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British Foreign Office agent Charles Dobbs is assigned to investigate Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office employee accused of being a Communist; Fennan subsequently commits suicide, leaving behind a note protesting his innocence. Although Dobbs suspects the man was murdered, his superiors abruptly close the case. Dobbs resigns from the Foreign Office and continues the investigation on his own with the help of retired police inspector Mendel. Their investigation focuses on Fennan's wife Elsa, a concentration camp survivor with suspicious ties to her husband's death. At the same time, Dobbs must contend with his own wife's marital infidelity.
The Deadly Affair (1967) is adapted from the 1961 novel Call for the Dead by John Le Carre. Born in 1931 as David John Moore Cornwell, Le Carre became a British intelligence agent after the war and later a member of the Foreign Office; thus he has observed firsthand the bureaucracy and ruthlessness of the world he would later recreate so memorably in his fiction. He is also notable for his proficiency in French and German (at one point he was a tutor at Eton) and his deep knowledge of German literature. In Call for the Dead, his first novel, Le Carre created the character of George Smiley, who later reappeared in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People. He has since become one of the most critically respected writers of popular fiction. Among the numerous screen adaptations of his work -- the best of which besides Lumet's film is arguably The Spy Who Came in From Cold (1965) -- Le Carre himself has written screenplays for The Little Drummer Girl (1984), The Russia House (1990) and the underrated The Tailor of Panama (2001).
The Deadly Affair is in part a noteworthy collaboration between Sidney Lumet and the great British cinematographer Freddie Young. Before working with Lumet on this film, Young had established an international reputation for his contributions to the David Lean epics Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), for which he won two Academy Awards. Lumet, who made brilliant use of black and white on films such as Long Day's Journey into Night (1962), The Pawnbroker (1964) and The Hill (1965), here uses color to equal effect. In order to suggest the melancholy world of Dobbs, Lumet and Young deliberately muted the colors by "prefogging" the film or exposing it to light before using it in the camera. His attempt to achieve "colorless color," as he described it, is in fact typical of the care Lumet uses in crafting the overall style of a film, always in close collaboration with the cinematographer, editor and art director. Lumet has said about the use of color in his films, "....it begins with the art director and that's who you have to do your heaviest work with. Why leave it all to the camera? Let the camera augment it."
At the same time, Lumet has developed a formidable reputation as an "actor's director," helping actors such as Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway win Academy Awards and many others such as Katharine Hepburn, Al Pacino and Rod Steiger win nominations. While The Deadly Affair features a talented international cast, including Harriet Andersson (an Ingmar Bergman regular) Simone Signoret and Maximilian Schell, James Mason is particularly impressive as the morally compromised spy Charles Dobbs caught within the impersonal, bureaucratic world of espionage. Lumet, who also directed Mason in The Sea Gull (1968), Child's Play (1972) and The Verdict (1982), says of him: "I always thought he was one of the best actors who ever lived. Whatever you gave him to do he would take it, assimilate it and then make it his own. The technique was rock solid, and I fell in love with him as an actor, so every time I came across a script I wanted to direct I would start to read it thinking is there anything here for James? He had no sense of stardom at all. He wanted good billing and the best money he could get, but then all he ever thought about was how to play the part. In that sense he reminded me more of an actor in a theatre repertory ensemble than a movie star, and it was what made him so good." Speaking of acting, the play performed in the film is Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company under the direction of Sir Peter Hall.
Director/Producer: Sidney Lumet
Assoc. Producer: Denis O'Dell
Screenplay: Paul Dehn, based on the novel Call for the Dead by John Le Carre
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Art Direction: John Howell
Editor: Thelma Connell
Music: Quincy Jones
Principal cast: James Mason (Charles Dobbs), Simone Signoret (Elsa Fennan), Maximilian Schell (Dieter Freey), Harriet Andersson (Ann Dobbs), Harry Andrews (Inspector Mendel), Kenneth Haigh (Bill Appleby), Roy Kinnear (Adam Scarr), Max Adrian (adviser), Lynn Redgrave (virgin).
by James Steffen