SPY GAMES: The Looking Glass War (1969)

One of the best films I saw last year was Tomas Alfredson’s TINKER TAILOR SOLIDER SPY (2011) based on John Le Carré’s novel of the same name. It stars Gary Oldman in a career defining performance that’s earned him an Oscar nomination. I hope Oldman takes home the award but I’m not here to talk about TINKER TAILOR SOLIDER SPY. I’m here to discuss another spy film based on a John Le Carré novel, Frank Pierson’s THE LOOKING GLASS WAR (1969).

In the world of John le Carré spies aren’t glamorous figures chasing bad guys with a martini in hand and a beautiful woman on their arm. They’re working stiffs with a wife at home and a chip on their shoulder. They perform dirty deeds and do thankless tasks for king and country that leave their moral compass spinning in confusion. If you’re expecting lots of action illustrated by explosions and fast car chases forget it. Espionage involves more mind than muscle and le Carré is well aware of that fact. John le Carré is often described as a British spy who left the game early and became a successful author but in his own words he describes himself as, “A writer who, when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British Intelligence.” The experience obviously had a profound effect on him and he was able to use it to his advantage by writing a series of successful books that have frequently been adapted for the screen.

THE LOOKING GLASS WAR is based on John le Carré’s fourth novel and it tells the bleak story of a retired aging Polish spy named Fred Leiser who’s approached by a British intelligence organization and asked to reenlist. The organization is bleeding men and they don’t have the time or the finances to train many new recruits. They convince Leiser to sneak into East Germany to spy on the Soviets who may or may not be storing missiles there but his mission has little support. Once he crosses the border things start to go wrong almost immediately, which leads to a tragic finale.

Frank Pierson’s film adaptation subverts le Carré’s cold war tale by making Leiser a young Polish hustler (Christopher Jones) eager to defect to the west so he can live in London with his girlfriend (Susan George) who is pregnant with their child. It’s apparent that Leiser has little regard for authority and no interest in cold war politics but a British intelligence officer (Ralph Richardson) is determined to pursue him anyway. Along for the ride is a younger spy named Avery (Anthony Hopkins), who develops a strained but sympathetic working relationship with Leiser. Avery is starting to have doubts about the spy game he’s been forced to play and Leiser’s independence both repels and fascinates him.

The mission hits a snag when Leiser disappears just before he’s supposed to head to East Germany and ends up at his girlfriend’s apartment. What follows is one of the sexiest on screen encounters that I’ve come across. Young Christopher Jones and Susan George are a good-looking couple and they seem incredibly natural during the three minutes they spend tearing each others’ clothes off. The lightheartedness they convey makes their intimacy feel genuine. Unfortunately their union doesn’t end well. Jones’ character discovers that his girlfriend has aborted their child and he lashes out at her in anger. It’s an ugly moment that sends him into a spiral of self-doubt and self-pity so when the intelligence agency finally locates him and orders him to continue on his mission he agrees. Soon afterward Leiser is sneaking across the border into enemy territory.

The second half of the film plays out in almost complete silence as we follow Leiser through Germany while he attempts to avoid capture and track down any extraneous missiles that the Soviets might be hiding. He’s briefly distracted by a cute German girl (Pia Degermark) that he meets on the road and the two share some intimate moments together but their happiness is short-lived. The film concludes with Avery railing against his superiors when the mission starts to go wrong giving Anthony Hopkins the opportunity to deliver one of his finest early performances. Christopher Jones is also very good as the naïve Leiser and the two actors work surprisingly well together. They both seem to understand the emptiness and despair that’s at the bottom of John le Carré’s espionage tale and they convey it beautifully.

I seem to be in the minority when it comes to my appreciation of THE LOOKING GLASS WAR. When the film was originally released it received lackluster reviews. British critic Tom Milne referred to the film as “convoluted” and “totally tedious” while critics at The New York Times described it as “odd, mannered and unconvincing.” Pauline Kael labeled it a “failure” and more recently Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant called the film “disappointing.” A quick glance at IMDB offers a wide range of opinion but the main complaint seems to be that Frank Pierson’s film adaptation differs from John le Carré’s original novel.

