Jan 25, 2008

Movie Review: The Deadly Affair (1966)

Sidney Lumet's The Deadly Affair is based on the John Le Carré novel Call For the Dead. I’ve never read that one, so I can’t comment on how successful it is as an adaptation, but as a spy movie, it’s a pretty darn good one well deserving of rediscovery. Because Paramount owned the rights to the name "George Smiley" for their film of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (in which Smiley plays a relatively small part), Columbia had to change the name of the protagonist to Charles Dobbs. That’s too bad, because James Mason gives a really great interpretation of Smiley in Dobbs!

The movie begins with Smiley–er, Dobbs, interviewing a senior civil servant named Samuel Fennen in the park. An anonymous letter came in revealing Fennen’s involvement in communist circles back in his prewar college days and questioning his present-day loyalty, so as a formality the Security Services are obliged to check him out. Dobbs suggested the park instead of his office to spare the man any undue embarrassment. Indeed, Fennen seems very pragmatic about his idealistic college days (everyone wants a cause at that age, he argues, and for those who hated fascism, it was communism), and appears to be a loyal British subject. Smiley/Dobbs gives him his stamp of approval and routes it to his boss.

That night he’s awakened at an ungodly hour with a phone call: Fennen has killed himself. Going out, he passes his unfaithful, nymphomaniac wife (Harriet Andersson) coming in, and they have an argument they’ve clearly had a hundred times before. Mason excels as the conflicted cuckold; he clearly loves his wife very much and wants to forgive her condition, but the jealousy is tearing him up inside. Pushed near breaking point in his personal life, he dives whole-heartedly into his professional life, determined to solve the mystery of Fennen’s death. If he was really loyal, why would he kill himself?

Dobbs interviews Fennen’s wife, Elsa (Simone Signoret), a concentration camp survivor who chastises him for playing games with people’s lives. She sees no importance in her husband’s loyalty or lack thereof, only that Dobbs and the Security Services are responsible for his death.

Amidst the usual interagency animosity, Dobbs teams up with Inspector Mendel, a narcoleptic, semi-retired policeman played masterfully by the incomparable spy stalwart Harry Andrews. Andrews was in almost every British spy movie in the Sixties, and he’s always a joy to watch. This may be his best role. Spurred on by a wake-up call ordered by the dead man the night before (why would a suicide bother to arrange a wake-up call?), Dobbs and Mendel engage in a thorough, exciting investigation in the course of which they cross paths with Roy Kinnear as a greedy, polygamist informant, a hulking Nordic brute named Blondie who wants Dobbs dead, and Dobbs’ own boss, who (in the grand tradition of such bosses) wants him off the case.

While there are infrequent bursts of violence, Le Carré relishes instead the inherent drama and humor of bureaucracy, and the mechanics of a thorough investigation. Though his stories are set in the murky world of international espionage, Le Carré is a mystery writer at heart, and he’s constructed a good one here. Screenwriter Paul Dehn (who also co-wrote Goldfinger and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold in the two consecutive years preceding this movie, and went on to such varied fare as Murder On the Orient Express and Beneath the Planet of the Apes) does a good job with the difficult task of making Le Carré’s complex mystery and bureaucracy cinematic. While hardly action-packed, The Deadly Affair is never dull.

There are actually two mysteries unfolding: whether the traitor was actually Fennen or his wife (and who wrote the letter condemning Fennen to begin with), and the identity of their contact. The latter is rather obvious, but the former keeps the audience guessing right up to the final revelation. At the same time (and as much as he’d rather lose himself in his work–or drink–and forget it), Dobbs’ personal life remains hell, and his investigative talents come to hurt him in that arena when he can’t help but deduce that his wife’s latest lover is one of his oldest friends, an agent he ran during the war (Maximillian Schell). Mason does a really great job as a man grasping desperately at a professional conundrum in order to ignore a personal one–only to discover it’s impossible.

The Deadly Affair is a highly enjoyable spy film, and as gripping a Le Carré adaptation as I’ve seen. James Mason makes a great Smiley (I know, I know), a task I’d thought near impossible thanks to Alec Guinness’s later, definitive portrayal of the character in two British miniseries. He’s even believable when provoked to uncharacteristic violence at the finale. If ever faced with the opportunity to see this rare gem, spy fans should definitely not pass it up.

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