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In honor of ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’: Revisiting the movies based on John Le Carre novels

Under the non de plume John Le Carre, David Cornwall penned a series of best-selling spy novels including “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,”  “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” ‘The Little Drummer Girl’’ and “The Russia House,” that are cerebral, unadorned, gritty. The antitheist of Ian Fleming’s suave James Bond. In fact, his most popular character George Smiley just blended into the crowd: “Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession,” Cornwall described him in “A Murder of Quality.” “The byways of espionage are not populated by the brash and colorful adventure of fiction. A man who, like Smiley, had 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.”

Before his death at the age of 89 in in December, 2020, Cornwall sat down for a rare interview with award-winning documentarian Errol Morris (“The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life  of Robert S. McNamara”).  The captivating “The Pigeon Tunnel,” based on his 2016 memoir “The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life,” premiered in September the Telluride Film Festival and began streaming on Apple TV+ on Oct. 20.

Charming, honest and somewhat cryptic, Cornwall’s life was far more colorful than Smiley. The son of a con man, his mother left the family when he was just five. He was British spy who served during the height of the Cold War. His life and experiences fueled his novels. The documentary features re-enactments, vintage interviews with Cornwall and clips from the various movie and TV adaptations of his work.

One of the best of adaptations of his work is 1965’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” based on the 1963 best-seller about a British agent who sent undercover as a defector to Communist East German. Richard Burton earned an Oscar nomination as Alec Leamus, the disillusioned spy with British intelligence who is given one last assignment before his retirement-to suss out who is the British mole in East Berlin. During on a production interview, Burton said; “There were no grand speeches or passionate explosions of emotion. The others do all  the acting. As Leamus, I just react.” Martin Ritt (“Hud”) produced and directed.

Two years later “The Deadly Affair”  based on his 1961 novel “Call for the Dead,” was released. Sidney Lumet directed this sturdy, well-acted thriller starring James Mason as a veteran British Foreign office agent who is assigned to investigate an employee at the Foreign Office who is commits suicide leaving a note that he is innocent. Mason’s agent believes the man was murdered but the foreign office waves off his theory. Mason ends up investigating his death after he resigns from the Foreign Office. The strong supporting cast includes Simone Signoret, Maximilian Schell and Harriet Andersson.

“The Looking Glass War” is a real rarity. This 1970 release marked the directorial debut of Frank Pierson, who also wrote the screenplay. The movie made aa major change from the 1965 novel where the protagonist was a retired Polish spy. In the movie he’s transformed into a hunky young Polish defector played by Christopher Jones, red-hot after the 1968 hit “Wild in the Street.” The best reason to watch this thriller is for the strong performances from Ralph Richardson and a young Anthony Hopkins. The two-time Oscar-winner would say of the movie: “It was a very strange film, not helped for me, because it was a deeply unhappy period of my life with everything at home really going to pieces. I enjoyed working with Sir Ralph Richardson, though, and he made me laugh a great deal.”

It’s hard to believe that Alec Guinness wanted to be replaced in his first appearance as George Smiley in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” in the classic 1979 (1980 in the U.S) miniseries adaptation of the 1974 novel But he felt he didn’t resemble the “froglike” secret agent. Thank goodness, he was talked out of leaving the production. Guinness is perfectly cast as the taciturn retired spy brought back into the fold to find a veteran of British intelligence who is a Russian spy.

Even more successful is the 1982 miniseries “Smiley’s People,” based on the 1979 Le Carre best-seller. This time around, Smiley has his final encounter with his Russian nemesis Karla (Patrick Stewart) The series won three BAFTA TV Awards including best actor for Guinness ; he also earned one of his three Emmy nominations.

Gary Oldman took over the Smiley mantle in 2011’s “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy,” earning his first Oscar nomination. L.A . Times film critic Kenneth Turan observed: “Placing Oldman in the center of this universe was not an obvious choice, but it has played out superbly.”

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