys. Call for the Dead is different. It’s an enthralling piece of work that makes up for the lack of action with writing that is at points beautiful. It’s a good litmus test for the works of John Le Carre. It’s short and gives you a taste of what his later, longer masterpieces will be. Personally I’d donate it once you finish the book, but it’s more than worth the time.