Producers: Errol Morris, Dominic Crossley-Holland, Steven Hathaway, Simon Cornwell and Stephen Cornwell   Director: Errol Morris   Cast: David Cornwell, Errol Morris   Distributor: Apple+

Grade: B+

A filmmaker whose focus is the slipperiness of truth and a novelist whose life and work involved expertise in deception sit down for an interview in this fascinating documentary, which takes its title (as did David Cornwell’s 2016 memoir) from an incident in the author’s youth, when he witnessed a morning of shooting at a hotel in Monte Carlo where his father Ronnie, a consummate con-man, had taken him.  Pigeons from raised on the place’s roof were taken into an underground tunnel and then released into the air.  Some were shot by the guests with their hunting rifles; those that escaped the fusillade returned to their cages for the next session.

Cornwell says that the image of that event haunted him, and that at one point or another, he considered the title for almost all the books he later wrote, from “Call for the Dead” in 1961 to “Silverview,” published posthumously in 2021.  Cornwell, of course, used the pen name of John de Carré, and after a time when critics regularly praised him as the greatest spy novelist of his time, came to be thought of as simply one of the greatest novelists of that time whose chosen subject just happened to be spycraft and the deception and betrayal it necessarily involved.

Anyone looking for startling factual revelations from the encounter between a man whose films have often been either amusingly or gravely probing and one who has not only written about his life but excavated it profusely in constructing his fiction (as well as being the subject of a solid, if—as we now know—somewhat expurgated biography) will be disappointed.  Morris is clearly a fan, and while he occasionally nudges Cornwell to go more deeply into his attitude toward the mother who abandoned him or the father who used him to transport gambling winnings that creditors would seek to get their hands on (when Ronnie unpacks the cash and finds that the boy didn’t take some of it for himself, he was somewhat disappointed), he rather meekly submits when his subject declares something (his sex life, for example, which appears to have involved a good deal of philandering that was utilized in his writing) off limits. 

And so it’s with good cause that Morris offers clues that one shouldn’t take everything Cornwell says at face value.  He positions his subject surrounded by tall mirrors and then has cinematographer Igor Martinović shot him from a variety of angles, as if to emphasize the fractured character of the tales we’re hearing; and Cornwell adds to the mix by admitting, for example, that one of his most enduring memories, of his father waving at him from a prison cell, couldn’t have happened.  Yet that poignant moment is among the surrealistic re-enactments that editor Steven Hathaway inserts into the interviews, along with some excerpts from Cornwell’s audiobook, clips from films and mini-series adapted from his novels, and archival footage and stills.  When Cornwell tells an anecdote about opening the safe in the office of a former head of the UK intelligence service expecting some great revelation, only to find its content a bizarre joke, one’s left wondering whether it’s totally made up.

No wonder one of the most striking images Morris occasionally plays on is of a room whose floor is covered with eggs.  One observation would be that being a spy is like walking on eggs, the danger of discovery always imminent.  Another is that the viewer should remember that he’s walking on eggs too, and that what’s being said could prove completely unstable.  The predictably unsettling score by Philip Glass (with Paul Leonard-Morgan) contributes to the overall feeling of unease.

And yet the wooziness never touches Cornwell, whose air of control rarely exhibits any sign of weakening.  He discusses his own upbringing as an outsider who won entrance into upper-class circles by learning their ways in the posh schools his father sent him to as an example of the deception he mastered, which segued into his career in intelligence and then into his literary work.  He elaborates smoothly on the psychological milieu of being a spy, using the case of Kim Philby as a touchstone of how the delight of playing different roles can easily lead to the betrayal of becoming a traitor.  He even points to an incident in his youth—when he turned in a fellow student with Communist leanings—as an example of the propensity for betrayal and self-justification.  And yet under a bit of Morris’ prodding he confesses that he might very well not have done the right thing—one of the moments when the film suggests the strongly critical stance Cornwell adopted toward Western intelligence practices, especially in his later years, a topic it doesn’t directly address, even as it conveys the genteel cynicism about the world that suffuses his understanding of humanity and, one must say, of himself.

So while “The Pigeon Tunnel” may not provide the sort of stunning surprises Morris has contrived in some of his other films, it offers a subtly revealing portrait of a brilliant author who might be fashioning his confessional to suit his own purposes, but tells us a good deal about himself in both what he says and what he chooses not to.