Tinker Tailer Soldier ... Poor Man
February 8, 2013 11:58 PM   Subscribe

Question about how Smiley investigates the role of Esterhase in both the book and film versions of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Spoilers within (plus a bonus request for similar movies).

OK, having first watched the film several times and then gone and read the novel, I still have questions about Smiley pulling Esterhase in for questioning.

Specifically, it seems like a move Smiley would only pull after already clearing Esterhase as the mole, at least to himself on some level. However I am missing the point in the plot where he does this. So have I missed something in both the novel and the film, or is it meant to be ambiguous?

Solutions that I have come up with is that he acting on gut instinct after talking to Prideaux, or that am I misreading Smiley's character and he is making a risky move based on Esterhase being the easiest of the four to intimidate (which is a reading that the film might seem to support).

Am I over thinking a plate of beans?

Also, I seem to be in a minority, but I loved, LOVED the film. I loved the intrigue, the pacing, the setting, the repressed characters, the ambiguity. I loved the slow burn in that I am still thinking about it months after watching it. I even loved the fact that I had to watch it twice to understand what the fuck was going on. I would very much love recommendations for similar movies (and books, as I equally loved the book).

Already seen Let the Right One in.
posted by arha to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I know you asked for movies, but if you're happy to watch the film twice and read the book, then go and watch the 1979 TV version and then watch the 1982 adaptation of Smiley's People. All the things you say you like about the film are equally true, if not more so, of the TV version. Many say it's among the best TV drama ever made.

Right, I'm off to try to remember how Smiley realised Esterhase wasn't the mole. Will report back if no one else gets there first.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 12:41 AM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

my read was that Esterhase was the easiest to lean on, so they leaned on him *hard* to see what would pop out. presumably this is coupled with an assumption that if he was the mole and tried to lie his way out of it, they'd be able to read it in him.
posted by russm at 12:47 AM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also television, and it was filmed er, when Jimmy Carter was President so still very Cold War, but for intrigue, complexity and lethality, you can't do better than Sandbaggers with Roy Marsden.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 2:11 AM on February 9, 2013

Best answer: OK, I'm back. I can't remember if this made it to the film, but when Smiley talks to Jerry Westerby, he learns that the Russians knew in advance that Prideaux was on a mission to meet a general. Westerby relates that he told Esterhase this and he was at first interested, but a day later hauled him over the coals for passing along bad intelligence. Smiley realised from this that Esterhase was a puppet, not the puppet-master.

PS Although I prefer the TV version, I fully agree with you that the film was wonderful. I didn't realise that puts us in a minority, I thought it was well-reviewed.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 2:12 AM on February 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Esterhase was incredibly easy to lean on given his... probably overly warm welcome home should he be deported back across the iron curtain on suspicion of crossing his British hosts.
posted by Slackermagee at 2:33 AM on February 9, 2013

What Busy Old Fool said.
posted by cromagnon at 3:18 AM on February 9, 2013

Best answer: It's certainly true that Esterhase was easy to lean on once Smiley knew he wasn't the mole, but the question is how Smiley knew that. Threatening to send him into the arms of the KGB would only be an effective threat if he wasn't already working for them. Otherwise he would just end up like Donald Maclean, a hero of the Soviet Union with a big flat in Moscow and a gosdacha.

Also remember that Smiley was working semi-unofficially and, without hard proof that there was a mole and of the mole's identity, he wouldn't be able to persuade the Circus that Witchcraft wasn't the genuine goldmine they thought it was. Thus if Smiley had suspected there was a reasonable possibility Esterhase was the mole, he wouldn't have risked pulling him in for questioning, since that would effectively end Smiley's investigation. Even if Smiley had known from Esterhase's reaction to the interrogation that he was the mole, that wouldn't have been enough to persuade Alleline and the others, whose careers were dependent on Witchcraft being genuine. Only something as dramatic and clearcut as the actual denouement in the safe house would be enough to put the matter beyond doubt.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 4:59 AM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would very much love recommendations for similar movies

The Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski! Pierce Brosnan plays a former British Prime Minister with close ties to the US, and Ewan MacGregor plays the writer hired to ghost write his memoirs.

