I find it hard not to put in a good word for Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair, made in the UK in 1966 by Columbia with an ‘international’ cast. The summarisers and encyclopaedists generally dismiss it as a modest offering from Lumet and certainly nowhere near part of the select group o films that make up his reputation as a class act. This reputation categorises him as a New York outsider who made a startlingly individual contribution by putting New York itself on screen as a vivid background to a series of modern crime dramas including several based, as they say far too frequently, on true events.
The international cast for A Deadly Affair means the inclusion of the scrumptious Swede Harriet Andersson as the straying wife Anne, Simone Signoret as Elsa Fennan the wife of a now dead agent with a secret and Maximilian Schell as Dieter Frey. Signoret, an icon of French cinema, had already slipped out of glamour roles into sad-eyed frumpiness and her casting here emphasises the sense of loss and bewilderment of those fleeing ideological persecution from a dozen different European regimes. The film is based on John Le Carrre’s first published novel “Call for the Dead” and in the book the chief spy and protagonist is George Smiley.
It was made after Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold had been a critical and commercial success, one which followed easily from the publishing sensation that the novel was when issued first in 1963. It has never been out of print to this day. Paramount Pictures the producers of the Spy... apparently laid legal claim to the character of George Smiley who makes a minor appearance and is played by Rupert Davies. To go ahead with The Deadly Affair Columbia was forced to come up with a name change for Smiley and settled on Charles Dobbs. As plain as it gets, though there may be a little insider nod to Fred C Dobbs in there.
Back in the day, almost everyone found themselves reading “Call for the Dead” after “The Spy Who...” and then, while awaiting, “The Looking Glass War”, “A Murder of Quality”, the author’s second published book and another which also featured the spy Geoge Smiley as the chief protagonist.
Between 1965 when he made The Hill and Equus in 1977, Lumet made six (at least) movies in Britain. They were all made with US studio money. Though they ranged from the modest to big budgets they all had stars of some repute to bolster things. Lumet it would seem had particularly good relations with Sean Connery and James Mason. A Deadly Affair was the first time Mason worked for Lumet and he was already into late middle-age and could do tired, resilient, principled, firm very well. Smiley the loner searching for truth got off to a good start even if his name was Dobbs.
The film meanders through the story of the uncovering of a traitor and Dobbs/Smiley’s discovery of the lengths that the Communist enemies would go to undermine him. This was where Ann, Dobbs’ wife came in. A conquest of her by a Soviet agent was some sort of insurance.
From the time the film was released it had a look of low budget grainy and dirty grey photography. The explanation for this is now on Wikipedia. “Director of photography Freddie Young's technique of pre-exposing the colour film negative to a small, controlled amount of light (known as "flashing" or "pre-fogging") in order to create a muted colour palette was first used in this film. Lumet called the result "colorless color" and it proved influential, being used by other cinematographers such as Vilmos Zsigmond on McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” Didn’t know that.
Lumet has always been a smart technician and if you look all the way back to a career that began as a child actor, moved into acting, theatre directing and then live television in the fifties, he’s there at the forefront of the technology and at the cutting edge of dramatic forms. (His TV series 100 Centre Street made way back in 2001/02 was a pioneer.) He was not above taking on assignments, prestigious as most of them were, or of keeping his hand in with some very mediocre material. Still, I suspect high hopes were had for A Deadly Affair, but despite some prestigious BAFTA nominations, not to be.
A new viewing might change minds in these days when the likes of Tom Hidleston, Gary Oldman and Philip Seymour Hoffman have all had a crack at the master plotter’s canon. This might be especially so if a cracker Blu-ray got us all the way back to the way Lumet and Freddie Young wanted to show off London as down at heel and dull when men, even well paid civil servants had trimmed moustaches and wore near identical clothes. Except that Smiley/Dobbs’ little felt hat stood out amongst the bowlers. Not sure if that Blu-ray is out in the market yet.