The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)
Chapter 30. Lost masterpieces
One day, I trust, it will be recognized that the best films of my work were the ones that were never made.
In 1965, the year in which the movie of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was released, I was persuaded by my British publisher to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair, which I dreaded, to publicize a novel of which I had low expectations, and generally make myself agreeable and interesting to the media. Sick of the sound of my own voice - and of being passed around foreign journalists like a bag of goods - I retreated to my suite in the Frankfurter Hof to sulk.
And that was what I was doing one late afternoon when my house phone rang and a woman’s voice, speaking a husky, accented English, advised me that Fritz Lang was in the lobby and wished to see me, and would I please come down?
The summons did not impress me. Langs in Germany are two-a-penny, Fritzes also. Was this the same odious literary gossip writer I had fended off earlier in the day? I suspected it was, and using a woman as his lure. I asked her the nature of Mr Lang’s business.
‘Fritz Lang, the film director,’ she corrected me reprovingly, ‘he wishes to discuss a proposition with you.’
If she had told me Goethe was waiting in the lobby, my reaction would not have been much different. When I was studying German in Bern in the late forties, we students had passed whole nights debating the genius of Fritz Lang, the great film director of the Weimar years.
We knew his life too, to a point: an Austrian-born Jew brought up as a Catholic, three times wounded fighting for Austria in the First World War, and thereafter in quick order actor, writer and expressionist director in the glory days of Ufa, the fabled Berlin film production company of the twenties. As students, we had earnestly discussed such expressionist classics as Metropolis, had sat through five hours of Die Nibelungen and four hours of Dr Mabuse the Gambler. Probably because it suited me to think of crooks as heroes, I had a particular affinity for M, in which Peter Lorre plays a child murderer who is hunted down by the criminal underworld.
But after 1933? Lang? Thirty years on? I had read that he had gone on to make movies in Hollywood, but I didn’t remember seeing any. For me he was Weimar Man, and that was it. To be truthful, I didn’t know he was still alive. And I still thought that the phone call might be a hoax.
‘So you’re telling me that Dr Mabuse is downstairs?’ I ask the beguiling female voice, with what I hope is haughty scepticism.
‘It is Mr Fritz Lang the film director and he wishes a positive discussion with you,’ she repeats, not giving an inch.
If it’s the real Lang, he’ll be wearing the eye-patch, I tell myself as I pull on a clean shirt and select a tie.
He was wearing the eye-patch. He was also wearing spectacles, which confused me: why two lenses for one eye? He was a heavy, daunting man with a face made in muscular curves. A fighter’s jutting jaw, a not-very-nice smile. A tall grey hat, with a brim that left his good eye in shadow from the overhead light. Seated like an old pirate, bolt upright on his hotel chair. Head tilted back, listening to something he’s not sure he likes. Powerful hands clenched over the handle of a walking stick wedged between his knees. This was the man, as legend had it, who, when he was directing M, threw Peter Lorre down a flight of stairs in a fit of creative passion.
The husky-voiced woman I had spoken to sat beside him and I shall never know whether she was his mistress, his new young wife or his business manager. She was closer to my age than his, and clearly determined that our conversation should be a success. She ordered English tea and asked me whether I was enjoying the book fair. I lied and said very much. Lang went on smiling grimly into the distance. When we stopped talking our banalities, he left us to our silence for a while, until:
‘I want to make a movie of your little book A Murder of Quality,’ he announced in a declamatory German-American, laying a heavy hand on my forearm and keeping it there. ‘You come to California. We make a script together, we make a movie. You wanna do that?’
‘Little book’ about summed it up, I reflected as I came to my senses. I had written it in a few weeks soon after I arrived at the British Embassy in Bonn. The story tells of a public school master on the point of retirement who murders his own pupil in order to cover up a previous crime. George Smiley, summoned to the rescue, unmasks him. And now I came to think about it, I could imagine that, for all its shortcomings, it might indeed attract the director of M. The only problem was George Smiley. Under the terms of a film deal I should not have signed, he was under contract to a major film studio. Lang was undeterred.
‘Listen, I know those people. They’re my friends. Maybe we let them finance the movie. That’s a good deal for a studio. They own your character, so they get to make a movie about him. That’s good business for them. You like California?’
I like California very much.
‘You come to California. We work together, we make a script, we make a movie. Black-and-white, like your Spy Who Came in. You got a problem with black-and-white?’
No problem at all.