Besides being a political thriller it has a deliberate pace and a grey and isolated feel much like Tinker Tinker Soldier Spy. Polanski is so good with this kind of material, and I think he really knocked it out of the park with this one. Oh, and it's not just a slow burn, it's about as taut as anything I've ever seen. That last paragraph you wrote could be me talking about this movie. Two words of advice: don't watch the trailer, and pee before the movie starts.
posted by Room 641-A at 5:28 AM on February 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sad to hear that loving the movie is a minority opinion. If you're mood for more John le Carré, both the book and movie of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold are good. I don't think the early Smiley novels, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality are worth reading unless you want to know more about Smiley's marriage or see a completely different Peter Guillam.
posted by betweenthebars at 6:10 AM on February 9, 2013

Best answer: One factor that I think is important is that all of these characters have a long history with each other in a very claustrophobic working environment, and in certain ways, knew each other exceedingly well. My read of the novel is that Smiley knew intuitively who the mole was very early, but chose not to confront that until all the pieces rolled in.

A slightly outside book recommendation that I like to pair with tinker tailor: Declare, by Tim Powers.

Also, the movie (assuming you are talking about the recent adaptation) has an 85 on metacritic, which is quite high. There are a fair number of negative user reviews, I guess, but those are pretty uniformly from people who have no clue about the novel, le carre, or that you can expect anything from a spy movie except non-stop action. I don't particularly feel in the minority in liking the movie quite a bit, but then the novel is one of my favorite of all time and I think you couldn't like the novel and hate the movie.
posted by advil at 8:52 AM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you Busy Old Fool! I had completely missed what was vital in Smiley's interview with Westerby. Makes me like the book even more.

Beautiful day here the today so I think I will completely ignore it and track down these other suggestions.

I know the film was well reviewed, however the reaction of my normally film loving friends and family was so vehemently negative that I might as well have confessed to eating kittens when I called it a masterpiece. My brother actually yelled at me after going to see it on my recommendation. His loss.
posted by arha at 12:24 PM on February 9, 2013

Best answer: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of my all time favorite novels. I've read it in french as well as re-reading the english version at least once every other year. It's such a lovely spy story.

Declare is pretty good. Trinity Six is also not bad; if you haven't read any Lee Child, check out The Enemy, & Daniel Silva's The Kill Artist.

My read of the novel is that Smiley knew intuitively who the mole was very early, but chose not to confront that until all the pieces rolled in.

Well, yes, and it's presented as mostly Karla's doing. He knew from taking the cigarette lighter from Smiley in India that Ann was his weakness; therefore he had Bill be with Ann on the night that Prideaux was caught. The involvement with Ann created a psychological blind spot in Smiley that he had to work past.
posted by lyra4 at 3:57 PM on February 9, 2013

Best answer: It's one of the joys of the Smiley books that they invite this level of close analysis. The answer, or part of the answer, can be found in The Honourable Schoolboy, where Connie refers back to Smiley's tradecraft in Tinker Tailor:

'He's smoking him out,' she whispered to them all in ecstasy. 'Same as he did with Bill, the clever hound! Lighting a fire on his doorstep, aren't you, darling, and seeing which way he runs.'

Smiley himself describes it as 'shaking the tree'. In other words, even though he still doesn't have firm proof of the mole's identity, he shows his hand to Esterhase in order to move the case forward.

Esterhase's interview with Westerby isn't totally conclusive -- after all, if Esterhase was the mole, he would still have to protect his cover by pretending to be surprised by Westerby's revelations. By this stage, however, we've seen enough of Esterhase to know that he isn't clever or subtle enough to pull this off. Smiley immediately guesses, and even hints to Westerby, that someone else must be pulling Esterhase's strings. (''I expect you wondered who he'd been talking to in between,' said Smiley sympathetically.')

It also becomes clear, in retrospect, that Smiley already has a very strong suspicion of the mole's identity. ('He knew, of course. He had always known .. All of them had tacitly shared that unexpressed half-knowledge which like an illness they hoped would go away if it was never owned to, never diagnosed.') He pulls in Esterhase not because he needs any more information (what Esterhase tells him just confirms what he's already guessed) but because he needs Esterhase's co-operation to set up the safe house to trap the mole.
posted by verstegan at 5:51 AM on February 10, 2013

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