Richard Burton needs me - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)

Chapter 28. Richard Burton needs me

Whenever I allow myself to remember my first encounter with Martin Ritt, the veteran American director of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, I blush to think of the idiotic clothes I was wearing.

It was 1963. My novel had not yet been published. Ritt had bought the film rights to it on the strength of a rogue typescript slipped to him by my literary agent or publisher, or maybe some bright soul in a duplicating office who had a pal in the studio, which was Paramount. Ritt would later boast that he stole the rights. I would later agree with him. At the time I saw him as a man of unlimited generosity who had taken the trouble to fly all the way from Los Angeles with some like-minded friends in order to give me lunch at that altar to Edwardian luxury, the Connaught Hotel, and talk flatteringly about my book.

And I had flown all the way from Bonn, capital of West Germany, at the expense of Her Majesty the Queen. I was a serving diplomat of thirty-two and had never met movie people before. In childhood, like all boys of my time, I had fallen in love with Deanna Durbin, and rolled in the aisles over the Three Stooges. In wartime cinemas, I had shot down German aeroplanes piloted by Eric Portman, and triumphed over the Gestapo with Leslie Howard. (My father was so persuaded that Portman was a Nazi that he said he should be interned.) But, what with early marriage, small children and very little money, not a lot of films since. I had a charming London-based literary agent whose life’s ambition, had he allowed himself to pursue it, was to play the drums in a jazz band. His knowledge of the film world must have been greater than mine, but not, I suspect, by much. Nevertheless, it was he who had arranged the film deal, and I who, after a convivial lunch with him, had signed it.

As I have reported elsewhere, part of my job as a Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Bonn was to escort invited German dignitaries on their rounds of the British government and its parliamentary opposition, which was what had brought me to London. This explains why, when I stole away from my official duties to have lunch with Martin Ritt at the Connaught, I was wearing a tight black jacket, black waistcoat, silver tie and striped grey-and-black trousers, an outfit that the Germans call Stresemann after a Prussian statesman who had the brief misfortune to preside over the Weimar Republic. It also explains why Ritt enquired of me, with raucous cordiality as we shook hands, what the hell had possessed me to dress like a maître d’.

And what was Ritt himself wearing, that he felt free to ask me this challenging question? In the Connaught’s dining room, a strict dress code ruled. But in the Grill they had learned by 1963, somewhat grudgingly, to stretch a point. Hunched in a corner of the grill room and flanked by four hoary cohorts from the film industry, Martin Ritt, seventeen years and several centuries my senior, wore a revolutionist’s black shirt buttoned to the neck and a pair of baggy pants held up by elastic and nipped at the ankles. And of all extraordinary things, to my eye, an artisan’s flat cap with the peak turned up where it should have been turned down. But worn indoors, you understand, which in my diplomatic England of those days was about as acceptable as eating peas off a knife. And all this on the bearish frame of an old footballer run to fat, with a broad, bronzed, mid-European face etched with the pain of ages, and thick, swept-back greying hair, and shadowed, watchful eyes framed by black-rimmed spectacles.

‘Didn’t I tell you he was going to be young?’ he demanded proudly of his cohorts while I struggled to explain why the hell I was dressed like a maître d’.

You did, Marty, you did, they agreed, because film directors, as I now know, are always right.

And Marty Ritt was more right than most of them. He was an accomplished film director of great heart and daunting life experience. He had served in the US forces in the Second World War. He had been, if not a member of the Communist Party, one of its more devoted fellow-travellers. His unabashed admiration for Karl Marx had got him blacklisted by the television industry in which he had acted and directed with distinction. He had directed any amount of theatre, much of it leftist, including a show for Russian War Relief in Madison Square Garden. He had directed ten feature films back to back, notably Hud with Paul Newman a year previously. And he made no secret of the fact, from the moment we sat down, that he saw in my novel some kind of crossing-point from his earlier convictions to his present state of impotent disgust at McCarthyism, the cowardice of too many of his peers and comrades in the witness box, the failure of communism and the sickening sterility of the Cold War.

