Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Gordon Dickson Covers From My Youth

   My dad was a HUUGE Gordon Dickson fan. He easily had thirty novels and short story collections in the attic boxes. As a kid, I read a bunch of them, and well, most of them weren't anything special. Still, they were short and quick and their depictions of competent humans aligned against assorted aliens helped lay the groundwork for my science fiction universe. I know Harlan Ellison was a big fan of his short fiction, so I should probably give some of that a go at some point, but up to now, I haven't.

   I've scavenged all the books from Dickson's Childe Cycle. I've read half of them and, while tinted by age, my memories of them are they were really good. Centered around the mercenaries of the planet Dorsai, he envisioned the series, in addition to the six science fiction novels he finished, as having three historical and three contemporary novels. It would tell the extended history of humanity as it splintered colonizing the stars and was reunified. At his death in 2001, Dickson hadn't finished the final book in the series, Childe, and had never written the non-sci-fi novels. 

   It's an interesting example of evolving covers over the years. Those first two, Dorsai! by Paul Lehr and Necromancer by Jack Gaughan (someone I normally like) are nicely modish, late seventies artwork, but too generic and unmemorable. Now, the next two, both by the mighty Kelly Freas, are a great improvement. Soldier, Ask Not might have one of the best military sci-fi covers around. I've always assumed it depicts the Friendly soldier, Jamethon Black, a character I remember sympathizing with, despite him being something of a humorless scold. Here, dressed all in black and set against a background of stars, he stares forlornly off into the distance, awaiting whatever battle may come. The cover for Tactics of Mistake, featuring the super-tactician, Cletus Grahame, has more than a whiff of evening-time-in-the-Playboy-Mansion-grotto to it, what with him in that intergalactic smoking jacket and orange mood lights playing overhead. I absolutely dig it.

   The last two are just not good. Michael Whelan, one of the book cover greats, has given The Final Encyclopedia the floating man contemplating a tower that no one ever needed. Maybe it's a direct scene from the book, but I don't care, The colors are blah and the scene is just dull. Still, it's way better than what Jim Burns did for The Chantry Guild

I'm going to try and do more of these. Old covers, as much as they trigger a burst of nostalgia, also serve as a catalogue of the genre. Clearly, covers fifty-odd years ago were whiter, but they were also pulpier and more exciting. There was no chance you were going to mistake a sci-fi or fantasy book for a romance or some generic airport thriller.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Bronson in Winter: Breakheart Pass


Breakheart Pass (1975)

directed by Tom Gries

screenplay Alistair MacLean from his own book

music by Jerry Goldsmith

Charles Bronson
Charles Bronson was a journeyman actor who slowly moved up the ranks of tough-guy actors until finally becoming a leading man in the late sixties and early seventies. Bronson, born Charles Buchinsky, grew up working in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. During WWII he served as a tail-gunner on B-29s bombing Japan. After the war, he slowly drifted into acting. He worked his way up through character roles and some leads in some B-movies, before becoming a major support actor in some big movies. It wasn't until the brutal and timely Death Wish (1974), that, at the age of 52, he really became a star. Many, many of his movies are terrible, often the results of contractual obligations. As he got visibly older, playing the violent hard man looked less and less believable and the quality of his scripts got increasingly declined. Do not let yourself suffer through Death Wish 3, 4, or 5 or 10 To Midnight.  On the other hand, The Mechanic (1972), Mr. Majestyk (1974), and, especially, Hard Times (1975), are paragons of seventies hardboiled filmmaking. Bronson's perpetual squint, sour croak of a voice, and physical hardness made him one of the most distinctive and well-known Hollywood tough guys of all time.

Alistair MacLean served in the Royal Navy during WWII and became a schoolteacher afterward.When his first novel, H.M.S. Ulysses (1955) made him a pot of money he turned to full-time writing. His follow-up book, The Guns of Navarone (1957) sold almost half a million copies in the first six months. After its success, he said "I'm not a literary person. If someone offered me £100,000 tax free I'd never write another word." He said similar things later, and considered himself a reluctant writer of limited talent who didn't understand why people bought his books. But buy them they did, with total sales of his books estimated at over 150 million copies. Fifteen movies were made from some of his novels, most notably the aforementioned The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Ice Station Zebra (1968).

