An English espionage movie made in the late 1960s by one of America’s great filmmakers provides the perfect dramatic backdrop for a story concerning a middle aged spy’s need to redress some important aspects of his life. Mark Fraser revisits a work in which deceptive skulduggery ultimately leads to a greater sense of personal insight.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
Finding spiritual redemption may not always be achievable, but learning to accept the inevitable can go a long way towards breaking the shackles of self-imposed servitude.
Despite being a clumsy rehash of an age-old aspect of the human condition, this brief lesson in amateur metaphysics nevertheless remains one of the key messages in Sidney Lumet’s fine 1967 spy melodrama The Deadly Affair.
During the course of the movie – which is based on John le Carre’s first novel (and introductory vehicle for his now-famous protagonist George Smiley) Call for the Dead – British secret serviceman Charles Dobbs (James Mason) not only has to come to grips with the fact his personal and professional lives are exercises in mutual and self-deception, but is forced to take some drastic action when the two become tragically intertwined.
On the one hand a hopelessly jealous and love-sick Dobbs has to deal with his younger nymphomaniac wife Ann (Harriet Andersson), with whom he shares a frustrating and unhappy domestic arrangement (they live separately under the one roof; she sees other men, but doesn’t tell him who they are – especially if he knows them).
Meanwhile, his job is turned on its head after the apparent suicide of Foreign Service official Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng), who presumably kills himself after his previous socialist affiliations (at Oxford University some 30 years before) are exposed in an anonymous letter sent to his bosses.
Having just interviewed Fennan (a moment which opens the film) in London’s St James Park – and deciding that he should be granted a security clearance – an astounded Dobbs is unable to let the tragic incident go, especially after meeting the dead man’s widow Elsa (Simone Signoret), a forlorn Holocaust survivor with something to hide.
Adding to this is the sudden arrival of Dieter Frey (Maximilian Schell), an old war buddy from Zurich who just happens to be visiting London on business. Although Dobbs quickly establishes that his wife and best friend are having an affair, he doesn’t manage to put the bigger picture pieces together until the film’s murderous finale, after which he is ready to remedy some of the more wayward aspects of his dispirited existence.
When adapting this le Carre book for the screen, Lumet and scriptwriter Paul Dehn made a few adjustments to the original narrative in order to accommodate some of the director’s broader concerns when it came to character transformation.
Aside from dropping Smiley’s name, the pair also elevated Ann’s role in the story – not only to further emphasise Dobbs’ sense of alienation and frustration, but to provide him with an opportunity to redeem himself, even if the moment is fleeting.
Although the film is full of enough twists and detective work to satisfy the most ardent spy movie fan, it’s really only at the very end of The Deadly Affair that the world weary agent manages to free himself from part of his spiritual incarceration by returning to his wife (with his tail between his legs) and confessing (out of the audiences’ earshot) he has killed her latest beau – a moment of truth which may not “regain a relational integrity that years of layered betrayals and flights from responsibility have assaulted” (Cunningham, 1991, p 41), but is nonetheless the beginning of a new phase in their relationship and, most likely, the first step in the next chapter of his life.
In his 1991 book Sidney Lumet – Film and Literary Vision, Frank R Cunningham points out the director had a fondness for exploring “the conventions between personal vacancy and political evil”.
Moreover, and this is definitely the case with The Deadly Affair, the filmmaker also liked to focus on major protagonists who “must struggle against personal dependencies that, if unrecognised, will inevitably lead to deepening levels of inferiority and insecurity”.
“A sense of psychological and moral renewal is possible only when the characters reach toward a more intellectually conscious and rigorous, and sometimes less sentimental, confrontation with frequently harsh realities,” Cunningham writes.
As played by Mason, Dobbs starts the film as a man plagued by domestic insecurities, who is then cut off at the knees professionally after being confronted with a set of circumstances he can neither explain nor satisfactorily resolve.
By its end, though, he has learned that not all things that sit close to his proverbial bone are necessarily within his control – even when they perhaps should be. If anything he’s like a principled version of the paedophile Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita – a role Mason also nailed – who doesn’t allow himself to get bogged down by unbridled carnal impulses and desires.
Fittingly, the actor is well supported by a just-as-able cast, including a robust Harry Andrews as a retired police inspector who initially helps Dobbs investigate Fennan’s suicide before being pulled into the ensuing espionage case, Schell as Dobbs’ charismatic best friend who tries to throw him under a bus, the great Roy Kinnear (his wheezy Adam Scarr oozes sweaty sleaze and immorality during his brief screen appearance) as well as Signoret, whose seemingly inconsolable sorrow produces some of the movie’s most poignant lines.
Although The Deadly Affair is made by an American, it looks decidedly English – or at least like a British spy movie made around the same time – thanks to the desaturated cinematography of regular David Lean cameraman Freddie Young.
Like Sidney J Furie’s The Ipcress File, which was released just two years before (and shot by Otto Heller), the widescreen presentation is bereft of strong or bright colours, presenting a world in which the urban London landscape is just as drab and dreary as the offices of the unglamourous bureaucrats who are employed by their government to help maintain national security.
Aesthetically it’s an interesting counterpoint, and one that is thematically consistent with the other elements found in this tidy and thoroughly satisfying espionage melodrama.
Frank R Cunningham: Sidney Lumet – Film and Literary Vision, The University Press of Kentucky, 1991, (except where acknowledged, the direct quotes were lifted from p 24)
Top 10 Films reviewed The Deadly Affair on Blu-ray courtesy of Powerhouse Films. The limited edition release includes an audio commentary with film historians Michael Brooke and Johnny Mains; The National Film Theatre Lecture with James Mason (1967, 48 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Leslie Hardcastle; The Guardian Lecture with Sidney Lumet (1983, 89 mins): archival audio recording of an interview conducted by Derek Malcolm at the National Film Theatre, London; A Different Kind of Spy: Paul Dehn’s Deadly Affair (2017, 17 mins): writer David Kipen discusses the life and work of screenwriter Paul Dehn; Take One and Move On (2017, 5 mins): camera operator Brian West on The Deadly Affair; Lumet’s London (2017, 4 mins): the London locations of The Deadly Affair explored; and the Original theatrical trailer. New English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing are also included. The limited edition is also presented with an exclusive 32-page booklet with a new essay by Thirza Wakefield, archival interviews with cinematographer Freddie Young and James Mason, and an overview of contemporary critical responses.
Words by Mark Fraser
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