John le Carre, an appreciation

David Cornwell, aka John le Carre

The 1960s spy craze, started by James Bond films, unleashed many escapist spies. But one of the most enduring espionage universe not escapist. It was the one penned by David Cornwell, writing under the name John le Carre.

Le Carre novels involved flawed humans dealing with grays, rather than black and white.

Cornwell wrote his novels independently of James Bond. Cornwell, like Ian Fleming, had worked in intelligence. Cornwell/le Carre had something to say in a more grounded espionage setting.

Le Carre would have written novels regardless of the spy craze. But the escapist thrust of much of the 1960s spy craze helped create a market for something else. James Bond helped create a market for George Smiley, le Carre’s best remembered (but from his only) protagonist.

Many le Carre novels were set during the Cold War. In 1989, as the cold war was winding down, the author was undaunted that the world was changing.

“It gives me wonderful breaks, a wonderful new deck of cards,” le Carre said in an interview with PBS. “I mean, the spy story was not invented by the cold war, it’ll continue after the cold war.”

Indeed, in the following years, le Carre wrote novels including The Night Manager, The Tailor of Panama and A Most Wanted Man. Le Carre never lacked for anything to say.

“I think this is a time when we’re going to have to turn around our thinking to a great extent,” le Carre said in the 1989 interview.

“There does come a point here too, as Smiley, himself, is saying, the when is the question about when could it happen that institutional guidance, patriotism, if you will, in this case, institutional commitment, actually outlives its purpose and imposes on me and upon my conscience individual strains which I cannot support.”

Le Carre lives on through numerous adaptations of his work, both as feature films and as television miniseries.

Amusingly, two writers who adapted Fleming to the screen also worked on le Carre projects: Paul Dehn (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) and John Hopkins (Smiley’s People). The latter also had le Carre working on the adaptation.

Today, le Carre fans are in mourning after the author’s death this past weekend. That’s understandable. Reading le Carre works usually leaves a lasting impression on the reader.

John le Carre dies at 89

David Cornell, aka John Le Carre, circa 1964

John le Carre, a prolific author of spy novels with characters coping with ambiguously moral situations, has died at 89, The Guardian reported, citing a family statement.

Le Carre, real name David Cornwell, reached fame in 1963 with the novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Other popular novels followed, including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley’s People, The Russia House and The Night Manager.

Cornwell had worked in intelligence, which is why he adopted the le Carre pen name. In a 1989 interview with PBS, he said espionage involved doing “dishonorable things for honorable purposes.”

The author discussed the many types of spies.

“The field man is the figure who interests me because I feel he’s a metaphor for other walks of life,” Cornwell told PBS. “He’s a person I can explore, some kind of alienated character perhaps who rather like a writer is dependent on the society he’s deceiving, or penetrating, and who rather like a writer makes his perceptions secretly and reports them in due course to the consumer.”

Le Carre works were made into films and television miniseries. By 2016, a group called Intelligence Squared, held a debate which spy author — le Carre or Ian Fleming — was better.

David Farr, who adapted The Night Manager for the BBC, advocated for le Carre. Anthony Horwitz, a popular novelist whose works include two James Bond continuation novels, spoke on Fleming’s behalf.

 Below is a video from 1964 as le Carre’s career was taking off. He appeared on the U.S. television show To Tell The Truth. By this point, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was going to be made into a movie and le Carre was a hot property. The le Carre segment begins at the 8:22 mark.

The remarkable Paul Dehn

Paul Dehn (1912-1976)

While doing some research, it occurred to me how remarkable Paul Dehn’s career as a screenwriter was.

In the space of one year Dehn adapted film versions of Ian Fleming (Goldfinger) and John Le Carre (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold).

In the space of 10 years, Dehn added adaptations of William Shakespeare (The Taming of the Shrew, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) and Agatha Christie (the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express).

On top of that, he worked on four sequels for The Planet of the Apes.

Dehn (1912-1976) engaged in intelligence activities during World War II, according to his WIKIPEDIA ENTRY. In the post-war years, Fleming, Dehn and former intelligence operatives such as Alan Caillou (1914-2006) drew upon their experiences in spinning stories for film and TV shows.

Still, Dehn had quite a ride. He was the second writer brought in for Goldfinger, brought in by Harry Saltzman after Richard Maibaum had begun the process.

“Dehn solved the final problems of the adoption and added some Britishness,” film historian Adrian Turner wrote in the 1998 book Adrian Turner on Goldfinger.

“Although Maibaum had disapproved of much of Dehn’s work, Dehn sent him a cable on the day of the film’s premiere — “Congratulations on Goldfinger am proud to have collaborated with you” — which was a nice gesture,” Turner wrote.

Turner added that had “a strong sense of British tradition” and “wrote poetry, lyrics for popular songs, plays and libretti for short operas.”

Dehn died on Sept. 30, 1976, at the age of 63.

Mort Drucker, ace Mad artist, dies at 91

Part of the Mort Drucker-drawn parody of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Mort Drucker, one of the best artists to grace the pages of Mad magazine, has died at 91, The New York Times reported. He died Thursday at his home in Woodbury, N.Y., according to the newspaper. (The Times originally said Wednesday and corrected the story.)

Drucker specialized in parodies of movies and television shows. His caricatures bore dead-on resemblances to actors, while making exaggerations for comic effect. He began working at Mad in the 1950s and lasted well into the 21st century.

Ian Fleming, drawn by Mort Drucker, from the collection of the late John Griswold.

The artist, naturally, had pencil and pen ready during the spymania of the 1960s and beyond.

