Thursday 14 July 2022

GEORGE SMILEY novels and screen - Rod Bishop embarks on an exploration of John le Carré's greatest creation - Part One - CALL FOR THE DEAD

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…

…[Smiley] appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad…Sawley declared at the wedding that ‘Sercomb was mated to a bullfrog in a sou’wester’”.

Where had she got him from?...

…Smiley, without school, parents, regiment, or trade, without wealth or poverty, traveled without labels in the guard’s van of the social express, and soon became lost luggage, destined, when the divorce had come and gone, to remain unclaimed on the dusty shelf of yesterday’s news”.


These excerpts from the opening three paragraphs of John le Carré’s first novel from 1961, set up the challenge for any screen versions of this famous British spy. 

For decent exposition in film or television, these le Carré descriptions of Smiley would take up an inordinate amount of screen time.

Other solutions had to be found. 

In the film version of Call for the Dead, known as The Deadly Affair (Sidney Lumet 1967), there are some minor changes including Smiley’s name becoming Charles Dobbs and Peter Guillam becoming Bill Appleby, names apparently licensed to Paramount as part of the deal for the rights to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

James Mason, Harriet Andersson, Maximilian Schell
A Deadly Affair

There is one major change, however, an audacious addition that seeks to humanize Smiley and give him emotive depth - the appearance of a three-dimensional Ann. Only mentioned in the novel in passing and never included as a functioning character, in the film version Ann is played by the Swedish actress Harriet Andersson. Her nocturnal wanderings with other men don’t preclude her having a sex scene with Smiley – an unheard-of occurrence in le Carré’s novels. 

Smiley anguishes over their relationship and becomes unhinged when he discovers her affair with Dieter Frey (Maximilian Schell), once a German agent run by Smiley, and someone he regards as a long and close friend. Again, this love triangle is entirely absent from le Carré’s novel. 

But in the later novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the sexual and romantic use of Ann by another spy - Bill Haydon - serves the same purpose as it does here, distracting Smiley from thinking of Frey or Hayden as foreign agents and political adversaries.

In both novel and film, hovering over le Carré’s chess board, is the unseen figure of Hans-Dieter Mundt, ostensibly from the East German Steel Mission in London, but in reality, a murderous East German agent.

James Mason struggles with his portrait of George Smiley and never seems entirely sure how to play a man described as “lost baggage”, a “shrunken toad” and “a bullfrog in a sou’wester”. And when Mason emotes, his character just dissolves into manneristic embarrassment.

He certainly doesn’t live up to the Smiley onboard a plane in the final paragraph of the novel:

Smiley presented an odd figure to his fellow passengers – a little fat man, rather gloomy, suddenly smiling, ordering a drink. The young fair-haired man beside him examined him closely out of the corner of his eye. He knew the type well – the tired executive out for a bit of fun. He found it rather disgusting.”  


Next: A Murder of Quality

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