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The film opens with Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) knocking on a door. The head of British Intelligence, “Control” (John Hurt), answers. He asks if Prideaux was followed, and Prideaux says no. They sit across the desk from one another in an extremely messy room. Control says he has a mission for Prideaux: he needs him to travel to Budapest. The mission is top secret, no one else can know. Control has had an offer of service from a Hungarian General, and he wants Prideaux to meet the General and get his information. Prideaux asks, “What information?” Control says “Treasure. The name of the mole the Russians have implanted in British Intelligence, right at the top. There’s a rotten apple, and we have to find it.”

Cut to Prideaux’s meeting at an outdoor café in Budapest. While some of the surrounding patrons appear legitimate, including a nursing mother, other customers seem to be watching Prideaux. He notices that the waiter is sweating profusely. Prideaux asks his contact, “When will I meet your friend?”, and the contact replies “Any minute now.” Prideaux can tell something is wrong, and he gets up to leave. Before he has taken more than a few steps, the waiter runs out of the café and shoots. His first shot misses Prideaux and hits the mother in the head, killing her. His second shot hits Prideaux square in the back, knocking him to the ground.

Back to British Intelligence, where Control is signing a document in a room full of somber employees. Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) says “I wish I could have done more.” Control says, “You did all you could.” Alleline asks, “What about Smiley?” Control says, “Smiley is leaving with me.” Everyone in the building watches quietly as Control and Smiley exit.

Cut to Smiley, woken by his alarm clock. He takes a swim in the river, then visits his optometrist, and walks home through the park. The shots of his morning are interspersed with shots of business carrying on at the British Intelligence office - secretaries typing, files being transferred and locked in safes. Then, a shot of Control collapsing in his hospital bed. When Smiley returns to his house, he checks that a tiny wooden wedge is still secure in his doorframe, so he knows that no one has entered the house while he was away. He checks his mail and sees a letter addressed to “Ann Smiley”, though it appears he lives alone.

Cut to Alleline visiting the Undersecretary, Oliver Lacon. Alleline requires funding for a top-secret operation, “Witchcraft”. Lacon asks why Alleline can’t request the funding through the usual channels, and Alleline says he needs to protect his Soviet source. Specifically, Alleline needs money for a townhouse that nobody knows the address to, where he can meet his contact in private. Lacon is reluctant to supply the funding because of the “disaster” is Budapest the previous year. He says the Minister is unhappy with the Secret Service because their reputation has suffered, and in the eyes of the Americans, British Intelligence is still a “leaky ship”. After Alleline leaves, Lacon receives a call from Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), who is calling from a phone booth.

Cut to Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch). Peter is chatting with Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) about a hot new employee in the office. They oogle her, then Peter heads to his office and answers his phone. Smiley is calling, and Peter immediately leaves to pick him up. As they drive, Peter says he was sorry to hear about Control’s death. Peter takes Smiley to Lacon’s house. Lacon tells them about his phone call with Ricki Tarr. Ricki told Lacon there is a mole at the top of the Secret Service, that the mole has been there for years. Lacon says that Smiley is well placed to look into the matter, since he’s “outside the family” now. Smiley says he’s retired. Lacon says Smiley has to catch the mole to protect his legacy. Smiley says he will take the job if he can use Peter.

The first task Smiley sets Peter is to get the keys to Control’s flat. They head to the apartment, which is messy and full of charts and papers. Smiley notices a chessboard, which is set up with pictures taped to some of the pieces. They are pictures of their co-workers: Alleline is a castle, Haydon is a bishop, etc. Smiley remembers a meeting where Alleline talked about Operation Witchcraft and his new top-secret Soviet contact. Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) complained that the Secret Service was losing their partners, that no one trust them anymore. Everyone started arguing, and half the men walked out of the meeting. Smiley turns the last chess piece, the Queen, and sees his own photograph taped on the other side.