And Ritt, as he was quick to tell you, was Jewish to the core. If his family hadn’t suffered directly in the Holocaust - though I believe it had - he personally had suffered, and continued to suffer, for his entire race. Ardently and articulately, his Jewish identity was a constant theme with him. And this became all the more relevant once we started talking about the movie he intended to make of my novel. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, two idealistic communists, one an innocent woman librarian from London, the other a member of East German Intelligence, are callously sacrificed for the greater good of the Western (capitalist) cause. Both are Jews.

For Marty Ritt, this movie was going to be personal.

And I? What qualifications from the great university of life had I to offer in return? My Stresemann? A British public school education, albeit truncated? A novel I had dreamed up from scraps of vicarious experience? Or the unnerving fact, which thank God I could not reveal to him, that I had spent a large chunk of my recent life toiling in the sheltered vineyards of British Intelligence, fighting the very cause to which he, by his own frank admission, had enthusiastically subscribed?

But that’s something else I’ve picked up along the way. Never mind that I too was beginning to question the easy loyalties of my youth. Movie-making is the enforced bonding of irreconcilable opposites. And this was never more evident than when Richard Burton stepped into the leading role of Alec Leamas.

I forget at what point I learned that Burton had got the part. Over our lunch in the Connaught Grill, Marty Ritt had asked me who I thought should play Leamas and I had suggested Trevor Howard; or Peter Finch, but only with the proviso that Finch was willing to play English rather than Australian, because I felt strongly that this was a very British story about very British secret manners. Ritt, a good listener, said he took my point, liked both actors but feared neither was big enough to carry the budget. A few weeks later, when I again flew to London, this time on Paramount’s tab to take part in a tour of locations, he told me that he had offered the role to Burt Lancaster.

To play an Englishman, Marty?

Canadian. Burt’s a great actor. Burt will play it Canadian, David.

To which there was no useful reply. Lancaster was indeed a great actor, but my Leamas was not a great Canadian. But by then the Big Unexplained Silence had kicked in.

In the making of every film of my work - or in the non-making - there has been the First Flush, followed by the Big Unexplained Silence. This can last anything from a few months to several years, or for ever. Is the project dead in the water, or is it steaming forward and nobody’s told me? Safe from the gaze of the unwashed, huge sums of money are being bandied about, scripts commissioned, written and rejected, agents joust and lie. In sealed rooms, beardless boys in ties strive to outshine each other with gems of youthful creativity. But outside the walls of Camp Hollywood hard intelligence is impossible to come by: for the good reason that, in the immortal words of William Goldman, nobody knows anything.

Richard Burton emerged, that’s all I can say from here. No thousand violins announced his arrival, just an awe-struck: ‘David, I have news for you. Richard Burton has signed to play Leamas.’ And that wasn’t Marty Ritt speaking to me on the phone, but my American publisher Jack Geoghegan in a ferment of religious ecstasy. ‘And what’s more, David, you’re about to meet him!’ Geoghegan was a veteran of gritty bookselling. He had started out as a shoe-leather sales rep and risen to be Head of Sales at Doubleday. Close to retirement, he had acquired his own small publishing house, Coward McCann. The improbable success of my novel and the addition of Richard Burton were a dream come true for him.

We must be looking at late 1964 by now because I had left government service and set up, first in Greece and later in Vienna, as a full-time writer. I was shaping to visit the United States for the first time, and Burton as it happened was playing Hamlet on Broadway with Gielgud co-directing and speaking the part of the Ghost. The production was described as a dress rehearsal, to be screened in movie theatres. Geoghegan would take me to see it, and afterwards he would introduce me to Burton in his dressing room. If we were about to have an audience with the Pope, he could not have been more excited.

And Burton’s performance was epic. And we had the best seats. And in his dressing room he was very charming and said my book was the best thing since I don’t know what. And I said his Hamlet was better than Olivier’s - better even than Gielgud’s, I went on recklessly, though for all I know he was in the room - better than anyone else’s I could think of. But what I was secretly wondering amid this torrent of mutual compliments was: how on earth will this beautiful, thunderous, baritone Welsh voice and this overpowering Triple Alpha Male talent fit inside the character of a washed-up, middle-aged British spy not noted for his charisma, his classic articulation or the looks of a pockmarked Greek god?