Breakheart Pass, directed by Tom Gries is a movie that, I admit, holds a special place for me because I watched it with my dad. He was a huge Western fan, as well as a fan of MacLean and Bronson. Gries was another of those utility directors Hollywood used to be filled with. In addition to loads of tv episodes (he created The Rat Patrol), he directed one of Charlton Heston's best movies, the Western Will Penny (1968).* He also directed two of the best miniseries of the seventies: QB VII (1974) and Helter Skelter (1976). Breakheart Pass, unfortunately, doesn't match the quality of those films. Instead, it's just an average suspense thriller with a few fun, if not surprising, twists.

Ben Johnson and Bronson

The movie opens with a train filled with soldiers, the Governor Fairchild of Nevada (Richard Crenna) and his fiancée, Marica (Jill Ireland - Bronson's wife, and co-star in  15 movies) making its way through the snow-covered mountains toward Fort Humboldt, stopping at the whistle-stop, Myrtle. While there, Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson), with prisoner John Deakin (Bronson), forces his way onto the train over the soldiers' commander, Major Claremont (Ed Lauter) wishes. Deakins, a doctor and ex-college lecturer, it seems is wanted for a host of crimes including destroying a cache of Army munitions, making it a federal crime, and one for which the Marshal can demand he and his prisoner be taken on as passengers. Along with the train's crew, there are several other passengers, including Doctor Molyneux (David Huddleston), O'Brien, an aide to the governor (Charles Durning), and the Rev. Peabody (Bill McKinney). As you can see, that's about as solid a mix of character actors as you could ever have in a movie.

Jill Ireland
Strange things begin happening at once. Two of Claremont's senior officers go missing before the train rolls out of Myrtle. Despite misgivings, the commander gives the order for the train to head out. The next day, Doctor Peabody is found dead. Deakins is asked to examine the doctor's corpse and determines he was murdered. Of course all eyes turn to Deakins, but he was securely tied up during the night and couldn't have done it. Or could he?

What follows is a moderately exciting actioneer. Most of the several mysteries - why is the train going to Fort Humboldt, what's in the cases, and who killed the doctor, among others - are revealed fairly soon. Too soon, for Bronson's tastes, according to Wikipedia. He wanted a particular big reveal kept towards the end as it was in the initial script. 

The action scenes, largely outdoors (and often on the roof of the train) are pretty good. The several fights are good and brutal, and the film's climax with Indians (played by members of the Nez Perce tribe) and bandits fighting Deakins and company on the train is well done and looks great in the snowy countryside. It was also legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt's last movie. At age 79, he served as second unit director and coordinated the stunning derailment scene.  

The movie was filmed in northern Idaho and from the dingy town of Myrtle to the snow-covered mountains the train rolls through, the movie looks good. The production used the Camas Prairie Railroad. Known as the "railroad on stilts" for its numerous wooden-trestle bridges, it's a great setting for a Western thriller. When Deakins is forced to climb down along one of those bridges to inspect a body, it looks uncomfortable in a way that can't be recreated with CGI or on a set. 

Unfortunately, Breakheart Pass suffers from a trait common to many seventies movies - much of it looks like a tv-show. The interiors in Myrtle when Deakins is arrested and all the shots inside the train look lousy. It's not just the rear-projection shots of the passing landscape - something even Hitchcock had trouble making look good - but there's something about the way the scenes are framed and lit that makes them look fake and cheap. 

Eddie Little Sky
It's unfortunate, because so much else about the movie is good. The acting - except for Jill Ireland (and that's more the script's fault than hers) - is solid. The outlandishness of the plot doesn't matter so much when everybody's selling it completely. Even though given too little screen time, the two big villains - Levi Calhoun (Robert Tessier, voiced by Paul Frees) and Chief White Hand (Eddie Little Sky) - are tough and menacing. Most importantly, Bronson is great. As I wrote about him in Once Upon a Time in the West, he wasn't a really inventive actor, usually sticking to the same Bronsonish persona no matter what the movie was, but he always had presence. He could seem very dangerous on the screen and when he's unleashed in Breakheart Pass, you can easily imagine him killing someone on top of a moving railcar for real. His persona makes even some of his most ridiculous movies, Telefon (1978) for example, much better than they should have been. 

