Before Sir Alec Guinness took possession of John le Carré’s spymaster George Smiley in two brilliant miniseries, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (1979) and “Smiley’s People” (1982)—a possession that Gary Oldman has at least partially exorcized via his acclaimed take on Smiley in the current “Tinker, Tailor” remake--there were Rupert Davies and James Mason.
Davies plays Smiley opposite Richard Burton (as Alec Leamas) in 1965’s “The Spy Who Came Who Came In From The Cold,” an excellent adaptation of le Carré ‘s third—and breakout—novel. In his few scenes, a disheveled Davies fulfills le Carré’s description of his most famous creation: “Short, fat and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.” Davies’ Smiley has little to say, and his importance as a spy comes to light only in his absence: East German interrogators hammer Leamas about his relationship with Smiley, clearly a major player before retiring from the Circus, le Carré’s name for the British Secret Service. If you parse the complicated plot of both book and film, you realize how cold-hearted Smiley has been.
In “The Deadly Affair,” a 1966 adaptation of le Carré’s first novel, “Call For The Dead,” James Mason’s Smiley is called Charles Dobbs because Paramount owned the rights to the Smiley name (Columbia distributed “The Deadly Affair”). Mason portrays Smiley as besotted by his philandering wife and wearied by the many betrayals he’s confronted personally and professionally. Famed cinematographer Freddie Young deliberately muted the color in “The Deadly Affair” to mirror the overall grimness as Smiley/Dobbs peels away layer after layer of treachery. A deadly affair, indeed.
Nine years after Guinness’ final turn in “Smiley’s People,” the gifted Denholm Elliott took a crack at Smiley in “A Murder of Quality,” le Carré’s second novel and the only Smiley story to shuck the cloak-and-dagger in favor of a more traditional murder mystery. Elliott’s Smiley employs a certain shy precision while conducting his investigation, an approach consistent with le Carré’s view of Smiley. The supporting cast includes a young Christian Bale and the always memorable Joss Ackland, who beautifully stole a scene from Guinness in the original “Tinker, Tailor,” playing Jerry Westerby, the title character of another Smiley novel, “The Honourable Schoolboy.”
Novelist William Boyd has said that Smiley is “le Carré's Mr. Pickwick – in the sense that this fictional character seems to have leaped the bounds of the novels he has appeared in and has achieved a life of his own.” Certainly there are other such characters: Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, the anti-Smiley, quickly come to mind, as does Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, who has been portrayed by more than ten actors over six decades (feel free to suggest others).
If you’re smitten by Oldman’s performance but haven’t seen other Smiley incarnations, you must check out Guinness’ interpretation, or perhaps produce your own George Smiley Film Festival by adding Davies, Mason and Elliott to the mix.
Or just curl up with le Carré’s novels, where Smiley first began that life of his own.
This originally appeared on the New York Daily News book blog, Page Views.