The Deadly Affair (UK-US 1967)

Dobbs (James Mason) with his wife Ann (Harriet Andersson) and wartime agent Dieter (Maximilian Schell)

Talking Pictures TV triumphed again with a screening of this neglected title. Here’s a film packed with talent that received good reviews at the time but failed to make money and seems to have been forgotten, at least until 2017 when the DVD/Blu-ray label Indicator brought out a new dual format package stuffed with extras. There is indeed a great deal to say about a film which raises several questions about British cinema and ‘British Hollywood’ during the final days of cinema as mass entertainment in the UK.

The place to start is perhaps with ‘Swinging London’ – that strange concept, largely created by journalists and especially TIME magazine. There were a handful of films that seemed to catch a particular moment around 1966 but since then many more have been ‘claimed’ as examples of something that didn’t really extend much beyond a limited area of West London. The Deadly Affair ignores the ‘scene’ altogether and in fact ignores youth completely. Instead it becomes one of several films made in London by North American directors for Hollywood studios which invested heavily in British productions for several different reasons. It was the second British picture for director Sidney Lumet following The Hill (1965) and he would go on to make four more, The Sea Gull (1968), The Offence (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Equus (1977). Lumet was joined in British production by Otto Preminger directing Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), Canadian Sidney J. Furie who made The Ipcress File (1965), Stanley Donen with Arabesque (1966) and Martin Ritt directing The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965). Furie and Donen had both been in the UK making films since 1960 but left for the US when the American investment in the UK declined at the end of the 1960s. The titles listed above from these North Americans were all crime or espionage thrillers.

Mason as Dobbs with Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel

The Deadly Affair was adapted from John le Carré’s first novel Call For the Dead (1961). It was preceded by Martin Ritt’s film of the third le Carré novel for Paramount in 1965. Paramount bought the rights to both the novel and the character name ‘George Smiley’ and so Lumet’s lead character became ‘Charles Dobbs’ as played by James Mason in this adaptation for Columbia Pictures. ‘Dobbs’ is an interesting name. It reminds us of Humphrey Bogart’s character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and the sound of the name suggests a solid, downbeat character. As played by Mason, Dobbs does seem on the edge of losing his status as an intelligence officer with a long service career. He is quite different from the ‘George Smiley’ portrayed by Alec Guinness in the BBC TV series. Mason’s performance alone makes the film worth watching, but the overall cast and crew of the film is remarkable.

The complex plot sees Dobbs charged with checking out a senior civil servant in the Foreign Office who is suspected of leaking documents to East German agents. When this character commits suicide, Dobbs is suspicious, especially after meeting the man’s widow played by the magnificent Simone Signoret. When Dobbs is removed from the case he decides to pursue his own investigation with the help of a retired police inspector (Harry Andrews) and one of his intelligence colleagues (Kenneth Haigh). Carré’s interest in Smiley seems to have been in the moral questions he faces. Here ‘Dobbs’ has a young wife (Harriet Andersson) typed as promiscuous who he discovers is entertaining one of his wartime agents (Maximilian Schell) who has recently popped up in London. The starry cast also includes Roy Kinnear and Max Adrian. Lumet was always interested in the theatre and he includes in this narrative two sequences, one a rehearsal for a production of Macbeth and the other a performance of Marlowe’s Edward II by the Royal Shakespeare Company directed by Peter Hall. These feature a host of leading stage actors of the period including Michael Bryant, David Warner and Timothy West as well as Lynn Redgrave as a bumbling stage manager (a comic performance, immediately recalling her role opposite James Mason in Georgy Girl (1966)). Corin Redgrave also has a small role. I suspect that there might be some ‘intertextuality’ in the choice of these plays but I don’t know Edward II well enough to work through them. In the main the sequences serve as a kind of Hitchcockian machine to enable plot development and suspense.

One of Freddie Young’s nighttime compositions in South London

The other creative inputs match the stellar cast. The script is by Paul Dehn who began by winning an Oscar for his work on the Boulting Brothers’ Seven Days to Noon (1950). Another spy/agent film in 1958 was followed by Goldfinger (1964) and then a run of prestige /’quality’ pictures up to his final credit in 1974 for Murder on the Orient Express, again for Lumet. The run included The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Quincy Jones produced the score for the film with a ‘themes song’ by Astrud Gilberto. The extraordinary ‘look’ of the film was the product of the experienced John Howell as Art Director, the similarly experienced Thelma Connell as editor and the superlative work of Freddie Young as cinematographer. Lumet had wanted to make the picture in black and white but Columbia refused. Young ‘pre-flashed’ the filmstock on some set-ups and managed to drain out much of the colour. The film also features many interior scenes and night-time scenes on London streets. For me the use of locations was a highlight of the film. In some ways the film is a reminder of location shooting in 1950s London films such as Sapphire (ph. Harry Waxman, 1959), but with the more subdued colour. Lumet, thankfully, ignores all the tourist scenes and takes us into the ‘non-swinging’ parts of Chelsea, to Battersea in South London and down the Thames, reminding us of all the British films noirs which used London so well (e.g. the ending of Night and the City (1950)). Unfortunately there are only a few locations shots from The Deadly Affair online.

The magnificent Simone Signoret as Elsa Fennan

I moved to London in 1967 so this might explain my fascination with this representation of the city. This representation is much more the ‘real’ London I remember than the tourist London that featured in later Hollywood films. But I enjoyed the performances just as much. I must return to my recording of the film to study the interchanges between Mason and Signoret. Sidney Lumet has often been praised for his work with actors and I realise there are many of his films I haven’t seen as well as others I should re-visit. I’m not really a fan of Le Carré’s novels (I admire them, but I’m less keen on the style) but this film adaptation won me over. I think the performances help make this more of a melodrama about trust and honour. The narrative has a dark resolution. It’s a film to be savoured by adults and an antidote to James Bond escapades.

I urge you to look out for the DVD/Blu-Ray from Indicator. There is some confusion about both the initial release date of the film and the timings of the film. The BBFC archive suggests that the film was submitted for certification in October 1966. Wikipedia gives this as the release date but it seems more likely that IMDb’s February 1967 date is accurate. On the other hand, IMDb and Wikipedia give a UK runtime of 115 minutes but the BBFC quotes 106 minutes and ‘No cuts’. The Blu-ray appears to confirm this.

Here are the credits and a short scene:

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