Smiley and Peter haul all of Control’s stuff back to the Hotel Islay where they are staying. Smiley sets up the chess board the same way Control had it. The white Queen has a tag that says “Karla”, but there is no photograph. Smiley asks Peter to go to “Circus” (the slang name for the British Intelligence headquarters) and get records of all recently retired staff, as well as lists of payments to the “reptile fund”. Peter goes in at night when there are less people around, but he still notices Toby Esterhase speaking Hungarian to someone on the phone, and Roy Bland heading up to the rooftop for some kind of meeting.

Peter returns to the Hotel Islay and gives Smiley the files. Smiley notices that a number of people “retired” directly after he and Control were fired. He decides to speak with one in particular, Connie Sachs.

Cut to Alleline, who is meeting with Lacon and the Minister. Alleline says he has been keeping his Soviet contact under wraps, testing the validity of his intel, but he’s ready to take his source to the next level. He wants to use ”Witchcraft” as a bargaining chip to get access to American intelligence.

Back to Smiley, who is paying Connie Sachs a visit. Connie is happy to see Smiley, but she also looks concerned. She says, “I heard that Anne left you again. She doesn’t deserve you,” but Smiley cuts her off. He says, “You left the service shortly after I was dismissed.” Connie says, “I didn’t leave, I was chucked out.” Smiley asks why? Connie says she was keeping an eye on a Russian cultural attaché named Polyakov. When he arrived in London 15 years earlier, she asked to have him checked out. She had heard rumors that Karla (a high-ranking Russian officer) had set up a secret cell to handle moles, and she thought that Polyakov might have been sent to London to support a mole. While watching videotape of a parade, she noticed that the supposed civilian Polyakov received a covert salute from another officer. The salute indicated that he was a military veteran, in which case, why was he hiding that fact? She showed the video to Alleline, but instead of taking her concerns seriously, Alleline accused her of being obsessed with Polyakov and told her to drop it. Connie shrugs and says “The old Circus is gone now, so what does it matter?” She and Smiley look through some old photographs of the Secret Service team. She comments that Prideaux and Bill Haydon were inseparable. She says, “That was a good time. It was the war. A real war. Englishmen could be proud then.” As Smiley leaves, she says “If it’s bad, don’t come back. I want to remember you all as you were.”

Cut to Smiley’s memory of an old Christmas party. Everyone is laughing and joking. All of the employees are dancing and talking. Control is teasing Alleline about the punch, and Smiley gives his wife Ann a kiss on the cheek.

Back to headquarters, where more files are being sent up in the elevator and locked in the safe. Later, when the office is quiet, someone removes those files from the safe and carries them out in a briefcase.

Meanwhile, Smiley cuts a picture of Polyakov out of a Russian newspaper and tapes it to one of the chess pieces.

The next morning, Peter comes to the Hotel Islay. Smiley says he found a request for $1000 pounds from the reptile fund, made out to Prideaux two months after he was killed in Hungary.

Cut to a chubby boy, looking out the window of his classroom. He sees a caravan mired in the mud in the road outside the school. Prideaux enters the classroom and introduces himself as the substitute teacher, Monsieur Ellis. He is handing out the new schoolbooks when all of a sudden an owl flies down the chimney and flaps around the classroom, wings burning from the fire. Prideaux kills the owl with his pointer. Later, while he shines his shoes in his caravan, the chubby boy comes to speak with him. The boy introduces himself as Bill Roach. He’s new in school. Prideaux asks him, “What are you good at?” Bill says, “Nothing, sir.” Prideaux says, “You’re a good watcher. Us loners always are.”

Back to Alleline. He has just completed a meeting with an American delegate. It is apparent that they have come to some kind of agreement regarding intelligence sharing.

Cut to Smiley, returning to his home. He notices that his little wooden wedge has fallen from the door. He enters his house cautiously, while someone creeps down the stairs behind him in sock feet. Smiley says, “Hello Ricki. You missed the wedge. Where have you been?” Ricki says, “They’re going to kill me, your lot or their lot, whoever gets me first. I’m innocent. I needed to see you. There’s a woman, I need you to trade for her, get her back from Karla. Her name is Irina.”

