A John leCarré story directed by Sidney Lumet? Yes, please! The Deadly Affair (1966) is an adaptation of leCarré’s debut novel Call for the Dead, the subtle, smartly plotted murder mystery that introduced the world to leCarré’s legendary spymaster George Smiley. Smiley is renamed “Charles Dobbs” here due to rights issues, but the storyline is relatively faithful. Dobbs (James Mason) is an aging British espiocrat, and as the film opens he’s interviewing a Foreign Office diplomat named Fennan (Robert Flemyng), who’s been implicated as a communist by an anonymous complaint. Dobbs comes away from the interview happy that Fennan is perfectly innocent, which makes Fennan’s subsequent suicide all the more shocking. The following morning, Dobbs visits Fennan’s grieving wife Elsa (Simone Signoret) hoping to learn something, and by chance ends up fielding a wake-up call for Mr. Fennan, placed the night before. Why would a man about to commit suicide schedule a wake-up call? Dobbs thinks he would not, and wants to dig deeper. When his superiors try to silence him, he quits his job and continues the investigation on his own.
The name-change is actually a good thing, I think; Mason’s characterization isn’t really very Smileyesque. (Alec Guinness remains the definitive version, with Gary Oldman a more-than-effective modern replacement.) But Mason is nonetheless good in the driver’s seat as an earnest idealist, working hard to satisfy his sense of justice, even as he’s struggling to manage the adulterous dalliances of his young wife Ann (Harriet Andersson). Lumet conducts the proceedings with his usual low-key artistry, and the crafty mystery plot unspools nicely, with only a couple of sluggish sequences and overly melodramatic moments to mar the journey. The ultimate direction of the story is a bit predictable — the plot is slightly over-foreshadowed, unfortunately. But overall I found it a respectable puzzler, bringing leCarré’s earliest effort effectively to life.