Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: I CAN EXPLAIN IT TO YOU

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Did you see it? Did you understand what happened? Don’t feel bad if you didn’t: Malcolm Gladwell who’s a pretty damn smart man said of LeCarre’s “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” that he’d read the book once every five years since he was sixteen, and only started figuring out what was happening on the third or fourth read. LeCarre doesn’t provide a road map for his readers, he sort of shoves them off a cliff and hopes they can keep up.


The thing about working in a movie theater (hereafter referred to as “the Cinecave” – because it’s a cinema that’s underground. Literally. It’s an underground cinema, hence, it’s “cinema” + “cave.” It’s very clever, but only because I didn’t come up with it) is that you get to go see movies for free.

The other thing about working in the Cinecave is that you really don’t want to go to see movies there, for free or otherwise. It’s not because it’s not a nice theater. It’s not because it doesn’t play good movies. It’s because for the love of holy Jesus Mary and Joseph I already spend a lot of time there and I don’t care to spend my non-working hours at work, even if I’m enjoying myself.

But sometimes I do go there on my non-work hours, because there are films that I am so dammed excited to see.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of those films, and I wrote about going to the after hours staff screening of it roughly two weeks ago. Actually, two weeks ago exactly, now that I realize today is Thursday. I’ve been having a hard time keeping track of which day is which this week.

I went to see the movie again today, for a couple of reasons. First, because I was seeing it so late the last time, I drifted asleep in a few parts. Second, I’m reading the George Smiley books — in order! — and wanted some Gary Oldman in the role. I’ve also started the BBC series with Alec Guinness as dear Mr. Smiley — I almost prefer him to Oldman.

I mean. Obi Wan > Sirius Black. Sorry, Harry.

So I caught the first show today (I took today & tomorrow off from my full time job). After, I was the last person out of the theater (it was the biggest auditorium and it was pretty full for a Thursday afternoon), and I was talking with one of my coworkers who’d seen it with her husband. “Okay,” she said to me, “Explain this movie to me, because I didn’t follow it.”

So as she cleaned the theater, I explained. And since I’ve had lots of people tell me as they exited the auditorium that they didn’t follow what had happened, I thought that my explanation to my coworker would make for a good blog post.

A Warning in Two Parts:

First, this reconstruction of the film’s plot is based on what I remember of seeing the film. I may at times misremember certain things, either due to my failing memory, or because I’m confusing it with events in the book, or the BBC adaptation. Also, the reconstruction will attempt to proceed on chronological order (the film frequently utilizes flashbacks).

Second, spoilers. Lot of ’em. You are entering a Spoiler Zone. Avoid Avoid Avoid!



November: Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) is sent to Bulgaria to evaluate a member of the Russian Trade Mission who might be vulnerable to being tapped as an asset. Tarr recognizes that this individual, Boris, is in fact, like himself, a “Scalphunter”: a spy who is responsible for dirty stuff – assassinations, kidnapping, beating people up, etc. Tarr’s about to head back to England when he witnesses Boris beating up his wife, Irina. Tarr has a hunch that Irina might be vulnerable to working for the British, but it turns out she’s actually an intelligence operative who tells him she knows the identity of a Russian-planted mole in the upper echelon of the Circus, the upper organization of the British Intelligence Services. She’s unwilling to reveal who this person is until she’s brought out West.

Tarr contacts the Circus with this information. Almost immediately, Russian operatives kill Boris, and Irina is beaten comatose and put on a Russian flagged freighter bound for Odessa. Additionally, the British station agent is murdered, with his death framed on Tarr. Tarr knows the mole in the Circus is onto him and goes AWOL to avoid being killed.

Later, Control (John Hurt) has become aware of the mole in the Circus. He has been suspicious for some time of a source developed under a program called “Witchcraft” run by one of his deputies, Percy Allenline (Toby Jones). This suspicion is verified when Control is contacted by a Hungarian General organized in Hungary’s Intelligence services who is willing to provide the name of the mole as a prelude to becoming a high level British source. Control sends a trusted agent, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Budapest to meet with this general. Prideaux ignores his instructions “not to trust anyone” and reveals his mission to Bill Haydon (Colin Firth).

