Let’s talk about the character called George Smiley. Who, you ask? John Le Carré, aka David Cornwell’s, alter ego in his spy stories. Why George? Because I say so, that’s why. I told you I’m not talking about anything that makes me mad or sad or crazy, so we’re talking let retch ur and sin eh mah…got it?
Le Carré introduced Smiley in his debut novel, Call for the Dead. It certainly wasn’t his best effort, but then neither was it his worst. What he gave us in that first novel was a keen insight into both the character of Smiley, and about the writer himself. Let me ‘splain.
Le Carré was at Oxford for his late college years, putting forth just enough talent to get himself recruited for MI5, the Secret Service. He learned German as a teenager, and then studied Germany philosophy at Oxford. That’s how he described Smiley exactly in this first book. It was MI5 that made David adopt the pen name le Carré before he was allowed to publish A Call for the Dead.
Now, as to the actors, we’ll start with the first George Smiley, in the person of an actor called Rupert Davies. It was a small but critical role in the first movie made of any of the novels, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Two years later, James Mason was Smiley, but not Smiley. Apparently another studio owned the rights to the name, so they changed Smiley to Charles Dobbs. That didn’t really work, but Mason does his best to make it so. This is when le Carré’s antipathy toward wives – or former wives – is explored in the person of Ann Smiley, neé Lady Sercumb, who’d been his boss’ secretary. Coincidentally (not really), David Cornwall was married to a woman who’s middle name was Ann for 17 years. Art imitating life? Wow – write what you know, but the former Mrs. Cornwall was probably pissed about how she was portrayed in these stories. The fictional Ann is chronically unfaithful, for reasons that are never explored from her perspective, only his. His pain. His anger. His lust for her. Too bad – her back story would have very likely included some form of sexual abuse at an early age. Betcha.
Denholm Eliot, later Indiana Jones’ sidekick in that familiar series, played Smiley, but I don’t think anybody saw him. Everyone is familiar with the two most famous Georges: Alec Guinness on BBC television and Gary Oldman in the movies. That would be in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I think is le Carré’s best creation. Gary said he hadn’t watched Alec’s version of George, not wanting to be influenced by it. But both men managed to catch the essence of Smiley: fastidious, clever, honorable. Or honourable. We’re talkin’ Brits here, after all.
There’s a scene in the movie version of T,T,S,S where Oldman as Smiley sees Ann, the ever philandering wife, out ‘necking’ with one of George’s co-workers outside the building wherein there’s a party in full swing. Just the way Oldman looked for her in the building, then seeing her outside that said he really ‘got’ George. Ann was George’s only Achilles heel, and it was a bad case. Oldman didn’t say anything, it was just the looks of fear when she isn’t around, then a look that said he’s close to losing his lunch when he realizes what’s going on. Of course, she’s being manipulated by said Smiley co-worker (ref: my surmising about her above), but George is always the one that pays the price. Then he goes on to solve the problem at hand, rescue the day, and Ann returns to him. Wash..rinse..repeat.
So that’s it for George Smiley. Read the books, see the movies. David Cornwall, aka John le Carré, is well worth reading, and his movies are well worth watching. So sayeth I.