And though I didn’t know it at the time, the same question must have been nagging at Ritt, because one of the first of their many battles in the war that was to follow was about how to get Burton’s voice back into its box, something Burton wasn’t keen to do.

By now we are in 1965 and I have heard by chance - I still had no film agent so I must have had a spy somewhere - that in the latest film script of my novel, Alec Leamas, the part that Burton was slated to play, instead of punching a grocer and going to jail for it, was to be confined in a psychiatric hospital and escape by way of a first-floor bedroom window. The Leamas of my novel wouldn’t have gone near a psychiatric hospital to save his life, so what was he doing in one? The answer seemed to be that in Hollywood’s eyes psychiatry was sexier than jail.

A few weeks later, news trickled through the lines that the script’s writer, who like Ritt had been blacklisted in his time, had been taken ill and the mantle had passed to Paul Dehn. I was sad for the writer, but relieved. Dehn was a fellow Brit. He had written his own film called Orders to Kill, which I admired. Also, he was family. During the war, he had trained Allied agents in silent killing and taken part in covert missions to France and Norway.

In London, Dehn and I met. He had no patience with psychiatric hospitals and no compunction about punching grocers. He was happy to put Leamas back in jail for as long as it took. And it was Dehn’s script that a couple of months later arrived on my doorstep with a nice note from Ritt asking for my comments.

I had moved to Vienna by then, and in the best tradition of writers who have been showered with unexpected success, I was wrestling with a novel I didn’t like, money I’d never dreamed of and marital mayhem entirely of my own making. I read the script, liked it, told Ritt I liked it, and went back to my novel and my mayhem. A few nights later my phone rang. It was Ritt, calling from Ardmore Studios in Ireland, where shooting was supposed to have started. His voice had the strangled throb of a man who has been taken hostage and this is his last message.

Richard needs you, David. Richard needs you so bad he won’t speak his lines till you’ve rewritten them.

But what’s wrong with Richard’s lines, Marty, they seemed fine to me?

That’s not the point, David. Richard needs you and he’s holding up the production till he gets you. We’ll pay your fare first class and give you your own suite. What more can you ask?

The answer - if it was really true that Burton was holding up the production for me - was that I could ask the moon and get it. But to my knowledge I never asked anything. It’s half a century ago, and Paramount’s records may tell a different tale, but I doubt it. Perhaps I was so eager to have my movie made that I didn’t care or didn’t dare. Perhaps I wanted to escape the mess I had created around myself in Vienna.

Or perhaps I was still so green I just didn’t know that this was the kind of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity a film agent would sell his mother to exploit: a green-lit film, an entire Paramount Pictures unit in place, sixty electricians alone hanging around the lot with nothing to do but eat free hamburgers, and one of the hottest film stars of the day refusing to perform until that most despised creature in the entire film menagerie - the writer of origin, for Christ’s sake! - is parachuted in to hold his hand.

All I know for sure is, I put down the phone and flew next morning to Dublin because Richard Needed Me.

Did Richard really?

Or did Marty need me more?

In theory I was in Dublin to rewrite Burton’s lines, which meant reworking scenes to make them play his way. But Burton’s way wasn’t always Ritt’s, with the result that I became, for this brief period, their go-between. I remember sitting down with Ritt and fixing a scene, then sitting down with Burton and fixing it again, then scurrying back to Ritt. But I don’t remember ever sitting down with both of them together. And that process only lasted a few days, by which time Ritt had declared himself satisfied with the revisions and Burton had ceased to offer fight: or none to me. But when I told Ritt I was flying back to Vienna, he became reproachful as only he could.

Somebody has to look after Richard, David. Richard’s drinking too much. Richard needs a friend.