Prideaux has been instructed, as soon as he meets with the general, he is to communicate to Control one of five code words (based on a children’s rhyme) the identity of the mole. Tinker for Percy Alleline, Tailor for Bill Haydon, Soldier for Roy Bland, Poorman for Esterhase, and Beggarman for Smiley.

Prideaux gets to Budapest, but recognizes that he’s being set up. When he attempts to escape, he’s shot by a Hungarian agent. Although it’s been reported that he has died, he has in fact been nursed back to health, interrogated, and repatriated secretly to the United Kingdom, where he’s begun teaching under an assumed name at a boarding school. He’s also seen Irina shot in front of him, although he had no idea who she was.

But before we get to the point that Prideaux’s been nursed back to health, the Circus’s communication room is exploding with word of what’s happened in Hungary. An officer named Jerry Westerby (Stephen Graham) had been assigned by Control to monitor communications for word from Prideaux. When Westerby tells Control that Prideaux has been apparently killed, Control becomes distant. Westerby begins calling the deputy heads, starting with Smiley. However, Smiley’s wife Ann informs Westerby that Smiley is away in Germany. Ann, who is rather serially unfaithful, passes what Westerby’s told her to Bill Haydon (who is in bed with her), which explains why Haydon arrives at the Circus without Westerby contacting him.

(Interesting side note: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is the first of the so-called “Karla Trilogy” which pit George Smiley against Russian spymaster Karla. The second book is “The Honourable Schoolboy”, and Jerry Westerby is the honourable schoolboy of the title).

As a result of this cock-up (Control had gone outside of all channels to keep the mission secret), Control is forced out. He also forces George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to step down with him. He knows Smiley is not the mole because Smiley was in Germany when the Prideaux operation happened. Additionally, he believes Smiley is the best person to identify the mole, and communicates this to Oliver Lacon, who oversees the intelligence services on a Parlimentary level.

Lacon (Simon McBurney) doesn’t believe Control, he feels Control was paranoid. He just files the information away. Meanwhile, Ricky Tarr has re-entered England. He contacts Lacon and tells him what happened in Bulgaria, and urges Lacon to investigate the matter through his supervisor, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch). Lacon enlists Guillam to bring Smiley to a meeting, where Lacon explains Control’s theory about a mole. Smiley agrees to identify and bring out the mole, and enlists Guillam for his dirty work.

Smiley learns more about Witchcraft, which is the program Alleline (who is now head of the Circus) has been running. Witchcraft is designed to protect a British source code named “Merlin” who is passing intelligence to the British. Merlin is a top placed source in Russian intelligence. To communicate with Merlin, the Circus has established a safe house in London. The existence of Merlin is restricted to Alleline, Bland, Esterhase, and Haydon, who provide him mostly junk intelligence, with the occasional beefy report, to keep Merlin’s supervisors in Moscow convinced he’s still on their side.

In reality, the information Merlin is feeding the British is mostly junk, with the occasional beefy report. Meanwhile, high level intelligence is being passed to Merlin by the mole, with Merlin transmitting that information to Moscow.

Paranoid that Control and Smiley were trying to take control of Witchcraft before their dismissal, Alleline and Esterhase became very protective of their source and dismissed members of the intelligence services who got too close to his identity, such as the case with researcher Connie Sachs (who later tells Smiley that she is decidedly “underfucked”). Sachs is aware that the Russian cultural attache Polyokov acts as the funnel of information to and from Merlin, but believes Polyokov is in reality a member of the Soviet military, after finding footage of uniformed officers saluting him while he is in civilian clothes. She tells Alleline she suspects Polyokov is a Karla operative, and is dismissed from the service. Esterhase pays a sum of money to Prideaux after his relocation and tells him to “forget Tinker Tailor”, but believes Tinker Tailor was a scheme of Control’s to identify Merlin.

Tarr makes contact with Smiley and explains what happened in Bulgaria. To verify his story, Guillam is told to steal the duty officer’s communication log from the Circus. Guillam is able to accomplish this with some help from Medley (first introduced in LeCarre’s first novel, “Call for the Dead”). Guillam thinks he’s been caught when Esterhas calls him to a meeting with Alleline, Blunt, and Haydon, who warn him that Tarr has been turned.

