The 1960s were the heyday of the spy thriller with the market flooded in the wake of the success of Bond. Now most of these films fall into two broad categories – the glossy, gadget-laden Helm/Flint kind and the more pessimistic, downbeat Le Carre/Deighton kind. For one reason or another my own preferences lean towards the latter. The Deadly Affair is an adaptation of an early John Le Carre novel, and in no way attempts to glamorize the world of espionage. Instead, it focuses on petty betrayals and the slightly dingy suburban surroundings of the protagonists.
The story, as with many of this type, deals with the investigation of a possible mole in British Intelligence. James Mason plays Charles Dobbs (in the novel it’s George Smiley – I suppose the change of name is understandable enough given how little the character has to smile about here) who is charged with the task of investigating a civil servant. MI5 has received an anonymous letter concerning said civil servant and questions must, therefore, be answered. Dobbs appears satisfied that the letter is nothing more than a hoax, but the apparent suicide of the suspect seems inconsistent. It is the questions raised by this death that drive the rest of the story along. There is also the secondary plot concerning Dobbs’ tortured domestic life with his nymphomaniac wife (played by Swedish actress Harriet Andersson) and the two strands are woven together successfully enough.
The film was directed by Sidney Lumet and has some nice location work around the vaguely depressing urban and suburban settings. Lumet’s style has never been the most exciting but that fits well enough with the mood – lots of grey skies and rain. Quincy Jones scored the picture and it’s one of the best things about it. The langourous, wistful jazzy music both evokes the mid-60s and reflects the emotional longings of the central characters.
The acting is a mixed bag, with the male characters coming off the best by far. James Mason is excellent and manages to convey the combination of determination, weariness, hopeless romanticism and pathos that the role requires – no mean feat that. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mason give a bad performance on screen and he ranks right up there as one of my favorite actors. There’s good support from Harry Andrews as a tough old retired policeman, and Roy Kinnear excels in a small role as a seedy, bigamous used car dealer. Maximilian Schell is adequate enough playing Dobbs’ old friend and former colleague, but nothing more. The female characters, however, are where the film falls down somewhat. Simone Signoret’s widow is too detached, although that may well be what the part of a concentration camp survivor demanded. The biggest problem, though, is Harriet Andersson. She gives one of the weakest performances I’ve seen in a long time. Given her role, you would have thought that some passion should be on display; but no, she’s ice-cold and blank throughout.
Overall, The Deadly Affair is a satisfying, if unspectacular movie. Currently, it’s available in R2 from Sony in a reasonable 1.85:1 transfer. The disc is a totally bare-bones one – literally. There isn’t even a real menu screen. While I’m grateful that the film is available, it has to be said that the cheap presentation of the disc is quite insulting.