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After Charles Dobbs, a security officer, has a friendly chat with Samuel Fennan from the Foreign Office, the man commits suicide. An anonymous typed letter had been received accusing Fennan of being a Communist during his days at Oxford and their chat while walking in the park was quite amiable. Senior officials want the whole thing swept under the rug and are pleased to leave it as a suicide. Dobbs isn't at all sure as there are a number of anomalies that simply can't be explained away. Dobbs is also having trouble at home with his errant wife, whom he very much loves, having frequent affairs. He's also pleased to see an old friend, Dieter Frey, who he recruited after the war. With the assistance of a colleague and a retired policeman, Dobbs tries to piece together just who is the spy and who in fact assassinated Fennan. Written by
The Deadly Affair is one of the better John Le Carre screen adaptations. Based on 'Call For the Dead,' the title's not the only name change: though he's called Charles Dobbs here, James Mason is really George Smiley while Maximilian Schell's character also undergoes a name change from The Spy Who Came In from the Cold because Paramount still owned the character names. Shot in 1966, when Britain seemed to be closed due to bad weather (a look made even grimmer by Freddie Young pre-exposing the film stock to mute the colours), Sidney Lumet's low-key and very small-scale thriller works much successfully on screen than you might expect. Where many LeCarres fail because, as someone once said, they're all plot and no story, this has at its heart a fairly good mystery why did a cabinet minister commit suicide AFTER being cleared of allegations of spying, and was it suicide or murder? -
This is from that period when Mason's screen image was shifting from aggressive and domineering characters to tired and shrunken ones increasingly aware they'd lost all their battles with life and were just trying to get through life as gently and with as few vestiges of decency as they could muster. If it's overshadowed by Alec Guinness's portrayal of Smiley in the two 70s TV series which mixed cold steel with the domestic humiliation, Mason's tendency to show a man trying to keep everything on amiable and civilised terms as far as possible gives a good sense of how he ended up that way. Harry Andrews offers fine support as the retired detective who likes only facts and keeps on nodding off whenever anybody strays into conjecture or theorising and there's even a glimpse of David Warner when he was still a promising young stage actor in the RSC's Edward II, an appropriate setting for one of the film's few acts of violence. It's not without its problems, chief of which is an intrusive Quincy Jones score that feels the need to carpet every scene of domestic betrayal between secret servant James Mason and his unfaithful wife Harriet Andersson with inappropriate lounge music, and you can add Mason to the list of stars who should never be allowed to wear dark glasses, but the quiet strengths easily outweigh them.
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