The Looking Glass War (1969)

And yet another film based on John le Carré source material. This is a weird coincidence, since I chose the title more or less randomly. Let’s hope the next one is far in the future, because I think I’m getting an overdose of espionage-is-a-terrible-terrible-business movies. I don’t know if the original novel is to blame, or whether the adaptation (by Frank Pierson, who co-wrote such films as Dog Day Afternoon, 1975; Presumed Innocent, 1990; and Cool Hand Luke, 1967) wasn’t up to the task. Whatever the reason, The Looking Glass War is a bit of a disappointment.

Part of the fault may lie with the DVD cover (seen to the left), which is rather misleading. Anthony Hopkins does not play the main character, nor does he dominate the film (either in screen presence or in screen time). In fact, there’s a stretch of 40 minutes where his character is barely on screen at all and doesn’t say a word.
The actual main character is played by Christopher Jones, who was unknown to me and who has only half a dozen credits to his name, according to IMDB. He plays Leiser, a young Polish man who wants to defect to the West in order to be a father to his English girlfriend’s unborn child. He is roped into a plot to go behind the Iron Curtain one last time, to confirm the presence of Russian missiles in an East German town: Operation Mayfly.

Jones, whose looks vaguely recall James Dean, can’t seem to keep his shirt on for longer than a scene or two, and infuses his performance with quite a bit of Rebel-without-a-cause angst and cockiness. That’s not an invalid approach to acting, but it’s a symptom for why the movie doesn’t really work: it focuses either too much or too little on the lead.

Spoilers have infiltrated the text below!

The film could have been a more or less light-hearted romance about a roguish (and shirtless) young man who treats his women as disposable and is treated similarly by the girls, but who still has his heart set on becoming a father; until, of course, he finally meets the one woman who can tame him, and a child who needs a daddy. In this scenario, his occupation as a spy would have been incidental, or would at most have added an exotic touch (and maybe a hint of forbidden romance, always a crowd-pleaser).
Or the movie could have shown us his transformation from over-confident youth to jaded and disillusioned man. This aspect may have been in the novel, since fragments appear to be present in the film. Three generations of agents are contrasted: the old guard who lived through WW2 (and who are eager to play by “war rules”), Hopkins’ generation (unwilling or at least hesitant to go all the way and treat agents as expendable), and Leisner’s (careless and full of bravado). And once Leisner does cross the border and is forced to kill a border guard, his cocksureness indeed dissipates. But it’s just not enough to form a complete picture. The viewer could expect to see the same loose-cannon qualities that got him to defect in the first place to get him into trouble in the field, but that doesn’t really happen; his personality just switches from brash, reckless and clueless to shaken, indifferent, and being a semi-competent agent. His ambivalent nationality (a Pole with a German name and a wish for a British passport) does not come up again after his introduction.
As a third option, if the film had wanted to show how young men are exploited by the higher-ups of the spy trade, we should probably have seen more of those superiors. Similarly, the Communists remain completely inscrutable: the movie makes it seem as if they wanted the British to know about the rockets, but the Why is never made clear, and analogies between East and West that could have been illustrated (the movie’s title refers to mirrors, after all) are never even attempted.

Maybe it is for the best that the latter didn’t happen. The 40 Hopkins-less minutes I mentioned above? They’re the best in the film. It’s here where Operation Mayfly begins in earnest and where we follow Leiser on his journey. That’s not to say this portion of the movie is perfect, far from it; but at least it stays clear of the melodrama that so plagues the first hour. No abortions, no domestic squabbles, no drunk agents. There is a meaningless romance (meaningless both for Leiser and for the viewer), but I guess those belong in this kind of film (see also A Dandy in Aspic and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold).
A pet peeve of mine, and a minor nit-pick: the film is somewhat inconsistent when it comes to the language spoken in Germany; for the most part, everybody just keeps using English, variously with or without an accent, and with the audience left to assume they’re speaking German, translated for our benefit. Sometimes, however, the Germans inexplicably lapse into actual German (or something similar, anyway), even when there are no Englishmen around.
This aside, some people would probably also be bothered by some scenes that play almost road-movie-esque, with Leiser walking in or driving through the German countryside with not much else going on, but I accepted those scenes as part of the routine of spy work; after all, real spies don’t all drive Aston Martins or invisible jets. They also provide some relief from the film’s night scenes, in which at least my DVD made it hard to make out anything.
The Germany section is the film’s best largely because it seems to actually belong in a spy film. Leiser is alone behind enemy lines and has to think (and occasionally fight) his way out of trouble and suspicion. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he messes up but is lucky, and in the end it all comes back to haunt him. If the rest of the film had been more like this, it would have been much more enjoyable (and more in line with expectations).

As for the then ~31-year-old Hopkins, he plays Leiser’s handler, who is almost always in a huffy mood, oscillating between being annoyed at the inexperienced Leiser, and developing an affection for him and a corresponding antipathy towards his bosses. His speech at the end decrying their callousness is roundly ignored by them, because the character is just not very relevant. It’s a part that doesn’t require a great thespian, at least not as written, and is unlikely to appear in Hopkins’ obituaries.
The subplot with his wife is likely supposed to illustrate how the job distances you from normal people, but the scenes are too few for the audience to really get a sense of what the relationship was like before, or why we should care. Something could have been done with it, and maybe a couple of minutes were left on the cutting-room floor, drawing enlightening parallels between the several spy/girl relationships this movie features. With a film this old and this little-known, we’ll never know.
As is, The Looking Glass War squanders potential and leaves this viewer behind unsatisfied. It’s not completely horrible, but it could have been much better.

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