Robert Tessier
The fake-looking set-bound sequences are a distraction that can't be avoided. An important part of a Western is creating a convincing recreation of the past - whether realistic or mythical - and when it looks like an episode of Barnaby Jones, it's a major failure. 

Right after watching the movie, I picked up the book. I've never read any MacLean before and I doubt I'll ever read anything again (except maybe The Guns of Navarone). Maybe his contemporary thrillers are better, but this is bad. Elliot Kastner, one of the producers (who'd previously produced two other movies based on MacLean books: Where Eagles Dare and When Eight Bells Toll) had given the author an office in the studio to "therapy, as he says MacLean was suffering in his marriage and with alcoholism." The dialogue is stilted, the characters are given too much unbelievable background, and all sorts of Britishisms are left unchanged in a book set in 1870's Nevada. It's not very evocative of the setting. The screenplay, by MacLean himself, improves things greatly. It deletes all the silly backstory and makes Levi Calhoun (Sepp Calhoun in the novel), much more evil and threatening. It does eliminate some of the villains' motivations, but it's not enough of a loss to matter. The Idaho filming location more than makes up for the book's lack of any appreciable period atmosphere.

Rating - C: Rewatching Breakheart Pass after several years with a more critical eye still left me liking the movie. The soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith is suitably rousing and as described, the action is too. Nonetheless, there's really no great reason to seek this movie out unless you're a Bronson fan - which I am. I really want to give this movie a B but it's really a C. If it's on, leave it on, and if you find the  DVD for a dollar or two it's worth it, but that's about it. 

The film's setting, somewhere in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but outside of Carson City and involving ore from the Comstock Lode, is a little hard to pinpoint. Let's just say it's somewhere in western Nevada. Northern Idaho in the Lewiston area seems an adequate enough stand-in and a better one than happens in many Westerns.

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking; one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Mexico in Moab: Rio Conchos (1964)

Rio Conchos (1968)

directed by Gordon Douglas

screenplay Joseph Landon

book by Clair Huffaker

music by Jerry Goldsmith

There is no way Rio Conchos qualifies as a great Western, but there are enough interesting things about its story and cast to make it a good one. Director Gordon Douglas was a solid utility director who worked his way up through the Hal Roach studio, directing Our Gang shorts and Laurel and Hardy, and then seemingly whatever else came his way over the next forty years (including Them!). Its cast, led by Richard Boone of Have Gun - Will Travel, includes Stuart Whitman, Tony Franciosa, and, in his film debut, Jim Brown. Edmond O'Brien shows up late in the picture to chew up the scenery as a Confederate bitter-ender and Wende Wagner as an Apache woman named Sally.

The movie opens with a scene that seems to presage the soon to arrive revisionist and Spaghetti Westerns. An Apache burial party is ruthlessly gunned down by a lone white man, Lassister (Richard Boone). Most of them are shot in the back trying to get away. Apaches, we later learn, tortured and killed his family, and now he's carrying on a one-man race war against them.  Soon after he's arrested by a cavalry troop led by Capt. Haven (Stuart Whitman) and accompanied by Sgt. Franklyn (Jim Brown). While it seems he's arrested for killing the Apaches, but Haven is interested in where Lassiter bought the repeating rifle he's carrying.

Richard Boone and Stuart Whitman

It turns out the renegade Col. Pardee is arming the Apaches with repeating rifles he stole from the army. He's come to the conclusion that the Confederacy failed because it wasn't brutal enough during the war, so now he intends to persuade the Apaches to act as his proxies and raise bloody hell across the border region. From his base in Mexico - a recreation of a Southern plantation house out in the desert - Pardee and his coterie of fellow Confederate veterans are joyfully awaiting the day of their victory.

Capt. Haven's commander, Col. Wagner knows Lassister served under Pardee and convinces him to lead Haven and Franklyn to Pardee and hopefully destroy the cache of weapons. Lassister agrees, but only on the condition that he can be joined by Juan Louis Rodriguez (Franciosa), a prisoner of his acquaintance slated for execution. 

