Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Paul Dehn
Based on a Novel by: John le Carré
Starring: James Mason, Maximilian Schell, Simone Signoret, Harriet Andersson, Harry Andrews
Running Time: 107 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
Indicator are a fairly new label who are doing a wonderful job of giving some little known or largely forgotten films a new lease of life, particularly ones that have things going for them that seem to betray their obscurity. With The Deadly Affair, which I hadn’t heard of previously, you get numerous selling points in the talents behind the film. Directed by Sidney Lumet, based on a novel by John le Carré and starring luminaries like James Mason, Maximilian Schell, Simone Signoret and Harriet Andersson, watching the film was a mouth-watering prospect and I was more than a little surprised that it isn’t better known. It was rather well received on its release, but unfortunately the reviews didn’t translate into ticket sales, possibly due to the glut of spy thrillers around at the time, riding in the wake of the Bond franchise’s success.
The Deadly Affair is based on famed spy-novelist (and actual MI6 employee) John le Carré’s first novel, ‘Call for the Dead’. The novel’s protagonist is none other than George Smiley, a character featuring in many of le Carré’s most famous books (including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley’s People and his latest novel, A Legacy of Spies). Funnily enough though, back in the mid-60s Smiley wasn’t the near household name he is now, so in this film adaptation his name was changed to Charles Dobbs (played by James Mason).
The film opens with Government security officer Dobbs meeting Foreign Office civil servant Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) about an anonymous tip that had been received, claiming that Fennan had been, and may still be, a practising Communist. This doesn’t seem to bother Fennan, as it was a long time in the past and Dobbs put his mind at ease about the situation. However, Dobbs receives a call early the next morning to say that Fennan committed suicide and a note he made out prior to this claimed he couldn’t live with the situation. Most seem to accept this as a clear cut case, but Dobbs refuses to believe that Fennan took his own life after the fairly relaxed conversation they’d had the day before. So he decides to investigate, even though he is forced to step down from his position due to the situation. Running alongside this, Dobbs also struggles with his relationship with his wife (Harriet Andersson) as he can no longer stand by and let her openly cheat on him as he had for the last year or two.
The Deadly Affair didn’t grab me straight away. I was a little distracted when I first put it on, which didn’t help, but I also had a problem with the film that took me a little while to get past. That problem was James Mason. He’s a well regarded actor who’s been in some wonderful films and he even comes from my home town, which gives him a special place in my heart, but I struggle to take him seriously. There’s something about his distinctive voice that always sounds so staged and grand, that I only tend to accept him in particular roles. I think a lot of my issue comes from an Eddie Izzard sketch that has long stuck in my mind where he amusingly uses Mason’s voice as that of God. Possibly due to this, I found Mason’s performance in The Deadly Affair rather uneven. His character has quite a tough time of it through the film and he plays downtrodden surprisingly well, in a subtle and understated fashion. However, there are a few bigger outbursts here and there that I found he pushed too far and came across as comically over the top. A couple of these crop up early on and rubbed me up the wrong way, and it took me a while to warm to his performance and the film in general.
I did however warm to the film eventually. It’s an early example of the ‘anti-spy’ film, where the sexy heroics of James Bond and the like are eschewed for a relatively slow-moving, grim and unglamorous world of deception and information gathering. I liked this approach and the plot is well constructed, with several juicy twists never getting so complicated that I lost track of what was happening. The characters are fascinating too, with Fennan’s wife, Elsa (Simone Signoret), being a particularly interesting nut for Dobbs to crack. For the most part it’s her cracking Dobbs though, as she’s a dark and seemingly controlling character who’s difficult to second guess.
Other than the occasional problems I had with Mason, the performances are excellent. There are an assortment of renowned world cinema stars (Signoret, Harriet Andersson and Maximilian Schell, who was Austrian, but worked largely in the US) who all deliver the goods and a couple of underrated British character actors (Harry Andrews and Roy Kinnear) who steal the few scenes they appear in (Andrews is in more than a few, as he plays Dobbs’ assistant/partner on the case). You even get a brief cameo from Lynn and Corin Redgrave in a fun, low-rate, theatre rehearsal scene.
Speaking of fun, although much of the film is very dark and occasionally rather bleak, there is much humour to be found in the sharp dialogue and interplay between the characters to keep things from getting too grim. The unusual situation between Dobbs and his wife provides added depth and conflict within his character too, preventing the film from getting coldly focussed on the murder case alone.
Overall then, it’s a solid, entertaining spy thriller that’s full of twists and turns and is typical of le Carré’s work. It’s a little rough around the edges, particularly with regards to Mason’s hit and miss performance and an ill-fitting and dated score by Quincy Jones, but interesting characters and dynamics, on top of some welcome black humour and sharp writing, make up for it. Another good find from Indicator.
The Deadly Affair is being re-released on 28th August by Powerhouse Films on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD as part of their Indicator label in the UK. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the picture and sound quality are both great. There’s quite a heavy grain, but that seems purposeful according to an interview with the camera operator, who said they used an unusual technique of processing the film.
Powerhouse have also included plenty of special features with the set. These include:
– Audio commentary
– The John Player Lecture with James Mason (1967): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Leslie Hardcastle at the National Film Theatre, London
– The Guardian Lecture with Sidney Lumet (1983): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Derek Malcolm at the National Film Theatre, London
– David Kipen on screenwriter Paul Dehn (2017)
– New interview with camera operator Brian West (2017)
– Sidney Lumet’s London: a look at the locations used in the film, then and now
– Original theatrical trailer
– Image gallery: on-set and promotional photography
– Limited edition exclusive booklet featuring newly commissioned writing by Thirza Wakefield , an overview of contemporary critical responses, and historic articles on the film
It’s a fantastic set of extras. The three audio pieces, which all play over the film, are particularly good. The commentary is rich with production details and insight into the film, the Mason interview is very enjoyable, with the actor on top witty form, and the Lumet interview, although lacking much, if any, discussion on The Deadly Affair, provides a wonderfully frank discussion of the great director’s career.
The booklet is as strong as ever too and shouldn’t be ignored in favour of the video extras.