‘You got a movie agent?’
I name my movie agent.
‘Listen, I made that guy’s career for him. I talk to your agent, we make a deal, after Christmas we settle down in California, write a script. After Christmas good for you?’ - still smiling ahead of him, still with his hand anchored on my forearm.
After Christmas suits me fine.
By now I’ve noticed how the woman at his side lightly guides his free hand whenever he reaches forward for his cup. He takes a sip of tea. With her guidance he sets the cup down. He returns the hand to the crook of the walking stick. He reaches for his cup, and she guides his hand back to it.
I never again heard from Fritz Lang. My film agent said I never would. He made no mention of Lang’s incipient blindness, but the death sentence he uttered was absolute all the same: Fritz Lang wasn’t bankable any more.
In 1968, my novel A Small Town in Germany briefly inspired Sydney Pollack. Our collaboration, complicated by Sydney’s discovery of the Swiss slopes, had not fulfilled its promise and the company that had bought the original rights had gone out of business, leaving them lost in a legal maze. If I had learned anything at all about the film business, it was never again to allow myself to be swept along by Sydney’s glorious but short-lived bursts of enthusiasm.
So it was only natural that when twenty years on he called me in the middle of the night and told me at the top of his melodious voice that my new novel The Night Manager would be the inspirational film of his career, I dropped everything and caught the first available flight to New York. This time round, Sydney and I agreed, we were going to be older and wiser. No Swiss villages for us, no tempting snow falls, no Martin Epps, no north face of the Eiger. This time round, Robert Towne himself, in those days the biggest star in the screenwriters’ universe, and surely its most expensive, would write the script for us. Paramount agreed to buy the rights.
In a safe house in Santa Monica where we were sure not to be disturbed, Sydney, Bob Towne and myself took it in turns to pace the floor and shine to one another, until an almighty explosion put an abrupt end to our deliberations. Towne, convinced that terrorists had struck, hurled himself to the floor. Sydney, intrepid man of action, called the Los Angeles Police Department on a hotline which I like to think was only available to A-list directors. I, with my usual presence of mind, seem to have done nothing except gawp.
The Police Department’s response is soothing: just a minor earth tremor, Sydney, nothing to be scared of at all, and listen, what kind of movie are you boys dreaming up down there? We shone on, but not so brightly, and broke up early. Towne would do a first pass, we agreed. Sydney would then work on it with him. I would be a passive resource.
‘If you ever want to try out ideas, Bob, feel free to call me,’ I said magnanimously, and gave him my phone number in Cornwall.
Towne and I never spoke again. As my plane lifted out of Los Angeles airport, a full-scale earthquake alert was being announced over the speaking system. Sydney had said he would join me in Cornwall just as soon as we had Towne’s first pass. In those days I owned a guest cottage just up the lane from our house. We made it all ready for him. He currently was editing a John Grisham thriller he had just shot, starring Tom Cruise, he said. Our project would be next. Bob really has his head down. He’s crazy about your work, David. He loves the challenge. Bob is fired up and ready to go. Towne has a couple of scripts to finish off first. Then the drip-feed of bulletins, with the space between them getting a little longer every time. Towne is having trouble with the final act, and Jesus, Cornwell, why do you have to write such complicated books?
And finally - in the middle of the Cornish night, as usual - the call I have been patiently waiting for: meet me in Venice on Friday. The Cruise movie looks like breaking all records, he adds. Test showings have been rapturous. The studio’s over the moon. Great, I say, fantastic, how’s Bob doing? See you Friday. I’ll have my people fix you a suite at the hotel. I drop everything and fly to Venice. Sydney likes his food, but he’s a rapid eater, particularly when he’s distracted. Bob’s coming on just fine, he says vaguely, as if reporting on a distant friend’s health. Got a bit hung up over the middle act. He’ll get back to it soon. Middle, Sydney? I thought it was the final act he was having problems with. They’re connected, Sydney says. All this while he receives a string of breathless message bearers: great reviews, Sydney - see this, five stars and two thumbs-up! - we’re making entertainment history for Chrissakes! Sydney has an idea. How’s about I fly with him to Deauville tomorrow? They’re showing the movie there too. We can talk on the plane. No interruptions.