Richard needs a friend? Hadn’t he just married Elizabeth Taylor? Wasn’t she a friend? Wasn’t she here with him, holding up the shoot every time she arrived on set in a white Rolls-Royce, surrounded by other friends, such as Yul Brynner and Franco Zeffirelli; such as visiting agents and lawyers; such as the reputedly seventeen-strong Burton household that occupied the whole of one floor of Dublin’s grandest hotel comprising, as I understood it, their various children by different marriages, tutors for said children, hairdressers, secretaries and, in the words of one disrespectful member of the unit, the fellow who clipped their parrot’s claws? All these, and Richard still needed me?

Of course he did. He was being Alec Leamas.

And as Alec Leamas he was a prowling solitary going to seed, his career had hit the buffers and the only people he could talk to were strangers like me. Though I scarcely realized it at the time, I was undergoing my initiation in the process of an actor plundering the darker regions of his life for the elements of the part he’s about to play. And the first element you must plunder, if you are Alec Leamas going to seed, is solitude. Which in a word meant that for as long as Burton was being Leamas, the entire Burton court was his avowed enemy. If Leamas walked alone, so must Burton. If Leamas kept a half-bottle of Johnnie Walker whisky in his raincoat pocket, so did Burton. And took healthy swigs of it whenever the solitude became too much for him, even if - as quickly became apparent - the one thing Leamas had got that Burton absolutely hadn’t was a head for booze.

How this affected his domestic life, I have no idea, beyond the occasional bit of boys’ talk over our nips of Scotch: he was in the doghouse, Elizabeth was not best pleased. But I didn’t place much faith in these confidences. Burton, like many actors, couldn’t rest till he’d made an instant pal of whoever you might be, as I knew from watching him work his charm on anyone from the gaffer to the tea-girl, to the visible irritation of our director.

On the other hand, Taylor may have had her own reasons not to be best pleased. Burton had urged Ritt to cast her in the female lead, but Ritt had given the part to Claire Bloom, with whom, according to the rumour mill, Burton had once had a dalliance. And though Bloom confined herself determinedly to her caravan off screen, the scorned Elizabeth can scarcely have enjoyed the spectacle of the two of them flirting on set.

Imagine now a floodlit square in Dublin, and the Berlin Wall in all its hideous likeness - built in grey breeze-block and barbed wire - cutting straight across it. The pubs are closing and all Dublin has turned out to watch the spectacle, and who wouldn’t? For once it’s not raining, so a team of Dublin fire engines is on standby. Oswald Morris, our director of photography, likes his night streets wet. Along the wall, set designers and technicians are having a last fidget. There is a point where iron bolts form a crude, barely visible ladder. Oswald Morris and Ritt are busy studying it.

Any minute now, Leamas will climb this ladder, push aside the barbed wire and, sprawled across the top of the wall, stare down in horror at the dead body of the poor woman he has been tricked into betraying, lying on the other side. In the novel this woman is called Liz but in the film, for obvious reasons, she is rechristened Nan.

Any minute now, an assistant director or other functionary will descend the steps outside the window of the drab semi-basement room where Burton and I have been cloistered these last couple of hours. From it, Alec Leamas in a shabby raincoat will then emerge, take up his position at the wall and on Ritt’s command begin his fateful ascent.

Except he won’t. The half-bottle of Johnnie Walker whisky is long gone. And though I have managed to drink the lion’s share of it, Leamas may still be in climbing shape, but Burton definitely isn’t.

Meanwhile, to the delighted cheers of the crowd, the white Rolls-Royce has appeared, driven by the chauffeur, who is French, and Burton, waking belatedly to the clamour outside, gives out a throaty roar of ‘Oh Christ! Elizabeth, you fool!’ and charges up the steps into the square. Deploying at full volume the baritone voice that Ritt is determined to suppress, he rages at the chauffeur - in imperfect French, though the chauffeur speaks good English - for delivering Elizabeth into the hands of the Dublin mob: not a great threat, one might think, given that the entire Dublin police force has turned out to watch the fun.

But Burton’s operatic rage is not to be withstood. With Elizabeth glowering her displeasure through the lowered window, the chauffeur throws the Rolls into reverse and hightails it back to base, leaving Marty Ritt standing beside the wall in his artisan’s cap, looking like the loneliest, angriest man on the planet.