Smiley asks to hear Ricki’s story, and Ricki explains that the previous November he was sent to Istanbul to locate a Russian defector named Boris. Ricki was supposed to persuade Boris to come over to the British side. Ricki found Boris in a nightclub, but when he noticed that Boris was only pretending to be drunk, he knew Boris was a fake defector. The mission was a failure, so Ricki was supposed to return to London the next day. Instead, he kept spying on Boris, who was living was his common-law wife Irina. Ricki watched through his binoculars as Irina caught Boris in bed with another woman, and Boris beat Irina. Irina was extremely beautiful, and Ricki thought he could salvage the mission. He made contact with her, posing as a businessman looking for a holiday romance. He took his time and developed a relationship with her, because he sensed that she had valuable information. He thought he had her fooled, but in the midst of flirting she said, ”I know who you are. I want to talk to your boss - I have something to trade, something big, I want a new life in the west.” Ricki telegraphed headquarters, but no one responded. He told Irina, “You can’t expect them to jump at every offer, you need to tell me more.” She said, “If I tell you everything, I’m putting my life in your hands, the lives of other people.” He started undressing her and they had sex. Afterward, Irina told him her secret, and Ricki promised he wouldn’t give the details to London until she got her deal.

Ricki returned to the British safe-house to send another message to headquarters. Rick tells Smiley, “I was the one that did the dirty little jobs for the Service. I was excited to have such a big secret, information vital to the safeguarding of the Circus. It concerned a double agent.” Ricki waited for a reply from headquarters for hours, but there was no response until 3:30 a.m., when all it said was “We read you”. Ricki tells Smiley, “It didn’t make sense, like they were stalling. Then suddenly the Russians began to move.” Ricki found his fellow agent with his throat slit. He tried to call Irina, but there was no answer.

Cut to a flashback of Irina, finding the other British agent laying in the bathtub, disemboweled. Russian agents break into the apartment and attack her, tying her to a stretcher and carrying her to a ship bound for Odessa.

Ricki finishes his story by saying, “I’ve done a lot of things in my life Mr. Smiley, but I can’t stop thinking about her. I’ve got to get her out.” Smiley says, “Karla will be looking for you.” Ricki says, “Everyone is looking for me.”

Back to British headquarters, where a fleet of secretaries are listening to phone calls. They intercept a call that indicates that Ricki Tarr has flown back to London, and they report the information to Alleline.

Back to Smiley, who asks Peter to return to headquarters and bring back the duty officer’s logbook from last November. Smiley warns him, “If you’re caught, you can’t mention me. I’m sorry, you’re alone.”

Peter heads off to headquarters. Meanwhile, a man in a suit is waiting inside “Lanson and Sons Auto”. Back to Peter, who is trying to enter the file room. The clerk forces Peter to check his briefcase before he can enter. Peter searches the stacks for the file he needs. Back to the man at the auto shop, who asks to use the telephone. The switchboard ladies intercept his call and begin recording. He asks to speak to Peter Guillam. Peter takes the call. He pretends there is a problem with his car, and asks the clerk if he can have his briefcase for just a minute. Under the guise of retrieving a number for the mechanic, he slips the files into his briefcase. At that moment, Esterhase says that Alleline needs a word with Peter. Peter sends his briefcase up in the elevator and follows Esterhase upstairs.

Alleline asks Peter if he has seen Ricki Tarr lately. Peter says, “Yeah, we have tea every weekend.” Alleline starts yelling. He says Ricki is a traitor and defector who slit the throat of his partner. Alleline accuses Peter of consorting with Ricki and threatens Peter with prison time. Peter says he hasn’t seen Ricki. Alleline says that Ricki mysteriously received a 30,000 pound wire transfer last week. He says, “He was turned, and now the Russians have sent him back to muddy the waters and spread nonsense! If you see him, you are to tell us immediately, and no one else.”

Peter returns to the hotel and sees Ricki talking with Smiley. Peter jumps on Ricki and starts punching him in the face. Smiley pulls Peter off, saying that Ricki is helping them. Peter says, “He’s a double agent! There is no mole.” Smiley asks Ricki what day he supposedly sent the telegraph to headquarters regarding Irina. Ricki says, “It was November 20th.” Smiley pulls out the files Peter has just stolen. He opens the duty officer’s logbook and shows Peter that the page from November 20th is missing. He says, “Do you think that’s a coincidence?” Peter asks about the 30,000 pounds, and Smiley says that someone obviously put that in Ricki’s account to discredit him.