Next morning we fly to Deauville in Sydney’s Lear. We’re four: Sydney and his co-pilot, both in earphones, sitting at the controls, a spare pilot, and me in the back. Both Sydney’s friend John Calley, then head of Sony Columbia, and Stanley Kubrick, another air-safety buff, have warned me never to fly with Sydney. Think of the actuarial risk of a dude jet pilot with like zero miles in the saddle, David. Don’t go there. After an improbably short journey we touch down in Deauville and Sydney is at once engulfed by a swarm of studio executives, actors’ agents and publicity people. He disappears into one limousine; I am shepherded to another. At our grand hotel, another enormous suite awaits me with flowers, champagne from the management, and a note of welcome addressed to Monsieur David Carr. I call the concierge and get a list of ferry times. After several shots, I succeed in being put through to Sydney’s suite. Sydney, this is all great, but you’re very tied up just now and I don’t think our project is foremost on your mind. Why don’t I slide off home and we talk again when Bob turns in his script?
All concern now, Sydney wants to know how I propose to get from Deauville to England. A fucking ferry, Cornwell? Am I crazy? Take the fucking Lear, for Chrissakes! Sydney, honestly, the ferry’s fine, thanks. There are lots of them. I love boats. I take the fucking Lear. This time we’re three: Sydney’s two pilots in the front, me alone in the back. Newquay airport, which is huge but partly Royal Air Force, won’t have us. We settle for Exeter. Suddenly I am standing alone on an empty runway at Exeter airport with a suitcase in my hand, and the Lear is halfway back to Deauville. I peer round for an immigration or customs shed, can’t find one. A lone workman in an orange high-vis waistcoat is doing something with a pickaxe to the side of the runway. Excuse, me, I’ve just arrived by private plane, can you tell me where I find customs and immigration? Arrived from where then? he demands officiously, resting on his pickaxe. France? That’s the fucking Common Market! He shakes his head at my obtuseness and resumes his labours. I climb a flimsy fence to the car park where my wife waits to drive me home.
It wasn’t till Towne showed up at the Edinburgh Film Festival a year later and, according to my spies, spoke sagely about the insoluble problems of adapting my work for the big screen that I knew the game was up. Jesus, Cornwell, Bob just couldn’t crack that last act.
When Francis Ford Coppola called up and invited me to stay at his winery in the Napa Valley and work with him on a film adaptation of my novel Our Game, I knew that this time round it was going to be the real thing. I flew to San Francisco. Coppola sent a car. Predictably, he was a dream to work with: rapid, incisive, creative, supportive. In five days, working like this, we’ll have a first draft cold, he assured me. And we did. We were brilliant together. I had a cabin to myself on the estate, got up with the dawn and wrote brilliantly till midday. Elegiac family lunch at the long table, cooked by Coppola. A walk beside the lake, a swim maybe, then back to being brilliant together for the rest of the afternoon.
After five days, we were home and dry. Harrison is really going to love this, Coppola said. He means Harrison Ford. In Hollywood, surnames are for outsiders only. There was a prickly moment when Coppola passed our script to his in-house editor and it came back scored with wavy lines and pencilled marginal comments such as ‘CRAP! DON’T SAY IT, SHOW IT!’, but Coppola laughed off such light-hearted comments. His editor was always like that, he said. Not for nothing did they call him the killer cutter. The script would go to Harrison on Monday. And I was free to return to England and await developments.
I return to England and I wait. Weeks pass. I call Coppola but get his assistant. Francis is very tied up right now, David, can I help at all? No, David, Harrison has not as yet responded. And to this day, so far as I shall ever know, Harrison still hasn’t. Nobody does silence better than Hollywood.
My first intimation of Stanley Kubrick’s interest in adapting my novel A Perfect Spy for the big screen came when he called me up, wanting to know why I had turned down his offer for the movie rights. I had turned down Stanley Kubrick? I was amazed and horrified. We knew each other, for Heaven’s sake! Not well, but enough. Why hadn’t he called me to tell me he was interested? And most extraordinary of all: what did my film agent think he was up to, not telling me he had an offer from Kubrick, then signing up the book with BBC television? Stanley, I said, I’m going to check this out at once and I’m going to get right back to you. D’you happen to know when you made this offer? As soon as I’d read the book, of course, David: why would I hang around?
My agent was as mystified as I was. There’d only been one film offer for A Perfect Spy apart from the BBC; but it was so trifling he hadn’t thought to bother me with it. A Dr Feldman, I think his name was, of Geneva wished to acquire an option on the movie rights to my novel as a teaching tool for a course on book-into-film. It was a competition thing. The student who came up with the best screenplay would have the pleasure of seeing a minute or two of his work realized on the big screen. For the two-year option on the movie rights of A Perfect Spy, Dr Feldman and his colleagues were prepared to offer a five-thousand-dollar honorarium.
