The Albany Public Library, already an eclectic trove of DVDs, has further endeared itself to me by beginning to acquire films from Sony's burn-on-demand library of Columbia Pictures releases. One of their first acquisitions from this growing collection gives me an opportunity to look at one of the lesser-known films of the late Sidney Lumet, who died last April. This adaptation by screenwriter Paul Dehn of the John le Carre novel Call For the Dead came to fruition just after one of my favorite periods of Lumet's long career, following such brutally intense black and white films as Fail-Safe, The Pawnbroker and The Hill. The director works in color here, with innovative cinematography by Freddie Young, but this is still a pretty dark and intense film, and in some ways perhaps Lumet's most European film.
The story strikes me as standard le Carre stuff. James Mason stars as Charlie Dobbs, who we first see casually interviewing some bureaucrat in a park about his Communist past. Dobbs decides that the man is over his youthful dalliance with radicalism and recommends that he be given security clearance for a promotion. Naturally, he's stunned to learn that the man has killed himself. His superiors fear embarrassment if anyone assumes that the poor man had been hounded to death by Red-hunters, while his widow (Simone Signoret) reproaches Dobbs for doing just that. Dobbs's impression had been that theirs had been a friendly interview, but the widow, a Holocaust survivor, tells him otherwise. It's as if everyone wants to throw Dobbs under the bus for this fiasco, and just at a time when his private life is falling apart. His marriage to an apparent nymphomaniac (Harriet Andersson) has been understandably uneasy, but Dobbs has felt that it would remain bearable as long as Ann didn't fall in love with anyone else. But he soon learns that Ann has fallen in love with a protege of his from World War II days, Dieter Frei (Maximillian Schell). We appreciate Dobbs's eye for detail when he deduces the affair from the fact that Dieter kisses Ann's hand when she offered him her cheek instead. That was the act of someone with something to hide.