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Spy Masters: Tale of Tropical Espionage Ultimately Loses Heat

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2001


    'The Tailor of Panama' Jamie Lee Curtis and Pierce Brosnan star in "The Tailor of Panama." (Columbia Pictures)
John le Carre, Pierce Brosnan.

What a strange thrill it is to see these two names linked, as they seem to come from two different universes.

Brosnan, of course, is world-famous as Bond replicant No. 5, who like his predecessors has made a fortune serving MI-6, MGM and the libidos of boys of all ages by blowing stuff up, killing people and having lots of sex with lollipops, all with a quip on his lip and the whiff of a martini on his breath. He's a fantasy figure of Western control.

Le Carre, on the contrary, is the Antichrist of the Bond world. It's hard to remember – this was all so very long ago – but that English spy writer's first worldwide success, back in 1963, was "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold," which followed in the immediate wake of the first big Bond craze ("Dr. No" hit movie screens in 1962, "From Russia With Love" in '63) and was seen as a sort of Bond backlash.

Le Carre's secret agents were far from super, except in their bitterness, anger, resentment and alcoholism. His world was a corrupt mesh of petty vanity, mean-spirited betrayal, bureaucratic bungling and internecine rivalry that captured the corrosive depression of the high Cold War. The shadow of the Berlin Wall chilled everything, and the drink of choice wasn't the shaken Smirnoff's or Boodle's, it was the spooned Pepto-Bismol. While we knew that Bond couldn't be the way it was, we knew also that le Carre had to be.

As the world has no problem accommodating opposing philosophies, both Bond's posh escapades and le Carre's bleaker ones flourished. Now, after all these years, a defection: Brosnan, who should rightly be bored fronting the increasingly joyless pandemonium parades the Bond things have become, stars in a film version of le Carre's "The Tailor of Panama" – which le Carre co-wrote and executive-produced.

So you look for traces of Bond, James Bond, in Brosnan's Andy Osnard, and indeed they are there: He's handsome, suave, manipulative, and quick to steer an available young woman into bed. But there the similarities cease: He's craven, treacherous, untrustworthy and a liar in all things small and large. He cares about one thing, and it isn't queen and country; it's self. He's always thinking: Get the money.

And he's the villain.

The hero of the piece is hardly a worthy adversary. He's the wheezing, obsequious high-society clothes-cutter, who lives on the goodwill he can muster and the free cigars he can provide to his exclusive clientele. He's Harry Pendel (Geoffrey Rush), a high-end tailor whose bespoke suits caress the ample shoulders of the banking and ruling class of Panama City, in the post-Noriega world. Thus Harry will know stuff. Thus Andy, new to the intelligence desk at Britain's Panama City embassy (after a demotion for that nasty business with the ambassador's wife), will swoop in on Harry, play him like a rented piano and recruit him as an asset.

Harry needs money, because a farm he has invested in has turned into a cash drain. He's willing to spy for dollars in the post-ideological world. The only problem: There's nothing to spy on! The accurate Intelligence Situation Report would read, Panama: ZZZZZZZ. Harry's answer – and Andy really doesn't care – is to make stuff up.

The lineage of this espionage farce goes back to the '50s, when another ex-spy-turned-novelist, Graham Greene (though Greene was a novelist, then a spy, then a novelist after the war; le Carre, born David Cornwell, was a spy, then a novelist), told the same story in "Our Man in Havana." Le Carre steals the Greene material affectionately, with a nod to the old man, and does it some honor by twisting it in some new ways.

And of course (to get the last bit of lineage out of the way) Carol Reed made a 1960 movie out of "Our Man in Havana" with Alec Guinness (who would play le Carre's George Smiley in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," the best version of a le Carre work dramatized) as the vacuum cleaner salesman who sold to spymaster Noel Coward secrets about strange military machines in the mountains that turned out to look suspiciously like vacuum cleaners!

The director here is another old Brit, John Boorman, so "The Tailor of Panama" has the effortless patina of professionalism. It's a great-looking movie that really captures that strange little place, with its gutter of ocean running down its middle, its high old aristocrats besotted on cigar aroma, its squalid slums, its teeming jungles. Very tropical, you know, where every night seems to be fragrant with the possibilities of just about anything you can dream of.

Years back, Greene steered his first version toward tragedy. His vacuum man told fantasies to make money to keep his daughter in ponies, and some real people – people he loved – began dying. This character fought desperately to bring a kind of justice into the madness he had unleashed; his quest to do so was, in the end, noble.

Le Carre is operating in a much more complex world. The East-West thing that gave shape to so much before the tumble of the Wall is gone, leaving him stuck without a moral dichotomy. There's no good side or bad side; every man is his own side. Without sides, nobility is difficult.

Still, Harry unleashes mischief with his reports of an "opposition," and soon all kinds of American money is pouring into the country to take an active role in settling its political future. And Harry is thinking: What on earth have I started? Who will get hurt because of me? And Andy Osnard is thinking: Get the money.

The movie, enjoyable as it is and snappy and le Carresque as the dialogue is, finally veers toward the absurd, with the plotting of a coup – though against whom is never clear. U.S. gunships are launched and air strikes begin. The movie hasn't made clear why. Worse, as all this tumult is unreeling, Boorman is setting up extremely persuasive cross-cutting rhythms as Harry chases Andy, who is trying to get out of town with his stolen millions meant for the war that will never be. It should build to something; it builds to nothing.

The movie ends on a muted, unsatisfying note. The rhythms excite expectations that go unanswered. This may be typical of much of le Carre's later work (several of his recent novels have seemed to just stop rather than end), but even James Bond knows the value of a good climax at the finish.

"The Tailor of Panama" (109 minutes) is rated R for adult themes.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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