Playing Catch-Up — The Deadly Affair; Dear Ruth; Breathless

deadly affair

The Deadly Affair (Sidney Lumet, 1967). Only the second film adaptation of a John le Carré work (it’s based on his novel Call for the Dead, although rights reasons prevented the studio from using its main character George Smiley), this espionage drama is a wholly characteristic excursion into complicated duplicity and highly refined emotional agony. James Mason plays Charles Dobbs, an MI5 agent whose cursory investigation into reports of early Communist leanings of an Foreign Office official (Robert Flemyng) seemingly triggers tragedy. As usual in films tied to le Carré, the British reticence is almost to a fault, twisty complexities dispatched with minimal raising of the pulse. The terse, direct style of director Sidney Lumet toughens it up around the edges, though. Mason is very strong in the lead role, as is the ever-fascinating Simone Signoret, who plays a widow of layered secrets.

 

dear ruth

Dear Ruth (William D. Russell, 1947). This shrewd, piercing comedy is set during World War II, when everyone on the home front felt some obligation to support the boys overseas. For headstrong, politicized teenager Miriam Wilkins (Mona Freeman), that means, in part, sending poetry-laden letters to lonely G.I. Bill Seacroft (William Holden). Since she’s a little too young to flirt with a grown man through the post, Miriam poses as her older sister, Ruth (Joan Caulfield). Then, unexpectedly, Bill comes calling. Filled with splendidly sparking dialogue (credited screenwriter Arthur Sheekman adapted a play by Norman Krasna), the film offers a kinder version of one of Preston Sturges’s comedies of society’s foibles. Holden is endearing as the eager soldier, and Freeman is outright wonderful spouting anti-war, proto-feminist with cheerful petulance. Director William D. Russell occasionally betrays the film’s stage origins with a slightly confined feel, but he calibrates the tone perfectly, a trickier and ultimately more important task.

 

breathless

Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960). A iconic offering of the French New Wave, enlivened and deadened at the same time by director Jean-Luc Godard’s customary cinematic defiance. The plot fades in and out of relevance, but basically involves a vagabond miscreant (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and the gamine American expatriate (Jean Seberg) who he pursues romantically across Paris. It’s Godard’s squirrelly intellect and brash, buoyant deconstructions that are the real stars of the show. The way he builds in clear yet disarming narrative echoes is a particular fascination, giving the strong sense that the film can be sorted through forever without completely cracking its riddles. Breathless is seductive and yet holds the viewer at a mildly taunting distance. Basically, it’s quite French.

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