Jim Brown and Tony Franciosa

The four set out for Pardee's camp. Along the way, there are run-ins with banditos, a racist barkeep, and finally Apaches and Confederates. Save for the ending, there's nothing particularly surprising or original about Rio Conchos, except for the way it's played - which is with total seriousness. Oh, Franciosa plays Rodriguez with a bright twinkle in his eye, but it only disguises his character's ruthlessness. Everyone else comes at their role with deadly earnestness, especially Boone. Boone's voice never rises, never changes in affect, even when nearly beating a man to death it remains at the same cold, steely tone. This is the closest to playing the hero I've ever seen Boone (I haven't seen Have Gun - Will Travel yet), but he's no good guy. As Haven, Whitman is a martinet driven by his own failure to go after Pardee. Only Brown's Franklyn doesn't have a bad side, though he has to deal with casual racism from most of the white men he meets.

Rio Conchos isn't a revisionist Western - the very traditional-sounding Goldsmith score alone helps make it feel like a traditional one - but it's clearly walking on the road in that direction. There were Indian-murdering protagonists before 1964 - Ethan Hunt in The Searchers, most prominently - but Lassister is clearly a man obsessed beyond reason. Race, while not a huge factor in the movie, nonetheless isn't avoided. The simple presence of Brown at the height of his NFL career in the middle of the Civil Rights era had to have forced contemporary viewers to at least think about the situation of Sgt. Franklyn in post-Civil War America. Finally, unlike too many Westerns, there isn't any nostalgia for the Confederates. Pardee is a madman and his whole plan is to unleash an army of killers to duplicate the savagery inflicted on Lassiter across the whole American border region. 

Edmond O'Brien

Rio Conchos is visually adequate if never particularly memorable. It benefits greatly from being filmed in Moab, Utah. The mesa-filled landscape is so striking it overrides the non-descript cinematography. The action is well-shot and Douglas clearly had a sure hand depicting violence. The scenes aren't gory but they don't pull punches either. When men die it hurts. 

I'm not sure how much remembered Rio Conchos is anymore. It never reaches the heights of The Searchers or the loopiness of A Fistful of Dollars, but, then it doesn't aim for those things. It's just a competently constructed and acted Western that'll take up 107 minutes of an evening. Also, anything starring Richard Boone is worth at least one viewing.

Rating  - B: Again, just 107 minutes of adequate Western goodness. Nothing spectacular, but you won't feel like your time was wasted or your intelligence insulted

Rio Conchos' Historical Location

The film's setting, around Presidio, Texas, and Ojinaga, Mexico looks a lot drabber and flatter than the bright, rust-colored landscape of Moab, Utah where it was filmed. 

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking; one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Saturday, March 6, 2021

L'ultimo Spaghetti: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)


directed by Sergio Leone

screenplay by Sergio Donati
                       Sergio Leone
story by Dario Argento
Sergio Leone

I grew up watching Westerns because of my dad. He loved the genre, books, and movies alike. I remember being excited one summer when Channel 5 announced a week of Clint Eastwood Westerns. My mom and sister were going to be away for a week and it meant my dad and I had control of the tv. I definitely remember watching all three of Eastwood's Man With No Name movies directed by Sergio Leone: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Somehow, I didn't see Once Upon a Time in the West until several years later. In fact, the only reason I saw it when I did was that we had run out of things to rent from the local mom & pop video store. This was back in 1985, the heyday of mom-and-pop video stores. The store we belonged to was a block from our house and my family had run through the store's initial collection in only a few weeks. Eventually, with little else to choose from, my mom brought home Once Upon a Time in the West. The title and the box made it look cheesy, but Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and Jason Robards on the cover were enticing. I was not ready for what soon unspooled on my VHS player.

