Initially, much more of a character study than murder mystery or spy tale. And like the previous John Le Carre adaptation The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) directed by an American, there Martin Ritt, here Sidney Lumet. Although as repressed as the main character in Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964) and sharing with it remembrance of the Holocaust, master spy Charles Dobbs (name changed from George Smiley due to Paramount’s rights from the earlier film) is far more capable of expressing his feelings and taking action than the pawnbroker.
Dobbs sleeps in a separate bedroom, his wife Ann (Harriet Andersson) indulging in so many affairs she is considered a nymphomaniac. Although resigned to this behavior, he is nonetheless shocked when her latest amour turns out to be his old friend and colleague Dieter (Maximilian Schell) and even attempts to offer him advice, the politeness of the English at its best. “In any other country,” retorts Dieter, “we wouldn’t be on speaking terms.” This kind of betrayal Dobbs can manage, but the other kind, of a professional nature, has him rushing to the bathroom to throw up.
If you’ve come to admire the character of George Smiley (aka Dobbs) as played by Alec Guinness in BBC TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and its sequel where he is generally a passive character you might get a shock when here the man springs into action.
Dobbs comes up against the Establishment when his boss (Max Adrian) refuses to investigate the suicide of a low-level agent Fennan (Robert Flemyng), a former Communist cleared of suspicion of being a double agent by Dobbs himself. Dobbs resigns in order to go his own way enlisting retired policeman Mendel (Harry Andrews), a pet lover and prone to falling asleep at inopportune moments. Although it is essentially a murder story, it’s Mendel who does most of the detecting, using his resources to track relevant pieces of information – typewriters, wake up calls, theatre tickets fall into his purview – and very much the old-school cop, not above a bit of burglary and beating up a suspect.
There are leaks within the secret service, Dobbs tailed, a blond man Harek (Les White) hovering into view long enough to tamper with witnesses, including dodgy car dealer Scarr (Roy Kinnear), a bubbly character with “two wives.” Key to the investigation is Fennan’s wife Elsa (Simone Signoret), a Jewish refugee from the concentration camps, and committing the cardinal sin of not offering Dobbs a cup of tea when he comes to visit, though pouring herself one. “I’m a battlefield for your toy soldiers,” she proclaims, another in le Carre’s stream of innocents unwittingly caught up in the “game.”
This is dingy rather than tourist London, Battersea power station on the horizon, rain prominent, a murky Embankment, the Thames a river of sludge, dubious pubs in unsavory locations, except for a very English spurt of theatre (a plot point) involving characters with very jolly accents. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the spy’s downfall is “minor human weakness” i.e. falling in love and so it is here, Dobbs’ mental health taking a beating by not just his wife’s unfaithfulness but by remaining faithful to her. Of course, he wouldn’t be the first man to have married out of his league and be unwilling to surrender his prize.
Lumet’s gaze is anything but sentimental. In fact, as much as Dobbs is a master of the spy game, he is a dunce at the game of love, and Lumet does not let him off lightly. Any man who commiserates with his wife’s lover on the grounds that he (said lover) will be hurt when the woman ultimately abandons him, is straight from idiot school.
So this is a far more complex, and human, reflection on the spy game, and it’s not so much about paying the price of being a spy, as occurred with Alec Leamas, than the folly of marrying the wrong woman. You can see how easily Dobbs was seduced by the insane prospect that a beautiful woman had fallen in love with him, rather than, as he must have been trained to do, examining her reasons.
Of course, it’s not unusual for detectives to have miserable home lives and end up as loners, but this was part of a trend (see The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) to see spies not as bed-hoppers of the James Bond variety but as human beings with normal failings. One oddity is that, in line with the Paramount dictat on names, Dobbs’ boss is called “The Adviser” rather than “Control” (although apparently there was such a title in le Carre’s version of the secret service prior to this book).
James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) is excellent as brilliant spy/bewildered lover. Harry Andrews (The Hill, 1965) has a ball in a change from his normal taciturn characters. Oscar-winner Maximilian Schell (Topkapi, 1964) is equally convincing but I found Harriet Andersson (Through a Glass Darkly, 1961) too much one-note certainly compared to the riveting performance by Simone Signoret (Is Paris Burning? 1966).
You can spot a string of future stars in a supporting cast led by Lynn Redgrave (Georgy Girl, 1966), Corin Redgrave (The Girl with a Pistol, 1968) and Kenneth Haigh (A Lovely Way to Die, 1968) among older hands like Robert Flemyng (The Blood Beast Terror, 1968), Roy Kinnear (The Hill) and Max Aitken (Henry V, 1944).
Paul Dehn (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) wrote the screenplay based on John le Carre’s novel Call for the Dead, which was written before the book which made the author famous.