Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Deadly Affair (1966)

Shortly after intelligence officer Charles Dobbs (James Mason) interviews civil servant Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) because of anonymous letters hinting at least at communist sympathies, Fennan commits suicide, supposedly driven by his talk with Dobbs. The thing is, though, Dobbs was quite convinced Fennan was perfectly innocent on anything beyond having ideals, and told him he was cleared of any suspicion of being a spy.

Dobbs is also less than happy to find his boss, The Adviser (Max Adrian), and the rest of the intelligence community all too willing to write the situation off as a suicide for which he is somewhat responsible. Particularly when Dobbs finds certain things about Fennan’s suicide as well as the behaviour of the man’s wife Elsa (Simone Signoret) do not add up as they should. Dobbs is so angry about the whole situation he even decides to step down from his position completely. At least, until he has investigated the suicide to his own satisfaction. With the help of retired copper Mendek (Harry Andrews) and his now former colleague Billy Appleby (Kenneth Haigh), Dobbs does stumble upon rather interesting facts, even while he’s living through another crisis in the marriage to his wife Ann (Harriet Andersson).

Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair is actually an adaptation of John Le Carré’s first George Smiley novel, Call for the Dead. Lumet couldn’t use the Smiley character name because Le Carré sold it off together with the rights to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which only goes to show that copyright can get pretty bizarre. At least we got some fine films out of the situation.

Tonally, the film still is very much a Le Carré adaptation, with all the sadness, the guilt, and betrayal that suggests. Smiley/Dobbs as performed by James Mason is clearly a man who has seen and done too much already to should have any illusions left about life but who is still trying to cling to a concept of human decency, in his business life as well as in a marriage that has become painful both him and Ann for reasons they both don’t really have control over.

In fact, the film is very good at not seeking any guilty party in the rather messed-up marriage but treats Dobbs’s and Ann’s respective helplessness with compassion. As it also does treat most of its other characters, all the betrayals and hurts and crimes notwithstanding. As always in Le Carré’s world, there are possibly moral and emotional grounds worth defending, yet his characters have lost any idea of moral certainty long ago, the best of them – like Dobbs – demonstrating a tired and sad way to go about the things that they think they have to do, even if they aren’t even sure why anymore.

Lumet films this in his concentrated mode (except for one or two lame jokes I could have lived without), keeping the camera and his eye close on the actors, while subtly supporting them without showing off. The cast is rather perfect for this approach too, full as it is of middle-aged and aging men and women who all look as if life had battered them in one way or another. In some cases, this is the consequence of some really fine acting, while in other’s, like Simone Signoret’s, the role and the actor’s actual state of mind seem to be rather close; perhaps even too close for comfort. While some of the actors may be tired, their performance aren’t, though.

What The Deadly Affair isn’t – of course, given the material it is based on, but people sometimes go into films with strange expectations – is much of a spy thriller of the more outwardly exciting kind. While the film’s two action scenes are staged by Lumet with perfect and appropriate ruthlessness, this isn’t a film whose spy story is meant to provide surface thrills as much as it is meant to enable a better look at life and what it does to some people.

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