Among his work:

–007 (April 1965 issue), showing what a stage musical featuring “James Bomb” would be like. Naturally, there was a Connery caricature. The villainous organization ICECUBE is towing the U.K. to the North Pole. The head of the organization is revealed to be Mike Hammer, angry that Bomb had taken away his book sales.

The parody, written by Frank Jacobs, included songs were all sung to the tune of songs from Oklahoma! For example: “Poor Bomb Is Dead,” instead of “Poor Jud Is Dead.”

–A parody of The Man From U.N.C.L.E,, titled The Man From A.U.N.T.I.E. (July 1965 issue). Besides caricatures of Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, the story included an appearance by a Sean Connery caricature dressed in a tuxedo with a “007” button. The Illya Kuryakin takeoff has hired 007 to do away with the Napoleon Solo takeoff. There were also cameos from the White Spy and Black Spy from Mad’s Spv Vs. Spy feature.

Image from The Man From A.U.N.T.I.E.

–The Spy That Came in for the Gold (September 1966), parody of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Why Spy? (June 1967 issue), parody of I Spy with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby.

–Mission: Ridiculous (April 1968 issue), parody of Mission: Impossible. The letters page of the issue had a letter from Martin Landau and Barbara Bain asking why Mad hadn’t yet parodied M:I. The letter came complete with a photo of the actors looking at an issue of Mad.

–The March 1974 issue of Mad that parodied the first eight movies in the 007 series produced by Eon Productions. The parody titles were Dr. No-No, From Russia With Lunacy, Goldfingerbowl, Thunderblahh, You Only Live Nice, On His Majesty’s Secret Shamus, Dollars Are Forever and Live And Let Suffer.

Mort Drucker in a 2015 video by the National Cartoonists Society

Drucker also drew later 007 parodies, including takeoffs of The Spy Who Loved Me (June 1978 issue) and For Your Eyes Only (March 1982 issue). With the latter, the White Spy and Black Spy of Spy Vs. Spy again make a cameo.

Drucker was also in demand for projects other than Mad. One of his most prominent was the poster for 1973’s American Graffiti.

Part of the Mort Drucker-drawn 007, Mad’s version of a “James Bomb” stage musical. The villain reveals himself to be Mike Hammer, who is angry at 007 for taking away all his book sales.

1964: John Le Carre appears on To Tell the Truth

David Cornell, aka John Le Carre

David Cornwell, aka John Le Carre

There was a time that game shows sometimes featured major literary or even historical figures. So it was in 1964 on the Mark Goodson-Bill Todman program To Tell The Truth when author David Cornwell, aka John Le Carre, was a contestant.

At the time of the broadcast on CBS, the author’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was a best seller. Cornwell had sold the film rights and it would be made into A 1965 MOVIE STARRING RICHARD BURTON. One of the screenwriters would be Paul Dehn, who had penned the later drafts of 1964’s Goldfinger.

The regular panel of Tom Poston, Peggy Cass, Orson Bean and Kitty Carlisle faced the daunting task of determining which of three contestents had once worked in British intelligence. The outcome? Well, let’s just say it didn’t turn out well for the panel.

Here’s the broadcast, featuring host Bud Collyer. Our usual caveat: these things are often yanked off YouTube, so it’s possible the embedded video may be gone by the time you see see this. Cornwell/Le Carre appears in the second of the three games:

Two minor observations about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

We caught up with the new movie version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s well worth your time. But, in our own fashion, we wanted to make a couple of tangent observations about the adaptation of the John Le Carre novel. Minor spoilers follow.

1. Anti-Bond George Smiley meets 007 knock off Charles Vine (sort of). In the 1960s, the success of James Bond films helped create a demand for an “anti Bond,” somebody who wasn’t a romantic hero and who dealt in a morally ambiguous world, just like real spies. The novels of John Le Carre (real name David Cornwell) provided the perfect fodder. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold starring Richard Burton came out in 1965, with George Smiley a secondary character, Bernard Lee (the M of Eon Productions’s 007 series) in the cast and Paul Dehn, co-screenwriter of Goldfinger, part of the crew.

The ’60s Bond films also generated 007 takeoffs, including The Second Best Secret Agent in The Whole Wide World, starring Tom Adams as Charles Vine, a Sean Connery-esque, British agent.

Well, in the new Tinker, Tailor, these two trends from the past are merged. The 2011 film has repeated flashbacks to an MI6 Christmas party. At one point, the theme song to Second Best Secret Agent is played. (Le Carre has a cameo, as well.) This is part of an effort by the filmmakers to tie into cultural references of the past, given that Tinker, Tailor is done as a 1970s period piece. Which leads us to:

2. The temptation to overdo past cultural references. This is a minor quibble. But when movies are done as period pieces — especially of a story that has been made before (Tinker, Tailor was made as a television miniseries more than 30 years ago) — there is a temptation to load up on past cultural references. In this case, hairstyles and music. In the new film, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) sports a haircut more appropriate for ’70s high school students rather than an experienced MI6 operative. And the film sometimes overdoes it with providing ’70s songs.

It’s always interesting to compare remakes done as period pieces with earlier versions made during the same era. Another example: Farewell My Lovely (1975) was done as a 1940s period piece and sometimes over does the culture references compared with Murder My Sweet (1944), both based off the same Raymond Chandler novel.

We want to stress all of these observations are minor. The new Tinker, Tailor is worth the time of any spy fan and Gary Oldman is a wonderful successor to Alec Guiness (star of two television miniseries) as Smiley. Oldman did an NPR interview last year where he said he’d love to play Smiley again if the opportunity presents itself. We’ll second that thought.