Arriving at Smiley’s, Guillam is surprised to see Tarr, who he hasn’t seen since before Bulgaria. Guillam believes Tarr is a traitor until Smiley asks Tarr if he knows precisely what day he contacted the Circus about Irina’s information on the mole. Tarr answers that he knows the day: November 20th. Smiley shows Guillam the log book, where the page for November 20th has been carefully removed. Tarr is telling the truth.

Smiley sends Tarr to Paris to force the mole’s hand. Tarr is willing to do this, but wants Smiley to do everything he can to have Irina brought to England. Smiley has already determined Prideaux is alive and debriefed him and is convinced Irinia is dead, but does not tell Tarr. Smiley is able to force the location of the safe house from Esterhase.

In Paris, Tarr barges into the British Intelligence Office with a gun, and instructs them to send a message to the Circus, repeating his message from Bulgaria. The four top men of the Circus are called in to headquarters, but it’s Bill Haydon who goes to the safe house, with a message to Karla to have Tarr eliminated, where he’s captured by Smiley & Guillam and admits to being the Soviet mole.

Haydon admits to Smiley that he seduced Ann on Karla’s orders. Karla was afraid that Control was onto Haydon, but didn’t know how close he was. By seducing Ann, Smiley wouldn’t be able to trust his feelings on Haydon, and any accusation might appear as sour grapes. Haydon is going to be deported to Russia, but is shot and killed by Jim Purdeaux, who were close friends in the past.

Alleline is dismissed from the Circus, and George Smiley is made the new head of the Circus.

******MOVIE ENDS*****

Y’know, I don’t know if that was any less confusing than the movie was. Well, that’s what the comment section is for.

217 thoughts on “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: I CAN EXPLAIN IT TO YOU

  1. Was the young boy, Bill, a plant? He was in Budapest and in the boys’ school in England. He saw Jim get shot, and should have later recognized him.

  2. I watched the movie a second time yesterday and was like a different movie i got drawn in by the details i missed first time. I actually wanted to know why Hayden was shot at the end of the movie. Now reading this it makes sense. Id like to add that smiley visits hayden in the cell, hayden asks smiley to take care of a lady friend who will be asking after him, he then says a boy will also be asking and if he could give them money and reassure them hed be thankful. I thought at first it was a son but maybe its a boyfriend which would confirm what other posters have said that Haydon was bisexual.

  3. Doug on January 31, 2015 at 12:06 am wrote:

    “Is Guillam homosexual? I meant.”

    Yes, Peter is gay. As Richard is leaving the flat, he tells Peter: “If there is someone else, you can tell me. I’m an grown-up.” As Richard put the keys on the table, Peter looks at him, devastated.

  4. I remember the Student….Bill…at the School…..but don’t remember anything of him in Budapest..??….why would a young boy his age be involved.?…Budapest is a mystery…but then…could be something i overlooked………Need to watch the Show again…..Danke….Hans Fischer

  5. Hi to all. I left a. (Long) comment not so long ago butdon’t send it here. Oh well, perhaps too long winded? i’ll touch on some points that make this story in film so intriging and successful as a spy-vs-spy masterpiece.

    while we see much of Smiley’s expressions, body language, reactions and stoic presenc, it makes the film when the characters around him:

    -are not always shown full body/face. Examples are PEter, even more for special operation agent Mendle.

    there is ‘secrecy’ and ‘silence’ in many parts which gives the film mystery and raises questions of our own.

    someone asked about the boy, Bill Roach. When Prideaux/Mr. Ellis a.k.a. Jim Prideaux meets and greets the boy, he references a few Bill’s, all good ‘uns – showing that he still believes Control was a bit ‘mad’ and his friend Bill Hayden was on the up-and-up. I think the boy is somewhat a metaphor – a ‘young Bill’, starting anew; one Jim could trust for a lifetime.

    one more interesting thing: the date on Control’s exit-paper is 14th November and Ricki Tarr sent his message to the CIrcus on 20th November.

    Mal – what do u think about this coinsiding dates of events?