Later that night, Smiley and Peter are drinking and talking. Smiley says, “I met him once, Karla, back in ‘55. Half their agents were jumping ship, and I traveled around signing them up. He had a 24-hour layover in Delhi, so I had 24 hours to convince him to come over to us instead of going home to be executed. I was so tired then. I had been working so long, and there were problems with Ann. But I went to meet him, and I saw the Americans had tortured him. He had no fingernails. I told him, come to the west, we’ll give you a comfortable life. I said think of your wife. I kept going on about the wife, telling more about myself than about him. I said, we aren’t so different, we both spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in each other’s systems. Don’t you think it’s time you admitted there is as little worth on your side as on mine? He never said a word, not one word. The next morning he headed back to Russia to what he presumed would be his death. I had given him a pack of cigarettes, he didn’t touch them. But he kept the lighter, a gift from Ann. It had an inscription on it.” Peter says, “That was Karla? He went back to die rather than give in.” Smiley says, “Yes, and that’s how I know he can be beaten. He’s a fanatic, and a fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.” Peter says, “What did he look like?” Smiley says, “I can’t remember.” He pauses, then says, “After today Peter, you have to assume they are watching you. If there is anything you need tidied up, now is the time.”

After their meeting, Peter returns home. There is a man sitting in his kitchen, working on a crossword puzzle. Peter sits down to talk with him. Cut to the man standing by the door, bag in hand. He says, “If there’s someone else, you can tell me. I’m a grownup.” Peter says nothing and his lover leaves. After he’s gone, Peter breaks down and cries.

Back to Smiley, who is remembering the Christmas party again. When Santa Clause came out dressed as a Russian communist, everyone sang the Russian national anthem in a mocking way, except for Esterhase who didn’t seem to think it was funny. Afterwards, Smiley walked down the hallway and saw Ann kissing someone else.

Cut to Smiley interviewing a Secret Service technician. He asks him about the night Prideaux was shot. The technician says the story came on the wire, that Prideaux had been accused of trying to kidnap the Hungarian general. The technician asked Control if he should deny it, but Control just sat silently in his office. The technician tried to call Smiley’s house, but Ann said he wasn’t home. Luckily, Bill Hayden turned up and took the whole situation in hand. Hayden said he heard the story on the news at his club. He called the Hungarian embassy and recalled all the Hungarian agents. Then Hayden and the technician went to Prideaux’s apartment and cleared out any incriminating evidence.

When Smiley tells Peter the technician’s story, Peter says Hayden couldn’t have heard the news at his club at that time of night. Smiley says Hayden knew about the incident because he was at Smiley’s house.

Cut to a memory of Smiley returning home from a trip. He sees Hayden sitting at his kitchen table, with a half-unwrapped present in front of him. He says the gift is for Smiley, that he dropped by to give it to him. Smiley glances under the table and sees that Hayden is trying to get his feet back into his shoes while they talk. The implication is that Hayden had to hastily dress when he saw Smiley was home, aka, Hayden is the one having an affair with Ann.

Back to the school where Prideaux is letting Bill drive his car around the field while the other kids run to keep up. When Bill gets out of the car, Prideaux asks him “Who is that man down there? Beggar, thief? Why doesn’t he look this way even with all this spectacle we’re making?”

The man is Smiley. When school lets out, he comes to Prideaux’s caravan to talk. Prideaux says that Control told him about the mole, but he thought it was crazy. Control said he knew it was one of five men. He lined up the chess pieces: “Alleline: Tinker, Hayden: Tailor, Bland: Soldier, Esterhase: Poorman.” Prideaux said, “And the fifth?” Control said, “Smiley.”

