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DVD Picks: 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'

The cover of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
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Time now for a home-viewing recommendation from our film critic, Bob Mondello. With a new movie version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opening this week, Bob's suggesting the TV original.

At some point in my youth, I must have known the nursery rhyme "Tinker, tailor/ soldier, sailor/ rich man, poor man/beggar man, thief," but since 1979, the instant someone says "Tinker Tailor," the next two words that occur to me are "Alec Guinness."

In the BBC's six-hour miniseries, Guinness brought deadpan wit to the character of George Smiley, a middle-aged ex-spy who's been forced into retirement, and who swears he wants to stay there, though from the way he swears it, you'll guess he's not really anxious to settle down in a cozy little cottage in the Cotswolds.

As it happens, his former employers need him to anchor an investigation that has to stay secret even from its own secret agents. There's a Soviet mole in the highest ranks of British intelligence, and Smiley is brought back to root him out.
The miniseries takes its sweet time laying out plot points — a luxury the new movie doesn't have. Happily, that allows Guinness to do some plummy philosophizing (in one instance while interrogating a mute and startlingly young Patrick Stewart who never gets to show off his own plumminess).

Lives are on the line, and principles too, but like the John Le Carre novel it's based on, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the antithesis of a James Bond spy fantasy. No flashy gadgets or heroics, just workaday folks expertly plying their trade, be they undercover agents or understated actors.

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