Friday, May 23, 2014

Neglected Gem #57: The Deadly Affair (1966)

James Mason in The Deadly Affair (1966)

Of all the movies derived from John Le Carré’s spy novels, The Deadly Affair – based on Call for the Dead – may be the least known, but it’s one of the best. Sidney Lumet directed it in 1967, from a literate, intelligent screenplay by Paul Dehn. It begins with an unusual credits sequence, a series of black-and-white stills, filtered through a range of colors, from the movie we’re about to see, which turns out to be just as unusual: harsh, occasionally brutal, yet suffused with melancholy and with a more delicate texture than one normally associates with Lumet. The picture feels both freshly minted and a little tentative in style, as if he were stepping out into unfamiliar territory; not all the parts match up perfectly. (The lovely Quincy Jones score, for instance, seems to belong to some other film.) And somehow that fact adds to the film’s appeal, perhaps because the world it ventures into is mercurial and cobwebbed with deception and the relationships it depicts are prickly, unsatisfying, incapable of resolution.

James Mason plays Charles Dobbs, a British intelligence agent who’s asked to check out a government minister named Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) who has been identified as a Communist in an anonymous letter to the Foreign Secretary. Fennan doesn’t deny that he leaned toward the left in his young, idealistic days, and Dobbs leaves their interview satisfied that the accusation is out of date and nothing to worry about. But then Fennan is found dead, an apparent suicide, and Dobbs and his old friend Mendel (the indispensable Harry Andrews), a retired cop, begin an investigation. The great French actress Simone Signoret plays Fennan’s widow, Elsa, a Holocaust survivor; Ingmar Bergman’s frequent leading lady Harriet Andersson is Dobbs’s wife Ann; and the German émigré Maximilian Schell shows up as Dieter, an old comrade of Dobbs’s whom he once trained as a spy. The mixed-culture cast helps to provide a modernist feel as well as underscoring the complicated (and unreliable) loyalties in the international espionage landscape. The amazing cast also includes Kenneth Haigh (not often seen on screen, but he created the role of Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger on the London stage), Lynn Redgrave, Max Adrian (as Dobbs’s campy supervisor, sometimes referred to behind his back as “Marlene Dietrich”) and Roy Kinnear. Kinnear, who plays a shady garage owner, has one of the most memorable character moments in the film: after he’s been beaten up, he stoops to pick up his young daughter and can’t lift her. The only performance that doesn’t really work is Andersson’s: she’s a terrific actress but she seems to be stumbling over the subtle shifts in tone in a language that isn’t her native Swedish.

Simone Signoret as Elsa Fennan, in The Deadly Affair
Mason and Signoret give exquisite performances. He plays a man who’s torn apart by his wife’s infidelities but loves her too much to leave her. This portrait of a marriage that’s gone sour beneath its overlay of authentic affection on both sides is sad and upsetting. In their marital bed, Ann asks Charles if he wants to know whom she’s sleeping with, and, his face a mask of anguish, he reminds her that they tried maintaining that sort of openness once but it didn’t work, that knowing the identity of his rival merely “gave a shape to the jealousy.” Only when he discovers out that her latest lover is his friend Dieter, who has returned to London after many years, does he decide to move out of their flat. He doesn’t mean to find out, but he’s too well trained as a spy to miss Dieter’s tell: when he comes by to see them, he kisses Ann’s hand instead of her cheek, his usual greeting. The knowledge horrifies him because the “nice ones” are the lovers he fears, the ones who might be able to give Ann a future. There’s a remarkable scene where the two men go out for lunch together. Dieter comments that they’re playing a ridiculous English scene – that in any other country they wouldn’t even be on speaking terms – but Charles is as concerned for his old friend as he is for his wife; he doesn’t want either of them to be hurt. But Dieter’s right about his Englishness: Charles doesn’t even allude to his own agony in this untenable situation.

Signoret’s Elsa Fennan is a woman so complex that even Dobbs has trouble reading her. Their first scene together is classic Le Carré – the elegant veteran spy visits the brittle, embittered widow, who’s cynical about the way Whitehall treats human beings, like pawns in a game. But the two actors add layers to the encounter by bringing a dense, heady mix of emotions to it; you can’t help feeling that you’re in the presence of a pair of master actors drawing on all their resources.

Dehn’s script does them full justice. The first in a series of climaxes takes place during a performance of Marlowe’s Richard II by the Royal Shakespeare Company under the direction of Peter Hall: what we see is the title character’s gruesome death, which points up the movie’s main theme, betrayal, which resonates in both the spy plot and the marriage plot in a number of ways – and the two stories end up overlapping. The cinematography, by the masterful Freddie Young, is concentrated in browns and grays and contains the earliest examples in movies of flashing – underexposing the film to create a saturated, antique look. (Vilmos Zsigmond employed it famously in the movies he shot for Robert Altman, beginning with McCabe & Mrs. Miller.) The Deadly Affair is more than one kind of rare animal.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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