Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An interesting but ultimately disappointing spy thriller, The Looking Glass War takes the
realistic example of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and forges another story of
alienated agents misused by cynical spymasters. John Le Carré's themes are all in place:
Cold War espionage is a wicked game played by men willing to casually send others to their deaths,
and the pressures of getting involved in the spy game don't leave room for healthy relationships.
British Intelligence needs an agent to penetrate East Germany to determine
if a blurry spy photo really shows the Reds preparing new long-range rockets. Young Polish defector
Leiser (Christopher Jones) would much rather chase women but is chosen for the sake of expediency.
He goes through intelligence schooling in a secret London establishment under the tutelage
of spymaster LeClerc (Ralph Richardson) and his agents John Avery (Anthony Hopkins) and Johnson
(Robert Urquhart). For a time it seems that Leiser might be feigning his willingness to undertake the
perilous mission, and when he sneaks out to visit his old girlfriend Susan (Susan George) his employers
think he's flown the coop. Avery understands the young man's problems; his own wife (Anna Massey)
is openly contemptuous of his secret work for the government.
It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. That's the reasoning when Ralph Richardson's LeClerc
casually recruits an iffy prospect to do a serious spy job initiated by one inconclusive photograph.
His London-based spy apparatus has already seen one agent killed in Finland because his handlers were
too cheap to give him carfare in the snow. Nobody knows if the other side has intercepted the
sensitive photos the agent was carrying of a potentially threatening portable Soviet missile.
The big boys eat in posh restaurants and make clever conversation about the risks others
must take. They call their Cold War spy machinations The Game, an amusing enterprise to be played with
ironic detachment. Their rather underfunded department has several middle management types who must
do all the footwork; one of their safe houses is run by the widow of an agent. Security requirements
keep the staff small, but so does the low pay.
The earlier section of The Looking Glass War is fairly interesting, and has in its favor
a tone of airy futility. Nobody among the Brit spies has much confidence in the mission but they
send Leiser into danger anyway, like bureaucrats processing meaningless paper through the system
to maintain protocol. Leiser does it because it's the path of least resistance. Agent Anthony Hopkins
tries to muddle through the obnoxious orders he's given while holding his rebellious wife in check.
He empathizes with the barely-reliable Leiser, especially when the youth slips out to visit the girl
he jumped ship for in the first place. The two get drunk together. It's a rare emotional
connection among spies who can't really call themselves comrades.
Leiser's a realistic loner and troublemaker and he's not meant to attract all of our sympathy. His only
reason to visit his girlfriend (a young Susan George of
The Sorcerers and
Straw Dogs) is to see how his unborn son is
doing. The news he gets helps him decide to take the mission seriously.
In Europe, Leiser makes mistake after mistake and his entire jaunt ends up being an amateur's vacation in a
police state. We're given the impression that the Brits have been snookered by the Commies, to the extent
of allowing Leiser his liberty so that he'll send back the bogus information they want him to. The only
thing that saves the Brits from making a mistake is their reluctance to believe Leiser's reports -
a state of affairs that existed before they sent him. So The Game is revealed to be a pointless exercise
that expends lives to no purpose.
I'm assuming that the film is fairly faithful to the novel, but Frank Pierson's screenplay establishes the
cynicism early on and the rest of the film is left to play out without much in the way of surprise, action,
or emotion. Pierson was a hot writer (Cool Hand Luke, The Anderson Tapes) but his directing
work is mostly in
Television. The Looking Glass War plays well enough until the footloose Leiser meets up with 'The
Girl' while sneaking across the enemy countryside. It comes off as one of those late-sixties nonverbal
relationships that goes nowhere. As we're painfully suspicious that crafty counterspies are allowing
Leiser to reach his destination, there's the thought that 'the girl' is part of the ruse, but that
possibility never gets past the preliminaries. The end of the film simply plays out instead of resolving
itself, and the ironic coda doesn't have much impact.
Given star status for the DVD, Anthony Hopkins is really a supporting player with some good scenes. Ralph
dependably irksome as the haughty superior who doesn't have to get his hands dirty. Young Christopher Jones
was an overachieving flash in the pan, the star of the semi-exploitation movies Wild in the Streets
and Three in the Attic. He has a considerable counterculture cult following that has more to do with his
erratic, sexy image than his memorable performance for David Lean in Ryan's Daughter. Anna Massey
(Peeping Tom) and Robert Urquhart
(The Curse of Frankenstein) have good
supporting roles and help the enjoyment factor, as does the interesting Susan George. Vivian Pickles makes
a satisfying spy housemother; when Leiser is trying to outfox the setup her patriotism provides a good contrast,
carrying on where her dead spy husband left off.
Beauty Pia Degermark was clearly hired on the basis of the smash arthouse hit Elvira Madigan,
but her undefined character could have been played by any number of attractive models.
Columbia's DVD of The Looking Glass War will thrill spy movie lovers; as one of the minor and least-remembered
entries of the classic SuperSpy period (1962-Watergate) it's hardly ever shown on television and then is
usually pan-scanned. The flawless Panavision image is attractive and colorful and accurately replicates
the dark tones in the London setting. Columbia TriStar's discs are now hit & miss for aspect ratio and quality,
and this is one of the good ones. Promo trailers for other films are the only extra.
John Box did art direction and designing on top English films (his 60s filmography is staggering) and this
is his only producing credit. In 1969 the British film industry was falling apart, and
The Looking Glass War may have been his attempt to branch out.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Looking Glass War rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 4, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson