Thursday, June 2, 2011


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.

Dobbs may have noticed something else: the damning suicide note may have been typed on the same Olivetti machine as the anonymous letter denouncing the bureaucrat that provoked Dobbs's interview with him. Frustrated with a lack of higher-up cooperation, Dobbs resigns from the agency, while still receiving help from a friendly colleague, and hires a retired police detective, Mendel, (Harry Andrews) to do some investigating for him. Andrews had been Lumet's monster martinet in The Hill, and he's the best thing in The Deadly Affair. Mendel seems very retiring, easily lost in his hobbies and prone to falling asleep. But he has ways of getting information, and some of those are pretty brutal. After raging through the entirety of The Hill, Andrews runs hot and cold here in a tautly modulated performance, dozing comically at one moment and in another beating the snot out of a blubbery Roy Kinnear. For Lumet, Andrews in his bowler and overcoat is a special effect, an iconic silhouette and a constant promise of violence who heightens our suspense just by walking around. Lumet films Andrews's violence violently, shooting the attack on Kinnear with a handheld camera slowly advancing on the action. Poor Kinnear takes a lot of abuse in this picture. After Andrews is through with him, the mystery man named "Blondie," to whom the Kinnear character had rented his car, beats the slob some more and dumps him to his death.

Blondie had been following Dobbs around suspiciously, but the film would end too soon if he were the main menace of the picture. This is the sort of film where a suicide has to be suspect, and anyone involved with the victim -- and Dobbs -- becomes a suspect. In fact, the story resolves itself a bit too neatly for my taste once Dobbs's personal and work crises prove to be intimately related, but The Deadly Affair can be enjoyed as an exercise in style and emotional substance. I've already praised Andrews, but Mason deserves a lot of credit for making his hapless but not hopeless character credibly vulnerable and intellectually resourceful. While Andersson is something of a stereotype and Schell is little more than a pretty face, Signoret impresses with an aggressively poker-faced performance that keeps her character an enigma throughout. Somehow Lumet makes a scene that consists of nothing more than Andrews following Signoret onto a bus and through the streets of London one of the film's most thrilling episodes simply because you know what Andrews is capable of and you don't know yet about Signoret. But there's another element in that scene that bears mentioning.

What makes The Deadly Affair feel very much like a European film -- a continental film, that is -- is the soundtrack by all-American pop composer Quincy Jones. Jones and Lumet use music much like European genre filmmakers were, or would. The music is tuneful, light yet soulful, with some of the bachelor pad flavor yet restrained well short of Austin Powers-inspiring excess. Sometimes the music has an on-screen source (a record player in Dobbs's home) and sometimes its pure soundtrack. Sometimes it works as wistful counterpoint to the Dobbses' crumbling marriage, and sometimes it works to heighten suspense simply by picking up the pace in scenes like the Signoret-Andrews walkabout I mentioned above. Like many a Euro score to American ears, it sounds almost inappropriate to the story yet entrancingly atmospheric at the same time. In short, it's great stuff, and The Deadly Affair might have been more deadly (in a bad way) without it. As it is, the film is middling Lumet, coming between those harsh films of a few years before and the Seventies films from his return to America that form the core of his canon. But it's still a fine piece of craftsmanship with an overall feeling that's something more than the sum of its parts, and a fine representative of its cinematic time and place.

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