  6. I think it was a brilliant script, considering the somewhat dull style of John Le Carré, in which the movie was based. I disagree with the person assuming Smiley was Karla. Smiley was an ordinary man with extraordinary insights to get the job done. He had an established reputation as a loyal, intelligent spy. I understood the movie fully on the first view. Everything became clear to me except for a few takes. The script played the audience a bit to keep people guessing and there was plenty of that to go around. In his ordinariness and a bit of dullness, Smiley rather waited for things to come to him, rather than aggressively pursuing them. He exhibited patience and endurance. I think the scene of the bee trapped in the car was symbolic of that. The thing that was never clear to me was the circumstance of Bill Haydon’s (the mole) death. This scene can be interpreted correctly in several ways. It could’ve been Prideaux’s doing on his own. He loved Haydon but obviously the mole didn’t mind betraying Prideaux’s love and friendship for the sake of his moledome. It also could be interpreted as Smiley’s request, due to the fact that Prideaux was weak and although he was instructed by Control not to trust anyone, he didn’t mind warning his friend. This could have ruined all of it for Smiley and the whole investigation. Even in his obvious devotion and weakness towards Ann, his wife, Smiley exhibited his patience and long suffering. At the end, he was rewarded when Anne came back to him, although I wonder if she will wander once again. I loved the portrayal of Anne. Always showed in profile at different angles, it played well with the illusive, slippery of a wife she represented. I love the takes from smoky/window mirrors throughout the movie. The sound mix was also superb. All in all, Smiley became Control, because, in all honesty, who could’ve taken over to such a task after so many failures? About the comparison between Alex Guinness and Gary Oldman in the role of Smiley, I take my hat off to Oldman. Gary’s monologue (relating his experience with Karla in ’55) was remarkable. The casting was superb and every actor did their craft superbly. As a woman myself, I loved Connie Sachs’ part. She played it flawlessly. All in all, the movie was a noteworthy undertaking and I have watched it over and over again, enjoying new discoveries and fresh anew angles. A classic and my favorite espionage movie of all time.

  7. Thank you for this, I really needed it. I was confused about Haydon’t death (actually I’m still not 100% sure if it’s totally out of revenge or if there’s also a bit of mercy in such a clean shot), but I think I’m leaning towards revenge now. In any case, this timeline was great, thank you!!

  8. Haydon and Purdeaux are gay lovers. Thats why Purdeaux cries when he shoots Haydon (Gaydon). Also, during the xmas flashback scene you can see Haydon look over at Purdeaux lovingly. That and the fact that Purdeaux went to see haydon before he went to Hungary which is where he was tortured… he was pretty pissed off that Haydon set him up like that to cover his own ass.

    there are still a few things i dont understand. I know that Purdeaux got shot and taken in by Karla’s team in Hungary but who is the guy he is sitting down with at the cafe? is he in on the plan or oblivious to it?

    Why does Karla put Irina infront of Purdeaux and then shoot her? is it becuase Karla is trying to find out if Purdeaux is the other british agent Ricki Tarr (who is irinas lover)? I think he wanted to see what Purdeaux’s reaction to murdering irina would be maybe.

    What reason does haydon have to be a mole? Does he dislike his home in the west and perfer the east?

    Who is the money meant to be for at the end? Haydon gives Smiley 2 envelopes and says pay the girl and the boy. Is haydon reffering to Smileys wife and Purdeaux?

    Why doesnt Smiley ever react negativley to Haydon ploughing his wife? Does it really not bother him that much? For real? Sometimes they let shit slide in a movie to make the story happen.. otherwise it beomes impossible.

    Anyway. Peace.

  9. I am surprised that some people asked about the “tapping” when Smiley arrived home from Germany. If you pay attention, Smiley is moving slowly because he knows “someone” is climbing down the steps. Also, very briefly, you see a take where you can see Bill Hayden’s boots. Smiley already knows the “person” is sitting at his left on the table but focus his eyes to the table where the “daub” painting was placed by Hayden. I still don’t understand why Smiley was so passive with Bill, after suspecting and later confirming Ann and Bill’s affair at the Christmas Party. Great movie and great script, although it would’ve been nice if the movie would show Bland being dismissed and Esterhase being force into that plane. It would have made me smile widely.

  10. At the end of the movie, we see Tarr walking in the rain, then enter a house and there is a woman waiting for him inside. Was that Irina? But I thought she was dead. Or was that Smiley entering his house and Ann waiting for him? That’s the only scene that confused me. And who was the man with the lighter in the cafe? Was that the man Smiley described who took his lighter, or who ever executed the man who took the lighter?

  11. Thanks for the part where you read that I was compiling the post from reading the book, watching the movie, and the BBC miniseries, and where I admitted I might get some things mixed up. Jerk.

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