With little dialogue, the opening scene introduces three ominous-looking men, two played by immediately recognizable actors: wall-eyed Western character actor Jack Elam, and Olympian and star of John Ford's Sergeant Rutledge, Woody Strode. After an extended sequence built of numerous small, satisfying moments, a train arrives and Charles Bronson, features made of chiseled red granite, debarks. The ensuing action is sharp and swift and was more than enough to hook me right away. Bronson's character never gets a real name but is called Harmonica by people for the eponymous instrument he wears around his neck and plays from time to time. I love Charles Bronson and grew up on his tough guy movies from the seventies and I know he was a fairly limited actor, but within his limits he could do good work and he does that here. Harmonica's an opaque character, saving the answers to his mysteries for a certain time and place and Bronson's blank, squinting demeanor is perfect for what the role needs.

The movie then introduces us to the other major characters in equally powerful scenes. We meet Henry Fonda as Frank, the only completely villainous role I'm aware of him ever playing. It's a brilliant bit of casting against type. Fonda's on-screen persona, going back to his earliest roles, was of a good and noble man, whether in Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, or Advise and Consent. He still has the same calm voice and rational demeanor, but he hasn't a single redeemable quality. It's a bold choice, by Leone and Fonda, that I wish more actors would do. 

Next, as Jill McBain, there's Claudia Cardinale, a murdered man's bride newly arrived from New Orleans. It's hard to tell how good her acting is - most of the non-American actors are dubbed - but she's absolutely luminous. Later we learn she's a whore with a heart, if not of gold, at least silver. Dubbed or not, she plays it with the right mix of hardness and softness. 

Finally, Jason Robards as Cheyenne, leader of a gang of outlaws, makes his entry, freshly escaped from custody and his hands still shackled. He made his career on the stage in Eugene O'Neil plays, but on film, he played more than a few roguish types. With him, Leone cast exactly to type. The liveliest character in the movie, he's the source of most of Once Upon a Time in the West's humor.

With The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in 1967, Sergio Leone felt he was finished with making Westerns. What he wanted to do was make a movie out of Harry Grey's autobiography about his days as a Jewish gangster in New York. Eventually, he would, as Once Upon a Time in America, a truly epic film starring James Woods, Robert De Niro, and William Forsythe, but not until 1984 and not without troubles in getting his full version released.

In 1967, Hollywood just wasn't interested. He kept being offered only Westerns and he kept turning them down. Not until Paramount offered him a big production budget and the services of his favorite actor, Henry Fonda, did he say yes. He had Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci join him in drawing up a story. They spent a year watching classics American Westerns, among them The Iron Horse, High Noon, The Comancheros, and The Searchers. The goal was to create a movie that paid homage to those movies and pack it with as many of the best Western movie tropes as possible. 
As Leone explained: ‘For this “dance of death”, I wanted to take all the most stereotypical characters from the American Western — on loan! The finest whore from New Orleans; the romantic bandit; the killer who is half-businessman, half-killer, and who wants to get on in the new world of business; the businessman who fancies himself as a gun fighter; the lone avenger. With these five most stereotypical characters from the American Western, I wanted to present a homage to the Western at the same time as showing the mutations which American society was undergoing at that time. So the story was about birth and death. Before they even come on to the scene these stereotypical characters know themselves to be dying in every sense, physically and morally — victims of the new era which was advancing.’ Leone’s ultimate goal was nothing less than a ‘cinematic fresco on the birth of America’.
For a detailed look at the creation, production, and legacy of Once Upon a Time in the West, here's a piece titled: The Making of 'Once Upon a Time in the West'. The movie is equal parts pastiche and original artwork. As much as it stokes the fires of revisionism, it's a tremendous homage to the great films Leone and company loved. Unlike the Man With No Name trilogy, which, as much as I love it, never really feel like it sits properly alongside classic American Westerns, this movie does. The cheap, dirty look of Leone's earlier Westerns had more, I think, to do with finances than intent. The budget for this movie was four times that of his previous Western epic, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and it shows. Most of Once Upon a Time was still filmed in Spain and Italy, but it just looks better - the shots are better, the sets are better, the costumes are better. The squalidness of the Eastwood movies is absent here, replaced by a glorious, epic look. Added sequences in Monument Valley, the location of many of John Ford's Westerns, add to the film's verisimilitude and help connect it to its inspirations.

