George Smiley, the melancholic British desk-jockey spy master from the John Le Carré novels, made his film debut with a brief appearance in Martin Ritt’s film adaptation of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD/’65. But he became a small screen legend when Alec Guinness took him on in TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY/’79 and SMILEY’S PEOPLE/’82, making such a complete job of it that this fine characterization from James Mason, more fleshly, less daringly chilly & cerebral (with Smiley rechristened Charles Dobbs), has been unjustly forgotten. Adapted with unusual fidelity by Paul Dehn from Le Carré’s debut novel, CALL FOR THE DEAD, it plays out with unexpected clarity for a Spy vs Spy drama; no small feat with a double-helix plot structure that intertwines personal relationships, local police sleuthing, Christopher Marlowe and international conspiracies. Working with Freddy Young on camera, director Sidney Lumet is able to stretch in new directions, though his alarmingly speedy filming manner (how he must have made his British crew hop!) typically leaves his editor missing out on a useful angle or two. (Check out the clumsy set ups in the scenes between Mason and Simon Signoret’s clammy widow.) Lumet also got lucky with his cast on this one with memorable perfs from a smooth Maximilian Schell, a pleasingly plump Lynn Redgrave, and an endearingly narcoleptic turn from old, reliable Harry Andrews. Only Harriet Andersson, as Smiley’s (er . . . Dobbs’) beloved, but errant wife seems miscast. Unless you insist on counting Quincy Jones’s mostly misjudged score.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: Le Carré followed up DEAD with a rather ordinary murder-mystery for Smiley, A MURDER OF QUALITY in 1962. This road-not-taken series novel shows the author moving, somewhat halfheartedly, into Agatha Christie/Dorothy Sayers territory. Happily, he went right back to international sleuthery, though the attempt is not without interest. And it’s short!