I was on the brink of calling Kubrick to assure him that his own offer had never reached me, but something held me back, so I called instead a big wheel in the studio Kubrick sometimes worked with: my friend John Calley. Calley gave a happy chuckle. Well, that sure as hell sounds like our Stanley all right. Always afraid his name is going to bump up the asking price.
I called Kubrick and told him with a straight face that if I’d known Dr Feldman was acting for him, I would have thought twice before optioning the rights to the BBC. Nothing daunted, Kubrick replied that he would be happy to direct the BBC series. I called Jonathan Powell, the producer at the BBC. Powell had masterminded the television versions of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. He was in the throes of putting together A Perfect Spy.How about having Stanley Kubrick to direct it for you? I asked him.
Silence while Powell, not a man given to emotional outbreaks, took a moment to collect himself.
‘And have the budget overrun by a few million pounds, you mean?’ he enquired. ‘And the series delivered a couple of years late? I think we’ll stay the way we are, thank you.’
Kubrick’s next suggestion, following hot upon the last, was that I should write him a Second World War spy movie set in France and based on the rivalry between MI6 and SOE. I said I’d think about it, thought about it, didn’t like it and declined. Okay, so how about adapting an erotic novelle by the Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler?* He said he owned the rights, and I didn’t ask whether Dr Feldman of Geneva had bought them for educational purposes. I said I knew Schnitzler’s work, and was interested in the idea of adapting it. I had barely put down the phone before a red Mercedes pulled up outside my house and out sprang Kubrick’s Italian driver, armed with a cyclostyled English translation of Schnitzler’s Rhapsody that I didn’t need, and an armful of literary commentaries.
A couple of days later the same Mercedes conveyed me to Kubrick’s vast country house near St Albans. I had been there a couple of times, but nothing had prepared me for the sight of two huge metal cages in the hallway, one occupied by cats, the other by dogs. Trap doors and metal walkways led from one cage to the other. Any cat or dog who felt moved to socialize with the opposite species could do so. Some socialized, some preferred not to, Kubrick said. It would take time. Cats and dogs had a lot of history to deal with.
Pursued by dogs but no cats, Kubrick and I stroll the grounds while at his request I pontificate on how Schnitzler’s novelle might be adapted to the big screen. Its eroticism, I suggest, is greatly intensified by inhibition and class snobbery. Vienna of the twenties may have been a hive of sexual licence, but it was also a hive of social and religious bigotry, chronic anti-Semitism and prejudice. Anyone moving in Viennese society - for example, our young hero, the sex-obsessed medical doctor - flouted its conventions at his peril. Our hero’s erotic journey, beginning with his incapacity to make love to his beautiful young wife and culminating in his frustrated attempt to take part in an orgy at the house of an Austrian nobleman, was fraught with social as well as physical danger.
Somehow, I told Kubrick, warming to my theme as we patrolled the grounds with the pack of dogs at our heels, our film must recreate this repressive atmosphere, and contrast it with our hero’s search for sexual identity.
‘How do we do that?’ Kubrick asked, just when I was beginning to think the dogs had stolen his attention.
Well, Stanley, I’ve thought about this, and I believe our best bet is: go for a medieval walled city or country town that is visually confining.
Like Avignon, for instance - or Wells in Somerset. High walls - battlements - narrow streets - dark doorways.
An ecclestiastical city, Stanley, maybe Catholic like Schnitzler’s Vienna, why not? With a bishop’s palace, a monastery and a theological college. Handsome young men in religious gear sweeping past young nuns with their eyes not quite averted. Church bells resounding. We can practically smell the incense, Stanley.
Is he listening to me? Is he mesmerized, or bored stiff?
And the grand ladies of the town, Stanley - pious as hell on the surface, and so skilled at dissembling that when you’re invited to dinner at the bishop’s palace you don’t know whether you were screwing the lady on your right at last night’s orgy, or she was at home saying prayers with her children.
My aria complete, and I not a little pleased with myself, we walk for a stretch in silence. Even the dogs, it seems to me, are quietly relishing my eloquence. At length, Stanley speaks.
‘I think we’ll set it in New York,’ he says, and we all set course for the house.