Produced and directed by Sidney Lumet apparently out of his comfort zone, this London spy thriller from John Le Carré‘s novel A Murder of Quality plays closer to the spy-noir side of the street than the sleek James Bond side, although it kind of tries to do both within Lumet’s desire for gritty realism. According to Wikipedia, the film pioneered a color-desaturation technique based on pre-exposing the film, which means the faded weary look is intentional despite the unavoidable, almost accidental glamour provided by all the big-name accents: Maximilian Schell, Simone Signoret, Harriet Andersson. The movie’s schizophrenia is also expressed in the fact that Quincy Jones’ cool score includes a song from Astrud Gilberto that’s both over-used and never heard clearly; it’s spun on a record player several times.
Perhaps these aesthetically mixed messages explain why James Mason overplays every moment; the blighter feels so deeply, it’s like he’s continually on the verge of a heart attack, or at least appendicitis. Although his name has been changed, he’s clearly the same George Smiley who would be portrayed more quietly by Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman. His domestic scenes with a self-described “nympho-slut” wife (poor Andersson) are virtually parodic, and Schell is trapped in there with them, projecting at the same level. Meanwhile, the British characters actors (such as Harry Andrews) feel at home, as they are. As for the mystery aspect, we’ll state with kindness that it isn’t hard to figure out, and the running around at the end looks silly. A well-received movie in its time, it hasn’t aged well, unlike Smiley.