Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Movie Review: James Mason in The Deadly Affair, directed by Sidney Lumet (1966)

James Mason, Harriet Andersson, and Maximilian Schell in The Deadly Affair, 1966. Who knew that James Mason was taller than Maximilian Schell?

James Mason in The Deadly Affair. He had such beautiful, haunting eyes.

James Mason and Maximilian Schell in The Deadly Affair.
James Mason had a very successful year in 1966. He was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his role in Georgy Girl, the movie that made Lynn Redgrave a star, and he played a supporting role in The Blue Max, a film about German pilots in World War I starring George Peppard and Ursula Andress. Both Georgy Girl and The Blue Max were among the top twenty grossing movies of 1966. Mason’s third film of 1966 was the lead role in The Deadly Affair, which was based on John le Carre’s first novel, Call for the Dead. The Deadly Affair was directed by the always excellent Sidney Lumet.

In The Deadly Affair, Mason plays le Carre’s spy George Smiley, who had to be renamed Charles Dobbs for this movie, because Paramount had bought the rights to the Smiley character when they made The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1965. (Smiley is just a supporting character in Cold, as that film focuses on Alec Leamas, brilliantly played by Richard Burton, who should have won the Oscar for it.) 

The Deadly Affair begins with Dobbs interviewing a government worker who has been accused of being a spy. Dobbs seems certain that the man isn’t a spy, but later that night the man is found dead, an apparent suicide. Dobbs investigates, thinking that there’s more to the story than meets the eye. We observe Dobbs’ investigation, and also get glimpses of Dobbs’ difficult home life. He’s married to the much younger Ann (Harriet Andersson) who is habitually unfaithful to him. Dobbs’ old friend Dieter Frey (the very handsome Maximilian Schell) comes into town from Switzerland on business, and Ann begins an affair with Dieter. When Dobbs finds out about this, it leads to one of my favorite scenes in the movie, as Dobbs calmly discusses the situation with Dieter. Dieter says to Dobbs contemptuously, “In any other country we wouldn’t even be on speaking terms, this is a ridiculously British scene.” Dobbs responds, “I don’t know, I’ve never played it before.” A tense scene at the end of the movie takes place in a theater, during a production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II. The dialogue from the play really heightens the tension at that point in the movie. 

The supporting cast in The Deadly Affair is excellent, and the movie features a superb performance from character actor Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel, the retired police officer who helps Dobbs unravel the case. Beatle film fans will need to look out for Roy Kinnear from Help!, who is excellent in a small role as a disreputable scrap yard owner, and Kenneth Haigh as Bill Appleby, who assists Dobbs and Mendel with the investigation. Fans of A Hard Day’s Night will recall Haigh’s brief but very funny role as Simon, the TV executive who wants George Harrison’s opinion on shirts. When George calls them “grotty,” Simon responds, “Of course they’re grotty, you wretched nit, that’s why they were designed. But that’s what you’ll want.” Simone Signoret is also stellar as the dead man’s widow. (Signoret won an Oscar as Best Actress for her role in 1959’s Room at the Top, also starring the wonderful Laurence Harvey, and she was married to French actor Yves Montand.) Harriet Andersson is also very good as Dobbs’ wife. Andersson is most well-known for the many movies she made with Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. Maximilian Schell perfectly captures the smarmy charm of Dieter, and he’s certainly a fellow I wouldn’t want my wife spending too much time with. Lynn Redgrave has a tiny role in The Deadly Affair, although she doesn’t have any scenes with Mason. She’s an intern at a theater who is only called “Virgin” by the director, who is played by her brother, Corin Redgrave. (It’s the only film they appeared in together.) 

James Mason is one of my favorite actors, and he delivers an incredible performance in The Deadly Affair, as he shows Dobbs’ weariness, but also his single-minded devotion to investigating this death, despite what the personal and professional consequences might be. In my opinion, it’s one of Mason’s very best performances. Mason was nominated for a Best British Actor award at the BAFTA Film Awards for The Deadly Affair, but he lost to Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons.

Sidney Lumet was a big fan of Mason’s, and he said the following about the actor: "I always thought he was one of the best actors who ever lived. Whatever you gave him to do he would take it, assimilate it and then make it his own. The technique was rock solid, and I fell in love with him as an actor, so every time I came across a script I wanted to direct I would start to read it thinking is there anything here for James? He had no sense of stardom at all. He wanted good billing and the best money he could get, but then all he ever thought about was how to play the part. In that sense he reminded me more of an actor in a theatre repertory ensemble than a movie star, and it was what made him so good." (Quote from TCM’s website for The Deadly Affair.) Lumet directed Mason in four movies, including his Oscar-nominated role in The Verdict. As Lumet said, Mason was a very talented actor who could excel in a variety of roles, and he seamlessly made the transition from leading to supporting roles as he got older.

Cinematographer Freddie Young invented the technique of “pre-fogging” the film on The Deadly Affair. “Pre-fogging” means exposing the film in the camera to a small amount of light, and that technique gave The Deadly Affair a distinctive, washed-out color palette. Fun fact: You can see in the movie that James Mason was taller than Maximilian Schell. IMDB lists them both at 5’11”. 

The Deadly Affair is a very good movie that I would recommend to fans of le Carre’s unglamorous secret agents, and to anyone who enjoys the acting of James Mason.

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