50 Years Ago This Week – Sydney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair

On January 26 1967, Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair opened in America (the UK-based production had its premiere in Britain the previous October).  Largely unnoticed at the time and a flop at the box office (though it did earn five BAFTA nominations), the movie is very much worth revisiting, both on the strength of its own formidable merits and also as an important harbinger of the introspective themes and aesthetic motifs of the emerging New Hollywood. For producer-director Lumet – a member of that more senior cohort of the American New Wave who cut their teeth working on the live television dramas of the 1950s – Deadly Affair marked an inflection point from his impressive transitional films (including 12 Angry Men, Fail Safe, and The Hill), as it plainly gestured toward the moral ambiguity and enveloping pessimism that would characterize the seventies film (including of course his own contributions, among them Dog Day Afternoon and Network).

Based on John Le Carre’s well-received first novel, Call for the Dead, the sharp, witty, insightful screenplay was written by Paul Dehn, fresh off his adaptation of another Le Carre story, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold—two films determined to strip the dashing secret agent of everything Hollywood movies had given him: heroism, sex appeal, savoir-faire, inevitable triumph. Dehn, who had shared the screenplay credit for Goldfinger, knew exactly what he wasn’t writing.  In lieu of saving the world in the nick of time against impossible odds, in Deadly Affair our heroes are served indifferent portions of minor tragedy, personal disappointment, and layers of betrayal.  (And there is much more here than cloak-and-dagger; Lumet described one key element of the movie as the “almost masochistic love this man feels for his wife” – which is obvious after he says it – an observation that to our eyes is also suggestive of unspoken parallels in the relationship between Elsa and Samuel Fennon.)

Lumet took a good story and delivered it to a marvelous cast. James Mason carries the lead role – reminding the viewer, again, that he was one of the great actors of his time – here in the excellent company of Harry Andrews, Maximillian Schell, the legendary Simone Signoret, Bergman affiliate Harriet Anderson, Kenneth Haigh, and Roy Kinnear. It is not a movie that calls attention to its direction, but Lumet knew what he was doing, and what he wanted. In his book Making Movies, Lumet explained that “thematically, it was a film about life’s disappointments,” which led to the film’s innovative visual style—he wanted “all the colors [to be] far less vibrant, with much less life and brightness than they normally would have had.”  Cinematographer Freddy Young (he shot Lawrence of Arabia, in a distinguished career that stretched back to 1929 and would continue through 1984), achieved this look by flashing the negative (exposing it briefly to small amounts of light). Vilmos Zsigmond, who famously deployed this innovation in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, credits Young with inventing this technique.  It works extremely well here, as does most everything, including the music by Quincy Jones. 

Case Closed

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Dead Man

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One False Move

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Husbands and Wives

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All in a Day's Work

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Whole Story

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Hot Pursuit

Hot Pursuit