Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979), directed by John Irvin.

Little gray spy-master George Smiley is ejected from his job after an Intelligence fiasco. A few months later he is secretly brought back to hunt down a Soviet mole operating at the very top of the agency. He has to spy on the spies.

You often hear complaints about both this version and the 2011 feature film with Gary Oldman as Smiley, that the puzzle plot is so intricate that it is hard to follow, and that the movies give little help to the viewer.

I think there is a reason for that and it is a bold choice, both by the filmmakers and by John le Carré.

The reality is that these people never answer direct questions and people learn not to ask them. They collect information, little hints and clues and hold their suspicions close. This is particularly the case when an unknown traitor is in the middle of all the operations; you can't ask or reveal anything without alerting him.

Smiley lives with uncertainty and ambiguity, skillfully drawing the invisible net tighter until he knows the truth, lays a trap and gets out his gun.

The book tracks that reality and the films track the book. The reader and viewer have to follow the clues and figure it out without reading the minds of the characters. The clues are often people revealing things they are not supposed to know.

One of the great charms of this story is how much is unspoken. In a more standard treatment the Undersecretary would call in Smiley and say "Sorry you took the fall for that business last year but we need you back for a special mission. There is an unflushed toilet at the top of MI6 and you have to find it. This is all secret and the Minister will disavow any knowledge of your actions."

None of that happens. We have a suspicious incident that should not happen and Peter, Smiley's former assistant, is smart enough to call the Undersecretary directly. Smiley listens to the evidence and says "I'd like to keep Peter and I'll need Control's old copper, Mendel." That's it. The game's afoot.

The Brits are very good at this spy-craft and secret mole story based on historical experience: their intelligence was once compromised at a high level by the Cambridge Five.

This mini-series was in 7 parts in the UK, edited down to 6 for the US. The DVD and Blu-ray versions are also 6 episodes.

Available on Blu-ray and these are the only discs Netflix has. Image quality is like a middling DVD.