The Deadly Affair

Charles Dobbs on the phone

1966’s The Deadly Affair repeats the formula of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – John Le Carré story, top British and European cast, London locations, great US director, ace British cinematographer, soundtrack by a big name – and if it isn’t quite up there with the 1965 film, it’s still one of the very best Le Carré adaptations.

It takes Le Carré’s first novel, A Call for the Dead, slaps a less sombre, more bums-on-seats title on it and also renames Le Carré’s masterspy George Smiley, as Charles Dobbs (Paramount, who had made The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, “owned” the Smiley name). Though in all important respects this is Smiley, an ageing, owlish penpusher with a wife called Ann (Harriet Andersson) whom he adores but who treats him like shit – she’s “a nymphomaniac slut” in her own words, and most of Dobbs’s colleagues would agree, since they’ve nearly all slept with her.

The plot hangs off the death of a ministry wonk. Suicide is the official explanation. Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) was about to be outed as a former communist sympathiser, so the story goes, though Dobbs had quizzed Fennan on the very subject only that morning and Fennan had seemed happy to admit he’d been a Communist Party member in his university days – “Half the present Cabinet were Party men,” he points out. Unconvinced by the official line and suspecting murder, Dobbs sets about investigating, roping in Inspector Mendel (Harry Andrews), a cop on the verge of retirement, to help with the spade work. But first a trip to visit the dead man’s wife, Elsa. She is played by Simone Signoret, and let’s just say that you don’t hire Signoret simply to play the grieving widow.

James Mason’s mannered delivery works in his favour in The Deadly Affair. He’s a brilliant, silky Smiley (I mean Dobbs) – the silent but deadly quiet man whose unobtrusiveness is his secret weapon. The Dobbs character is of a piece with the shabby London settings captured by director Sidney Lumet. Far from the Swinging London of many mid-1960s movies, this is still the post-war world of damp rooms, electric fires and adultery, Lumet leaning in to Le Carré’s determination to present spying as a drab and morally ambiguous affair in much the same way Martin Ritt had in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel
Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel


Lumet also wanted to shoot in black and white, as Ritt did, but was prevailed upon by the studio to film The Deadly Affair in colour. Cinematographer Freddie Young gets Lumet half the way there, though, by “flashing” the film (exposing the negative to a controlled amount of light), a technique that drains out the colour, knocks back the contrast and increases shadow detail. This is a murky film that plays out in one underlit, beautifully photographed interior after another.

It’s also a superbly made film in terms of Lumet’s economical direction. From the opening shot, of Dobbs and Fennan already in mid-conversation in St James’s Park, Lumet does not hang about but drives the story forwards.

What a cast. As well as Signoret and Andersson – both greats of cinema – there’s the Austrian/Swiss actor Maximilian Schell, now amazingly almost a cinematic footnote but at the time about as big a star as a non-anglophone actor could be in Hollywood. One of Lumet’s fascinations is the way different actors work in different registers. Against the bluff, four-square Harry Andrews there’s puckish, nervous Roy Kinnear, for instance, and Lumet also stages several scenes at the theatre, where yet another different breed of actor, brother and sister Corin and Lynn Redgrave, play a camp director and his over-eager stage manager. We even get extracts from the plays they are supposedly working on – Shakespeare’s Macbeth and, particularly, Marlowe’s Edward II, where David Warner is playing the king and Timothy West is a witness to his terrible death (red hot poker where the sun don’t shine). Lumet is obviously indulging himself in a bit of “what I did on my holiday in London” postcard-writing with these scenes from Royal Shakespeare Company productions but they also provide a bit of contrast with the drabness of Dobbs’s milieu.

Quincy Jones’s lush John Barry-like score (title song sung by Astrud Gilberto) does something similiar, acting as a stark contrast to locations like semi-industrial Lots Road in West London, in the days before all of the Thames waterfront had gone upmarket. It’s where Dobbs finally unmasks his “traitor”, the dénouement playing out, grimly, quickly, in the dark and the pouring rain.

The years have been kind to this film, coating it in an allure it didn’t obviously have at the time. Mason is a superb Smiley (Dobbs, whatever) and this is a superb Le Carré adaptation.



PS: do yourself a favour and watch a restored version of the film, like the Amazon Blu-ray one listed below. It’s really worth it to see the results of the remarkable Freddie Young’s “flashing” technique. So much darkness, but so much detail.




The Deadly Affair – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Network

Peter Finch delivers his "mad as hell speech in Network

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

02 September

 

 

50th Anniversary of CBS Evening News

 

On this day in 1963 CBS’s flagship news show – broadcast since 1948 – assumed the title CBS Evening News. At which point it became US network TV’s first half-hour weeknight news broadcast. Walter Cronkite was its presenter (he’d taken over from Douglas Edwards the year before), a position he’d hold until 1981. A solid, progressive middle-American with natural gravitas, Cronkite became known as “the most trusted man in America” and the CBS Evening News became the country’s ratings-leading and most authoritative news broadcast. To this day when footage about the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, the moon landings or the Watergate break-ins is shown, there’s a fair chance that it’s Cronkite’s voice you’ll hear.

 

Network – (1976, dir: Sidney Lumet)

A prescient drama about the way news reporting on TV was heading, Network was also something of an elegy for the way it had been. Faye Dunaway won an Oscar for her portrayal of driven programming executive from the UBS network who’d do anything for ratings, and this was pretty much the last time she’d be in anything really of note, doing anything worth talking about. The same could be also said of William Holden, as news boss Max Schumacher, and of Peter Finch, as the crazed veteran news anchor who announces he’s going to kill himself live on air one night and gets a huge ratings boost as a result – Finch died before getting his posthumous Oscar. Sidney Lumet, an old TV hand, directs with a sure invisible hand and a real knowledge of the milieu, doing his best with Paddy Chayefsky’s furious script, which reaches for more than it can grasp. Tilt Network sideways and you’ve got Anchorman – but that’s another story.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An epic Peter Finch performance, his last
  • Faye Dunaway at fever pitch
  • It’s a caustic satire whose predictions have all come true
  • A reminder of thoughtful, adult Hollywood film-making
  • Finch’s famous “I’m mad as hell” speech

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Network – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Dog Day Afternoon

 

 

Look at all those 1960s heist movies – gents with David Niven accents in cat-burglar outfits effortlessly walking out of Monte Carlo with a heist of diamonds. How different the 1970s heist movie. In the decade when it became apparent that, economically, everything was falling apart, director Sidney Lumet caught the mood perfectly in a bank job movie set in a city crumbling faster than most others, New York. And there’s Al Pacino as our hero. Not a normal bank robber, but a slightly rubbish one, married but gay, cackhandedly stealing money so his boyfriend can have a gender reassignment operation – sexual orientation being another one of those little things that seemed to be making its presence more strongly felt in the 1970s, and treated by Lumet with a remarkable lack of sensationalism. On the subject of which, there’s another crucial element in the film, the media. Not your question-and-answer merchants in trilbys but ravenning news-harpies whose presence doesn’t just distort reality, it creates it. Add to that Pacino’s haunted performance, one of four or so in the early 1970s that turned him into a star beyond the pillowy imaginings of a Cruise or a Pitt, and you’ve got one of the defining films of the era.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Dog Day Afternoon – at Amazon