Sony has released the 1969 film adaptation of John Le Carre's 1965 Cold War novel The Looking Glass War as a burn-to-order DVD. The movie has been largely forgotten and relatively unseen since its release, which is odd given the consistent interest in all things Le Carre. Christopher Jones plays Leiser, a twenty-something Polish illegal immigrant in London who has the goal of being able to live there with his pregnant girlfriend, Susan (Susan George.) Although prone to bad habits and unpredictable behavior, Leiser is intent on taking his future role as a father seriously. He is arrested for immigration violations, however, and an MI6 boss LeClerc (Ralph Richardson) concocts an audacious plan to manipulate Leiser into spying for the West. Using a legal immigration status as a carrot, LeClerc gets Leiser to reluctantly agree to the scheme. The young man is given a crash course in spying by another MI6 agent, Avery (Anthony Hopkins). He proves an adept enough student when it comes to handling the physical requirements of the job. (The film's best sequence finds the two men engaged in a knock-down, extended brawl when a training exercise gets out of hand their personal animosities take over.) However, Leiser sneaks away for a brief romantic interlude with Susan but he is emotionally distraught when she tells him she has aborted their baby. Although having lost the main goal of his life- fatherhood- Leiser agrees to go on a secret mission into East Germany to search for evidence of deadly missiles that MI6 feels could tilt the Cold War in the direction of the Soviets.
Director/screenwriter Frank Pierson took considerable liberties with the source novel, but it still retains LeCarre's trademarks: a highly complex plot peppered with all sorts of extraneous characters who epitomize the author's cynical view that, when it came to espionage, there was little moral difference between East and West. Still, the film is far less confusing than the over-rated 2011 big screen version of LeCarre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy which won international acclaim although seemingly no one I have discussed the film with can begin to explain what it's all about. One of the main problems is that Leiser is an unsympathetic protagonist. As played by Jones, fully in his James Dean/Marlon Brando mumbling mode, he is a fairly unlikable character, routinely lying, breaking his word and abusing those around him, including Susan, who he physically assaults. It's pretty hard to consider him one of the good guys. Nevertheless, Jones, who was always underrated as a screen presence, uses his good looks and charisma to full advantage so you can't help but hope he survives his seemingly suicidal mission. The film does pick up steam once Leiser makes it under a barbed wire fence and is forced to reluctantly kill an East German border guard. The scene is quite suspenseful, as is another fine sequence in which the desperate and wounded Leiser accepts a ride from a predatory farmer who unexpectedly tries to goad him into performing a homosexual sex act- with tragic results. Leiser also picks up a hitchhiker himself, but- this being a 1960s spy movie- she's a drop-dead gorgeous blonde (played by flash-in-the-pan starlet Pia Degermark), who later reemerges in the story in a not-too-convincing plot twist.
The DVD quality is top notch and the film boasts a hip jazz score by Wally Stott, that nevertheless seems out of place in this dark espionage tale. The performances among the supporting actors are all first rate, with Hopkins particularly impressive in an early screen role. The Looking Glass War is by no means the best of the LeCarre film adaptations (nothing has really equaled The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. ) However, it is an intelligent thriller with exotic locations and an impressive cast. Retro spy movie lovers will certainly enjoy it.