The Deadly Affair was one of the films that Sidney Lumet made during his British period, which came during the mid-’60s to the early ’70s. Of course, tat was the point when he started making the gritty dramas like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network for which he is now best known. It’s also a spy thriller, which makes it a bit of oddity in his career.
It’s based on a novel by the noted spy-story author John le Carré, whose work has been adapted numerous times for cinema but also for several television mini-series productions. The Deadly Affair is based on his novel Call for the Dead, which also introduced the world to his best-known character, George Smiley. However, due to the earlier le Carré adaptation The Spy Who Came in from the Cold having grabbed the rights to character George Smiley, he is renamed Charles Dobbs for this film.
Dobbs has set out to solve the mysterious death of Samuel Fenann, a man whom he met and had a chat with just hours before his death. The higher-ups at MI5 want it all swept under the rug, but Dobbs is naturally suspicious due to various abnormalities in the event that can’t be explained. This version of Smiley is much more neurotic than the one Gary Oldman played in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and you see bits of his everyday, non-spy life and his strained relationship with his wife. Soon Dobbs has teamed up with a retired policeman to figure out who is the spy, and who actually killed Fennan.
Along with the cinematography, James Mason is the best thing about the film. Mason always had an ambiguity to his performances, which fits the role of Smiley like a glove. He was one of the few actors who could perfectly play a villain and then a suave leading man the next or even in the same film.
Lumet and his cinematographer Freddie Young wanted to give the film of look of a black and white film, but in colour. Young was a very old-school cinematographer who had been working for David Lean and the like, whereas Lumet was already a veteran director but with a radically different style from the world in which Young worked. I wonder why they never worked together again, because they achieved the look by exposing the colour negative to small amounts of light, and it’s a style that has been much copied since.
Overall, it doesn’t quite work as a cohesive whole for me in the way that some other le Carré adaptations do. However, it’s worth seeing out for Lumet completists, fans of Mason and for the cinematography itself. The disc is full of special features, including archival audio of lectures from Mason and Lumet, and new interviews with the screenwriter Paul Dehn and the camera operator. The film historians Michael Brooke and Johnny Mains supply a commentary track as well. The initial pressing includes a big fat booklet with new and old writing on the film.