The banal staging of George Smiley’s Cold War conflict in A Deadly Affair (1966)

Sarah Thomas

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


“I am a battlefield for your toy soldiers”.
Elsa Fennan, the widow of a suspected Communist spy speaks these words in A Call for the Dead, the first novel to feature John le Carré’s George Smiley. Her speech is directly transferred into the 1966 adaptation of the novel, A Deadly Affair, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring James Mason, Simone Signoret, Maximillian Schell and Harriet Andersson. For copyright reasons the film renamed Smiley as Charles Dobbs.
Elsa’s words identify key themes developed in the film adaptation; the human body as a site of conflict amidst the banality of the Cold War spy game, and the reflection of this through liminal spaces.
This paper will explore the unspectacular representation of intelligence agency networks and investigations in Lumet’s film. It will examine male and female weakness – physical and emotional – to consider how spheres of the personal and professional must collide as the narrative unfolds. Here, the Cold War is staged through images of domesticity and the ordinary, in a modernistic but ultimately dull London, using muted cinematography (pre-exposed negatives) and empty horizontal framing. From cluttered suburban terraces and insipid hospital wards to cheap pubs and dark theatres, space and place underscores the wider political tensions of the story and the characters’ investigations and personal relationships. It will analysis how performance and style intertwine, paying particular attention to how the actors physically negotiate these liminal spaces creating complex character interplay that reveals how the intimate and official influence each other, and the role gendered bodies and transnational actors play in this.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 17 Jun 2016
EventSpies on British Screens - Plymouth University, Plymouth, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Duration: 17 Jun 201619 Jun 2016


ConferenceSpies on British Screens
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Period17 Jun 201619 Jun 2016


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