December 14, 2020

The don of disillusionment: John le Carré on film
The paranoia and cynicism of Carol Reed’s The Third Man fired Le Carré’s imagination, while Tomas Alfredson updated Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for the Iraq war eraA life in picturesTinker, tailor, writer, spy: the many lives of John le Carré, in his own wordsInterview: ‘My ties to England have loosened’I met John le Carré once, in 2016; appropriately enough, it was in Berlin where the TV adaptation of The Night Manager was getting a showcase premiere at the film festival — and the city where, as an MI6 agent in 1961 he had witnessed the construction of the Wall, which inspired his breakthrough novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. He was instantly charming, eloquent and inexhaustibly curious and knowledgeable about the movies showing in Berlin that year, especially Alex Gibney’s Zero Days, a documentary about cyberwarfare. While always very relaxed, he had that alpha-donnish skill in asking you questions – including detailed questions about my own recent reviews. To my shame, I committed the No 1 error of protocol with him. As he had called me “Peter”, I replied by calling him “John”. (Please. It’s “David”, and only if you’re at that pay grade, which I wasn’t.)Le Carré’s fiction had a twine of celluloid in its DNA: particularly the movie-making of Graham Greene and Carol Reed in The Third Man. The dark shadows of that movie loomed over his imagination, from a city (Vienna) divided up by the second world war’s victorious and now mutually resentful allies. The paranoia, the sense of postwar peace perennially threatened and undermined by some new terrible incursion, the theme of personal betrayal, and the vivid nightmare of “going over to the other side” in a theological or geopolitical sense: it all informed his writing. Orson Welles’s breezy Harry Lime talking about the happy Swiss inventing nothing more interesting than the cuckoo clock was the tone of complaisant, emollient cynicism that Le Carré was to encounter in the real-life British establishment, and which he satirised and anatomised in his own work. (And at one further remove, Le Carré’s darkness and sense of sin maybe had something of the German expressionists, Peter Lorre’s child-murderer in Fritz Lang’s M, on the run from his accusers.)
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