Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a film of puzzles and carefully guarded secrets. At the level of narrative orchestration this is hardly unusual – being that we are in the familiar world of spy films – but the visual look of the film is quite distinct. A possible explanation is given by cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, who reveals that he deliberately avoided taking previous films as a source of influence on the visual design and color pallette of the film (Taras 2012). Remarkably, the abundance of rectangles, the flattened imagery, and even the film’s dominant colors are instead inspired by a single photographic text, namely Erwin Fieger’s London, City of Any Dream.
Adapted from John le Carré’s eponymous novel by Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) tells the story of the clandestine search during the Cold War for a possible Soviet double agent, or mole, at the highest level of MI6, the British secret service familiarly referred to in the film as “The Circus.” The surreptitious investigation is led by George Smiley, called out from a retirement he was forced into by the failure of an earlier operation in Budapest that was designed to gain intelligence about the identity of the double agent. He is assisted by Peter Guillam, a younger, still active agent, as well as by George Mendel, another retiree. Interviews with retirees, including those forced out of the service by the failure of the Budapest operation, prove key to the gathering of bits of information that taken together ultimately reveal the mole’s identity. The challenge of this puzzle whose solution requires the piecing together of previously compartmentalized knowledge is perfectly visualized twice during the film’s credit sequence: first by Smiley being fitted for new eyeglasses as if to signal that his best perceptual acuity will be needed, then by the abstract painting whose overlapping squares and rectangles, themselves framed within a series of rectangles, challenges Smiley’s understanding as he gazes at it.
As befits this fictive world of carefully guarded secrets, rectangles of all sizes figure prominently throughout the film, isolating and compartmentalizing individuals within their frames. So mundane in themselves that they might not seem worth noting, within the world of the film they even provide visual continuity during the key scene in which Guillam steals a logbook for Smiley from The Circus. In much the same way that the sound track ties the sequence’s shots together through the continuity of George Formby singing “Mr. Wu’s A Window Cleaner Now;” the repetition of rectangles tie the visuals together. From the grid that frames Mendel as he waits in a repair garage to telephone Guillam (fig. 1), to the shot of the Circus’s archive as an immense grid work (fig. 2), to the rectangular storage slots behind Owen, the clerk who answers Mendel’s telephone call (fig. 3), to the pattern on the jacket worn by the clerk who records the call (fig. 4), to the reading room in which Guillam takes Mendel’s phone call where the grid’s rectangles are reworked as similarly shaped desks, ceiling fixtures, and floor tiles (fig. 5), to the shape of the cubby holes on the back wall of the room from which Toby Esterhase, himself framed by a rectangle, spies Guillam on the telephone (fig. 6), the total effect of these rectangles repeated in a variety of sizes and rotated in space is to impart a heightened sense of order and visual interconnectedness to the narrative’s story line. The film is realistic, to be sure, but as this abundance of rectangles suggests, it is realism inflected through set designs and an unusual style of photography whose flattening of images often challenge the certainty of the viewer’s perception. Surprisingly, the abundance of rectangles, the flattened imagery, and even the film’s dominant colors derive from a single photographic text.
The Film’s Design Program
During the planning of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy designer Paul Smith showed Tomas Alfredson a copy of London, City of Any Dream, Erwin Fieger’s large format book of color photographs of 1960s London that Fieger shot with a telephoto lens. In a “Plus Cameraimage” interview Hoyte van Hoytema tells how they acquired copies of the book and not only mounted the photos on a wall as visual references for the film, but even did camera tests to see whether they could match the photos’ graininess (see Kasia Taras’ interview). It was not the specific subjects of Fieger’s photos that caught the filmmakers’s attention, but their aesthetic qualities of framing, compression, grain structure, and consistent streaks of transient color. In varying combination these qualities became the organizing principles of the film’s mise-en-scene employed by everyone responsible for the film’s visuals. As Alfredson explained to Nick Allen at “The Scorecard Review,”
Our approach was, me and Hoytema, the director of photography, was to sort of create a voyeur in all the scenes that everything is sort of peeked in upon, like outside windows, through the keyhole feeling, and also to create such a -how should you say?- uh, bubbles, where these people are captured in bubbles. And one way we thought to create that was to work with very long lenses to sort of squeeze everything together. So everything is done in locations where we actually could get far away with the camera in order to use very long lenses to make everything squeeze together.
Thematically, “the keyhole feeling” and “people… captured in bubbles” perfectly visualize the secrecy and compartmentalization of those operating at the top of The Circus who Smiley and his small group must penetrate to expose the mole among them. The shot (fig. 7) of Jerry Westerby, at the left, asking for a cover story to minimize the effect of the failure of the earlier mission in Budapest, perfectly illustrates both the bubble effect and voyeur’s point of view described by Alfredson. Undoubtedly, the image that springs to mind for most viewers asked to recall a shot from the film in which everything is squeezed together would be the lengthy sequence on a deserted tarmac (fig. 8) where Smiley questions an increasingly uneasy Toby Esterhase as an airplane seems to bear down on them.
