One of my favorite “slow burn” films is the 1968 Steve McQueen classic Bullitt. The movie features a dense plot and urges its viewers to pay attention to what’s going on. Steve McQueen himself, as the title character, appears at times to be almost sleepwalking through the proceedings, ever watching and paying attention to what’s going on around him. In the end, we realize he knows only too well what’s happening and has played his cards just right, dealing with his superiors and his superior’s superiors while faithfully solving a perplexing case.
I’ve long maintained that the movie’s one “superfluous” sequence is perhaps it’s best: The justifiably famous car chase sequence through the hilly streets of San Francisco. This sequence didn’t have to be in the film, yet it was there, a cheery on top of the cake, which for a moment made a “day in a policeman’s life” drama into an exciting action film.
To me, all this works to make an absolutely smashing film.
Fast forward forty four years and last night I popped the 2011 version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (from now on I’ll refer to it as TTSS to save on typing) into my DVD player and gave it a whirl. TTSS is an adaptation of the classic John Le Carre Cold War spy drama and, like the book, is set in the early 1970’s. You wouldn’t think such a work would have all that much in common with Bullitt, a police vs. the mob film from 1968, but you’d be surprised by the elements they do share.
In the case of TTSS, like Bullitt you’re dealing with a thoughtful protagonist who’s called in to solve a sticky situation. Bullitt’s sticky situation involves the mob and a witness who the higher ups want him to protect so that he will get to testify before a jury. TTSS involves a semi-retired spy who is called in to find out who among his closest ex-allies is a Russian mole. The protagonist in both films quietly observes all that goes around him, often realizing more than others realize. Both films also present the material almost blandly, showing us the routine of each day in a mostly realistic fashion.
But while Bullitt held my attention throughout, TTSS ultimately never really catches fire. Years before I recall seeing the original TTSS television mini-series with Alec Guiness in the title role, but I recall very few of the details. What I do remember is that it, unlike this new film, held my attention.
While the acting within this new TTSS movie is uniformly good and the presentation of early 1970’s London is quite spectacular, the direction and pace of the film borders on the outright boring. I suspect the people behind the film were trying their best to make an “anti”-Bourne type spy film, but one wonders why they decided to present virtually everything in such a sedate way.
And, no, I wasn’t hoping for an exciting -though perhaps superfluous- car chase in the middle of the film.
Might have helped, though!
In the end, I simply cannot recommend the theatrical version of TTSS. A real shame, given the talents involved.
As an interesting comparison, here’s a sequence from the original TV version of TTSS: