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.