The Deadly Affair (UK, 1967)

James Mason and Simone Signoret: where’s the glamour gone?

Coming two years after The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (UK), one of the best of many John le Carré adaptations, The Deadly Affair was a prestige production that wasn’t afraid to hit the downbeats essential to any portrayal of le Carré’s anti-hero Smiley (though the James Mason’s character is called Dobbs; Paramount had apparently copyrighted original). Unlike its predecessor, Smiley/Dobbs is the protagonist in The Deadly Affair, the title a double entendre about the suicide/murder that serves as the narrative disruption and the character’s strange relationship with his wife, Ann. She’s played by Harriet Andersson, made ‘famous’ in Bergman’s Summer with Monika (Sweden, 1953), and her casting was typical of British cinema of the time when female foreign actors were cast in sexually ‘loose’ roles.

As ever, Mason is brilliant; he moved from heart-throb roles, such as The Wicked Lady (UK, 1945), to a top Hollywood star, A Star is Born (1954), and a great Hitchcock villain in North by Northwest (1959), before returning to British cinema in the 1960s (see Georgy Girl). Contrast his dashing highwayman of 1945 with his sexually impotent Dobbs 20 years later and you see a fearless actor; similarly, Simone Signoret who was the sexy ‘other woman’ in Room At the Top (UK, 1959) here plays a concentration camp survivor that looks old beyond her years.

Grim is the tone of the film and so was its box office despite having an Astrud Gilberto song and a soundtrack written by Quincy Jones as well as the aforementioned stars. Cinematographer Freddie Young, according to Wikipedia, used a ‘technique of pre-exposing the colour film negative to a small, controlled amount of light (known as “flashing” or “pre-fogging”) in order to create a muted colour palette’; rarely has ‘Swinging London’ looked so glum. Director Sidney Lumet eschewed glamorous locations, except for the Serpentine Restaurant in Hyde Park, and stages the few action sequences superbly; Lumet had one of the more interesting careers in commercial cinema, he often looked beyond the box office.

The ending of the film is particularly good with its lack of sentiment. There’s humour too: Lynn Redgrave as a ditzy airhead and Harry Andrews forever snoozing whenever he sits down. One climactic scene is set during the performance of Marlowe’s Edward II, with David Warner on stage, in what looks like a particularly brutal RSC production by Peter Hall. The film was based on le Carré’s  first novel Call for the Dead (1961); I saw it on Talking Pictures.

The Game (UK, 2014)

Satisfying complex

Satisfying complex

I’ve no idea why the BBC shelved this spy drama for 18 months and ran it on BBC America six months before its UK premiere as Toby Whitehouse’s series is top drawer. It convincingly recreated dingy 1970s complimented by an excellent cast and a suitably noir narrative that managed to pull all its threads together without too much straining of credulity. I think I read somewhere that it was a mix of Spooks (action-orientated) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (both the TV series and the film): that just about sums it up.

The Bourne Ultimatum (US, 2007)

Turning back on America?

Turning back on America?

The original Bourne trilogy was unusual in that it got better with each film. Paul Greengrass directed the last two in a style that epitomises, what David Bordwell calls, ‘intensified continuity’. While the visceral action sequences were certainly eye-catching, its take on America, in the post-9/11 era, was particularly critical. Although, as is common in Hollywood, the corruption of the NSA was explained by ‘bad apples’, who are last seen being arrested, the dramatisation of the anti-terrorism agency as morally corrupt still had resonance.

What’s even more striking, six years later, is actually how corrupt the American intelligence agencies are; courtesy of Edward Snowden. Was I surprised by his revelations? Not particularly, my Management Information Systems lecturer ‘wondered’ (in 1983) why so much money was being spent on voice recognition software and he didn’t believe it was for Siri. However, what is shocking is the apparent apathetic response, even in the ‘land of the free’, of the general public who seem happy to be monitored. Democracy is revealed to be a sham by its reliance on surveilling its own people to ‘protect’ us from those who would enslave us.

Back to the film: the brilliant set-piece, at Waterloo station, dramatises this real-time surveillance and has a real frisson as we see an American ordering the assassination of a British citizen on British soil during the London rush hour. A very special relationship.

Paul Greengrass, who made his name with documentaries, uses intensified continuity to actual do what it says on the tin: intensify. The rapid editing isn’t a way of disguising the paucity of image but a dramatic device to add urgency to the action. Careful graphic matches ensure we can follow action even at the helter-skelter pace. The fight sequence, in Tangier, is also brilliantly shot.

Matt Damon is perfect as the personality-less protagonist and David Strathairn brings as much moral turpitude to his role as he did rectitude to Goodnight and Good Luck (US, 2005). A fabulous thriller.

Casino Royale (UK-US, 2006)

This is an interesting makeover (apart from the ludicrous torture sequence) as it ditches much of the playfulness of Brosnan (which was entertaining) for a more three-dimensional Bond (Craig is great). It pushes the action boundaries of Hollywood with two terrific set pieces: Tony Jaa’s pyrotechnic agility is nicked from Ong Bak in the first; the use of an airport even beats Face/Off.

Interesting coda too; the film climaxes and then goes into a longeur for half an hour(?). Well worth the price. (Cineworld)