One need only place Fieger’s photograph, “Taxi Rank, Victoria Station,” (4-5) (fig. 9) with its flattened perspective and multiple framings of individuals seen through a series of rectangular windows beside the similarly flattened and framed images of Smiley and Peter Guillam behind the window of a Wimpy Bar (fig. 10), Jim Prideaux awaiting debriefing after his return from the behind the Iron Curtain (fig. 11), and Ricki Tarr searching for his girlfriend in Istanbul (fig. 12) to see the influence of Fieger’s images on the film’s set designs, staging, and cinematography.
In addition to employing long lenses to flatten images, Maria Djurkovic’s production design in conjunction with careful camera placement achieves a similar effect at times. For instance the actual depth of the locker room in this shot (fig. 13) is difficult to discern because of the way the verticals that frame the actors also hide the edges of the doorway to the showers and the back corner of the dressing room. The overall illusory effect this creates of shifting planes is quite similar to the actual shifting planes captured as reflections in the shot of Prideaux awaiting debriefing. The images are at once realistic and spatially uncertain.
A somewhat more sophisticated flattening of an otherwise realistic image is achieved through the continuity of color in a shot of Smiley and Guillam seen from the inside of a laundry (fig. 14). The placement of the brightly-lit pile of linen at the center of the image is key to the effect. At its left end it overlaps the front of Guillam’s auto; at its right end the shiny surface of the table top extends the seemingly continuous strip of color further across the image’s middle ground. The band of continuous color flattens the image by apparently reducing the distance between the shot’s foreground and middle ground in much the same way that a telephoto lens would compress the space. The uncertain depth of the image is heightened further by the way the words “HOTEL ISLAY” seem to project forward from the wall on which they are painted.
The Color Palette
In addition to the flattening of the image and the frequent framing of characters, Fieger’s photographs also determined the film’s color palette. Here, too, they did so not through the colors that Fieger photographed directly, but through the transient hues that his photographs seemed to catch accidently. As Colin MacInnes, who wrote the commentary that accompanies Fieger’s photographs, describes the effect, “…he has even contrived—as in his creating harmonies out of the reflected hues on the banal door of a London taxi—to take photographs in which the colour itself (rather than the mere topicality of the subject) becomes, as it should be, the most arresting feature of the total image.” (xxxii) Though MacInnes does not identify the specific photograph, it is undoubtedly “Taxi Driver” (pp. 6-7) (fig. 15). The colors appear more prominently in the background of “Policeman at Piccadilly Circus” (p.36) (fig. 16).
Although the film’s color scheme is often described as being drab and monochromatic, the group of brighter colors reflected in the taxi’s doors appears throughout the film. Without reference to Fieger’s photographs, Katie MacGregor identified the film’s color palette in her blog, “Design in Film,” where she arranged them as a color bar which I reproduce with her permission (fig. 17). These colors appear in varying ways and varying intensities, though the logic of their grouping is always apparent as in Jim Prideaux’s surroundings in Budapest as he makes his way to meet his contact (fig. 18); the colors frame the magazine photograph of Polyakov, the man who turns out to be the mole’s Soviet contact (fig. 19); the colors seem perfectly plausible on Prideaux’s car and trailer (fig. 20); the colors on the card announcing “fresh fruit” in the window of the market illustrates how set dressing frequently incorporates the palette in unobtrusive ways (fig. 21); costuming displays the colors during the Christmas party at The Circus (fig. 22). Though not symbolic in any way, the repetition of these colors, like the repeated framing discussed above, heightens the film’s visual coherence across its breadth.
In sum, Alfredson and van Hoytema found in Fieger’s photographs the appropriate visual qualities for rendering the uncertain, often deceptive world of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that both Smiley and viewers are asked to comprehend. The Londoners framed in rectangles readily became employees of The Circus caught within a variety of frames that signal their compartmentalization and partial awareness, while the flattened depth of Fieger’s photographs offered an optical equivalent for the slipperiness of appearances. As in the photographs, from time to time the film’s realism is subtly distorted so true spatial depth becomes difficult to discern. Whether this is achieved through the use of a telephoto-lens, through set design in conjunction with camera placement, or through something as “simple” as the apparently coincidental alignment of an automobile with similarly colored laundry, and table top, the design program created by the filmmakers images forth the secrecy of the film’s world, imbuing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with a visual texture that enriches its dramatic impact.
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- Allen, Nick. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy interview with director Tomas Alfredson.” “The Scorecard Review.”
- “Design in Film: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”
- “Digital Tinkering and Tailoring by Framestore.”
- Fieger, Erwin, and Colin MacInnes. London, City of Any Dream. London: Thames and Hudson, 1962.
- Frei, Vincent. “Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy: Sirio Quintavalle—VFX Supervisor—Framestore.”
- Straughan, Peter. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: What John Le Carre Really Thought of the Movie Adaptation.”
- Taras, Kasia.“Plus Camerimage Hoyte Van Hoytema interview.” (2012)