James Mason did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Charles Dobbs in The Deadly Affair.
James Mason plays Charles Dobbs but in reality this is George Smiley. The character apparently was only renamed because the rights to the character was bought by Paramount studio when it produced The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Mason therefore was the first to portray the master spy as a leading a character though a year before he was rather briefly portrayed by Rupert Davies in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Smiley was later portrayed by Alec Guinness and even more recently Gary Oldman both portrayed him as a very quiet man emotionally although Oldman properly separated his performance from Guinness's by changing the nature of Smiley's reserved nature.
The great James Mason takes a very different approach from either Oldman or Guinness by giving actually a rather emotional performance as Smiley although for accuracy I will call him Dobbs from now on. Mason's performance as Dobbs actually might be one of the most emotionally charged by the actor which is definitely quite an interesting take on the character especially considering the vastly different fashion in which Oldman and Guinness would portray the character. Mason as Dobbs gives a fascinating performance as the career spy who in the beginning of the film seems to be just taking on a formality when he is tasked with interviewing the government worker whom someone has accused of being a traitor.
Now Mason does not give a wildly loud performance obviously since this is James Mason after all, but Mason shows what occurs around most definitely bares down on Dobbs throughout the film starting with when he learns that the man whom he had a calm conversation with had suddenly killed himself with the explanation being his confrontation with Dobbs. Mason gives an interesting vibe to his performance clearing not making Dobbs a bitter or completely jaded government agent even though he is indeed a long standing one. Mason's choice is made well here because he uses to change the dynamic of the film itself by giving such a heartfelt turn in his portrayal of his character who easily could have gone the other way.
A very effective moment early on is Mason's portrayal of Dobbs attitude when he first learns of the worker's suicide as well as the claimed reason behind it. Mason has Dobbs in a strong disbelief that any result of this every should have happened and is truly taken aback by the way everyone seems to be accepting the alleged explanation of what has occurred. What Mason does is bring the motivation in Dobbs and why even though the case has been "solved" that he would continue to investigate. Mason is able to bring the motivation through his performance where he makes vivid the disappointment and confusion that Dobbs feels when learning of the fate of the man. It is not something just strange to him as Mason plays it, it is something he must follow to the bitter end.
Although more tender in attitude than his successors in the role Mason still plays Dobbs as a shrewd spy particularly as the investigation continues its course. Mason is one of the master of cool calculation so he fits the part splendidly. Every twist and turn that Dobbs figures out through tracking down and pulling together the various elements seems an inevitability due to his style in any scene where he and his team are doing detective work or he is interviewing one of the suspects. Mason always succeeds in showing the collection and deciphering in Dobbs in natural and convincing fashion. He has the right assurance in his performance and Mason give the right subtle indication to allow us to see the way the master spy is always collecting information even when it seems like he is just having a normal conversation.
Of course Dobbs is not always on the investigation as a large part of this film focuses on Dobbs's relationship with his unfaithful wife Ann (Harriet Andersson). Mason is fantastic as Dobbs basically must just act as an observer to his wife's behavior which seems incessant. Mason is brilliant in portraying the very specific fashion in which Dobbs deals with it which is that he seems to allow it through his own inability to voice his objections to her behavior. Mason is very effective by showing the strain this brings in Dobbs and interestingly how it seems to tear him completely apart inside while he seems to always attempt to keep a pleasant face about it the entire time. Mason creates the perfect dynamic through the insufficient manner he takes in these matters and his entirely assured manner he takes in his job.
Mason builds on this odd dynamic as he makes Dobbs have such a devotion and drive in his job yet at home being barely unable to speak at times in his emotional vulnerability. Mason is entirely convincing in his portrayal of this and makes the conclusion of the film particularly powerful when Dobbs discovers the man behind the whole plot is actually both his old friend and his wife's lover. When he finally confronts him in this scene it is a particularly special moment for Mason as he continues in Dobbs is usual style of keeping it together as the spy at first but when he gets his chance to strike there is something else that seems to come out and Mason seems to suggest that for a moment we see the true level of anger and hatred that Dobbs had been holding back inside himself over his wife's infidelity. What only adds to this powerful moment is the way Mason convincing shows that Dobbs quickly gathers himself leaving him to only mourn the loss of his friend.
Mason's performance as the renamed George Smiley is probably not quite as iconic as the spectacle sporting work of Guinness and Oldman but that does not mean it is not a great performance in its own right. Mason on paper already seems the perfect fit for the part and frankly he probably still would have been solid in the role even if he just coasted in the part. Mason goes all the way in his portrayal of Charles Dobbs here giving a compelling portrait of the government agent who is the master at deciphering the complex games of international deception yet is weak willed when it comes just to confronting his wife over her wrongs against him. Mason gives a different and effective take on the character of George Smiley that brings us not only strings us along into the dark world of deceit he inhabits but as well poignantly portrays the emotional strain that this causes in this man.