In “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” retired British intelligence officer George Smiley is on a mission to find a Soviet mole in the agency in the early 1970s. But before filming could start, star Gary Oldman and director Tomas Alfredson had to do some tough sleuthing of their own to track down the perfect eyeglasses for Smiley, because the spectacles serve as clues for the audience trying to follow the complex tale.
A key break in their case came on Sunset Boulevard, and involved costar Colin Firth, which led to Old Town Pasadena. But before we go any further, some background is in order.
“Tinker Tailor,” based on a novel by John le Carré, is set in 1973-74, with flashbacks to earlier dates. While some directors might change the set, or cars on the street, or clothing — or just simply display the date on screen — Alfredson turned to glasses.
Early in the film, Smiley is forced to retire from the Secret Intelligence Service. He soon steps into an eyeglass shop, has his eyes checked and walks out wearing a distinctly new pair of glasses. From that point, by paying attention to Smiley’s frames, the audience can identify whether a scene is in the present or is a flashback.
“If you have a main character who will be onscreen for 80% of the film, if you put something on the middle of that person’s face, it will be in each and every shot,” Alfredson explained. “In many ways it could be more important than cars, sets and constructions.”
In addition to helping guide the audience, the glasses were also a critical component in constructing the character. “Smiley is a voyeur, he almost doesn’t speak in the film, it’s a very quiet part,” Alfredson added. “So his eyes are extremely important and they are very active in what they are reflecting.”
Alfredson, Oldman and costume designer Jacqueline Durran spent hours discussing exactly what Smiley’s first and second pair of glasses should look like.
For the first pair, Alfredson said that “Smiley is described as someone you would immediately forget. For that reason, we were looking for things that would make him as anonymous as possible. We decided not to put cufflinks on him — he would have a very gray and anonymous suit, white shirts. No details that people would remember. And his old glasses, we thought, should be the kind of glasses you were given in the military service. They’re very anonymous too.
“And with the new glasses, we wanted something that was more contemporary and we wanted them to have a lot of surface so they would reflect what was in the room in front of George,” Alfredson said. “Usually, you have this coating on glasses when you do films because you don’t want reflections, but in our case, we wanted reflections.”
Alfredson wanted Smiley’s second pair of glasses to serve as a mechanism through which the audience could see what Smiley could see. Alfredson chose to shoot a few moments from behind Smiley and through his glasses, so the glasses also needed to be quite wide.
Oldman sent hundreds of photos and images of glasses to Alfredson to fit the part of Smiley’s second pair.
The perfect pair was discovered after Oldman drove past a billboard for Colin Firth’s film “A Single Man” on Sunset Boulevard. Oldman said he remembered thinking to himself, “I have to have those fantastic glasses.” (Ironically, Firth ended up playing a very key role in “Tinker Tailor.”)
Fast forward some time and Oldman found himself in an airport, flipping through a magazine that had an advertisement saying: If you like the glasses Colin Firth wore in “A Single Man,” you can find them at Old Focals in Pasadena.
Oldman went to Old Focals, sifting through 200 pairs of glasses. Russ Campbell, owner of the shop, said he has provided glasses for many films; recently, he supplied 350 pairs for “Men in Black 3.”
“Whenever an actor comes in, the first thing we do is find out who their character is. Then we find the right shape for that character,” Campbell said. “Gary knew what he wanted down to the millimeter.”
Oldman narrowed the search down to 30 pairs, took them to London and a final decision three days before shooting began. Campbell said he isn’t sure what brand the chosen glasses are — being vintage, any markings were worn off.
“Smiley sees everything and he hears everything,” Oldman said. “I wanted wide glasses like a wise old owl for Smiley.”
-- Jasmine Elist and John Horn
Photo: George Smiley (Gary Oldman) has two sets of glasses in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." On the left are the "old" ones, and on the right are the "new" ones, found at Old Focals in Pasadena. Credit: Focus Features