Alec Guinness so inhabited the role of John le Carré’s master spy George Smiley that even the author said he could no longer think of one without the other. But Guinness was not the only fine actor to essay the role. James Mason also had his turn, even though for copyright reasons the character was renamed Charles Dobbs. The resulting 1967 film has been almost completely forgotten, but it more than merits a revival: The Deadly Affair.
The plot: Put-upon and dutiful spook Charles Dobbs is given an assignment that seems a doddle. An anonymous letter has accused a recently promoted Foreign Office official named Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) of being a security risk, based on his long ago flirtation with Communism as a university student. Dobbs’ discussion with Fennan raises no concerns and even seems enjoyable to both men. But Dobbs learns through his “Adviser” (Max Adrian) that Fennan apparently went home and shot himself! When Dobbs interviews Fennan’s widow (Simone Signoret), something strange happens that raises suspicions that things are not so simple, so Dobbs digs deeper with the aid of an aged but reliable copper (Harry Andrews). Meanwhile, on the home front, Dobbs tries to endure the many affairs of his wife Ann (Harriett Andersson), including one with an undercover operative he used to run that he still considers a friend (Maximilian Schell).
As you can gather from the above, there’s a great deal of talent in front of the camera here (And I didn’t even mention Roy Kinnear, who shines here as an underworld figure in a performance with superb physicality). Mason gives more fiery frustration to Smiley than did Guinness, both in his work and in his failing marriage. I also love his artful interactions with Signoret (as good here as I ever seen her) as he steadfastly uncovers the truth. Andrews, a gay man who ironically spent much of his career playing dead butch British military officers and other authority figures, is also terrific in support as a police officer in the twilight of his career but still retaining intelligence and toughness. Because his is probably the most relatable character in the story and his performance of it so assured, the audience is likely to end up caring about him more than anyone else.
The team behind the camera is equally impressive. The superb director Sidney Lumet loved actors and knew what to do with them. The script is by Paul Dehn, who won an Oscar co-writing another of my recommendations, Seven Days to Noon. Dehn made some plot simplifications in adapting le Carre’s novel Call for the Dead, which I imagine makes the film more comprehensible to viewers who haven’t read the novel. Dehn also added in subplots about Ann that make her a much more prominent part of the movie than the book. I thought this worked fairly well but le Carré purists may disagree. The other major virtue of the movie is Freddie Young’s cinematography, which used pre-exposed film to create the drab colors and shadowy streets that reinforce the emotional tone of le Carré’s world.
The only thing about this movie I actively disliked was, surprisingly, the score by the great Quincy Jones. Purely as music, its jazzy and memorable, but as a soundtrack, it simply doesn’t match the downbeat story and meditative visuals. Indeed, the disjunction at times is so jarring that it takes the viewer out of the story.
The Deadly Affair is not in the same league as my other two le Carré based adaptations, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But those are two of the best spy films ever made, and a movie doesn’t need to ascend to such Olympian heights to be watchable and engrossing. The Deadly Affair definitely clears that bar as a grim, effective, translation of the work of a legendary espionage novel writer and a portrayal of his most famous character.