The Deadly Affair


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.


18 thoughts on “The Deadly Affair

  1. Excellent overview though I was a bit more impressed with the Sony disc than you as I thought the transfer was remarkably good (at least for such a bare bones release, as you say). Andersson is the weak link, no question. I have always had the feeling that the film suffered a little bit at the hands of the censor or maybe that decision were made to lower a potential rating as several of the scenes between her and Mason seem truncated as if bits of bad language or references to her nymphomania were cut – especially in the scene in the bedroom fairly early on. No idea if this is true – just an impression. The cutting is certainly a bit choppy in their scenes and Lumet’s movies were always nothing if not elegant.


  2. You’re right, I was a bit hard on the DVD. I guess I wrote that piece (four years ago now!) back at a time when it wasn’t unreasonable to expect catalogue titles to feature some extras, maybe even a commentary. Viewed from a 2012 perspective, that’s no longer the case and it’s now just a relief to find a movie released at all. The transfer is a good one in all honesty and it’s very cheap to buy too.

    The film itself is imperfect, but I’m extraordinarily fond of it and find myself drawn back to it frequently. I still think it’s Mason’s beautifully restrained and affecting work that carries the day. He was such a fine actor.


  3. He was great at played tortured men like Smiley / Dobbs, who repress their emotions (Nicholas Ray’s BIGGER THAN LIFE is another great example). A terrific actor though I wish he had player fewer villains and been able to play more outright heroic roles in his prime during his Hollywood heyday. But then again, one should resist the temptation to re-write history really …


    • One of Mason’s movies that I badly want to see released on DVD is Hotel Reserve, an adaptation of Eric Ambler’s nifty thriller Epitaph for a Spy. It gives Mason the oportunity to play a more heroic role.

      In general though, he was perfect as the anti-heroic figure: Rupert of Hentzau, Johnny McQueen in the sublime Odd Man Out, and also in the neglected The Man Between – the latter has a couple of especially affecting scenes that always cut me up.


        • That’s a fine review Sergio, and a very fair appraisal of the film. The Man Between does appear as a mash-up of earlier Reed themes, but I still think it has merits of its own. It’s not of the same quality of as Odd Man Out or The Third Man (or even The Fallen Idol) but, as your piece points out, the second half is extremely stylish.

          Regarding Hotel Reserve, I’ll be in touch.


  4. When this film appeared at our local theatre in the late sixties, as a supporting feature, relatively unheralded but boasting of such fine actors as James Mason, Harry Andrews, and Simone Signoret, I guessed ” The Deadly Affair” had not been well received by the general public .

    Having approached the film with some caution, I was pleasantly surprised. Mason, as usual, gave a fine performance, as did Harry Andrews, and Freddie Young’s colour photography evoked a “different feel” to the proceedings; Quincy Jones’ music added to the pleasure and the story adapted from the first John Le Carre’ novel ” Call For The Dead”, was interesting and involving.

    Why was it so unloved and neglected? Both your review and Sergio’s comments hold the key; but I still recall this film with much pleasure.


    • Rod, perhaps the film wasn’t perceived as glamorous enough at the time of release? It does have a pretty downbeat tone about it that contrasts with some of the glossier spy efforts of the era. Oddly though, unlike some films that underperform on release, it doesn’t appear to have built up much of a following subsequently either. Even the DVD releases have been low-key, almost sneaking out onto the market.

      I first caught the film on a late night TV screening some time back in the late 90s. I literally stumbled across it as I hadn’t been aware of it at all before that. The stylish titles and the accompanying Quincy Jones music hooked me though and I enjoyed it quite a bit, flaws and all.


  5. Colin,

    You are right when you mention the perceptions of cinema attendees in the “Sixties”, and this would, no doubt have influenced the degree of acceptance of “The Deadly Affair” . While the film interested me, I suppose that many in the audience must have considered it “a return to the past”, no doubt influenced by the excitement engendered by the exotic and erotic adventures of James Bond.

    The first in the series, “Dr No” in 1962 was quickly followed by “From Russia With Love”, (one of my personal favourites); “Goldfinger”, and three other Bond films, before the end of the decade.

    Their success had changed the expectations of many of the spy/thriller genre audience. Looking back to the “Sixties” I recall both the wide variety and large number of films produced at that point in time compared with the current releases.


    • Not only are spy films today fewer in number, but there’s not the same variety there at all. As you say, the 60s seemed to come at the genre from every conceivable angle.


  6. It’s now available on Blu Ray, with a lot more extras. I’ve not seen it yet, but it’s supposed to look really great.

    I’m kind of ambiguous on this movie. I’d read – and loved – the book several times before I saw it, so the bits that were faithful felt better on the page, and the changes were a let down IMO (there are a couple of extra deaths in the film … ) Personally, I think it would have been better as a low-budget black and white B-movie.

    Andersson isn’t great, but not only is she miscast – I’ve seen her in Ingmar Bergman films where she is both very good and very sexy – but her character shouldn’t really have been in it. Onscreen, Ann works better as someone talked about rather than seen. There just isn’t enough there for the actress to work with.

    I’ve heard that the reason Smiley’s name was changed to Dobbs was because the makers of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold still owned the rights to the character – at least when they would have been writing the script and filming it – so they would have needed to change it.


      • It’s a shame, because I’ve seen more than one online discussion where this film is overlooked because of the name-change.

        I completely forgot to mention that Max Adrian, who was a well-known classical actor but probably best remembered for Up Pompeii with Frankie Howard, is perfect as Maston the Adviser.


        • I can believe that. The first time I saw the film was entirely accidental – I just tuned in on TV and liked the vibe I got off the credits. It was only afterwards that I worked out, or maybe heard, that the character was really Smiley.

          And yes, Max Adrian is very memorable in the film.


  7. I found “The Deadly Affair” surfing IMDB. The reviews were good. I had some reluctance to watching it as I’m not a big Sidney Lumet fan. I also feel that, stylistically, this time period was a nadir for film. But as I commented in a recent post, I admire James Mason inordinately as an actor. I wasn’t aware that you had reviewed “The Deadly Affair”. I stopped watching at the 34-minute mark. This is the scene where Maximilian Schell first shows up. The chemistry and timing between Mason, Harriet Andersson, and Schell was grating — I felt embarrassed for the actors. I told my wife, “I can’t watch this.” Similarly, I think Mason’s interview with Signoret also fell flat. I admit it’s not fair the judge a movie without watching it in its entirety but I felt that Lumet was not in control of the pacing. My wife has expressed interest in picking it up again so maybe I’ll give it a second chance.


  8. I don’t recall having any special problem with the pacing overall, Frank. Andersson is not good in the movie at all, in my opinion. That scene you speak of could also be, in part, down to the awkward nature of the relationship between the characters. Then again it may simply be a matter of the movie not working for you, and we can’t expect to all react in the same way to everything.


  9. Colin
    I can honestly say I have never heard of this one. It will now be going on my list for a watch. Many thanks for the heads up my good fellow!!!



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