The Deadly Affair (1966)

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A minor British film from the 1960s that meant almost nothing to me until quite recently. It is in fact a screen adaptation of John le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead. This belated ‘notice’ is by way of a postscript to a recent reflection on that novel, and le Carré in general.

It seems unfortunate that scriptwriter Paul Dehn was denied the use of the name George Smiley, which had been sold along with the other rights to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to Paramount a couple of years earlier. Instead James Mason played Charles Dobbs. A character who turned out to bear little resemblance to the toad-like George Smiley that le Carré probably intended. A character perfect for the story, but probably not for the big screen in the 1960s.

The story is simple enough: unlikely suicide of suspected foreign spy makes MI6 turn to George Smiley to unravel an assassination plot to cover for the real spy. Apart from Smiley and Mendel, the plot also calls for Hans Dieter Mundt as the assassin, who resurfaces as a nasty double agent in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Perhaps it was the temper of the times, but Dehn made the huge mistake of turning Smiley’s domestic circumstances into a sordid cuckold story, with a young, foreign, nymphomaniac wife (Harriet Andersson) plaguing Dobbs with serial unfaithfulness, including, on this occasion, with the villain of the piece, Dieter Frey (Maximillian Schell). Maybe it was the influence of Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), also with James Mason, and also dining out on the taboo sexuality of younger women.

I suppose it was only later that le Carré developed the unfaithfulness of Ann Smiley into its ultimate form, when Smiley discovers in, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, that she had also bedded Bill Haydon. A double betrayal, almost like that of a domestic double agent.

Nothing much was gained by the voyeuristic device of a young nymphette, except to waste screen time, and to create a larger rôle for Schell than the story demanded. I suppose it was more contemporary thinking about leveraging foreign names, sex, and a popular understanding of the Cold War to which le Carré was the antithesis.

The author’s original telling of the story created a wistful, melancholy state of mind for Smiley, deserted by his wife Ann for a Cuban racing car driver. That melancholy was a perfect backdrop for the moonlighting he did to resolve the murder mystery, and the espionage flap for which it was to be a cover. Telling it that way on film would have required a good deal of finesse, but Dehn had it. His credits included screenplays for Seven Days to Noon (1950), for which he won an Academy Award in 1952, On Such a Night (1956), Orders to Kill (1958), Goldfinger (1964), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), and Murder on the Orient Express (1974). He just didn’t show it this time.

The prurience of Ann Dobbs’ promiscuity aside, perhaps having written part of the script for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Dehn assumed too much about the characters. I barely recognized Smiley. Mason was definitely too debonair to represent the pudgy, ungainly, bookish Smiley. His characterization of Dobbs was too emotional and vulnerable to carry with it any other, balancing Smiley traits.

Harry Andrews as the ‘retired’ Inspector Mendel was the standout performance, encapsulating perfectly what I had imagined, and being surpassed in that rôle only barely by George Sewell in the 1979 BBC dramatization of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which also gave us the incomparable performance by Alec Guiness as the George Smiley. That performance has never been surpassed, even if Gary Oldman came close in the 2011 film adaptation.

Another character apparently dropped for copyright reasons was Peter Guillam, whom I suppose Dehn turned into Bill Appleby, played with not much charm by Kenneth Haigh. The 1979 performance by Michael Jayston was much better, and in 2011 Benedict Cumberbatch perfected the rôle, possibly beyond any expectations le Carré might have had in mind.

Le Carré’s novel did not aim at history-changing events so much as reflecting on the unlikely characters who really did such things. In that the film succeeded. In its understated British way. And without duplicating the critical or financial success of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the way I imagine the producers had hoped when contemplating the story for production in the first place.

Watching The Deadly Affair again is not an appointment with excitement or the extraordinary. But it strikes me as a much better way to seek entertainment than most contemporary time-wasting diversions. Because it is not ‘new’, or singled out for some other factoid notoriety, it will probably remain obscure and forgotten by everyone but people like me, whose past is now longer than their future.


British Lion-Columbia, colour, 115 minutes.

Directed and produced by Sidney Lumet. Written by Paul Dehn from John le Carré’s novel. Cinematopgraphy by Freddy Jones. Music by Qunicy Jones.

With James Mason as Charles Dobbs, Simone Signoret as Elsa Fennan, Maximilian Schell as Dieter Frey, Harriet Andersson as Ann Dobbs, Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel, Kenneth Haigh as Bill Appleby, Roy Kinnear as Adam Scarr, Max Adrian as the Adviser.

See also my other reviews of John le Carré novels and adaptations.

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