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The Looking Glass War

The Looking Glass War
Columbia TriStar
1969 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 108 min. / Street Date December 9, 2003 / 24.95
Starring Christopher Jones, Pia Degermark, Ralph Richardson, Anthony Hopkins, Susan George, Robert Urquhart, Anna Massey, Vivian Pickles, Maxine Audley
Cinematography Austin Dempster
Art Direction Terence Marsh
Film Editor Willy Kemplen
Original Music Wally Stott
From the novel by John Le Carré
Produced by John Box, M.J. Frankovich
Written and Directed by Frank Pierson

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 Richardson is 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:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 4, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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