Even though he thought it was crazy, Prideaux still went on the Budapest mission. The waiter must have panicked, since the Russians simply intended to kidnap Prideaux. They drove him to a military hospital, then put him on a transport plane. They tortured him for weeks, maybe months. They used auditory torture, tied him to a chair, beat him. Smiley says, “What did you tell them?” Prideaux says, “Everything. I held on as long as I could to let our men get out. Did they get out?” Smiley says, “No, they were blown. The story is you blew them to save your own skin.” Prideaux says, “After the interrogators cleared out, this little man showed up, he looked like a priest. That’s when the real torture started. I tried to keep quiet about the mole, but that was a joke, they already knew, they only wanted to know how far Control had gotten in his investigation. They brought in this blond girl (Irina), and asked if he knew her, I said no, so they shot her in the head. They said tell Alleline what we did.” Smiley says, “Did they ask about me?” Prideaxu says, “Yes, the little one did, he had this cigarette lighter, he showed me the inscription.”

Flashback to the café in Budapest. Someone is sitting inside. Beside his coffee cup is a silver lighter that says, “To George, All my love, Ann.”

Prideaux finishes his story. He says, “It was odd, they sent me back to England. I was debriefed at the Nursery, then I had a visitor, Esterhase. He gave me 1000 pounds, told me I was dead. He said I couldn’t come back and I had to forget everything including Tinker, Tailor.” Smiley says, “How did Esterhase hear about Tinker Tailor?”

Cut to Smiley listening to tapes of his interviews with Ricki. He plays one quote over and over where Ricki says, “Irina told me that Moscow is laughing at us. They say everything Circus thinks is gold is shit.”

Smiley goes to meet Lacon and the Minister. Smiley brings up the top-secret townhouse where Alleline meets Polyakov. The Minister says “I told you to keep your nose out of Witchcraft.” Smiley says, “You think Polyakov’s role is to bring information to you. His real role is to receive information for Karla.” The Minister argues that Polyakov has provided them with valuable information, but Smiley says it’s garbage. He says, “Control didn’t believe in Witchcraft, it was too easy, but you shoved him out, you were greedy, and you opened the door to Karla. The gold Karla let you have wasn’t to lure you, it was to lure the Americans.” Basically, Polyakov is a double-crosser who pretends to pass valuable information to the British so they can work with the Americans, opening the door for the mole to steal intel from the Americans. The Minister says, “What can we do?” Smiley says, “We have one thing the mole wants.”

Cut to Ricki and Smiley. Ricki says, “If I go to Paris, I want your word that you will get Irina back, and then I’m out. I want a family, I don’t want to end up like you lot.” Smiley says, “I’ll do my utmost Ricki.” He doesn’t tell Ricki that Irina is already dead.

Cut to Esterhase, who is about to leave headquarters. Peter pulls him into the car with Smiley. They drive Esterhase to an airstrip the middle of nowhere. Smiley pulls him out of the car and says, “I want to talk about loyalty Toby. Control recruited you. He found you starving in a museum in Vienna, a wanted man. He saved your life, yet when the time came to pick sides between him and Allaline, you didn’t hesitate. I suppose it makes sense with your war experience, you survived because of your ability to change sides, to serve any master.” Esterhase says, “What is this about?” Smiley says, “It’s about which master you’ve been serving. Someone has been taking files, they were delivered to Polyakov.” Esterhase says, “Yes, I delivered them. But so did Alleline, so did Hayden, and so did Roy Bland.” A plane lands on the runway, and Esterhase looks terrified. He says, “Things aren’t always what they seem, George. Moscow thinks Polyakov is working for them, so every now and then we give him the odd file, just to keep his bosses happy.” Smiley says, “I know about Operation Witchcraft.” Esterhase starts to beg, he says, “Please, I don’t deserve this.” Smiley says, “Who gave you the message about Tinker Tailor?” Esterhase says “I don’t know – Bland, or maybe Alleline. I don’t know who.” Smiley says, “You’re just the messenger, running between the mole. I know all about your secret source, and I know something you don’t. I know who he is. Karla. One of you has been giving Polyakov the crown jewels.” Esterhase says, “I didn’t know!” Smiley says, “You picked the wrong side.” Esterhase starts crying. He says, “I am loyal, I am loyal! Don’t send me back, please!” Smiley says, “Give me the address. Where do you meet Polyakov?”

