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Much-touted mainstream entry recommended to serious spy buffs as a
well-crafted, bleak treatise on perceived realities. Deeper than many other
spy films, the pleasure is derived from sifting through the strata of
meaning in John Le Carre's story and reveling in the fine performances and
top-notch film making.
This is one of those movies where you'll recognize all the actors; Harry Andrews, Roy Kinnear, Robert Flemyng, Lynn Redgrave, David Warner, etc. One standout is Simone Signoret as Elsa, a woman without a country, who scorns Dobbs and his attempts at clearing up the death of her husband. A concentration camp survivor, Elsa has no illusions about patriotism nor allegiances in that regard, remarking to Dobbs `I am a battlefield for you toy soldiers."
Quincy Jones plays some fun cinematic tricks with the soundtrack (Astrud Gilberto sings the theme song) and it is appropriately melancholy for the material. Director Sidney Lumet is in fine form here and through the half-light of Freddie Young's cinematography is revealed the gray world beneath our intricately constructed lives.
A complex, suspenseful, and sometimes surprisingly funny spy thriller by
master director Sidney Lumet ("12 Angry Men", "Long Day's Journey Into
Night", "Dog Day Afternoon", "Running on Empty"). The picture has a really
brilliant cast, including James Mason, Simone Signoret, Maximilian Schell,
Harriet Andersson and Harry Andrews. The photography is interesting too.
Lumet and cinematographer Freddie Young used a technique called
"preflashing". In his book "Making Movies" Lumet writes: "Thematically it
was a film about life's disappointments. I wanted to desaturate the colors.
I wanted to get that dreary, lifeless feeling London has in winter. Freddie
suggested preexposing the film."
Lumet's approach in "The Deadly Affair" (1967) is perhaps even a little too realistic to make it a suspense masterpiece. But nevertheless you should really see this little gem.
As with all 1960's films, time hasn't been kind to this clever slant on the cold-war theme. However, one can imagine that at the time of its release, the film's stylish direction, cool bossa nova soundtrack and unusual filming technique was very "in vogue". Unfortunately, the then unrelenting interest in James Bond and Harry Palmer has meant that The Deadly Affair is one of these little known, understated thrillers that are shown late at night on satellite TV. The film's gloominess is intentional - the film having been deliberately exposed briefly to make the colour appear dull. You could say that this reflects the frustration and despondence of the main character, Dobbs. James Mason, who always seems to be cast as the down-trodden tragi-hero, plays Dobbs with consummate ease. He is supported by a long list of familiar faces including Harry Andrews as an unassuming retired policemen. The best part of the film for me is when Fannen is tailed by Mendel during a lengthy chase on foot through London. An elongated version of Quincy Jones' theme tune provides the right level of excitement to what would initially be quite a staid scene.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For an espionage thriller I like a lot, The Deadly Affair is also one
of the most frustrating. The movie is based on John le Carre's first
book, Call for the Dead. It introduced his readers to George Smiley.
For some reason, in addition to changing the name of the book, director
Sidney Lumet changed George Smiley to Charles Dobbs (James Mason). I'll
continue to call him George Smiley. The story is how this aging British
spy with a quiet manner and a shrewd mind finally learns the identity
of an East German spy. It starts when Smiley is asked to investigate a
mid-level foreign officer, Samuel Fennan, who has been accused in an
anonymous letter of being, at best, a Communist sympathizer. Smiley
determines that the man is not a danger, but shortly after the man
commits suicide...yet he left a wake-up call for the next morning.
Smiley's boss tells him to drop it. Smiley won't, quits, and enlists
the help of a retired police inspector, Mendel (Harry Andrews), to help
him. Smiley meets the man's wife, Elsa Fennan (Simone Signoret), a
survivor of Nazi death camps where experiments were performed on Jewish
women. He knows something is off and slowly tries to identify just who
is the spy, if there really was one. All this while he must deal with
his younger wife, Ann (Harriet Andersson). Smiley loves Ann and she may
love him, but she is a serial adulterer and all he can do, apparently,
is agonize over their relationship. It doesn't help when a younger man,
Dieter Frey (Maxmilian Schell) arrives on the scene from Europe. Frey
worked under Smiley in some dangerous operations during WWII and Smiley
sees Frey almost as a son as well as a friend. It isn't long before
Smiley learns that Ann is bedding Frey. And there is still the spy for
Smiley to catch.
Lumet has directed some fine movies, and he's great with actors, but he's done a lot of flawed movies, too. With The Deadly Affair, those flaws seem magnified. First, the angst and conflicts of Smiley's relationship with his wife is a major part of the story...and it's like reading an agony column over and over. Nothing changes the impression that Smiley must be impotent and that Ann is a nymphomaniac. We're given scene after scene of the two of them emotionally baring their souls without either of them willing to identify what the problem is. Second, this means that Mason and Andersson have a series of "acting" moments that brings the spy story to a screeching halt. It isn't helped that Signoret as Mrs. Fennan also is given two major, teary "acting" scenes. Her scenes help advance the plot a bit and help us understand her, but they're basically designed by Lumet to give Signoret a change to do her stuff in close-up. Third, because of all these actor moments, the film lurches from story point to story point. One moment we're getting much involved in the spy story and how Smiley is prizing out the secrets, then we stumble into a scene where good actors are given far too much opportunity to emote. Fourth, there is a gratuitous death that serves no purpose than, as in so many Sixties and Seventies films, to make the audience think they must be watching a really serious movie. Fifth, there is an obtrusive and very with-it score by Quincy Jones that says "the Sixties" loudly. It doesn't fit the quiet George Smiley at all.
