Review of "The Deadly Affair (Blu-ray)"

published 25/09/2017 | hogsflesh
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Pro Terrific film, good Blu-ray
Cons None in particular, except that there are better Le Carré films
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"Carré on spying"

Dobbs, hanging on in quiet desperation

Dobbs, hanging on in quiet desperation

This Blu-ray and DVD set from Indicator is £15 on amazon or in HMV.

In spite of the lurid title, this is actually an adaptation of John Le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead, a rather downbeat spy story which introduced the character of George Smiley to the world. The 60s were the great decade for spy movies, with the Bond series proving insanely popular. Le Carré and Len Deighton gave a more grimy, realistic alternative, with Deighton’s Harry Palmer providing a popular antidote to Bond. Le Carré’s first great novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, was filmed very successfully in 1965. The Deadly Affair was presumably made to cash in on that.

Year: 1966
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: James Mason
More information at:
IMDB user rating: 6.8

A foreign office civil servant, Fennan, apparently commits suicide following an investigation by the security services, who were anonymously tipped off that he was spying for the communists. But Charles Dobbs, the man who interviewed Fennan, smells a rat, and starts investigating. Meanwhile, Dobbs’s serially unfaithful wife has begun an affair with one of Dobbs’s old agents, an Austrian named Dieter.

One thing you’ll notice is that no one in the film is called ‘Smiley’. This is because the rights to the character were owned by a different film studio – he appears fleetingly in Spy Who Came in From the Cold. ‘Dobbs’ is Smiley renamed. Some other characters are also renamed. Otherwise, though, this is fairly faithful to Le Carré’s novel (although I think Smiley’s famously adulterous wife, Anne, is kept offstage in the book). There’s one major plot innovation in the film which was later used, interestingly enough, by Le Carré himself in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

It’s a bit more violent than Le Carré’s stories, with a higher body count than you might expect from watching Alec Guinness plod glumly through Tinker Tailor. There are even a couple of vague car chases, although don’t go into this expecting an action movie. There are no glamour girls, gadgets or disguises here. Le Carré’s spies are always depressed and faintly shabby.

James Mason doesn’t have the classic Smiley look – he’s taller and thinner and instead of glasses has a rather ratty moustache. But otherwise he’s pretty great – a man who can wage intellectual war against the eastern bloc while dying inside because his wife can’t stay faithful. Mason was a class act, with a fantastic voice (it’s the almost ethereal trace of Yorkshire in there that makes it so strangely compelling). Apart from a spectacularly ill-advised Chinese character in a Genghis Khan movie, I don’t think I’ve seen him give a bad performance. Dobbs is one of his best, desperately unhappy at home, veering between offering bitter recriminations and heartbreaking little acts of kindness to his adulterous wife. And at work he’s a beguiling mix of reticence and ruthlessness that’s far more convincing than almost any other screen spy you could think of.

His wife, Anne, is played by Harriet Andersson, one of Ingmar Bergman’s regular actresses. She’s perhaps a bit young – the age gap between husband and wife makes her adultery somehow more relatable – but she is still very good. There is a suspicion that Bergman actresses were only cast outside of Sweden in the 60s because of a willingness to do nudity, and we do get a brief glimpse of boob from her, but it’s not very erotic. Her conscience is untroubled by her many adulteries (although she does spill some cream crackers when her husband guesses the identity of her latest beau). It’s all the more hurtful to him, as the latest lover is an old friend of his. Maximilian Schell, as the guilty party, overdoes the friendliness to Charles even as he fondles Anne behind his back, making you wonder how he ever fooled anyone as a spy, but no matter.

On the espionage side of the cast, Harry Andrews offers good support to Mason as the seen-it-all-before copper Mendel (another recurring character from the novels), although the comedy falling asleep business is probably not from Le Carré. And Kenneth Haigh has a nice line in waspish bonhomie as Dobbs’ colleague Appleby. Their ghastly boss is played very well by Max Adrian, an actor I’ve always found fascinating.

