A truly excellent movie always manages to boil its story down to the essentials. It’s the mediocre ones that fumble around trying to figure out what they’re about. I won’t say what the bad ones do, but it often involves some hand lotion and a back issue of National Geographic.
Released at the height of the James Bond heyday, this sober, gritty adaptation of John le Carré’s novel seems like a deliberate antidote to the increasingly fanciful adventures of Ian Fleming’s superspy. There are no outlandish gadgets or glamorous locations and the only significant female character dresses like a librarian (Of course, that might have something to do with the fact that she’s a librarian). For those who like their espionage somewhat grounded in reality, this movie is a three-course meal.
It’s no accident that the moral center of this movie, a kindly rabbi named Ben (Sam Waterston), is in the process of going blind. Woody Allen’s bleak comedy takes a piercingly cynical look at the notion that punishment for the guilty is any kind of a certainty. In the world of this film, power, privilege and luck have more to do with justice than any kind of moral virtue.
Somewhere along the way, Hollywood forgot how to tell a ghost story. It happened without much fanfare, so I can’t say when, but certainly the success of Halloween had something to do with it. That isn’t to begrudge John Carpenter his success, but it set the pattern for the modern horror film that has since calcified into rote repetition. Any form of psychological terror has been jettisoned in favor of a geek show spectacle of masked super-killers leaping out of the shadows to disembowel horny teenagers.
The emergence of the PG-13 horror film recent years, much be-moaned by the gore-hounds, has restored some of my hope that the traditional ghost story might make a comeback. However, except for The Others, The Sixth Sense and possibly The Ring, there hasn’t been much to cheer about in that regard.