Both at the time and in any odd hour since, when I have been watching actors and directors working together on other films, I have wondered just what was the cause of the ever more open hostility between Burton and Ritt, and I have come to the conclusion that it was preordained. Yes, there was the irritation that Ritt had rejected Taylor for the part of Nan and given it to Bloom. But to me, the cause goes much further back: to the days when Ritt was a blacklisted radical, wounded and enraged. Social awareness wasn’t just an attitude, it was in his milk.

In one of the few conversations of substance that I had with Burton during our short spree together, he almost boasted of how much he despised the showman in himself; how he wished he had ‘done a Paul Scofield’, by which he meant eschew the big-screen heroics and the big-screen money and accept only acting parts of real artistic substance. And Ritt would have agreed with him wholeheartedly.

But that didn’t let Burton off the hook. To the eye of the puritanical, committed, connubial leftist and activist, Burton came close to everything Ritt instinctively condemned. Look up his quotes and you find one that says it all: ‘I don’t have a lot of respect for talent. Talent is genetic. It’s what you do with it that counts.’ It was bad enough to put profit before art, or sex before family, or flaunt your wealth and your woman, or ostentatiously soak yourself in liquor, or strut the world like a god while the masses cry out for justice. But to waste your talent was a sin against gods and men. And the greater the talent - and Burton’s talents were legion and extraordinary - the greater in Ritt’s view the sin.

In 1952, the year Ritt was blacklisted, Burton, the twenty-six-year-old Welsh prodigy with the golden tongue, was launching himself on his Hollywood career. It is no coincidence that several members of the cast of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - Claire Bloom and Sam Wanamaker for two - had also been blacklisted. Mention anyone’s name from that period and Ritt’s immediate question was: ‘Where was he when we needed him?’ He meant: did he or she speak up for us, betray us, or keep the coward’s silence? And it would not surprise me if, always in the back of Ritt’s mind, or the front of it, the same persistent question hung over his relationship with Burton.

We are in a windswept beach house in Scheveningen, on the Dutch coast. It’s the last day of shooting The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It’s a tight indoor set. Leamas is negotiating his own destruction by agreeing to cross into East Germany and betray precious secrets to his country’s enemies. I am hovering somewhere behind Oswald Morris and Martin Ritt, doing my best not to get in the way. The tension between Burton and Ritt is palpable. Ritt’s commands are terse and monosyllabic. Burton barely responds. As always in close scenes like these, film actors speak so quietly and casually that they seem to the uninitiated to be rehearsing rather than acting. So it comes as a surprise to me when Ritt says ‘wrap’ and the scene is over.

But it isn’t over. An expectant silence settles, as if everyone but me knows what’s about to happen. Then Ritt, who after all is a substantial actor in his own right and knows a thing or two about timing, delivers the speech I believe he has been saving up for this moment:

‘Richard, I’ve had the last good lay in an old whore, and it had to be in front of the mirror.’

True? Fair?

Not true, not by a long way, and not at all fair. Richard Burton was a literate, serious artist, a self-educated polymath with appetites and flaws that in one way or another we all share. If he was the prisoner of his own weaknesses, the dash of rectifying Welsh puritanism in him was not a hundred miles from Ritt’s. He was irreverent, mischievous, generous-hearted but necessarily manipulative. For the very celebrated, being manipulative goes with the territory. I never knew him in his quieter hours, but wish I had. He was a superb Alec Leamas, and in a different year his performance might have earned him the Oscar that eluded him all his life. The film was grim and black-and-white. That wasn’t what we were wearing in 1965.

If either the director or his actor had been less, then perhaps the film also would have been less. I suppose at the time, I felt more protective of the podgy, stalwart and embittered Ritt than of the flamboyant and unpredictable Burton. A director carries the whole burden of the film on his back, and that has to include the idiosyncrasies of his star. Sometimes I had the feeling that Burton was going out of his way to belittle Ritt, but in the end I guess they were pretty evenly matched. And Ritt surely had the last word. He was a brilliant and impassioned director whose righteous anger could never be stilled.