Simone Signoret is perhaps a little too subdued as the widow of the dead man. Roy Kinnear reins in his comic impulses as a crooked garage owner. Most of the comedy comes from some amateur dramatics rehearsals that Mendel has to investigate, with some surprisingly funny business from a young Lynn Redgrave. There’s a lot of theatre in the film – a climactic scene takes place during a production of Marlowe’s Edward II. This is performed, as the opening credits tell us, by ‘The Royal Shakespeare Company, under the direction of Peter Hall’. Except the RSC didn’t actually put on a production of Edward II in the 60s, so it seems a tad egotistical of the late Sir Peter to insist on getting his name in the credits, especially since none of the actors are credited (they include David Warner and Charles Kay).

Still, at least we get to see inside the Aldwych Theatre, the RSC’s London home at the time. This is a glimpse of a 1966 London that resolutely refuses to swing. Apart from a scene in Regent’s Park and a few bits around Victoria and Aldwych, there’s very little that is set in the recognisable, touristy areas. It mostly takes place around grimy Battersea and other southern suburbs. Even Dobbs has been shunted slightly to the East, from living in Chelsea in the books to Pimlico in the film.

I love the depressing ambience this film has – that’s my favourite thing about Le Carré in general. I also love how there’s no real way of measuring whether any of his character’s endless espionage efforts actually have any effect on anything outside themselves. You don’t get the incidental pleasures of normal spy movies. The adulteries are depressing, the car chases inconclusive, and the enjoyment of seeing a copper beating a confession out of a scummy lowlife is undermined when you notice that his young daughter has seen the whole thing.

The one incongruously swinging note is struck by the music, which has that 60s spy film vibe in spades. Not Bond-style orchestrals, more lounge-y Eurospy/Edgar Wallace funk. It’s an unrestrained treat in a film that is otherwise all about repression, and adds a pleasingly odd counterpoint to what we see. It’s one of those films where every time anyone puts on a record, it’s always the same one, in which Astrud Gilberto charmingly la-la-lahs her way through some languid exotica that doesn’t match what we see on screen but somehow works perfectly for all that.


The film was intentionally shot to look grainy with muted colours, so that’s what the Blu-ray looks like. The director, Sidney Lumet, had apparently wanted to shoot in black and white, but this was vetoed by the studio. He went for as low-key a colour-palette as possible, and a look that perhaps evokes the film’s moral ambiguities.

So basically, don’t expect this one to jump off the screen and run around your living room banging a little drum. It looks very good for what it is, but you have to understand that it was shot in a certain way, and that way looks as un-flashy as possible. I’ve seen comments online suggesting that people have found the picture quality of this release disappointing, but I think it looks very good, as long as you appreciate what the film is trying to do.

As with other Indicator releases, this has plenty of good extras. The heftiest are two lengthy audio interviews: one with the director, Sidney Lumet, and one the star, James Mason. These are recorded Q & A sessions, cover their entire careers, have variable sound and only touch fleetingly on The Deadly Affair. Lumet, as you might expect from the purveyor of such staunchly worthy fare as 12 Angry Men and The Offense, is a rather dry, pedantic interviewee. Mason is a great deal more likable.

Otherwise, there’s an interview with one of the cameramen, and a piece showing some of the locations as they are now. There’s an interesting 17-minute documentary about the guy who wrote the script. And there’s a commentary by a couple of film historians who know their business but both have slightly annoying voices (this is always the case with film historians doing commentaries, so is probably just me). A slightly pretentious booklet rounds things off. It also includes a rather pointless DVD copy.

This is a great release of a film I didn’t even know existed. The film itself isn’t as good as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was made the same year, and certainly doesn’t hold a candle to the BBC’s later Smiley adaptations. But even below-par Le Carré is still substantially better than most other spy stories, and this has a great cast and a perfect, shopworn, melancholy ambience. It’s well worth a look.

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Product Information : The Deadly Affair (Blu-ray)

Manufacturer's product description

Product Details

Genre: Thriller

DVD Region: Blu-ray

EAN: 5037899071175

Director(s) (Last name, First name): Lumet, Sidney

Classification: 12 years and over

Production Year: 1966


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