Based on the 1961 novel Call for the Dead by John Le Carré, The Deadly Affair is freighted with all the byzantine plot reticulations that one has come to expect from Le Carré. Set at the heated center of the mid-sixties Cold War, the film is crawling with a paranoid’s delights. There are plots and counterplots everywhere, and no one is to be trusted. The past is messily present, historically as well as personally.
This film is vintage Mason. It’s the way I think of him in my mind — not young, but not yet old; a little confused — bemused, perhaps, is the better locution — but of sufficient intellectual acumen to put two and two together; the satin soothing smoothness of his voice interrogating and interrogating, like a Socrates of the self, and coming up with answers. He is a moral man in an immoral world, and his compass still guides him in the direction of decency and honor.
The plot is, frankly, confusing. You’ll have to pay careful attention from the start to keep up with the rush of things; fortunately many of the individual scenes are so compelling on their own that if you treat the narrative as a concatenation of loosely connected tales — a kind of odyssey as it were of Cold War deceptions and deviousness — the film becomes enjoyable in its discrete modules. The acting is first-rate, first and foremost by James Mason, but Harry Andrews (a much under-rated actor in my view) is terrific as Inspector Mendel, and Simone Signoret’s Elsa Fennan is outstanding as a woman whose life was shattered long ago in the German concentration camps, a dreamer of nightmares that are as personal as they are political. Few can bring the sense of weariness with the world that Signoret does to a role, a kind of “I’ve seen it all and nothing surprises me any longer – really been there, done that.”
There is a marvelously staged scene when Dobbs first pays a visit to Elsa Fennan to ask her about the ‘suicide’ of her husband. She warily unlocks the door from behind which we, with Dobbs’ point of view, can barely make her out through the distorting glass. She allows him entry, and then goes into the kitchen to prepare tea. As Dobbs stands near the entryway, she comes out by another door from the kitchen and begins to pour in a dining nook. Wordlessly she stirs, wordlessly he stands. The semiotics of cinematic space, so to speak, has rarely been deployed to greater advantage: the use of a wide-angle lens underscores the sense of vast distance that separates these two antagonists and their respective views of the world — it’s a truly fine film moment.
Saying too much about Maximillian Schell’s Dieter would give too much away.
This film frames the murky politics of public bureaucracies in terms of private relationships — and vice versa. Dobbs’ marriage is a peculiar arrangement of hateful but tolerated deceptions designed to accommodate his love for a much younger woman who is a nymphomaniac.
Not exactly a prostitute, she is nonetheless free with her inventive favors, and it is his tolerance for her errant ways that counterpoints Dobbs’ rage (“There’s been an injustice done, and I hate it!”) at the self-delusions of officialdom. It, like his wife, is involved in an unseemly double game; what Dobbs cannot get from the one he gets from the other. Thus, his ‘resignation’ from the foreign office obviously parallels the increasing alienation between himself and his foreign wife, and just as, at the end, he is invited back to government service, so he and his wife arrive (significantly, in the Zurich airport) at a meeting of hearts and, one is led to infer, a continuation of marriage — neither the latter nor his job, I assume, will be an easy walk in the park, but at least they are all on the same path again. Further, Dobbs’ marriage problems are paralleled by the apparent matrimonial triangle at whose apex Elsa Fennan sits.
In the end, it’s all a huge game. La Carré, with a deep percipience in such matters, appreciated the point half a century ago, and events have proved him right. A dominant metaphor in the film’s second half is theater, play-acting, the brilliant fakery that gives shape to our imaginings. The play’s the thing, and it’s the play within the play here that gives the game away: the bureaucrats have their way, and the king must die.
It’s not, I suppose, a great movie, but it’s an immensely enjoyable one – perhaps more so than many a ‘great’ one. Stay alert, and you’ll get some very fine cinema by some very accomplished practitioners of the craft.