Smiley and Peter pull up to the secret townhouse. A woman answers the door. She is suspicious of them, until Smiley gives her the code word from Esterhase. Then she shows them the secret rooms and the microphones. Smiley and Peter get everything ready for that night.

Cut to Ricki in Paris. He’s following a man gets into a white car. Ricki jumps in the back seat, gun drawn. He forces the man to take him to a British safe-house. He has the agents send a telegraph to headquarters reading “Ricki Tarr claims to have information vital to the safeguarding of the service.”

Back in London, Peter waits outside headquarters and Smiley waits inside the townhouse. Once Ricki’s message is received at headquarters, Alleline, Bland, and Hayden all roll up in taxis. They meet for a while, then leave. Peter calls Smiley to tell him the three men have left headquarters, and someone should be coming to the townhouse soon. Meanwhile, in Paris Ricki receives a telegraph saying, “Require clarification before meeting your request.” He laughs and says, “That’s it Alleline, you keep stalling!

A car pulls up at the townhouse. Smiley hears Polyakov and someone else conversing in Russian. Smiley sneaks closer in stocking feet so no one will hear him. Meanwhile, Peter is rushing over from headquarters. He creeps upstairs and sees Polyakov leaving the room. Smiley is sitting inside, with his gun trained on someone. Peter looks inside and sees it is Hayden. Hayden is the mole.

Cut to Alleline exiting a prison complex while Smiley walks in. Smiley has come to visit Hayden, who is in custody. Hayden says, “I’ll be off in a few days. I’ll miss the cricket in Moscow. Will you do some light housekeeping for me? There’s a girl - give her some money for me, and a cover story. There’s a boy too. Slip him a few quid to shut him up.” Smiley says “I did have one or two questions about Prideaux.” Hayden is defensive. He says, “I got him back, didn’t I!” Smiley says, “Did Prideaux come and see you before he left on that Hungarian mission?” Hayden is ashamed because he and Prideaux were best friends. He says, “Yes. He came.” Smiley says, “To say what? To warn you, because he knew deep down it was you all along?” Hayden says, “So did you. I had to pick a side. It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The west has become so very ugly.” Smiley says, “Did Karla ever consider having you take over Circus?” Hayden says, “I’m not his bloody office boy!” Smiley says, “What are you then?” Hayden says, “I’m someone who’s made his mark.” Smiley pauses, then says, “Is there anything particular you want me to pass on to Ann?” Hayden says, “That was nothing personal, I hope you understand that. Karla said you were good, the one we had to worry about, but you do have a blind spot. If I was known to be Ann’s lover, you wouldn’t be able to see me straight, and he was right, up to a point.” Smiley says, “Yes, up to a point.”

Back to the caravan, where Prideaux is drinking and smoking. The chubby kid Bill comes to visit him again. He’s made Prideaux a present, something carved out of wood. Prideaux is upset and he yells, “I don’t want you hanging around here anymore. Keep away from me from now on. Go and join the others. Go and play, damn you!”

Cut to Smiley, remembering the Christmas party again. At the end of the evening, when everything was winding down, Hayden was watching Prideaux. As their eyes met, Prideaux smiled, but when Hayden looked away, Prideaux got an uncomfortable look on his face.

Back to the prison complex. Hayden is standing outside, looking through the mesh wire. Prideaux has come to visit him, but he stands a ways off in the trees. As Hayden watches, Prideaux raises a rifle and aims it at him. Hayden doesn’t move. Prideaux shoots Hayden in the cheek, right under his left eye. Hayden drops to the ground, and a tear rolls down Prideaux’s cheek.

Cut to Ricki, standing outside in the rain. Cut to Connie Sachs, looking out her window. Cut to Smiley, returning home. He walks into his house and sees that someone is sitting in his kitchen. He pauses, gripping the railing. Then he goes inside to greet Ann, touching her on the shoulder.

Back at headquarters, Smiley walks upstairs. He sees Peter, and they pass one another in the hall without any kind of acknowledgement, but Peter gives a small smile once he’s past. Smiley takes Control’s old seat in the meeting room.

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