In the introduction to John leCarré’s The Looking Glass War, the author recounts how it was written in the shadow of the success of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, a novel wildly praised as a scathing deglamorization of the spy business. LeCarré himself disagrees with that assessment, however, feeling that his breakout novel not only hadn’t deglamorized spies, but had overly glamorized them. In that sense, The Looking Glass War reads like a reaction, a turning away from the devious cleverness and cynical neatness of its predecessor — to really show the crude, reckless, and wasteful nature of the intelligence world.
Frank Pierson’s film adaptation of The Looking Glass War (1969) bears out this mission admirably, delivering a stark message, even as it paints the screen with lush colors and eye-catching scenery. The story involves British intelligence’s efforts to uncover and verify the existence of a Soviet missile site in East Germany. To that end, aging espiocrat Leclerc (Ralph Richardson) — an old war hand, anxious to reclaim his glory years — spearheads a daring operation to put an agent over the border to retrieve the information. His joe: dashing young Pole Fred Leiser (Christopher Jones), a girl-chasing refugee anxious to make a new life in the west. Leiser undertakes a hasty crashcource in spycraft before setting off on his mission, which spins out of his control almost from the outset.
Like the book, I found the film to be a curious and powerful thing, not conventionally satisfying, but strikingly different. I suspect it helps to know the source material and the story behind it; otherwise, expectation of a neater, more intricate kind of spy tale might make it come across as unappealingly slapdash. Knowing in advance that it’s about the messy, ugly nature of the business, a war coldly directed by game-playing charlatans, helps sell the point. The performances are strong, with Richardson’s cold agent-runner and Anthony Hopkins’ fiery young assistant particularly serving the message. Pierson does dress up the thematic ugliness with rather a radiant technicolor attractiveness, and the film’s late-blooming heroine Anna (Pia Degermark) may be a touch too glamorous for the message. Or, perhaps not…it all works, adding to the desolate, hopeless beauty of the story. It makes for a dark and unflinching contribution to the genre, lesser known but probably underrated.