THE DEADLY AFFAIR (1967, Sidney Lumet)
Despair seeps out of every frame of this adaptation of John LeCarre's debut novel Call For The Dead. London is a drab and grey city whose only respite from suffering seems to be a pint in a grotty pub or a trip to tortuous West End productions of Macbeth or Edward II. James Mason plays Charles Dobbs (Paramount held the rights to the name George Smiley), an MI5 operative whose suspicions are aroused when a Foreign Official kills himself shortly after Dobbs interviewed him about his student affiliations with the Communist party. A visit to the dead man's wife (Simone Signoret) indicates a wake-up call was placed by the victim for the following morning. An unusual move before a suicide. LeCarre's worldview is bleak and unforgiving and Call For the Dead laid down the groundwork for his Smiley stories. Smiley as the quiet observer of a human tragedy overshadowed by the machinations of the Cold War. The Deadly Affair captures this tone all too well. It makes the Harry Palmer films look glamorous and Callan seem like a cheerful bloke. Mason makes it work though. Not the best Smiley, but the most sympathetic version
EYE OF THE NEEDLE (1981, Richard Marquand)
Tense WWII thriller starring Donald Sutherland as a seemingly well-mannered English gentleman who is outed as a Nazi spy and flees to Scotland where a U-boat is waiting for him off the coast. Big Ian Bannen’s chasing after him so he’s wise to run. He’s desperate to get back to Berlin with information about the forthcoming D-Day invasion but he gets shipwrecked on a wee island and ends up lodging with unhappy housewife Kate Nelligan and her embittered invalid of a husband (Christopher Cazenove). Sutherland is chilling as the outwardly charming but utterly ruthless killer who will do anything to get home. There’s a moment where we learn a little about The Needle’s aristocratic upbringing and his life before the war and a portrait emerges of somebody who’s always been a loner, but this is primarily an old-fashioned chase movie. It could have been made 30 or 40 years before and it would have starred James Mason or Dirk Bogarde.
THE FLORIDA STRAITS (1986, Mike Hodges)
Mike Hodges made this TV movie for HBO in-between Morons From Outer Space (1985) and A Prayer For the Dying (1987) and it’s better than both of those theatrical releases. Raul Julia plays a Cuban political prisoner sent to America after his release, who on his arrival immediately hires a boat owned by sailor Fred Ward to take him back home to find the gold coins he threw from his plane on a mission twenty years ago. Really he just wants to speak to the woman he left behind. Like most films about men going in search of gold nothing works out as planned and the journey becomes more important than the destination. Hodges has a talent for undercutting machismo with vulnerability and in terms of mid-80s’ actors you really can’t do better for leads than the late Raul Julia and Fred Ward.
NIGHT MOVES (1975, Arthur Penn)
Always wanted to see this having heard so much about it. Night Moves was written by Scottish writer Alan Sharp who somehow despite being from Greenock was able to write authentically American genre pieces. Gene Hackman plays an L.A. based private investigator hired by an actress to find her missing teenage daughter which he does easily enough. But solving this case only makes matters worse and leads him onto a more complicated mystery involving a smuggling operation. The details are a little hard to fathom but this feels like a movie that needs multiple viewings to get a handle on. It has the same sense of fatalism Sharp brought to the western The Hired Hand (71, Peter Fonda) and deserves its reputation as one the best films of the 70s’.