Even with all this, The Deadly Affair is a favorite of mine. The mood of the movie is somber but it's not dull. The plot is clever and twisting, with a minimum of required violence. Figuring out the killer isn't too hard. Figuring out who is a spy, why and why the anonymous letter about Fennan that started everything takes some thinking. The acting, even with all the marital angst, is high caliber. James Mason as Charles Dobbs aka George Smiley gives as fine a performance as I've ever seen. He agonizes over his relationship with Ann while refusing to give up on learning the real story behind Samuel Fennan. Signoret may have been indulged by Lumet for those acting moments, but she never the less is a force to be reckoned with. Harry Andrews as Mendel is terrific as the literal and resourceful counterpoint to the cerebral and clever Smiley. All the secondary roles are well-crafted.
For trivia collectors, watch the scene in the theater when a major character, seated in the full house, is killed. On stage is the Royal Shakespeare Company performing Marlowe's Edward II. While our killing is taking place, so is the killing of Edward, played by no less than a young and unbilled David Warner.
The Deadly Affair is definitely a mixed bag. For those who admire James Mason and also early le Carre, it's worth having.
A John Le Carré-based Cold War spy film will always challenge an audience with an unflinching look at the world of espionage, and confront viewers with its most unpleasant facts; true stories of manipulation and deceit where the simplistic, Manichean scheme "good guys versus bad guys" is exposed as deceitful and manipulative. Sidney Lumet ("The Verdict", "Dog Day Afternoon", "Q and A") added another feather to his cap directing this 1966 adaptation of "Call for the Dead", which features an international cast headed by James Mason, Maximilian Schell, Simone Signoret (not De Beauvoir, who was an Existentialist author, not an actress)and Harriet Andersson. In true Lumet fashion, characterization does not take a back seat to plot development: Mason brings his masterful touch, an understated yet poignant despair to his doomed agent Dobbs; Schell manages to come across as debonair and sinister at the same time, and world-weary Signoret eloquently speaks for the victims who were tangled up in Cold War power games. The Bossa Nova soundtrack, full of sad sensuality, creates an innovative contrast to the bleak, rainy London streets where the web of deceit is torn in a violent and realistic showdown. Excellent supporting performances by actors Harry Andrews and Roy Kinnear help make "The Deadly Affair", many years after its first viewing, a somber and masterful look at Cold-War espionage and a fine example of serious movie-making.
The only reason I have cable is for Turner Classic Movies, and the chance to see, uncut, unedited, uninterrupted; flicks like this. The film is as stated very leisurely paced, but good (bordering on great) performances, a taut, very adult script, and an absolute joy of a soundtrack by the great Quincy Jones keep you watching. Makes this a leisurely stroll you enjoy taking. Listen to the music in the scenes between James Mason and his erstwhile wife [I won't even tell you what's going on between those two, it's just one of the most understated treatments of this subject, and that understatement gives it an outrageous power, as you are just completely agape at James Mason's... restraint] , Quincy is doing magical things. A movie where the parts, make the sum worth watching. Recommended.
Glum London backdrops and washed-out color match British secret agent
Charles Dobbs' (James Mason) despair at the infidelity of his
nymphomaniac wife, and the possible murder of a likable and idealistic
Foreign Office civil servant.
Slightly dated yet still exciting cold war spy thriller combines the talents of James Mason, Sidney Lumet, and a fine supporting cast, though John LeCarre might wonder what happened to the novel the movie is based on.
There isn't a hint of 'Swinging London'; the relationships and a gay subtext, played out on several levels, are handled maturely and without an invitation to snicker.
This enjoyable film captures the spirit of Le Carré's first novel very well. Lumet and Young's "preflashing" technique and their cinematic sensibilities fill the screen with the proper gloomy Sixties British atmosphere--in the weather, in the exterior scenes, in the sets, and in the characters' emotions and interactions. Mason is outstanding as George Smiley (inexplicably renamed Charles Dobbs), portraying with fine nuance both Smiley's wounded, bewildered angst and his gift for tradecraft. A treat for fans of Le Carré and of the genre.
A gloomy (and gloomily lit) but very interesting spy thriller of the
60's,with a fine performance by James Mason(as Charles Dobbs,but George
Smiley in all but name),and good support from Simone
Signoret(convincing as a Concentration Camp survivor),Harry
Andrews,Kenneth Haigh,Roy Kinnear and Max Adrian.As an answer to the
artificial,antiseptic glamour of the James Bond extravaganzas,THE
DEADLY AFFAIR works very well for the most part,with an intelligent
script compensating for the occasionally over-prolonged and too static
dialogue exchanges between the principals.The production is
set,deliberately,in dismally unattractive,murky interior and exterior
locations around London,though this oddly gives the film more
atmosphere,and is also helped by a haunting score by Quincy Jones,one
of the best and most criminally underrated of his career.
The film only drags a little in a sub-plot involving Mason's nymphomaniac wife,played somewhat uncomfortably by Harriet Andersson.The film would have worked equally well if not better had Ms Andersson been a decent,devoted spouse,and Maximillan Schell is given little to do as an old wartime colleague (and as it turns out,yet another of Mrs Dobbs' lovers) of Dobbs.But for the most part,American Sidney Lumet does a first-class job as an outsider's look into British/European espionage,and it grips solidly throughout.
RATING:7 and a half out of 10.
This is actually a very good spy thriller. It's one of my favorites.
The movie is suspenseful, the action is good for its time, and the acting is excellent. Some may find it too slow for today's tastes, but action, spectacle and a really fast pace don't help a movie if there's not an interesting plot and story, with well developed characters. If you watch the movie with that proviso, you should enjoy it. It is, however, from a John Le Carre novel, so it's a more cerebral thriller, but that's good. Thus, the movie belongs in the category of THE IPCRESS FILE, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD and THE ANDERSON TAPES rather than James Bond.
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