LE CARRÉ DIEM: The Deadly Affair

14 May, 2016 at 12:11 am (film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: The Spy who Thought it was a Wee Bit Chilly Out There

CURRENTLY: I found it almost impossible to watch this film without comparing it to works that came later. One would think that it would therefore be hailed as seminal, as a tone-setter and as inspiration. Instead, it feels played and justly forgotten, despite preceding those media to which it pales in comparison.

Penguin Modern Classics edition of 'Call for the Dead'The book was originally titled A Call for the Dead and is Le Carré’s first novel. As mentioned last week, George Smiley appears in The Spy Who and appears here, naturally enough, as the main character in the film based on the first Smiley novel. However, due to the sorts of rights issues that have, until recently, prevented Marvel Comics icon Spider-Man from appearing in Marvel universe movies, the George Smiley that sports Rupert Davies’ walrus mustache and roly-poly face is called “Charlie Dobbs”. However, like Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, &mdsah; which will be written eight years subsequently — “Dobbs” is married to a younger woman named Ann, who has affairs and relations with other men, despite claiming to love only her husband. In Affair she is portrayed by Harriet Andersson, who at the time was 34 to James Mason’s 57, a slightly more respectavble difference than that of his age gap with Sue Lyon in Lolita, which he made four years previous. I pretty much only know Mason from Lolita, a film called Charade that isn’t that one, and from Eddie Izzard impressions. So while I linked the two roles in my head, finding a strangeness in his relationship with a nymphette in the earlier film and a nymphomaniac in the latter, IMDB tells me that Mason made eight films during that four year interim, as well as three television series. So the relationship may well have been far from his mind, let alone that of the viewing public.

But while the spectre of my memories of Humbert Humbert hung listlessly over the film during my viewing, the main haunting was the holographic blue presence of Alec Guinness, whose later interpretation of Smiley I find impossible to eradicate from my mind’s eye and ear. The climactic scene of the film has Mason losing his pent-up rage and sexual frustration at the dalliances of his wife, and lashing out at a betrayer with a plaster cast on his arm — which proved to be a unexpectedly formidable club. Mason is successfully robust in the scene, powerful and explosive, which is a George Smiley I simply can’t mesh with Guinness’ sedate, rheumy Machiavellian. Even in extremis, Smiley would check himself and regain control before going too far. “Dobbs” loses his cool to such a degree that he causes a death — one that he immediately regrets, but one that he still caused through his immoderate passion. Mason playing man as cauldron is reasonable casting, but having that be an interpretation of Smiley strikes me — having not read this initial source material — as a contemporary take on the character that has more to do with the tone of the times than the character on the page.

For the tone is also at odds with my conception of Le Carré’s psychological approach to espionage fiction. Firstly, the dialogue is teeth-grindingly expository. I referred to Ann as a “nymphomaniac” earlier, a word which the screenplay tosses out in the middle of an argument between Mr. and Mrs. Dobbs. The word does not appear to be in Call for the Dead, or at least it doesn’t appear in a search of Google’s electronic concordance. So to have Ann refer to herself as that in an accusatory manner, throwing the word in Charlie’s face — either, we can infer, because he has called her that in the past, or she has been “diagnosed” as such — is putting a very blunt point on it, indeed. And the false economy of characters that <spoilers!> makes Ann’s lover also the Russian spy, while probably from the novel — it’s too large a twist to have been written into the script after the fact, and is likely the source of the change in title — makes everything incredibly pat and simplistic. Le Carré was wont to peer over the shoulders of many players in the tapestries of his stories, his limited third-person omniscient perspective allowing us to feel the humanity of many involved, and understand the selfishness, the blindness, and the seductive righteousness of his participants. Despite an attempt to make Dobbs interestingly human due to his jealousy of his wife and his limpid inability to protest against her infidelity, Deadly Affair never really gives us any notable access to characters with which one could either sympathize or empathize. The particular may well contain something here, but it’s much more likely to be alienation than universality.

'The Deadly Affair' title card

The tone that Sydney Lumet seems to be trying to market is something out of a pulp magazine. The colorized, grainy cards that grace the title sequence are the most noir stylized moments in the film, tantalizingly showing and silhouetting Ann’s state of undress in a way that the film in motion hides entirely. The soundtrack underscores this impression successfully, and Quincy Jones lays in sultry jazz and mystery for the taking. It’s all very boudoir for about two minutes until the movie actually starts. At which point Lumet isn’t able to maintain the tension Le Carré seems intent on: the juxtaposition of a man who can overlook the sins and failings of others, can find the goodness in liars and communists and yet can’t do anything except hurt the woman who loves him enough to stay with him, despite a pathological need to sleep around. The end, in which Lumet pulls back for a long shot of Dobbs revealing the fate of her lover in a Swiss airport, is wonderful. So the first and last impressions of the film are spot on. There’s a lovely bit in the middle featuring some jaded and unfortunate Shakespearean actors that would be considered to have gone on far too long, if it wasn’t perhaps the most entertaining portion of the film. And a brilliant and unflattering monologue by Simone Signoret runs rings around all of the surrounding acting. But the workaday proceedings that make up practically everything else provide little coherent suspense or entertainment.

NEXT: Sir Anthony Hopkins is the noble spy, Vivian Pickles is Mrs. King, but the Scarecrow is nowhere to be found. Nor are, based on the IMDB cast listing, any women of any significance, despite being played by Anna Massey and Susan George.

 

Related Links:
Frank R. Cunningham evaluates The Deadly Affair quite differently than I in his book on Lumet’s films.
The Le Carré adaptation this is all leading up to, Our Kind of Traitor came out today in the UK. Reviews in The Grauniad.
Slate has done what I’m doing, but puts all the Le Carré films in one condensed article.
Two articles comparing the likenesses and impressions of actors who played George Smiley on film or television.

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