I've seen Once Upon a Time in the West described as slow. That is wrong. It is deliberate, taking time to build its characters, the plot, and show off the land. It is a long movie, but it doesn't drag. There's always something happening, some plot unfolding, some bit of violence. It moves between all four lead characters, building their connections to each other and slowly revealing just what is going on: why did Jill's murdered husband order palettes and palettes of lumber? Why did Frank kill those people? Who is Harmonica? 

I need to find longer pieces by Leone, Sergio Corbucci, and some of the other Spaghetti Western directors to learn more about their fascination with Westerns. I've written before about the clear connections between hardboiled crime, sword & sorcery, and Westerns, so I suspect those links are just as valid for Americans as Italians: tough stories of strong men in dangerous settings acting bravely, and often nobly, and bound by personal codes of honor. That's simplistic, but carrying that off perfectly isn't easy. Not every hardboiled movie is The Glass Key or The Maltese Falcon and not every movie is The Searchers....or Once Upon a Time in America.

Rating - A: Despite being a pastiche, Once Upon a Time in the West transcends its fanboyish origins and truly is one of the great Westerns. Yes, the dubbing is occasionally obvious and annoying, yes, it's cobbled together from things we've seen before, but the movie's power - from its cast, from the archetypal Western story and characters, from the visuals - is real. If you see only a single Leone movie, this is the one to see. 

The film's setting - the fictional town of Flagstone - could be anywhere in the explicitly mythical Old West. The real shooting locations - Italy soundstages, the Spanish countryside, and Monument Valley - seem as integral to how I imagine the West to look as does the real American West.

Fonda, Cardinale, Leone, Bronson, & Robards

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking; one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

PS: I didn't mention a sword & sorcery movies because they all stink.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

RIP: John le Carre' 1931-2020

David Cornwell, aka John le Carré, died yesterday at the age of 89. He started in British intelligence, became a part-time novelist, was exposed to the Soviets by the arch-traitor Kim Philby, had to resign and then went on to become one of the great English novelists of the 20th century. 

   Of his twenty-five novels, I've only read seven- though six of them three times or more. I haven't read any of his post-Cold War books (except the belated and okayish late Smiley book, A Legacy of Spies. He seemed to have become so reflexively anti-American - which I always suspected as having sprung from a chauvinistic belief that we didn't do empire, as well as England, had, more than any real distaste for our overseas adventurism - that I gave up on him. As I've gotten older I've become more able to separate an artist from his politics, or at least enough to give his work the chance to stand on its own. I've also become more appreciative of many artist's later works. There can be a richness of character and depth that's only achievable after a lifetime of writing. So, I've been planning to rectify the situation. I've seen some great films have been made from several later works - The Night Manager, Our Kind of Traitor, and A Most Wanted Man - and I can only imagine how good the books are. (In fact, just last night I bought Our Kind of Traitor and I'm already well into it. It is very good.) PS: I just finished it and it is beautifully written, insightful into what might inspire somewhat to take great risks, and more cynical and brutal than any of his other works I've read)

I first read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1986 in a class on Post-1945 European history. The professor, Myrna Chase, handed out a sheet the first day with a historical topic and a pertinent novel from that era. For the former, I chose De Gaulle opposing the UK's joining the Common Market. It was interesting but dry. For the novel, I chose The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré. I had seen the two mini-series with Alec Guiness, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and Smiley's People (1982), both based on le Carré books when they aired, but I really didn't follow them. I just knew le Carré wrote spy stories. What I didn't know was exactly what kind of spy stories. 

I was raised watching the James Bond movies, and while I knew real espionage was nothing like it, I still imagined there were romantic aspects to it. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, le Carré's third novel and first major success, disabused me of any of that. By then it was known le Carré had been some sort of spy - to this day it's unclear what he actually did - and brought a personal knowledge of what went on on the secret battlefields of the Cold War. Spy is about a mission to discredit an East German intelligence officer by convincing his superiors he's a double agent for the British. What arises from that scheme is a series of betrayals and brutal double-crosses. There's little action, idealists are lambs for the slaughter, and no one is trustworthy. It was the most cynical book I'd read up until that time and it gave me a new perspective on the Cold War, or at least an added one. Had unconscionable things been done over the course of the Cold War by the West? If so, had they had any true value in the conflict? It's also a great thriller and the protagonist, Alec Leamas, is one of the great tragic heroes of 20th-century literature. Noted spy aficionado Graham Greene called it the best spy novel he'd ever read and six decades later it remains a powerful indictment of spying and people who direct and carry it out. When le Carré wrote one last book about his most well-known character, George Smiley, he was also drawn back to Alec Leamas and his mission to East Germany. That return to the beginning, A Legacy of Spies, adds great depth to Leamas, Smiley, and Peter Guillam, even if it ends with a paean to the European Union. 

