For an espionage thriller I like a lot, The Deadly Affair is also one of the most frustrating. The movie is based on John le Carre's first book, Call for the Dead. It introduced his readers to George Smiley. For some reason, in addition to changing the name of the book, director Sidney Lumet changed George Smiley to Charles Dobbs (James Mason). I'll continue to call him George Smiley. The story is how this aging British spy with a quiet manner and a shrewd mind finally learns the identity of an East German spy. It starts when Smiley is asked to investigate a mid-level foreign officer, Samuel Fennan, who has been accused in an anonymous letter of being, at best, a Communist sympathizer. Smiley determines that the man is not a danger, but shortly after the man commits suicide...yet he left a wake-up call for the next morning. Smiley's boss tells him to drop it. Smiley won't, quits, and enlists the help of a retired police inspector, Mendel (Harry Andrews), to help him. Smiley meets the man's wife, Elsa Fennan (Simone Signoret), a survivor of Nazi death camps where experiments were performed on Jewish women. He knows something is off and slowly tries to identify just who is the spy, if there really was one. All this while he must deal with his younger wife, Ann (Harriet Andersson). Smiley loves Ann and she may love him, but she is a serial adulterer and all he can do, apparently, is agonize over their relationship. It doesn't help when a younger man, Dieter Frey (Maxmilian Schell) arrives on the scene from Europe. Frey worked under Smiley in some dangerous operations during WWII and Smiley sees Frey almost as a son as well as a friend. It isn't long before Smiley learns that Ann is bedding Frey. And there is still the spy for Smiley to catch.
Lumet has directed some fine movies, and he's great with actors, but he's done a lot of flawed movies, too. With The Deadly Affair, those flaws seem magnified. First, the angst and conflicts of Smiley's relationship with his wife is a major part of the story...and it's like reading an agony column over and over. Nothing changes the impression that Smiley must be impotent and that Ann is a nymphomaniac. We're given scene after scene of the two of them emotionally baring their souls without either of them willing to identify what the problem is. Second, this means that Mason and Andersson have a series of "acting" moments that brings the spy story to a screeching halt. It isn't helped that Signoret as Mrs. Fennan also is given two major, teary "acting" scenes. Her scenes help advance the plot a bit and help us understand her, but they're basically designed by Lumet to give Signoret a change to do her stuff in close-up. Third, because of all these actor moments, the film lurches from story point to story point. One moment we're getting much involved in the spy story and how Smiley is prizing out the secrets, then we stumble into a scene where good actors are given far too much opportunity to emote. Fourth, there is a gratuitous death that serves no purpose than, as in so many Sixties and Seventies films, to make the audience think they must be watching a really serious movie. Fifth, there is an obtrusive and very with-it score by Quincy Jones that says "the Sixties" loudly. It doesn't fit the quiet George Smiley at all.
Even with all this, The Deadly Affair is a favorite of mine. The mood of the movie is somber but it's not dull. The plot is clever and twisting, with a minimum of required violence. Figuring out the killer isn't too hard. Figuring out who is a spy, why and why the anonymous letter about Fennan that started everything takes some thinking. The acting, even with all the marital angst, is high caliber. James Mason as Charles Dobbs aka George Smiley gives as fine a performance as I've ever seen. He agonizes over his relationship with Ann while refusing to give up on learning the real story behind Samuel Fennan. Signoret may have been indulged by Lumet for those acting moments, but she never the less is a force to be reckoned with. Harry Andrews as Mendel is terrific as the literal and resourceful counterpoint to the cerebral and clever Smiley. All the secondary roles are well-crafted.
For trivia collectors, watch the scene in the theater when a major character, seated in the full house, is killed. On stage is the Royal Shakespeare Company performing Marlowe's Edward II. While our killing is taking place, so is the killing of Edward, played by no less than a young and unbilled David Warner.
The Deadly Affair is definitely a mixed bag. For those who admire James Mason and also early le Carre, it's worth having.