The Deadly Affair (1966)
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Sunday, September 30, at BAM, part of its John le Carré series
The thrills in Sidney Lumet’s 1966 adaptation of John Le Carré first novel, A Call for the Dead, mostly take place off-screen. The congenial routine-interview between intelligence man Charles Dobbs (James Mason) and Foreign Office man Samuel Fennan, to clear Fennan of the anonymous charge of Communist sympathies—sure, he dabbled at Oxford, but who didn't?—is followed by Fennan’s apparent suicide. But Lumet doesn't show us the deed. In the war, Dobbs was an active intelligence officer (you know, spy) in the field: when he meets with visiting friend and one-time colleague Dieter Frey (Maximillian Schell), their battle-forged fraternity is palpable. But now he’s an intelligence officer (you know, bureaucrat) in an office, with a wife getting her thrills elsewhere, not least with Dieter.
In adapting the novel, le Carré and Paul Dehn (another British intelligence vet and, equally importantly, a Goldfinger screenwriter), pruned and crossbred, dramatized and sexed up, and the resultant Affair is no less thrilling for its relative directness. The conversations between Dobbs, a smart man horrified by the callowness of his superiors, and Samuel’s widow Elsa (Simone Signoret), a concentration camp survivor, survive the transfer intact. Signoret turning a quiet and righteous anger into eloquence is one of Affair’s achievements, as is the leaky gray London in which Dobbs and Mendel, a cop not on the take, conduct their investigation. There’s a totally mystifying scene with a rabbit, but Affair is essentially a very respectable spy movie. Make Charles Dobbs happy and give respectable spying a chance.