I recently saw the film version of John Le Carre’s classic cold war spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) starring Gary Oldman and Colin Firth. Here’s the trailer:
I had read and enjoyed the John Le Carre novel on which it was based many years ago, and recently had seen the highly acclaimed 1979 six-part British TV mini-series that had Alec Guinness in the role of George Smiley, the second in command to the head of the British secret service, who was abruptly fired in a shakeup due to a botched undercover operation authorized by his boss, and then brought back into the British secret service to try and uncover a Soviet mole that had penetrated to the highest ranks.
Smiley is the anti-James Bond, a middle-aged man who has to simultaneously counter the machinations of the Soviet spy boss Karla and fight bureaucratic battles within his own government. Rather than wooing and seducing beautiful women as Bond does, Smiley has to deal with a philandering and promiscuous wife. Here’s the trailer for the original series.
I have to say that the 1979 adaptation is far superior to the later one. The mini-series is very well done and Alec Guinness is always superb to watch, especially in films that were directed by David Lean. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest actors of all time and I have yet to see a film of his that I did not enjoy. Although his biography says that he was 5’10” in height, he seemed to actually diminish on the screen, to seem smaller than life. His was not a commanding presence, rarely cast as the romantic lead or called upon to make heroic and booming speeches or act in action films. Instead he was understated, quiet, and professorial.
I have seen nearly all of his major films, especially his early ones starting with Great Expectations (1946). He had a gift for wry, understated comedy that characterized a certain time in British cinema, as was seen in films like The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955), in which he played genteel criminals, and in other films like Our Man in Havana (1959), another cold war film, and Murder by Death (1976).
He won an Academy Award for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) in which his performance overshadowed those of other big stars such as William Holden. The film is a work of fiction loosely based on events that took place in Burma during the Second World War and was shot on location in Sri Lanka.
Guinness seemed to melt into his character and this feature was exploited in the comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) in which he played eight people, including a woman.
His chameleon-like ability was often used to get him to portray people of other ethnicities. This is difficult to pull off without coming across as a caricature, which works in broad farces such as Peter Sellers playing the French Inspector Clousseau in the Pink Panther series or an Indian in The Party, where one knows that the character is being exaggerated for laughs. But in general, having white actors play people of color tends to be a disaster, but this used to be the common practice for any major role. I recently saw Spartacus (1960) again and seeing Herbert Lom (an otherwise good actor) playing a character in dark makeup was disconcerting. One rarely sees that practice anymore, thankfully. I believe that having the then-unknown Omar Sharif (at least he was unknown in the west, though he was already a big film star in Egypt) play a starring role in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was a breakthrough of sorts and opened the eyes of western directors and casting directors to the fact that there exist excellent actors of other ethnicities and nationalities who could play these roles.
Guinness managed a passable portrayal of an Arab Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia and Sharif said that he used to find Guinness watching and listening to him closely during rehearsals and filming and even casual conversations in order to pick up nuances of speech. But Guinness’s portrayal of the Indian professor Godbole in A Passage to India (1984) was a bit of a mess.
Those whose only encounter with Guinness is as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy have not seen him at his best, though he was still good. He was attracted to work on the film because of George Lucas’ directorial work in American Graffitti but he found George Lucas’s dialogue to be awful. As a piece of trivia, the film website IMDb says that he never actually uttered the line that people most associate with his character, which is “May the force be with you”, though others did say it. The closest he came in any of the films was “The force will be with you”.