Almost as soon as I had finished The Spy Who Came in from the Cold I picked up the Karla Trilogy: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley's People (1979). Together, they tell the complex and complicated story of George Smiley's uncovering of a mole in the British intelligence - colloquially called the Circus - and his efforts to thwart the head of Soviet intelligence, a brilliant operator is known by the code name Karla. It's as a great a sustained work of worldbuilding as the Lord of the Rings. At some point, words le Carre' created to describe elements of spycraft, such as a mole to describe a double agent or scalphunters, the field agents who do the real dirty work,  were actually taken up by the real espionage business. It's a dense, believable maze of bureaucratese and double-dealing peopled with con-artists, various species of ladder-climbers, and a few honest players.

These books are also where le Carre's best-known character really comes to the fore: George Smiley. He was conceived of as the anti-Bond - intellectual and definitely not given to feats of action and derring-do. He was short and dumpy and forever cuckolded, not an amoral killer and cocksman. Here he is described in Tinker, Tailor:

Small, podgy, and at best middle-aged, he was by appearance one of London’s meek who do not inherit the earth. His legs were short, his gait anything but agile, his dress costly, ill-fitting, and extremely wet. His overcoat, which had a hint of widowhood about it, was of that black loose weave which is designed to retain moisture. Either the sleeves were too long or his arms were too short, for, as with Roach, when he wore his mackintosh, the cuffs all but concealed the fingers.

He isn't dashing, but he is brilliant at digging out people's motives and making the connections between various events and actors. He possesses a highly honed talent for manipulation, though only in his work. Commenting on Smiley's wayward wife, someone tells him if he'd run her as an agent things might have gone better for the couple. His first two appearances, in Call for the Dead (1961) and then A Murder of Quality (1962), see Smiley operating like a classic English detective. It is in his role as right-hand man of Control, head of the Circus, running Alec Leamas in Spy that we get to see Smiley as operator and manipulator of men. He performs a similar function in The Looking Glass War (1965) (which I haven't read).  In the Karla Trilogy, he is the spy as hunter and plotter extraordinaire. 

What makes the trilogy important is how it plumbs the depths of disguise and betrayal as ways of life and the costs of taking up the same tools as the Soviets in order to fight them. Along the way, there's a thorough examination of England's place as a worn-out, long-past-its-day empire struggling to maintain a place at the great nations' table by selling out to America. As one character in Tinker, Tailor puts it:

 “Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away. Bye-bye, world. You’re the last, George, you and Bill. And filthy Percy a bit.”

The generation le Carre' was writing about, born during or just after WWI thought they'd be the masters of the world's greatest empire but instead had to navigate its decline and fall. As I noted above, I haven't read his more recent novels, but it seems that what he saw as the obsequious sidling up to America by the Tony Blair government during the Iraq War and the loss of any remaining British moral authority is a major focus in much of his later work. In those books in the absence of Soviet spies, there are international arms dealers, pharmaceutical companies, and, ultimately spies again with the rise of Islamic terrorism and the endless wars in Asia. 

I thought I had more to write at this time, but I don't. The world has lost a great writer  - not just as a chronicler of the duplicitous times we've lived in since WWII - but as someone who has delved deeply into how we lie to ourselves and others, as well as the costs of abandoning our ideals. Using the form of the espionage story, le Carre' wrote some of the best and most important novels about the corrupting power of ideology, power, and wealth. If uncertain of where to start, do so where I did, with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Note: Spy was also turned into a movie starring Richard Burton and directed by Martin Ritt. It is bleak and savage and one of the best movies of the Cold War.