The director definitely took a lot of liberties with the source material but his film stands on its own as a fascinating critique of the military system and the government’s cold war tactics. The indifferent and colorless world that Pierson depicts in THE LOOKING GLASS WAR is the same world you see in the latest le Carré adaptation, TINKER TAILOR SOLIDER SPY. In fact, both films share so much in common that I wouldn’t be surprised if Tomas Alfredson studied every frame of Pierson’s film before he made his own movie. The lifeless landscapes are similarly stark and swinging London has rarely looked more damp, repressive and stifling.

The year before THE LOOKING GLASS WAR was released marked a critical turning point in American history. In 1968 the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy shocked the country. Americans were quickly losing trust in their political leaders and anti-Vietnam war sentiment was at an all-time high. This civil unrest led to massive demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic convention that was marred by police violence and rioting. The Summer of Love had led to a winter of discontent for many young people who felt as if they were under attack. Casting a counterculture figure like Christopher Jones was a brilliant stroke of creative genius on Pierson’s part. Movie posters for the film boasted the tagline, “Why do we listen to them? Why do we fight their wars for them?” signaling that THE LOOKING GLASS WAR wasn’t just another espionage tale. In Pierson’s hands le Carré’s novel became a pointed critique of the times.

Frank Pierson had spent most of his career in television and only directed a few movies including the Barbra Streisand vehicle A STAR IS BORN (1976) and KING OF THE GYPSIES (1978). But he authored many critically acclaimed screenplays for a wide variety of films such as COOL HAND LUKE (1967), THE ANDERSON TAPES (1971) and DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1976), which won him an Oscar. In Pierson’s best work there’s a real sense of place that grounds his characters and gives them life. He obviously cares about the bumbling thieves, halfhearted criminals, ne’er-do-well and fringe dwellers that he writes about and he’s able to make film audiences care about them too.

THE LOOKING GLASS WAR shows him to be a capable and imaginative director interested in tackling subjects that the general public probably wasn’t all that eager to explore, particularly as entertainment, which was what typical spy films of the era offered. I hate to use the old cliché that the film was ‘ahead of its time’ but I think THE LOOKING GLASS WAR was. Even though it failed in the eyes of many critics when it was released the film seems incredibly fresh and smart today. It’s also an interesting footnote in the brief but fascinating acting career of Christopher Jones who received top billing when the movie was released.

Jones is somewhat of an enigma. He was a hugely popular up-and-coming actor in the 1960s but he made a lot of enemies when he walked away from Hollywood in 1970 after appearing in David Lean’s undervalued masterpiece, RYAN’S DAUGHTER (Yes folks, I’m one of the few who believes RYAN’S DAUGHTER is a masterpiece). By most accounts Jones suffered from a serious dependency on drugs and alcohol and he treated the women in his life abhorrently. But his story has yet to be written and at the moment it’s a swirling mass of half-truths, myths and rumors so I try to keep this in perspective whenever I come across the actor’s name online or in print.

One rumor that has gained a lot of traction is the belief that Jones was dubbed in THE LOOKING GLASS WAR fueling the misconception that his real voice was ‘high-pitched’ but I find that hard to believe. Anyone who’s vaguely familiar with the actor’s television and film work would know that he had a naturally deep voice. Jones was also prone to mimicking James Dean and Marlon Brando so he mumbled his lines a lot. In THE LOOKING GLASS WAR he struggles to maintain a Polish accent but I have no reason to believe that all of his lines were dubbed. It’s possible that a few lines of dialogue aren’t his own but the voice I hear in the film sounds like Jones attempting  to mimic a Polish accent. If he was dubbed you have to wonder why they didn’t hire an actor who spoke Polish or at least hire someone who could manage a more convincing accent? I’m no audio expert so I’ll leave it up to viewers to decide for themselves if the dubbing rumors hold any weight but they ring false to me.

THE LOOKING GLASS WAR is available on video and DVD but it’s gone out of print. You can still find used copies selling at Amazon for a reasonable price and it’s well worth picking up if you’re looking for another film that mirrors the cold war as it’s depicted in TINKER TAILOR SOLIDER SPY.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for Turner Classic Movies and published on February 2, 2012 at TCM.com